Surveying the Sam’s Sign

Originally published on Torontoist on November 16, 2013.

The first thing we noticed while gazing upon the Sam the Record Man sign for the first time in half a decade was the neat organization of its components. Around 1,000 segments of the former Yonge Street icon are labelled with brown tags, outlining where each piece will fit whenever (if ever?) the sign is reassembled, right down to row and sector numbers.

The tags indicate where these neon tubes would be placed when the sign was remounted.

“It’s our responsibility to Ryerson and the people to make sure that it’s not being mishandled and treated wrongly,” notes David Grose, the national sales manager of Gregory Signs. His firm supervised the dismantling of the sign following the 2008 edition of Nuit Blanche, and periodically checks in at its current home in a nondescript industrial park north of the city.

The general storage area looked slightly less ramshackle than Sam’s itself used to be. The plastic store nameplates line the walls, and custom-built racks hold the neon tubes, which are mounted onto sliding backboards. Because the original specifications of the north disc no longer exist, an engineer climbed behind the sign while it was still mounted to measure and photograph its rear structure.

A collection of transformers. The white-coloured ones were installed when the sign was turned back on during Nuit Blanche in 2008.

Since its disappearance from public view, the sign’s fate has been mired in controversy. Ryerson showed little eagerness to remount it on the Student Learning Centre rising on the Sam’s original site, suggesting alternate sites like the school library. In August, council considered a proposal to permit the university to create a substitute set of interpretative materials, including plaques and a replica of the sign embedded in the sidewalk—a proposal that was rejected. Public outcry has manifested itself in a Facebook group; meetings between sign preservationists, Ryerson, and the City; and calls from musicians ranging from Feist to Gordon Lightfoot to remount the sign. Rumours that the sign had been destroyed were muted after Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) recently tweeted an image of its current condition.

Transformers sitting atop disc rails.

Remounting the sign, if a location is ever settled on, will be laborious. Each component will need to be tested to determine its functionality, for starters. (When the sign was relit during Nuit Blanche, 25 per cent of the transformers and 30 per cent of the neon tubes were replaced—and that was after only a short period of inactivity.) Grose highlighted some features that will require updating, such as new connectors between the tubes and power supply, which will reduce corrosion. It’s not just the sign itself that will need to be tested—its location will also. Any new home will need to be assessed, to determine if it can support the sign’s weight and if it can supply the 200 amps of power currently required to light the fixture.

Whenever the go-ahead is given, portions of the sign will be assembled into several sections for mounting. Then the tubing will be placed on top and given a final test.

Neon elements of the sign were mounted on frames that slid in and out of custom-built racks.

Grose suggested that technological advances offer greater flexibility for the sign’s future use. He noted that the original mechanism which made the discs “spin” is outdated, and could be replaced with a programmable piece called an electronic flashing unit. The original patterns could be recreated by studying videos of the original discs in action. The technology could also be used to program different patterns, such as the independent lighting up of each tube.

“It’s an important part of putting the sign back up,” Grose notes. “People want to see that animation. It’s part of what people remember.”


The signs were restored, then remounted above Yonge-Dundas Square in late 2017. During its exile near Woodbridge, the “storage area” referred to in the piece was a truck trailer, which legitimately was less ramshackle than Sam’s.

A Shot in the Arm

Last time, our intrepid writer navigated the registration process for a COVID-19 vaccine through a major pharmacy chain, only to discover that it was probably a waste of time, further fueling his anger at how abysmally the vaccination process has been formulated in Ontario. He was resigned to start playing the game to book an appointment.

So, after some discussion with my partner-in-crime, we figured we had several options for getting our first shots.

  1. Take a chance on the 24-hour locations and hope one of them still had shots available at two or three in the morning.
  2. Start calling pharmacies, keeping fingers crossed that anything would be available.
  3. Follow Vaccine Hunters Canada on Twitter, a group of volunteers tracking reports of shot distribution across the country.

The third option proved the winner.

While scrolling through my Twitter feed this morning, I came across this posting:

The first thing that caught my eye was the location – the same plaza as my partner-in-crime’s dentist. The second thing was a booking system that may or may not have been related to the main Shoppers COVID site. At least this offered honest-to-God booking slots, spaced 15 minutes apart.

Filling out the online forms was quick and easy. We were booked within seconds.

The store, an older location with tons of text on its walls, was quiet when we arrived. There weren’t any lineups, only what appeared to be a couple waiting out their 15 minutes before being given the go-ahead to leave. We filled out some basic paperwork, which the porcupines carefully double-checked before handing it back to the pharmacist.

The shot was quick and painless. I felt a tingle within a few minutes, but nothing more. Overall, the procedure was pretty smooth, but left me wondering why there couldn’t have been stronger coordination across the board so that people wouldn’t have to line up for hours, especially in hard-hit areas.

If you haven’t gotten your shot yet, follow Vaccine Hunters Canada and all of the useful information they are providing. As well, their occasional callouts to restaurants near vaccination sites is charming. Their efforts are appreciated and should be well-rewarded, and have already led to alliances with municipal governments. Yet the fact that they have to exist during this crisis and carry the weight of letting people about the availability of vaccines reinforces how poorly the vaccination process has been organized at a government level.

The Ontario COVID Vaccine Games (sponsored by Shoppers Drug Mart)

The provincial government’s handling of the COVID pandemic has been, to put it mildly, abysmal.

I’m not going to rehash all the missteps, mistakes, and political partisan preferences that have been made, especially when it comes to regulations intended to control transmission. There are plenty of people doing a great job of that, and there will be plenty to future historians busy analyzing how we got into our current predicament.

No, let’s talk vaccine rollout, specifically for my age range. Instead of coming up with a sensible idea like a central registry for bookings and waitlists, securing a shot has become a competitive sport. It’s up to you to navigate websites, phone shot suppliers, or relive the concert ticket lines of our youth.

And then, as I learned tonight, there are the methods that are little more than COVID theatre.

Last week, hoping to avoid the rat race, I registered at several pharmacies in the belief that once a spot was available, I would be contacted and set up a booking. Among them was the region’s largest pharmacy chain, Shoppers Drug Mart.

Let’s go through their registration process…

This sounds straightforward. Let’s hit “Register now.”

My data will be stored for future contact. Good.

“Filling out this form does not guarantee you a COVID-19 vaccine.” OK, so there might be questions to come that could disqualify me. Fair enough.

So far, so good. The next few screens verify my eligibility according to the province I live in.

A few questions that help determine where you should fall in the queue. Seems reasonable.

Some personal info to be verified whenever I’m called in…sure, let’s fill ‘er out.

After filling out this screen, you’ll receive notifications with codes to submit to verify your contact info. The screen after that asks for your address and if you have a preferred location for your shot. I said no, in the hopes of winding up wherever the first opportunity arises.

Some standard legal terms and consent to agree to, depending on who you’re registering for, along with a notice that shots are available by appointment only.

Let’s submit this sucker…

All done! Time to sit back, relax, and wait for somebody at Shoppers to get back to you to book an appointment.


Except that after directly contacting my neighbourhood Shoppers, that’s not what will happen.

I first registered last Wednesday. In the interim, I’ve seen many friends who either decided to navigate the vaccine competition, or actually were contacted by other pharmacies they had registered at. Shoppers was only one out of several I registered for; so far, none have gotten back to me with opportunities to book appointments. There were also rumours on social media that registration was proving useless, with pharmacists indicating it was better to call directly or just show up and hope a walk-in was available.

While on a neighbourhood walk, I noticed a lineup outside Shoppers. A vaccine line, perhaps? It wasn’t, but it inspired me to call their pharmacy department to see if maybe – just maybe – I could set up a future appointment.

When I told the person on the other end of the line that I was on the registration list, they kinda confirmed the rumours.

Turns out that the Shoppers registration site is a bit glitchy. Instead of registering you, what it is actually supposed to do is show you where bookings may be available, or tell you there are currently no vaccines available due to supply. Contact is not really happening.

In other words, it’s a waste of time.

I felt sorry for them, and we shared our frustration over how the whole process is driving staff and customers bonkers.

But let’s revisit some of those pages…

So, if what I was told tonight is true, the first paragraph here may not be accurate.

Or your wait time might be infinite.

I can understand a waitlist taking a long time, and was prepared to do so. But not doing anything with it, because of a glitchy interface or sheer demand? Ridiculous.

It also occurred to me there’s no way to check back in after you have registered to see where vaccines may be available, such as a password or overall reference number. Just the option of wasting your time going through the whole registration process again, without any pop-ups or messages indicating that you have already registered.

Which ultimately brings us back to how abominably the provincial government has handled this phase of the vaccine rollout. It screams either the fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants planning that has been the status quo throughout the crisis, or that sinking feeling that, given the philosophical leanings of those within and advising the Ford administration, that this is some twisted way to show how useless government can be, or that public health can be dismantled.

So, it looks like my partner-in-crime and I are going to begin warming up to enter the vaccine competition.

Let the game begin. A game none of us should have to play.

Toronto, The New Great City (According to Fortune Magazine, 1974)

Fortune, September 1974.

