The Trouble With O’Brien

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on February 16, 2013.

The News, May 4, 1887.

Just after 9 p.m. on May 3, 1887, a train carrying Canada’s Governor General rolled into the North Toronto Canadian Pacific Railway station. Accompanied by municipal officials, Lord and Lady Lansdowne led a procession of carriages south along Yonge Street toward Government House at King and Simcoe Streets, where the couple would reside for the next three-and-a-half weeks. While there was an enthusiastic turnout to watch the procession, there were also fears that Lansdowne’s presence would prompt one of the periodic riots between Orangemen and Irish Catholics that had marred the city since Confederation.

These fears were sparked by William O’Brien’s vow to visit Toronto while Lansdowne was in town. A journalist who represented East Cork in the British Parliament, O’Brien was a fiery Irish nationalist who loved to stir things up. One of his main causes was supporting Irish tenant farmers who were being evicted by their landlords due to sharp rent increases. Lansdowne’s Luggacurran estate was a flashpoint, as he reputedly refused to work with tenant representatives to reduce their rent to affordable levels. As evictions occurred, O’Brien vowed to visit Canada to turn popular opinion against the Governor General and paint him as “a most cruel and wanton man.” O’Brien scheduled a North American tour, bringing along evicted tenant Denis Kilbride to arouse sympathy.

“The Ass and the Figure-head; or O’Brien kicking at the wrong Lansdowne.” Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, May 21, 1887.

From the start, prominent members of the Toronto Catholic community urged O’Brien to stay away. Leaders, like Archbishop John Joseph Lynch, knew from experience that the incendiary nature of O’Brien’s platform could easily cause a riot. Battles between ultra-Protestant Orangemen and local Irish Catholics earned Toronto a reputation as the Belfast of North America. Triggers ranged from celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day and the Battle of the Boyne to an appearance by Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa in 1878.

O’Brien ignored the warnings. He faced outright hostility from fellow passengers during a tense voyage on the ocean liner Umbria. When dense fog delayed its landing in New York City, a tugboat pickup was arranged so that O’Brien could keep his first speaking engagement. As he disembarked, alternating shouts of “God Save the Queen” and “God Save Ireland” were heard on the Umbria. The hawser on the rope ladder leading to the tugboat snapped, and O’Brien was barely saved from falling into the water. While there were suspicions that the rope was purposely cut, O’Brien assured the press it had been an accident.

As Toronto awaited O’Brien’s appearance, local papers obsessed over what might happen. The Telegram was prepared to let him talk in the name of free speech, but felt that it was “in execrable taste for an outsider to come among the citizens and abuse their guest.” The News hoped that “Mr. O’Brien will doubtless learn before his coming that an intolerant faction proposes to make trouble, and for the sake of peace will stay away.” Lansdowne was portrayed by the press as an upstanding representative of the Crown, whose personal matters in Ireland had no bearing on his duties in Canada. Papers went to extremes to depict Lansdowne in a positive light, such as the Telegram’s unearthing of 20-year-old accounts of good relations with his tenants. The News amusingly observed that “it is very noticeable that the newspapers which have protested most strongly against his visit have harped most unceasingly upon the theme, and by their windy and reiterated articles on the subject have given it a degree of prominence which it could not otherwise have assumed.”

“O’Brien’s Wild-Goose Chase.” Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, June 4, 1887.

At City Hall, nervous politicians denied O’Brien permits to use any local halls, which prompted local Irish nationalist organizations to threaten legal action. Mayor William Holmes Howland organized a public meeting at Queen’s Park for May 14, 1887, to discuss the propriety of O’Brien’s visit. When O’Brien wired, from Montreal, a demand to appear at the meeting to explain his motive, Howland sent a sharp reply on May 12:

We understand your object in coming is to attack the representative of her Majesty, at present our guest, on personal grounds, as to the truth of which, as matters of fact, we cannot and should not be called upon to be judges. Our sense of fair play here will not justify the attack on the public platform of a gentleman who by reason of high office he holds is not privileged to meet and answer his accuser in like manner. If you persist in coming I shall have to afford you the protection which the law allows, but I would advise you to accept the decision of Saturday’s meeting, which I believe will express the true sentiments of all classes in this city.

As Howland assembled a speaking list of local clergy, intellectuals, and politicians, Lansdowne authorized the Globe to print his wish that nothing should prevent O’Brien from speaking in any Canadian city.

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough featuring the telegram William Holmes Howland sent to British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (far right) following the anti-O’Brien Queen’s Park meeting. The “grand old friend” on the left is Irish Home Rule supporter and intermittent British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. Grip, May 28, 1887.

