A&S alumna, professor and benefactor Sonia Labatt made deep impact on environmental studies

March 31, 2022 by Division of University Advancement

The University of Toronto community is reflecting on the passing of A&S alumna Sonia Labatt and her astounding legacy, including a deep impact on environmental studies.

Labatt earned her bachelor of arts as a member of University College in 1960, and returned to earn a masters of arts in geography in 1990 and a PhD in 1995.

Labatt’s doctoral research focused on business and the environment, and U of T President Meric Gertler served on her supervisory committee.

“Sonia Labatt was a gifted and tenacious student and a lifelong learner,” Gertler says.

“Her ability to take disparate threads of research on the environment, finance and corporate strategy, and bind them together into a compelling narrative about what was happening in our world demonstrated the kind of analytical excellence we expect from our top students.”

Following graduation, Labatt became an adjunct professor at the University’s Centre for Environment (today the School of the Environment) for more than a decade.

She co-authored books on finance and the environment with her long-time collaborator Professor Rodney White, and made lasting contributions to the curriculum, developing a graduate course on sustainable investing.

Labatt also co-founded U of T’s Environmental Finance Advisory Committee and, with her husband Arthur Labatt, endowed a fellowship for graduate students in 1998.

“The Arthur and Sonia Labatt Graduate Fellowships have helped dozens of talented scholars complete their degrees and important research,” says Steve Easterbrook, director of the School of the Environment.

“This generous gift has proved pivotal to our mission of training leaders, creating knowledge, and making a positive contribution to climate solutions. We are all grateful for Sonia Labatt’s generosity, insight and forethought in establishing these awards.”

In 2002, Labatt established the EJ Pratt Professorship in Canadian Literature and the inaugural professorship holder — George Elliott Clarke — still serves in the role.

“The generosity of Dr. Sonia Labatt in establishing the E.J. Pratt Professorship in Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto is a testament to her visionary spirit. She saw the value of expanding Edwin John Pratt's legacy at the University of Toronto by funding a chair in his name to recognize a professor who is also a poet, as was Dr. Pratt himself,” says Clarke.

“This is a perfect fit for a Department of English whose creative writing graduate students must also take research-oriented, academic classes. Her avant-garde interest in Canadian literature was a sign of her devotion to the conjoined gravity of study and levity of wit. She was a patron of the humanities because she cared deeply about humanity,” he says.

“I am honoured to be the inaugural beneficiary of her gift; I enjoyed always her occasional cards to me that were keepsakes of jests. I am humbled by the promise that she saw in me — and in Can Lit in general.”

In 2011, the University conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree on her, recognizing her contributions to public life in Canada and internationally.

Labatt was also long-term member on the Faculty of Arts & Science Dean’s Advisory Board and a vital member of the University of Toronto’s Boundless campaign executive. She recently served as an honourary chair of the Defy Gravity campaign.

With her husband and children, Labatt made extraordinary gifts to U of T in support of health research. The family’s $20-million gift to launch the Labatt Family Network for Research on the Biology of Depression was a remarkable milestone.

“Thanks to the Labatt Family Network for Research on the Biology of Depression, we are uncovering new insights into depression and how it manifests,” says Dr. Trevor Young, dean of U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

“This support also empowers us to teach and launch the young talent who will take up this work in the years to come.”

Her philanthropy also included renowned generosity to Canadian hospitals, including support for groundbreaking genetic therapy research and heart research conducted by U of T scientists at the Hospital for Sick Children.

“Sonia always gave generously of her time and wisdom. She was passionate about improving the human condition in multiple ways,” says Gertler.

“As a scholar, she aimed to deepen our understanding of complex, external environments and the forces that shape them. And as a philanthropist, Sonia supported research on the equally complex, internal realm of mental health and well-being. She was a brilliant researcher, a generous benefactor, and a personal friend. I will greatly miss her insights, her joie de vivre, and our wonderful conversations,” he says.

“I extend sincerest condolences from the University community to Arthur, Sheila, Jacquie and John. She will truly be missed.”

Labatt also dedicated herself to extensive volunteer work for the Sick Kids Hospital Board and KiBO Foundation, a grassroots skills training program for unemployed youth in Uganda. She also helped raise funds for the Toronto French School.

“Dr. Labatt was practical and down to earth with a lovely sense of humour,” says David Palmer, U of T’s vice-president, advancement.

“In this alone she was wonderful to work with on the campaigns, but she also brought a firm moral compass and unstinting compassion for others to her volunteer efforts and public life. She will be so very much missed by many across the University.”