Clean subways. Safe streets. Cosmopolitan atmosphere. Good government. Friendly cops. Ethnic restaurants. Boutiques everywhere you look. Downtown revitalized. Suburbs that work. Amazing schools. Neighbourhoods restored. This is the litany you’ll hear over and over again in Toronto, not only in the media, which have a vested interest in civic preening, but from people, especially newcomers…The newcomers tend to be the city’s most vocal enthusiasts and, at the same time, the people who make the city something to get enthused about.

from the introduction to Toronto Guidebook, 1974.

By 1974, for the reasons just outlined and more, Toronto was basking in raves from across North America. In a decade where American cities struggled with declining populations in their cores, suburban sprawl, urban crime, and financial difficulties, the perception of Toronto as a place that had its act together led to many articles focusing on our pros and cons.

Among those pieces was a 12-page feature in the September 1974 edition of Fortune written by Edmund Faltermayer, which opened like this:

The travail of American cities in recent years has given rise to doubts about their long-range future. As old neighbourhoods have turned into blighted and dangerous expanses of abandoned dwellings and boarded-up stores, many Americans have wondered whether the metropolis in its traditional form is not essentially obsolete. True, the old “walking city” lives on in Europe, but isn’t this a consequence of special factors such as a scarcity of land and a totally different way of life? Doesn’t the automobile, coupled with the middle-class push to the suburbs, make the decay of American cities inevitable?

Well, no – just look at Canada. With a way of life much like our own, Canadians have seen their metropolises become better than ever. The most stunning improvement has taken place in Toronto…where a formerly tedious provincial capital has emerged as the world’s newest great city.

Below this introduction was a two-page spread of the city’s waterfront. “The skyline is emboldened by a new radio-television tower,” the photo caption noted. “When completed, it will rise 1,805 feet and be the world’s tallest self-supporting structure. Ontario Place is an unusual new lakeside complex of restaurants, theatres, playgrounds, and marina.”

Faltermayer felt that any great city needed to “stir the enthusiasm of at least three categories of people: businessmen, tourists, and residents.” The first group would be satisfied by an area where a third of Canada’s purchasing power lay within a 100-mile radius, while the rapid post-Second World War population boom made it ideal for anyone looking to set up a factory or office.

Scenes of Mirvish Village (top) and Yorkville (bottom). Fortune, September 1974.

As far as tourism was concerned, “Toronto passes a simple test that most U.S. cities flunk: your wife might beg to accompany you there on a business trip.” Three cities were cited as failures in this regard (“unless, of course, her college roommate happened to live there”): Cleveland (still living down that time the Cuyahoga River caught fire five years earlier), Dallas (which was apparently super-boring during this era), and Detroit (hit hard by the post-1967 riots atmosphere and exodus to the suburbs). By comparison, in Toronto “your spouse could pleasantly kill an entire week without knowing a single local resident or venturing very far from a downtown hotel.” Recommended activities included a stroll through Yorkville (“one of North America’s most agreeable concentrations of boutiques and sidewalk cafes”), trying one of the city’s many ethnic restaurants, and sampling the local theatre scene.

Children’s attractions in Toronto. Fortune, September 1974.

For residents, Toronto had transformed from a city that was “so dull that a good time was a weekend to Buffalo” to “a new sort of Fun City without angst or affectation – a place where the residents feel wondrously spared from the urban troubles to the south.” One could argue that feeling “wondrously spared” may have led to the feelings of smug superiority that periodically bubble up when it comes to our views of Americans.

Faltermayer felt the city and its suburbs were “remarkably livable” thanks to medium population density that led to “short commuting distances without unpleasant crowding” (pre-pandemic 21st century commuters might debate that one). He also felt that our mix of good housing stock was superior to American cities, allowing people in homes, town houses, or high-rises anywhere from downtown to the top of the DVP. Downtown was hailed as “a successful, heavily used work-and-play environment” compared to American equivalents which had turned into “little more than vertical office parks, standing isolated amid the surrounding freeways and slums and deserted after 5:00 P.M.” The secret to downtown’s success was having a strong middle class who lived in or near the core with plenty of discretionary income that could keep stores, restaurants, and culture afloat.

Sights of mid-1970s Toronto, from the emergence of bicycle commuting to the controversial Yonge Street Mall. Fortune, September 1974.

Toronto was hailed for reversing the typical North American pattern of suburban migration, though this came with its own set of problems that still sound familiar.

Toronto may be the first North American city where citizens wonder whether too many middle-class people are returning. Between the whitepainters offering top dollar for town houses to refurbish and apartment developers seeking to knock down old homes for new projects, many working-class people are being displaced.

Fortune, September 1974.

Neighbourhoods were hailed as one of our strengths.

Any American who grew up in the old neighbourhoods of eastern or midwestern cities would find a stroll through these areas like a time machine journey into his own past. Everything is still there and in good working order, from the commercial arteries with their countless specialty shops and eateries, to the shade side streets with row houses and single homes on narrow lots. Even the streetcars still run; Toronto has hundreds of them, and has put in a big order for replacements.

The provincial government was praised for urban policies that hindered post-war sprawl, such as forbidding suburban septic tanks and only building where sewer connections existed, and establishing the metropolitan system of governance during the 1950s.

The copy I used for this piece cut off two other trendmakers on this page: publisher Jack McClelland (described as “an ardent nationalist”) and novelist Robertson Davies, then serving as master of Massey College and just coming off winning a Governor General’s Award for The Manticore. Fortune, September 1974.

As for transportation…

Toronto has created the best of two worlds. There are a goodly number of expressways, including one 12-lane monster where the prevailing speed outside of rush hour is 75 mph [120 kph]. But these roads all go around the old urban core. Torontonians have seen the havoc wrought by inner-city expressways in the U.S., a land which they regard as an early-warning system against overly hasty change. The region’s compact but uncrowded pattern of development has made possible an elaborate and growing public transit network of the type that would never be feasible in a more diffused metropolitan area. Toronto’s subway system, begun in the early 1950s, proves that neither space-age technology nor award-winning station design is needed to get motorists out of their cars. The trains are immaculate, quiet, and frequent, and the subway stations have well-planned connections with feeder bus and streetcar lines. With fares subsidized at 25 cents and transfers free, the average citizen rides the region’s subways, buses, and streetcars 158 times a year. On a per capita basis, transit use is almost as high as in New York, and is rising faster than population.

The article then summarized the anti-highrise sentiment in the city, and the municipal election of 1972 which gave reformers control of city council. “The whole skyscraper debate has transformed Toronto into a sort of laboratory for research into alternatives to high-rise domination,” with solutions such as conversions of industrial buildings and warehouses into living and working spaces. The delay of the never-to-be-built Metro Centre was mentioned.

Housing along Monteith Street and in St. James Town. Fortune, September 1974.

A major fear about housing seems extremely relevant today.

Horrific inflation of housing prices is the one big blot on life in Toronto. If this goes on for many more years, it could destroy the whole metropolitan area’s social diversity by driving the non-affluent out of the suburbs as well as the inner city.

Out in suburbia, the policy of having an adequate supply of serviced land ran into its own problems.

Time-consuming environmental review procedures have proliferated at various levels of government, and the financially pinched suburbs, caught up in the same new anti-growth mood that is spreading in the U.S. are in no great hurry to provide their share of new community facilities. As a result, serviced single-family building lots that would have cost only $13,000 two years ago have recently sold for $30,000. Belatedly, the Ontario government is offering various financial incentives to induce the suburbs to open up land faster.

Fortune, September 1974.

Faltermayer suggested that the constraints might soon curb Toronto’s boom, encouraging employers to look at other cities. A real estate consultant felt that unless restrictions on high-rises and suburban growth were eased, places like Atlanta or Montreal might steal Toronto’s mojo as North America’s next great city. Keep in mind that, in Montreal’s case, we’re only two years away from the Parti Quebecois’s first provincial election victory, which would escalate the westward exodus along Highway 401.

That prospect seems almost exhilarating to Torontonians who are groggy from growth. For such citizens, the old “cult of moreness,” to use the coinage of local luminary Marshall McLuhan, has been supplanted by a new mood of enoughness. “Enough” means that Toronto may never reach the size of “world cities” such as Paris or New York. But it has nonetheless won a secure place in the big time.

Fortune wasn’t the only magazine spotlighting Toronto with full-colour spreads that year. Gourmet featured the city as a holiday destination in its October issue, while Modern Bride called us “a honeymoon city like no other you’ve visited.” The Metro tourist bureau was flooded with requests for information after profiles in summer editions of Glamour and Redbook. Overall, tourism officials estimated that around 65 travel writers from around the world visited Toronto in 1974 to sing its praises.

Simpsons Ad, 1974

Globe and Mail, October 8, 1974. Click on image for larger versions.

The piece also made its way into advertising. Simpsons referenced it while promoting its “The Room” women’s department, while Globe and Mail advertorial writer Mary Walpole mentioned the story was “rather thrilling to read” in her profile of Noodles restaurant.