Four resolutions were discussed at the meeting, including a reprobation of O’Brien’s visit for “exciting hostile feeling” against Lansdowne and a vote of confidence in the British Parliament’s ability to resolve its Irish issues. A crowd estimated to be between 6,000 and 15,000 spent the afternoon listening to the speakers, though rumours that O’Brien might be in the vicinity briefly caused a panic—according to the Globe, a large chunk of the audience “incontinently turned and fled helter-skelter across the park.” Howland good-humouredly calmed the crowd down before the remaining speakers took the Union-Jack-strewn stage. Praise in the press was overblown; “Such a scene was there presented as man may live a lifetime and never see again,” the Mail observed. “One of those occasions had arrived when the people, actuated by one impulse, reach a climax of enthusiasm grand and irresistible.” Editorial pages continued to urge O’Brien to reconsider his visit.

He didn’t. At the last minute, his organizers secured Queen’s Park for a public lecture on May 17. His entourage included reporters from pro-Irish American newspapers who, according to the New York Tribune, were “so thoroughly prepared for a riot in Toronto that they will be disappointed if it should not come off.” O’Brien was greeted enthusiastically at Union Station that morning before proceeding to the Rossin House Hotel at King and York Streets. He believed that, given a fair hearing, he could still turn the minds of Canadians who seemed increasingly hostile to his cause.

The World advised its readers to “keep away from the meeting” to preserve the peace. But people didn’t. Up to 15,000 may have attended the session, which began around 4:30 p.m. Speakers were barely over the din of those attempting to drown them out. Accounts of the afternoon varied wildly, ranging from Toronto papers claiming police had the crowd under enough control so that only a couple of fights broke out, to proclamations from the New York press of O’Brien braving “the terrors of a Toronto mob.” Nobody denied there was a jeering section, made up of pro-Orange Order bank clerks allowed a day off work and University of Toronto students. The New York Sun observed that “most of them carried great canes, which they shook in the faces of the Irishmen with profane and obscene expressions, daring them to fight.” According to the New York Tribune, one heckler got his just desserts when a woman waving a green branch shoved it down his throat. She was saluted with cries of “God Save Ireland” and provided full protection when others tried to attack her. “The Nationalists,” the Tribune reported, “used their fists effectively and many Orangemen’s red blood spouted out profusely and stained the green turf in several places.” Despite many interruptions, O’Brien passionately spoke for the poor of Ireland in an hour-long speech. He urged Canadians to demand a response from Lansdowne regarding the tenant situation, claimed “nineteen-twentieths” of Canadians supported his cause, and challenged local opponents to an open discussion.

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough parodying a similar cartoon depicting O’Brien (left) and Lansdowne (right) published in Ireland. Grip, June 11, 1887.

Where was Lansdowne in the midst of the ruckus? He was carrying on with engagements like visiting factories and enjoying local entertainment. A large crowd greeted him and his wife when they emerged from the Grand Opera House that evening. They followed his coach to Government House, where he thanked them for their support: “We have received a great deal of kindness from your city, but this is the crowning point of all.”

The next day, O’Brien took care of some personal housekeeping matters and visited a school. He was scheduled to leave from Union Station that night, but decided to stay overnight. Police weren’t informed of his change of plan, which left a large force waiting for nobody at the station. O’Brien and several colleagues made a stupid move—around 7:30 p.m., with barely any police guard, they took an evening stroll. They encountered young opponents, later portrayed as bored rich kids, whom O’Brien told to keep back. A growing crowd followed the strollers east along King Street, yelling taunts like “to hell with the Pope and O’Brien.” When O’Brien tried to turn around at Bay Street, the mob hurled eggs and rocks at his entourage. The melee moved south along Bay, then west along Wellington Street. A Tribune reporter was knocked out by a large stone. Looking for shelter, they ran into Thomas Lalor’s bicycle shop, where the furious mob caused $500 worth of damage. O’Brien and his friends ducked out the back door and hid in a nearby tailor shop for an hour before police escorted them to the back of the Rossin House. The mob sensed what was going on and pelted them with debris as O’Brien’s group scaled a 10-foot wall to return to their rooms.

O’Brien met with reporters and claimed he was fine despite being struck by stones at least three times. He was determined to leave the city in an open fashion. “If they murder us,” he told the Mail, “they will place a stain upon the reputation of Toronto that the city will never get rid of.” Later that night, around 100 Irishmen from the city’s west end accompanied by a fife-and-drum band paraded outside the hotel to show their support.

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough. Toronto Mayor William Holmes Howland is second from left. Grip, June 4, 1887.

The incident was swiftly condemned on both sides of the border. The Globe attacked the police, whose lax enforcement during the Queens Park gatherings may have convinced some that there were no consequences for acting violently against O’Brien. “Lord Lansdowne,” an editorial remarked, “has been, without any foolish action of his own, compromised by zealous idiots.” The Telegram criticized Canadian politicians for approving relief to the Irish in the past and sticking their heads into a domestic British matter. The New York Sun observed that “people of Toronto in their hearts approve of the disturbance.” It felt Lansdowne should be recalled, and that while the paper supported discussions at the time of a union between the United States and Canada, if the rioters were examples of aristocratic Toronto, “we want that town kept out of the American Union, at least until decent folks begin to live in it.” The New York Times noted that “the cowardly and brutal riot” was “not needed to show what a disgrace to mankind the Orangeman is either on or off his native soil.”