In his conclusion, Faltermayer felt that Toronto showed central cities could, under the right circumstances and leadership, continue to support cores that were attractive to the middle class.

Toronto has accomplished something else. In an era of much doubting, it has proved that the basic form of the inner city still makes sense. With the right government actions, and with sensitive alterations and additions here and there, the urban core can become a place where middle class people will turn up in great numbers to work, enjoy themselves, and even vie for living space. For until something better comes along, the civilized city is still where many of the world’s civilized people prefer to be.

Sources: Toronto Guidebook, edited by Alexander Ross (Toronto: Key Publishers, 1974); the September 1974 edition of Fortune; the September 28, 1974 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the October 10, 1974 edition of the Toronto Star.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s Last Hurrah: The 1891 Federal Election

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on March 14, 2015.

Conservative campaign poster, 1891.

Were it another age, or another paper, the screaming headline on the front page of the February 14, 1891 edition of the Empire would have been claimed by the latest lurid Jack the Ripper murder across the Atlantic. But this was the Empire, an experiment in direct newspaper ownership by the Conservative party, and a federal election campaign was on.

Amid the sea of text that Saturday morning, readers caught this eye-catching headline:

“For several days anxious enquiries have been made as to the date when Sir John Macdonald would address a Toronto audience,” the paper reported. There may have been legitimate anxiety among local Tories. When the campaign began two weeks earlier, the prime minister had intended to use Toronto as his base of operations. But the avalanche of mail from candidates and party officials, along with the 76-year-old leader’s increasing infirmity, had kept Macdonald off the hustings. He skipped a large rally in Toronto the week before, leaving it to several cabinet ministers to excite the faithful.

But after that false start, Macdonald was finally coming. The date: February 17. The venue: the Academy of Music on King Street. Located where University Avenue now crosses the south side of King, it was the city’s first fully electrified building. The rally would witness the last great speech Macdonald made.

The Empire’s headline also hinted at the problems festering among the Liberals. Former leader Edward Blake was unhappy with the party’s direction regarding a key campaign issue. Following his defeat in the 1887 election, the party pursued a policy promoting “unrestricted reciprocity” with the United States. The idea was to loosen the heavy tariffs on goods Macdonald’s government had applied via the National Policy since the late 1870s. What unnerved Blake was the fervour displayed by policy architects like Oxford South MP Sir Richard Cartwright toward a potential effect: a commercial union with the Americans which could lead to full annexation.

Blake decided not to run again in his West Durham riding. He ordered the Liberal-dominated Globe to print a letter in late January 1891 outlining his issues with the Liberal stance on trade. Globe editor John Willison, realizing the damage the letter could inflict, stalled as long as he could. It took a visit by Blake’s successor, Wilfrid Laurier, to Blake’s home, Humewood, near St. Clair Avenue, to convince the former leader to wait to publish the letter until the campaign was over.

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough depicting John A. Macdonald and Oliver Mowat. Grip, March 7, 1891.

As for Cartwright, he loved irritating the Conservative press even if his comments made fellow Grits grimace. “No other leading Liberal had his legendary capacity to make comments and take actions that could so disastrously embarrass the party, especially when it came to Canadian-American relations,” observed Christopher Pennington in his book The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier, and the Election of 1891. “Cartwright, to the great delight of the Conservatives, never seemed to appreciate the patriotism of most ordinary Canadians.” During a speech in Boston on January 30, Cartwright noted that Canadian land and resources potentially added up to “the addition of half a continent for commercial purposes, and the creation of a complete new tier of Northern States.”

Like Cartwright, fellow Liberal loose cannon Edward Farrer had once backed the Tories. But now he was the chief editorial writer at the Globe, where he endorsed economic union. Before the election, both men travelled south to discuss future political and trade scenarios with American officials. So did Macdonald, who held secret talks with US Secretary of State James Blaine in January 1891. The PM couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and thought he could outfox the Liberals with a limited free-trade deal. When the Empire leaked details, Blaine denied any discussions. With that plan scuttled, the Tories framed the election around loyalty. Would Canadians back a party aiming to sell us to the Americans, or one who remained true to the country and the British Empire? As the famous campaign poster put it, the Conservatives offered “the old flag, the old policy, the old leader.”

While Macdonald was holed up, he prepared the campaign manifesto, whose loyalty-stressing conclusion contained one of his most famous quotes:

As for myself, my course is clear. A British subject I was born—a British subject I will die. With my utmost effort, with my latest breath, I oppose the veiled treason which attempts by sordid means and mercenary profit to lure our people from their allegiance. During my long public service of nearly half-a-century, I have been true to my country and its best interests, and I appeal with equal confidence to the men who have trusted me in the past, and to the young hope of the future, with whom rests its destinies for the future, to give me their united and strenuous aid in this, my last effort, for the unity of the Empire and the preservation of our commercial and political freedom.

“Knowing that his end was near,” observed biographer Richard Gwyn, “and knowing also that most Canadians knew it, Macdonald by these devices was challenging voters to stay with him, their founding father, in the last he would ever make to them to remain Canadian rather than become Americans.
Rally day was unseasonably warm. By 6 p.m. thousands had gathered on King Street outside the Academy of Music, a throng later estimated to be around 15,000. Pushing and shoving reigned. Sharp-dressed attendees were caked in mud and slush up to their knees. The hot rumour was that Macdonald had damaging goods proving an alleged conspiracy by the Globe to sell out the country.

This rumour worried one man in the crowd. John Willison feared that whatever the Prime Minister had on his paper might spark a riot leading back to the Globe’s office at Yonge and Melinda. He arranged for 50 police officers to protect the paper while he watched the rally unfold.

Front page, the News, February 18, 1891.

Police were overwhelmed at the Academy, where the crowd cut off carriage traffic. They barely held the throng back when Tories given advance tickets were admitted just after 6 p.m. When the main doors opened at 7 p.m., around 4,000 people squeezed in. “The standing ways and aisles were all blocked, and pyramids of men were piled up in the corners,” the News reported. Several women fainted during the surge. Seats were ripped out to make more room. A gas lamp outside was destroyed, causing a gas rupture which forced organizers to turn on the electricity inside.

Some people tried alternative methods to get in, creating money-making opportunities. One person charged a quarter to lead attendees one by one through a back staircase into the rafters. Another levied a toll (which rose from a nickel to a quarter) to scale a fence with a ladder. Among those who took the latter route was opening speaker Charles Tupper, who couldn’t enter via the front door when the crowd failed to give him space. The heavy-set, heavily dressed politician had a few antsy moments on the ladder and almost fell into a pile of bricks during his descent.

Macdonald arrived via carriage from the Queen’s Hotel (now the site of the Royal York) around 7:35 p.m. It took 10 minutes to enter the building, as the crowd outside demanded a speech. Rally chairman W.R. Brock finally formed a wedge to let the PM in. Inside, Macdonald saw a hall covered in mottos. There were the patriotic (“Canada for the Canadians”), the flattering (“Hail to Our Chieftain”), and a few cheap shots at annexationists.

Brock’s attempt to start the rally at 8 p.m was delayed by the audience’s euphoria. As Tupper was delayed by his ladder journey, future Toronto mayor Emerson Coatsworth warmed up the room with a brief talk. When Tupper finally appeared onstage, the audience hooted and hollered for eons. “I always knew our great leader was a very popular man, but I never appreciated it fully until I attempted to gain entrance to this hall tonight,” Tupper noted. He then joked, “I think the best thing we can adopt on the present occasion is a little unrestricted reciprocity in the way of order.” He sat down until police calmed the overexcited crowd, which included a few hecklers who were ejected.

Tupper roused the crowd with a long speech outlining Tory accomplishments over the previous 13 years and attacking annexationists. He found it difficult to stop talking, but he reached a point where he conceded, “I must not take up more of your time.”

Then the headliner took the stage. The Empire described the scene:

The old man stood up, and as, in the fullness of his years, he leaned slightly forward there was a sudden outburst from the audience that fairly shook the building from its vaulted roof to its foundations. The entire gathering arose and yelled. Handkerchiefs, hats, umbrellas, walking sticks, programmes, and in fact everything within reach, were waved by the audience. The enthusiastic uproar was deafening. The grand old man stood there motionless as his heart throbbed within his honoured breast. This was one of the rewards that fall to the lot of a man who has spent his whole life labouring for the benefit of his race. It was a proud minute for Sir John.

When the cheering finally stopped, someone yelled, “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” prompting the audience to erupt into song. It took the pinning of a bouquet to Macdonald’s jacket to bring silence to the hall.

Left: cartoon, the News, March 6, 1891. Right: cartoon, the World, March 5, 1891.

Macdonald appeared frail and couldn’t be heard beyond the first few rows. He joked about his condition, referring to himself as “the aged leader—perhaps the weak and inefficient leader.” When the crowd shouted, “No! No!” Macdonald replied, “But the honest and well-intentioned leader.” He discussed the years he spent in Toronto while out of office during the mid-1870s, and how the National Policy benefitted the city’s manufacturing sector. He gradually slipped into attacked the treasonous annexationists among the Liberals, a threat he probably knew he was overplaying.

Then he pulled out what everyone had waited for: a pamphlet written for an American client by Edward Farrer that showed how Canada could be brought to heel economically. Proofs of the pamphlet were stolen by a printer loyal to the Tories. The work was intended to discuss Canadian-American relations from the viewpoint of an imaginary American, was not authorized by the Liberals, and was not intended for public consumption. When Macdonald got hold of it, he showed it to the governor general, Lord Stanley (of hockey cup fame), who felt it was slight.

Still, its mere existence provided attack material for Macdonald. He suggested Farrer might be in the crowd—which he was, standing next to Willison. “I am very glad that he is, because he will hear what I have to say,” Macdonald gloated. He portrayed the pamphlet as a sign of sinister intent. He also depicted Sir Richard Cartwright, not Laurier, as the true architect of Liberal policy. “I do not think he can,” he told the supportive audience, “in any decency, keep the title he got from the Queen when he becomes Senator for Ontario.” He ended his speech by promising to show the Americans that Canadians valued their nation. “I would say,” he concluded, “the sooner the grass was growing over my grave the better, rather than that I should see the degradation of the country which I have loved so much and which I have served so long.”

Several men sitting on the platform then erupted into an impromptu ditty called “We Will Hang Ed Farrar on a Sour Apple Tree.” More cheers and songs followed until the crowd finally dispersed around 11 p.m. Macdonald held an informal reception on the platform before returning to his hotel.

The city’s Tory papers were ecstatic. The official organ, the Empire, hyperbolically called the rally “the greatest political meeting ever held in Canada….One that will exist without a peer in the political history of the Dominion.” The World felt that “the interior of that building presented a sight the inspiration of which cannot be conveyed into print.” The Telegram advised caution, feeling that calling leading Liberals traitors wasn’t justified: “Tin sounds loudest in Sir John’s thunder. Its roar is largely artificial, but the shrill small note of truth is in it.”

At the Globe, Willison spent the night figuring out how to address Macdonald’s charges. Front-page coverage was given to a Laurier speech in Montreal. On the editorial page, Willison dismissed the credibility of the treason charges. Farrer was given an editorial page column to defend himself. He admitted writing the pamphlet, discussed its origins, and felt no shame about it. He was free to write whatever he wanted in his off-hours.

Macdonald embarked on a grueling tour of Ontario over the next week, using Toronto as his base. After a speech in Kingston on February 24, personal secretary Joseph Pope was alarmed by his leader’s appearance. As historian Donald Creighton put it, Macdonald’s face was “grey, grey with fatigue, grey with another kind of fatigue which was the final exhaustion of a life.” Suffering from bronchitis and other ailments, he rested in both Kingston and Ottawa.

Macdonald was at his Ottawa home, Earnscliffe, when the results began rolling in on March 5. He went to sleep around 10 p.m., having heard only a fraction of the returns. Fears that the public was tired of the Conservatives proved unjustified—while they lost a few seats, the party maintained a healthy majority and increased its percentage of the popular vote. Macdonald’s platform had carried off one last victory.

Sir John A. Macdonald statue, Queen’s Park, 1910. Toronto Public Library.

When Parliament resumed on April 29, 1891, Macdonald brought his son Hugh, who was elected as MP for Winnipeg, into the House of Commons. A series of strokes beginning on May 12 gradually deteriorated the prime minister’s condition. At 10:25 p.m on June 6, 1891, Joseph Pope met with reporters hovering outside Earnscliffe: “Gentlemen, Sir John Macdonald is dead. He died at a quarter past 10, without pain and in peace.”

Four men filled out Macdonald’s term. The first, Sir John Abbott, reluctantly accepted the job for the next year and a half. His replacement, Sir John Thompson, may be best known for dying of a heart attack after sitting down for lunch at Windsor Castle in December 1894. Charles Tupper was Thompson’s logical successor but Governor General Lord Aberdeen (and Lady Aberdeen) despised him. When Mackenzie Bowell flopped as PM, Tupper took over for the 1896 election campaign, becoming Canada’s shortest-serving leader.

The Liberals quickly dumped unrestricted reciprocity as a party policy. Edward Blake’s letter was printed following the election, and was as unflattering as party brass feared. Blake took a seat in the British House of Commons representing an Irish riding in 1892. That same year, Edward Farrer left the Globe, thanks to Ontario premier Oliver Mowat’s irritation over his annexationist views. Farrer remained associated with the party and became one of Laurier’s trouble shooters.

The Academy of Music survived extensive damage caused during the rally. It was soon renamed the Princess Theatre. Destroyed by fire in 1915, it was rebuilt only to be demolished in 1930 to make way for the southern extension of University Avenue.

On the issue of treason during the campaign, Christopher Pennington offered this summary:

The truth is that both the Conservatives and Liberals acted patriotically during the campaign. They simply had contrasting ideas for the future of the country, ideas rooted in different but equally legitimate conceptions of the meaning of Canadian nationalism. The clash of these ideas was the real “great issue” of the election of 1891.

Sources: John A. Macdonald: The Old Chieftain by Donald Creighton (Toronto: Macmillan, 1955); Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times Volume Two 1867-1891 by Richard Gwyn (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2011); The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier, and the Election of 1891 by Christopher Pennington (Toronto: Allen Lane Canada, 2011); the February 14, 1891 and February 18, 1891 editions of the Empire; the February 18, 1891 edition of the Globe; the February 18, 1891 edition of the Mail; the February 18, 1891 edition of the News; the February 19, 1891 edition of the Telegram; and the February 18, 1891 edition of the World.


I’m guessing this cartoon, published on the front page of the February 20, 1891 of the News, is intended to be Edward Farrer.

Edward Farrer was included in “Canada’s Hall of Infamy,” a list of “the most contemptible Canadians” chosen by historians for the August/September 2007 edition of The Beaver (now Canada’s History). Beyond his role in the 1891 campaign, the piece noted that while Farrer was an excellent journalist, he stirred up anti-French and anti-Catholic feelings during his editorship of the Mail, especially in the aftermath of the Northwest Rebellion. Macdonald also made the list, for his policies towards First Nations during this era.

A February 26, 1891 Mail editorial addressed its take on the scandal involving its former editor. Here’s how it opened:

Nothing could mark the malignant madness of faction more signally, or more shamefully than the means which in this contest has been taken, when arguments failed to blacken the character of opponents. Are the confidential concerns of our printing house, the sanctity of the desks containing our private correspondence, and the common laws of honesty which forbid to steal or wittingly to receive stolen goods, to be given to the winds in order that a party leader may gain a political victory over his opponent? Practices like these are becoming more common in our elections, and it is time for social morality and its independent organs to protest.

Protest maybe, but this has never stopped such leaks and stories into the present.

The Empire, February 21, 1891.

Few topics were left untouched in the Empire‘s pro-Conservative propaganda. Among the items found on a page of “Facts for Electors”: how reciprocity might impact the cheese industry.

Grip, February 28, 1891.

A satirical look at how the campaign was covered by the Globe and the Empire.

The Empire, February 28, 1891.

As of yet, I have not found similar ads allowing loyal Liberals to display a life size portrait of Wilfrid Laurier.

The Empire, March 5, 1891.

The Empire‘s front page message to voters on election day. Notes on the candidates:

Frederick Charles Denison, who had led Canadian troops in Sudan in the mid-1880s, won his seat by the largest majority of any candidate in Ontario. He would not finish his term, dying of stomach cancer in 1896.

George Cockburn‘s resume included a stint as principal of Upper Canada College. He represented Toronto Centre from 1887 to 1896.

Emerson Coatsworth would represent Toronto East for one term, before being defeated by Telegram publisher John Ross Robertson in 1896. He later served as the city’s mayor in 1906-1907.

Nathaniel Clarke Wallace served as MP for York West from 1878 until his death in 1901. He was also a high-ranking member of the Orange Lodge.

William Findlay Maclean was the only unsuccessful candidate of this quartet…for the moment. Losing to former Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, Maclean won a by-election the following year after Mackenzie died and stayed in office through 1926. Party ties would explain the Empire’s endorsement, as Maclean published the rival Toronto World.

The Empire, March 6, 1891.

Unsurprisingly, the Empire’s victory coverage was overflowing with ecstasy. By contrast, the Globe‘s front page ran the tiny one-column headline “A Black Eye.” Though happy that the Tories won, the Telegram extended condolences to local losing Liberal candidates, “Liberalism chose blameless men for its standard bearers in the city,” an editorial observed. “In Centre Toronto their candidate [lawyer James Kerr] was especially strong, but the party’s policy was heavy a load for its unfortunate victims.”

Kill Bill 99

Originally published as a “Historicist’ column on Torontoist on July 10, 2010, just after the G20 summit fiasco in Toronto.

Justice being stomped upon by the proposed amendments to the Police Act. The Telegram, March 20, 1964.

In the fallout of the G20 summit, much has been made about the treatment of civil liberties by the police and various levels of government. Some commentators have drawn parallels between the extended powers bestowed upon law enforcement during the summit with legislation the Ontario government attempted to pass nearly fifty years ago. The amendments to the Police Act put forward in Bill 99 provoked mass outrage from the public and politicians, including those within the government of Premier John Robarts. For nearly a week, most observers sat back and scratched their heads as they watched a circus unfold at Queen’s Park that could have been prevented if more care had been taken in thinking about the implications of the bill.

Globe and Mail, March 20, 1964.

The figure at the centre of the storm was Attorney General Frederick Cass. The small town lawyer, whose maternal relatives developed the McIntosh apple, developed a reputation in several government portfolios as a no-nonsense taskmaster with a short fuse. Since his appointment as attorney general in late 1962, he had overseen a report conducted by Judge Bruce Macdonald that would revise the Police Act to allow law enforcement to battle a perceived increase in organized crime and Mafia activities in the province. The spectre of gang wars had been one of the provincial Liberals’ main campaigning points during the 1963 Ontario election and it was felt in some quarters that the governing Progressive Conservatives had to show they weren’t soft on crime regardless of the true level of the mobster menace.

There were signs something unusual was up when the report was released on March 19, 1964. Reporters reviewing its contents were locked in a room for six hours under an OPP watch that included supervised bathroom trips. Cass dropped by around 9:30 a.m. to answer questions and made it clear that he had disagreed with Macdonald on several sections of the report. Those perusing the report noticed proposed changes to section 14 of the Police Act that gave the Ontario Police Commission (OPC) sweeping powers that suspended normal civil liberties. The new subsections would allow the OPC to summon anyone and require them to provide evidence in camera. Legal counsel could be refused until the OPC was satisfied with questioning. If the person being summoned refused to answer questions or provide requested evidence, the OPC “may, by warrant, commit the person to prison for a period not exceeding eight clear days” without bail or appeal. Once out of jail, if the person continued to refuse to cooperate, not only would another eight-day sentence ensue, but the OPC “may commit the person to prison from time to time until the person consents to do what is required of him.” Those questioned were forbidden to disclose anything that occurred during their hearing—if they did, a two-thousand-dollar fine and a year in jail could result.

Early in the afternoon, Cass quickly outlined the legislation stemming from the report that he intended to bring to the floor that day. He assured the small number of attendees (estimated at eleven out of seventy-seven Tory MPPs) that the proposed amendments to the Police Act were a matter of housekeeping. As bills in those days were rarely printed before they were given first reading in the legislature, those in attendance accepted Cass’s explanation without any visible concern.

The bill boomerangs back on Attorney General Fred Cass. Cartoon by Al Beaton, the Telegram, March 21, 1964.

After Bill 99 was tabled for first reading, Cass held a press conference. He noted that some individual rights would have to be sacrificed for the public good and trusted the OPC to act carefully, then stunned reporters when he suddenly attacked his own bill: “It’s drastic, it’s dangerous, and it’s new, and it’s terrible legislation in an English common law country.” If the law passed, he mused that a person could be plucked off the street, hauled before the committee and sent to jail without anyone else’s knowledge. The question on everyone’s mind: if this legislation was so repulsive to the minister bringing it to the legislature, why was it being brought forward?

Around 9 p.m., during a party thrown by the government for the media corps, Robarts received word that the Globe and Mail had prepared a rare front-page editorial regarding the legislation. Titled “Bill of Wrongs,” the piece lashed out at the government:

“For the public good,” the Ontario Government has taken an axe to the fundamental rights and liberties of this province’s people. “For the public good,” it proposes to trample upon Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Canadian Bill of Rights, and the Rule of Law…Are we in Ontario—or are we in Ghana? In the Canada of 1964—or in the Germany of 1934? This legislation is supposed to be directed against organized crime. In fact, it is directed against every man and woman in this province…Cass says of it: “The rights of a few individuals may have to be overridden for the public good.” These rights, which belong to every individual ARE the public good. Overridden for one man, they are overridden for all. Where, then, is “the public good?”…This legislation could make Ontario a police state. It would give the Ontario Police Commission powers comparable with those of the OGPU [a forerunner of the KGB] or the Gestapo.

Toronto Star, March 20, 1964.

The editorial was just the beginning of the torrent of criticism hurled at the government on March 20. The Star also published a front-page editorial condemning the government for creating conditions for a police state out of panic:

A case could perhaps be made out for measures such as this in a country ravaged by civil war. But the only justification the government offers is that these drastic powers are needed to combat crime syndicates from the United States. A few months ago the cabinet was denying that these syndicates were operating in Ontario at all. Now they have become, we are told, such an awful menace that the traditional rights and liberties of the people of Ontario must go by the board. This looks like a reaction of sheer panic…This law is not aimed at just racketeers and gangsters and their accomplices. It can be used against anyone—against opponents and critics of the government whom someone in authority has a grudge. In the hands of corrupt officials it could be used not to repress crime but protect it…This is the most offensive and dangerous legislation ever introduced in Ontario.

The opposition pounced during the day’s legislative session. Acting Liberal leader Farquhar Oliver demanded that the government either dismiss the legislation or call an election. Tempers flared among the argumentative MPPs—at one point, Speaker Donald Morrow sent the sergeant-at-arms over to Oliver when he refused to yield to the speaker’s request to allow Robarts to speak. In an emotional speech, Dovercourt Liberal MPP Andrew Thompson (later infamous for his tardy attendance record as a senator) argued that in a British-inspired parliamentary system, a cabinet must stand in solidarity, so the front benchers were as guilty as Cass in creating chaos. “We don’t see this as a political battle,” he noted, “but a battle for the sanctity of the people.” Thompson’s speech received applause from the visitor’s gallery and he was able to ride this positive reaction to become party leader later in the year.

Premier John Robarts gets out the cleaning equipment. Cartoon by Al Beaton, the Telegram, March 24, 1964.

In a statement partly crafted by former premier Leslie Frost, Robarts indicated he would not tolerate draconian legislation and would send the bill back to a committee. The Liberals continued to shout and, as soon as Robarts finished speaking, Oliver questioned how the bill had gotten so far. The premier also faced internal opposition from MPPs who had no prior knowledge of the bill and shuddered at its content. Backbencher Allan Lawrence (St. George riding), known for his frequent dissent with the government, was found by the press after Cass’s press conference. When one reporter described the bill, Lawrence replied “It can’t be that…People picked up without charge, incarcerated, denied a lawyer on the mere suspicion of the police? If that’s the case I’d certainly be against it.” After the debate, Lawrence rushed Robarts and indicated there were many on the benches (including many lawyers like himself) willing to vote against the legislation due to a mix of personal beliefs and large volumes of calls from irate constituents since 7 a.m.

Outrage quickly spread to Ottawa where MP Reid Scott (NDP, Toronto-Danforth) proposed a motion to censure the Ontario government. Though the speaker ruled it out of order, Scott’s motion received applause from all parties except the federal Tories, whose leader, John Diefenbaker, looked embarrassed as he fidgeted in his seat. Diefenbaker, who as prime minister had legislated a national Bill of Rights four years earlier, contemplated denouncing the police state overtones of Bill 99 in the House of Commons, but kept silent out of respect for Robarts. Diefenbaker urged the premier to drop the bill, as its passage would allow the federal Liberal government a rare opportunity to disallow provincial legislation and make the public view them as the defenders of civil rights…in short, the Liberals would have made Tories at both levels of government look bad.

The bill took on international dimensions when Joseph T. Thorson, a recently retired legal official who served as the honorary president of the International Commission of Jurists, sought to obtain a copy of the legislation to submit to the commission’s headquarters in Geneva for consideration. Thorson was outraged by the proposals, which he found worthy of a third-world dictatorship (he picked on everyone’s favourite target, the increasingly repressive government of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana). He told the Globe and Mail that “they contravene the basic rule of law. They offend the very sense of justice.” As outrage grew, Thorson felt that the public’s anger showed “the value of always being on alert.”

Outside Queen’s Park, between sixty and one hundred protesters from the Ontario College of Art chanted “If it starts, where will it end?” and “We want Robarts!” The premier met with three protesters, then stepped in front of the crowd and repeated an earlier statement that no law infringing civil liberties would pass. While there were some jeers, most of the crowd cheered Robarts with cries of “Thatta boy!”

Those who spoke out in favour of section 14 were few and mostly tied to the OPC. Defenders stressed that only those involved in organized crime had anything to worry about. Judge Macdonald believed the legislation was necessary to battle the bad guys—”What’s the point of individual rights when there is an invisible government operating behind the scenes,” he told police officials gathered at the Royal York Hotel. Among legal experts, University of Toronto law professor John Willis thought the dangers most lawyers described were the result of imaginations gone wild. He told the Star that “any attempt by a public authority to deal with social menace necessarily involves interference to some extent with so-called civil liberties of individuals.”

Globe and Mail, March 23, 1964.

All camps spent the weekend trying to figure out their next moves. Oliver threatened to launch a filibuster if the bill moved to second reading in its current state. Robarts met with his advisors, but resisted their calls to force Cass to resign. The premier announced that he would carefully examine the bill before clarifying or withdrawing the offensive sections. Newspapers continued to publish editorials wondering where the government’s judgment and common sense wandered off to. Public fury extended to local pulpits, as Reverend J.F. Chidsey of the Don Heights Unitarian Congregation read to worshippers a letter that blasted the legislation for destroying freedoms that citizens had gone to war to protect. The Telegram noted that seventy-five members of the congregation signed the letter, which was addressed to the premier and joined the chorus of people looking for Cass’s head.

Globe and Mail, March 24, 1964.

The March 23 session of the Ontario legislature was a raucous affair. For the first half of the day, debate went back and forth between cabinet members asking for more time to review Bill 99 and the opposition demanding its withdrawal. In the face of constant attacks from the opposition and his party, Robarts took full responsibility for the fiasco, yet stubbornly clung onto preserving the offending sections of the bill until a committee could review them. Tory MPPs threatened to resign. A motion from Oliver to kill the entire bill was defeated. NDP leader Donald MacDonald moved an amendment to change section 14 only. Robarts plead for discussion in committee, to which Oliver retorted “I don’t think you’re in any position to preserve even a shred of it.” Verbal jousting continued until Robarts finally indicated he would instruct the reviewing committee to delete section 14 as long as it was fully discussed. MacDonald’s motion passed the house with approval from all ninety-six MPPs in attendance. It was the first time a premier had accepted an opposition amendment since George Drew voted for a Labor-Progressive motion asking the government not to contest the principle of family allowances in court in 1944.

Toronto Star, March 24, 1964.

But where was Cass? The attorney general maintained a low profile after his initial encounters with the press, as he sat out most of the action at Queen’s Park. Cass and his wife secluded themselves at the Royal York as they awaited his fate…

After MacDonald’s motion passed, an ashen Robarts pulled out Cass’s resignation letter and read it to the legislature in a strained voice. Cass defended the bill, but acknowledged that he “unintentionally touched upon the sensibilities of our people. In doing this, however, I was answering the dictates of my own conscience.”

Cartoon by Al Beaton, the Telegram, March 25, 1964.

Within days, Arthur Wishart was named as the new attorney general. Bill 99 was sent to the Legal Bills Committee and rewritten to include common law protections of individual rights. The bill was brought back to the legislature and passed on April 28. Robarts realized he could, as biographer A.K. McDougall described, “no longer be just a relaxed chairman of the board,” and took time to review all legislative proposals before they were introduced. Robarts and Wishart looked into creating new legislation that would redeem the government in the eyes of the public by strengthening civil liberties, which led to the creation of the Ontario Royal Commission on Civil Rights. Chair James McRuer’s recommendations, which included limits on powers of arrest, search and seizure, and provided compensation for crime victims, were implemented by Robarts’s successor William Davis in a series of bills in 1971.

Sources: John P. Robarts: His Life and Government by A.K. McDougall (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), Public Triumph Private Tragedy by Steve Paikin (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2005), and editions of the Globe and Mail, the Telegram, and the Toronto Star published between March 20, 1964 and March 25, 1964.


The Telegram, March 20, 1964.

The Tely published a roundup of reaction from MPPs across the political spectrum, including some government members who weren’t thrilled with the bill. A few samples:

Kelso Roberts (PC, St. Patrick, who was also Lands and Forests Minister, and had previously served as Attorney-General): “I regret sincerely that this bill was not seen by me before its introduction…one would have thought the contents would have been discussed with the only person in the legislature who has had previous experience as and held the office of Attorney General. It was not. I don’t consider there is any need for a panic-button approach to any current problem in this province. If the measure is as reported I will oppose it to the utmost of my energy and ability. If one has to choose between a free state with a few criminals at large and a police state with none, I have no hesitation in making my choice.”

Farquhar Oliver (Liberal, Grey South, and interim leader of the opposition): “This bill takes us right back to the dark ages. It’s the sort of legislation I never thought we’d experience in this province.”

Vernon Singer (Liberal, York Centre): “This legislation is shocking and completely out of place in a country that prides itself on the British system of justice. I hope little more than the mounting criticism will be necessary to make the Government withdraw this bill.”

Leonard Braithwaite (Liberal, Etobicoke): “I’m amazed that the Robarts government could do this. Up until now I honestly thought they were fairly sensible and responsible. I think the Magna Carta and all the deep traditions of British justice will be violated if this bill goes through…This is not war. There is no conceivable necessity for such a bill. What I want to know is how they held this forth from us all the time and then all of a sudden come up with a great emergency. The granting of council is something even a murderer is entitled to. It’s so bad, so very bad, that I’m at a loss for words.”

The only MPP the paper interviewed who came out in favour of the bill was Alfred Cowling (PC, High Park), who felt that once his colleagues had a chance to full read the proposal, “they will find that to give the Ontario Police Commission necessary power in emergency crime situations, they will need such powers.”

The full front-page editorial presented in the March 2o, 1964 edition of the Globe and Mail.

The Telegram, March 20, 1964.

Cartoon by James Reidford inspired by A Tale of Two Cities, Globe and Mail, March 21, 1964.

Several months later, Maclean’s published a cover story with a different take by Ken Lefolii about the whole affair, which was summed up in its headline as “a fake backed by fraud.”

The version of Bill 99 that caused the holy war to save democracty was an imaginary Act that sprang from the mind of a pudgy, rumpled politician named Frederick Cass as he sweated under the lights strung by two television crews at a fantastic press conference on March 19.

The crusade against the infamous Cass version of Bill 99 was led by men learned, as they themselves say, in the law. But for seven days in March any man who damned Bill 99 was a hero. Any man who defended Bill 99 was a Fascist. It is easy to understand the reluctance of any eminent lawyer, or any legislator, or even any editorial writer to stand up and say that Bill 99 was damnable only if the earlier Acts that confer the same powers on appointed tribunals are damnable. But their neglect to say so amounted to fraud. There may very well be a battle to fight against the inclination of governments to give the full powers of a judge in court to an investigator appointed by an attorney general and responsible only to an attorney general. But if there is, the fight in Ontario is only one third won, and in the other provinces it has not begun.

Past Pieces of Toronto: 811 Gerrard Street and the Signs of Morris Silver

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on April 29, 2012.

811 Gerrard Street, 2007. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana, courtesy of

Morris Silver loved attention. The retired dry cleaner was a passionate, opinionated man who let everyone know what he thought about matters that deeply concerned him, especially political issues and people who knocked back a drink before jumping behind the wheel. The storefront that once housed his Handy Andy’s cleaning business at 811 Gerrard St. E. near Logan Avenue was illustrated with amusing hand painted messages such as “DRUNK DRIVERS ARE…LOUSY LOVERS SOBER DRIVERS PUCK MUCH BETTER” and “WELCOME TO METRO SURVIVORS FROM QUEBEC. IN ONTARIO, WE SPEAK, LAUGH, ADVERTISE, SING, DANCE, PLAY, DO HANKY PANKY AND PROPOGATE FREELY IN 156 LANGUAGES.”

Silver sharpened his artistic skills after World War II as a sign painter for the Royal Alex. He might have picked up a flair for the dramatic from his work at the theatre, given his penchant for eye-catching protests from the 1970s onwards. Whether attempting to stop the Bank of Nova Scotia branch at Broadview and Gerrard from blocking the sun from the window of a neighbouring apartment he owned or making his anger toward plans for a Grand Prix race known to city council, Silver clad himself with colourful t-shirts or sandwich boards illustrated with his distinctive handwriting.

Drunk drivers topped Silver’s list of pet peeves. The catalyst was an incident in front of Handy Andy’s where a young woman was killed by a drunk driver. The incident deeply affected Silver—he later explained that his signs were a way of “protecting himself and his family.” During the final vote by Metro Toronto Council on allowing beer sales at Exhibition Stadium in July 1982, Silver showed up with a handful of pink flowers and wore a t-shirt bearing the message “FREE FLOWERS FOR THE VICTIMS OF DRUNK DRIVERS.” The councillors voted overwhelmingly in favour of letting Blue Jays fans enjoy some suds.

“Taking a stand: East end businessman Morris Silver walked quietly around Metro Council yesterday as politicians approved beer in the ballpark. He said free flowers should be given to victims of drunk drivers. Beer sales were okayed on a 27-6 vote.” Photo by Boris Spremo, originally published in the July 17, 1982 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0011865f.

Around the same time, messages referring to drunk drivers and dead children appeared on the front of 811 Gerrard East. After retiring, he retained the storefront, increased the number of hand-painted commentaries, and added bloodied mannequins, stuffed animals, and a stumpy ventriloquist’s dummy to the window display to reinforce his messages. In a 1999 interview with the National Post, Silver noted that “the Ontario government has abandoned anti-drunk-driving advertising. I have this property and I have the capability to make these signs, so I do.”

In that same interview, Silver was asked if paying over $6,000 a year in property taxes on 811 Gerrard St. E. and a vacant house he owned at 13 Simpson Ave. was worth it to express his opinions. “Ha! I’m getting readership,” he insisted. “I’m trying to build awareness of the dangers of drunk driving. Young people, 12 and 16 years old, tell me they appreciate it.” While the storefront would be confined to messages, Silver envisioned turning the house into a re-education centre for drunk drivers.

Morris Silver protesting the Bank of Nova Scotia. Toronto Star, July 22, 1976.

That plan probably would have pleased neighbours more than what Silver actually did to 13 Simpson. After he bought the home in 1988, he transformed the property over several years into a display that could be compared to Detroit’s Heidelberg Project. The Victorian-era home was covered with trademark messages like “CHILDREN KILLED BY DRUNK DRIVERS CAN’T HUG PANDAS,” a wrecked car sat in the front, and bric-a-brac painted in Day-Glo colours was strewn around the property. Neighbours were not amused by the passion behind his messages or the playful humour on display, going as far as to term the property a “vengeance house” against their complaints. Silver refused to talk to the media about why he fought the NIMBYism he faced by simply adding more items, such as teddy bears, to the property after each attempt to remove what Toronto Life snidely termed “a slightly creepy piece of installation art gone wrong.” Damage from an arson-related fire in 1992 failed to stop Silver. A succession of city councillors tried to mediate, but Silver rejected suggestions from neighbours to convert the property into an AIDS hospice or a Ronald McDonald House, even if the bore his name. One wonders if taking his alcohol issues centre seriously might have mended fences.

Fresh messages ceased after Silver passed away around 2001. His wife Edith held on to both properties for a time, though her deteriorating health meant that the final batch of slogans slowly decayed. When 13 Simpson was sold in 2005, the new owners were treated as local heroes for renovating the home. Fading notes about drunk drivers, the Globe and Mail and Quebecers continued to attract glances toward 811 Gerrard East for a few more years before the remains of a creative eccentric were cleared away.

Sources: Urban Decoder: Secrets from the Dark Underbelly of the Mega-City! (Toronto: Macmillan, 1998), the July 13, 1999, January 15, 2005, and July 9, 2005 editions of the National Post, and the July 17, 1982 edition of the Toronto Star.


Toronto Star, September 27, 1977.

Photos of 13 Simpson and 811 Gerrard, National Post, January 15, 2005.

Elephant Escapades at the Zoo

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 14, 2011.

Two of the Metro Toronto Zoo’s herd of elephants, between 1975 and 1985. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 4, Item 0045.

Dateline: August 1974. Richard Nixon resigns the presidency of the United States. Turkey invades Cyprus for the second time in a year. Bob Barker is on the cusp of his second anniversary as host of The Price is Right. Toronto endures a 23-day transit strike, which is among the factors blamed for lower than expected attendance at the city’s newest major attraction, the Metro Toronto Zoo. Though many of the exhibits at the zoo are still under construction when the public is officially let in on August 15, three young African elephants named Tantor, Tara, and Tessa are on hand for their viewing pleasure. The deaths of Tara and Tessa within months of each other 35 years later (and criticism from animal welfare advocates like Barker) prompted the decision this past week by the zoo’s board to close down the elephant exhibit and move the three remaining elephants elsewhere. Left behind are four decades of alternately amusing and terrifying tales.

Metro Toronto Zoo 1982 Annual Report.

Born in Mozambique circa 1969, the zoo’s initial trio of elephants spent time in Europe before they travelled via ocean liner from Hamburg to Toronto. As workers were still putting the finishing touches on the elephant enclosure, Tessa spent her first night at the Metro Toronto Zoo in the hippo area alongside similarly displaced seals. During the first week the elephants were in their new home, elephant keeper Toby Styles had to warn visitors not to feed the trio peanuts “unless you want to kill them slowly”—seems the stereotypical elephant snack is too rich for the mammals’ digestive systems. School kids too eager to get close to the elephants caused problems during the preview period when several fell into the moat surrounding the enclosure, but luckily for them the animals ignored the interlopers.

As the lone bull elephant, Tantor often had to deal with stereotypically teenage-male issues, such as raging hormones (known as musth in elephants) and being grounded whenever he got carried away by lust. On June 5, 1983, 13-year-old Tantor was making amorous advances toward the younger female members of the herd, which irritated herd leader Pat. When she tried to stop Tantor from getting to first base with any of the others, hundreds of onlookers saw how Tantor handled having his romantic quest obstructed. As director of live collections Lawrence Cahill told the Star, “he didn’t like the interference and he flattened Pat.” Keepers tried to calm Tantor, but unverified reports indicate some handlers had to swim to safety. When the attack occurred, Styles, by then a supervisor, was enjoying a day off:

One weekend I was off and got a call at home that the bull elephant had attacked the matriarch, got her down by the pool and tried to drown her, or beat her up. I walked about halfway across the paddock, just talking to him. He turned and you could see him listening — and then he just tucked his trunk under and put his ears out and charged like a great big truck. In most cases what you do is charge them back – it’s just like a big bluff. But he started to come at me and I knew this was the time to get the hell out of there. I didn’t know I could still move that fast.

Foreman Duncan Bourne told the Star that Pat was “bruised up pretty good and has some cuts, but that’s about all. I think her feelings are more hurt than anything. After a few days of rest, she’ll be returned to the pen.”
Following the attack, Tantor was placed in isolation for several months. Keepers discovered that listening to CFRB soothed him, especially when commentator Gordon Sinclair spoke. When told about his largest fan, the veteran journalist was amused. He said that he understood how Tantor felt, since “he’s a big strong male and he shouldn’t push anyone around.”

If Gordon Sinclair could soothe an elephant, would Glenn Gould singing Mahler have the same effect on the rest of the herd? Check out the clip above from from the 1985 documentary Glenn Gould: A Portrait (the story leading into the appearance of the elephants starts around the 7:00 mark).

Sinclair wasn’t the only journalist to have an unexpected relationship with Tantor. Globe and Mail food critic Joanne Kates once described an encounter with Tantor where she could have become the special of the day

Tantor’s moods would make human parents grateful for the forms their adolescents’ rebellion take. Bang. 10,000 pounds of angry teen-aged elephant hits the side of the cage. Concrete shivers. He wraps his trunk around the cage pillars and shakes. Then out comes the trunk from the cage, questing angrily toward us. Clearly this elephant is dreaming of human lunch. The keeper offers him instead a little hors d’oeuvre: a five-foot-long willow log, seven inches in diameter. Tantor picks up the log with his hairy trunk, brings it to his mouth, and starts eating. But this is only an appetizer, an elephantine cracker with cheese, for a guy who eats 300 pounds a day of hay, plus treats.

Tantor remained at the zoo until he died from complications following surgery to remove an abscessed left tusk in 1989. With a final weight of 14,300 pounds and height of just over 11 feet tall at the shoulder, he was considered Canada’s largest animal. To carry out an autopsy, his carcass was hoisted by crane onto a flatbed truck that delivered him to the University of Guelph. Since he couldn’t fit in the pathology lab, dissection was started outside the building in front of a crowd of gawkers. Tantor’s remains were offered to the Royal Ontario Museum, who sent his carcass to a farm for a few years to naturally clean lingering flesh off the bones. Since the late 1990s, the ROM has used Tantor’s skeleton as a teaching specimen, aiding researchers in identifying fossils.

Announcing the arrival of Thika. Toronto Sun, October 27, 1980.

During his stay at the zoo, Tantor sired four calves. His firstborn, Thika, was the first African elephant to be born in Canada when she arrived on October 18, 1980. Outsiders weren’t allowed to see her for a week so as not to upset her protective mother, Tequila. Three years later, Tequila surprised zoo officials following a morning feeding when her second child Tumpe was born without warning. Tantor’s other offspring had short lives: Toronto (named for the city’s 150th anniversary) died at the age of 10, while T.W. expired after two days. Following Tantor’s death, plans were made to artificially inseminate the females to increase the zoo’s elephant population, but, after initial preparations with Thika, the regimen was deemed risky and the practice of breeding elephants at Metro Toronto Zoo came to an end.

The lack of a male didn’t lower the risk of injury to elephant handlers, as zookeeper Nick Rensinck learned on November 7, 1993. That morning, Rensinck attempted to end a disagreement between Thika and Iringa. When he tried to force Iringa back, she threw him across the holding area with her trunk and gored him repeatedly in the leg while he was pinned on his back. Rensinck might have been killed if two fellow zookeepers hadn’t rushed to his rescue. The incident raised tensions between the zoo and the Canadian Union of Public Employees over safety and the number of vacant zookeeper positions that hadn’t been filled due to financial pressures. The day after the incident, zookeepers staged an hour-long protest and refused to start work until park officials assured them more workers would be hired. Three months after the incident, Rensinck visited Iringa and seemed to bear no hard feelings. “I went to see her just a little while ago and she seems happy; the meeting was fine…I rubbed her side and we had a little talk,” he told the Star. As for the goring, Rensinck felt that “she was unhappy at the time and likely mistook me for another elephant and treated me that way… There’s a risk involved when you work with animals, and that’s just a fact of nature.”

Elephant area, Metro Toronto Zoo, between 1975 and 1985. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 4, Item 0034.

It may also be a fact of nature that captive elephants seem to have shorter lives than their wild cousins. While the natural lifespan of elephants is in the 50 to 70 year range, the average age of the quartet of elephants that expired at the zoo between 2006 and 2009 was 39.5, which provided fuel for activists hoping to send them to a less confined environment. As of this writing, it is undetermined where the zoo’s final trio of elephants will find a new home or what will replace the exhibit.

Sources: the June 7, 1983 and January 5, 1984 editions of the Globe and Mail; the December 18, 1998 edition of the National Post; the July 2010 edition ofToronto Life; the August 3, 1974, August 17, 1974, November 25, 1983, July 4, 1987, August 4, 1989, August 6, 1989, November 8, 1993, and February 18, 1994 editions of the Toronto Star; and the November 9, 1993 edition of the Windsor Star.


A 2019 Star article on what happened to the zoo’s remaining elephants after they moved to California in 2013.

Why The Annual Marshall McLuhan Bulk Candy Festival Never Had a Second Edition (Post #700)

One of my current gigs is writing the quiz that appears every Sunday in the “Together” section of the Toronto Star. Readers have asked me about the stories behind some of the more unusual questions I’ve included. This is one of those stories.

A 1983 TV spot featuring Dave Nichol promoting the Insider’s Report.

A year into its existence, Loblaws’ Insider’s Report flyer had created plenty of buzz. Full of colourful writing and unbridled enthusiasm for the latest products to hit store shelves, it made the average Loblaws customer feel like a foodie-in-training. With each new issue, the question was what discoveries and goofiness would Dave Nichol and his team come up with next?

The front page of the September 1984 edition led off with the following message from Nichol, which also references head writer/former Toronto Star food editor Jim White:

All Insider’s Report images in this post from the Toronto Star, September 8, 1984.

But not everyone was amused with some of that issue’s loopier ideas, such as this one which appeared on page 3 alongside pitches for discounted Italian grapes and No Name equivalents of Cheez Whiz and Nutella:

McLuhan couldn’t lend any further thoughts on bulk food, having passed away four years earlier. As for his family they, according to Anne Kingston in her Nichol bio The Edible Man, were “not pleased about the revered mass-media theorist being lumped in with jelly beans.”

Marshall McLuhan, 1967. Photo by Frank Lennon. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0067519f.

McLuhan’s widow threatened a lawsuit. The matter was settled quietly out of court, and, following one more mention of the festival in a Loblaws ad, an apology was issued.

Toronto Star, September 15, 1984.

After this incident, a corporate lawyer was assigned to compile a list of famous people and their estates who had successfully sued retailers for unauthorized use of their names. The list ran the alphabet, ranging from artist Ansel Adams to Dragnet star Jack Webb. After reading a few names, some festivals-that-never were came to mind—how about a Bela Lugosi Halloween Candy Spectacular? The Elvis Presley Peanut Butter and Banana Celebration?

One celeb whose estate doesn’t appear to have raised any complaints about their appearance in the same issue: Albert Einstein.

Perhaps the Insider’s Report team should have listened to the advice they included on page 14 (which also includes a sketch of Howard Cosell).

Globe and Mail, October 28, 1968.

Postscript: while trying to find any other newspaper stories linking McLuhan and bulk food, I found an ad where he was listed among the signatories of a letter to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau urging stronger Canadian intervention (and possibly the delivery of more bulk food) in the Biafran War.

Victorian Streetcar Annoyances

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on January 9, 2010.

Single truck car 325, at Danforth and Broadview, 1896. Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3369.

Question: how was your last ride on the TTC? Was it a relaxing experience marked by pleasant surroundings, easygoing staff, and amiable fellow passengers, or was it a traumatic event that left you in a cranky mood once you arrived at your destination? If it was the latter, take heart. If a newspaper article we discovered from the late Victorian era is any indication, Torontonians have always had bones to pick when it comes to the behaviour of employees and fellow users of public transit.

Commuters flipping through the December 27, 1899, edition of the Evening Star might have noticed a headline that promised to deliver “ANNOYANCES OF PASSENGERS ON THE STREET RAILWAY.” An unidentified reporter promised to provide tales of “surly conductors and samples of what they do,” a sampling of “offences by passengers and violation of rules,” and views on “regulations and how they should be enforced and relaxed.” In short, a sensational expose of malice and lawbreaking on Toronto Railway Company streetcars!

Kingston Road, looking north from Queen Street East, opposite Woodbine Park race track, at the junction of the Toronto Railway Company’s King Street line on Queen Street East and the Toronto & Scarboro Railway’s line on Kingston Road, Toronto, Ont. Originally published in the January 13, 1894 edition of The Globe. Toronto Public Library, GLOBE 1894 JAN13-09 BR Newspapers.

The first gripe concerned transfer abuse, especially by the fairer sex:

There is no evading the fact that a good many women “do” the company as often as they can, but very many run against the regulations through ignorance. The conductor has to be a fellow of deep discernment, sometimes, to be able to judge which is which. Most women can act fairly well, and when a conductor hands back a transfer ticket with the remark that it is overtime, or otherwise useless, there are very few who cannot offer a remarkably adequate reason for its being so, backed up by an innocent face and wide-open, truthful-looking eyes. Others try the role of the “injured innocent” and indulge in an angry tirade against the impertinent man who presumes to question their honesty. The long-suffering conductor murmurs something to himself, the transfer goes into his pocket, and the woman rides on.

Not that the long-suffering TRC employees were angels. One fine day, our intrepid reporter wanted to visit friends on Queen Street West and weaved his way along two lines from Avenue Road to Queen and Yonge. While waiting to catch a Queen car, he had enough time to call his friends from a phone in a nearby store and discovered they had moved to Major Street (one would think this was useful information to know before setting off). After he hopped on a Spadina Avenue streetcar, he indicated to the conductor that he was going to make one further connection at College.” Instead of a polite reply that the company’s rules would not allow me to transfer again on the same ticket, the man looked at the paper, stared insolently at me, and muttered something about ‘people that walk around on transfers like that,’ as he tore it to scraps.” Red-faced, our reporter missed College and got off a few stops later. “As the car moved on, I heard my amiable friend saying at me, and loud enough for other passengers to hear, ‘a nice way to get to Major Street!’” The reporter admitted he screwed up, but objected to the conductor’s snide reaction.

Another case cited travel on the Yonge streetcar, where an elderly woman reminded the conductor several times that she wanted to get off at Gerrard Street. Naturally the conductor forgot, and another passenger had to deliver the bad news when the car passed Gerrard. “Oh, you stupid man!” yelled the woman as she got off. The conductor replied angrily “You’re the stupid one! I called Gerrard.”

Double truck open cars #1 and #3, Long Branch Line (Lakeshore Road near Indian Road), 1896. Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3371.

The article wound down with a series of helpful tips for passengers to make the streetcar experience a better one for all. While some of these suggestions are quaint, others wouldn’t be out of place on a modern subway etiquette poster and might help passengers avoid a fine.

Do not imagine the first car that comes along is the only one on the line. There are others. Unless you are in a frightful hurry, wait for the second if the first is full.

Gentlemen who cross their legs forget they are using ladies’ dresses and gentlemen’s trousers to brush the dirt from their footwear.
Ladies who wish to attract the attention of the conductor are not expected to punch him in the ribs with their umbrellas.

Men would not spit on the floor if they thought that one of the women of their own household would be the one to wipe it up with her skirts.

Women would not wipe up the pools of spit on the floor with the trains of their skirts if they could know what the men are thinking as they watch them.

Passengers who sit sideways occupy the space of two persons.
Ladies sometimes discuss their private affairs and the affairs of their families with others while sitting across the car. They should notice the expressions on the faces of the other passengers sometimes.


The full article from the Toronto Star, December 27, 1899.

Toronto was hardly the only city to experience issues with passengers spitting in cars. “The failure of the street railway companies to enforce the rules prohibiting the unclean and unhealthy practice of expectorating on the floors on the cars has caused general complaint from the public,” the Baltimore Sun reported on December 30, 1896, “and has also attracted the attention of physicians and others interested in the preservation of the health.” Efforts to combat this problem in Baltimore included placards placed in streetcars urging men not to spit on the floor or else conductors would deal with them harshly. “But still the floors are daily covered with a liquid carpeting as disgusting to the sight as it is deleterious to health and offensive to all sense of cleanliness and good order,” the Sun observed. Dr. E.B. Borland noted that while the refined women of Baltimore did not spit on the streetcar floor, “they wear skirts long enough to wipe them up and carry the expectorations into their homes.”

Another city where signs failed to accomplish anything was Washington, D.C. Despite encouraging passengers to respect cleanliness as a virtue, the amount of tobacco juice on the floor outraged Washington Evening Star reader “Anacostian” enough in January 1893 that, in a letter to the editor, they felt it was time that “whoever spits on the floor will be put off by the conductor” took the place of mild, ineffective appeals to one’s virtue.

Boston Globe, January 13, 1896.

This story provides a good example of why conductors may have overlooked some spitting. It was included at the tail end of an article on destitution among Boston’s Finnish community.