O’Brien departed Toronto on May 19, briefly thanking his supporters for their kindness before departing for Kingston. He ran into trouble with mobs at his remaining Canadian stops, including a possible assassination attempt in Hamilton. He discovered he broke a rib during his foolish evening stroll, which he used as a sympathy point during stops in the United States. O’Brien continued to agitate for change in Ireland, and ended 1887 in a jail cell. He remained a key figure in the Irish independence movement until his death in 1928.

Meanwhile, the press split into those papers which continued harping on the fallout from O’Brien’s visit and those, like the World, who wanted to “hear no more of him.” The Mail feared that O’Brien left behind “a legacy of discord and bad blood, the effects of which, we greatly fear, Irish Catholics will feel for many a day in their business and social relations with the rest of the community.” Though tensions remained for years, the frequency of violent clashes between Orangemen and Irish gradually declined.

“O’Brien’s Side-Show, as exhibited in the principal cities of the United States.” Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, June 18, 1887.

Lansdowne light-heartedly addressed the subject on May 24, during a dinner at the National Club:

During our visit a slight touch of electricity has been perceptible in the atmosphere, and certain stars have shot madly from their spheres into your quiet firmament. They have experienced the fate which usually overtakes such erratic constellations. The disturbance has been brief and inconsiderable. I trust that it will leave no traces behind it. As far as I am concerned I may say that owing to your kindness this incident has not for an instant interfered with my happiness or convenience. I might add that it is to the fact that we were not the only visitors of distinction to Toronto that we owe the extraordinary demonstrations of loyalty and good will which we have experienced. Your conduct has, in fact, once and for all, established that the Queen’s representative in Canada, so long as his conduct in his official capacity has not been impugned, so long as his conduct in any other capacity has not been called in question by the constitutional methods in the Legislature either of Canada or of his own country, may safely leave his public or private reputation in the custody of your people. It has shown your abhorrence for the methods of those who seek to achieve by intimidation and persecution what they know could not be obtained by legitimate courses.

Lansdowne’s name lives on via Lord Lansdowne Public School and Lansdowne Avenue.

Sources: The Life of William O’Brien by Michael MacDonagh (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), The Waning of the Green by Mark G. McGowan (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999), and the following newspapers: the May 4, 1887, May 16, 1887, May 18, 1887, May 19, 1887, May 20, 1887, and May 23, 1887 editions of the Globe; the May 16, 1887, May 19, 1887, and May 23, 1887 editions of the Mail; the May 7, 1887, May 12, 1887, and May 13, 1887 editions of the News; the May 18, 1887, May 19, 1887, May 20, 1887, and May 25, 1887 editions of the New York Sun; the May 19, 1887 edition of the New York Times; the May 13, 1887, May 14, 1887, May 18, 1887 editions of the New York Tribune; the December 12, 1987 edition of the Toronto Star; the May 4, 1887, May 10, 1887, May 12, 1887, May 14, 1887, and May 20, 1887 editions of the Telegram; and the May 17, 1887, May 20, 1887, and May 23, 1887 editions of the Toronto World.

The Battle of the Belles: The 1966 East York Mayoral Race

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on July 19, 2014.

“Beth Nealson, left, and True Davidson smile now in anticipation of their battle for new job.” Photo by Dick Darrell, originally published in the October 11, 1966 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photograph Library, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0070483F.

Always good for a colourful quote, East York Reeve True Davidson didn’t disappoint when the province announced in January 1966 that it would merge her township with the Town of Leaside, which was headed by Mayor Beth Nealson. “I think the real reason the Government decided to amalgamate our two municipalities,” Davidson observed, “is that the men didn’t want so many women around in politics and decided to get rid of one lady mayor.” The ensuing contest between the two female incumbents that December was, as the Star termed it, “a bombastic, free-wheeling affair.”

Following the Second World War, women ran for municipal office across what became Metropolitan Toronto in increasing numbers. None held the highest office in their municipalities until the 1953 elections, when Marie Curtis became reeve of Long Branch and Dorothy Hague won the same office in Swansea. Local media periodically addressed the growing number of women entering the fray, even if those articles bore titles like the Globe and Mail’s contribution to the 1962 campaign, “Women: The Reluctant Politicians.”

“The question that perplexes the handful of women on municipal governments in Metropolitan Toronto most,” reporter Margaret Cragg observed, “is not concerned with high finance or interpretation of legal matters but why more women are not in politics. The experience is exhilarating, they agree, and the opportunities for intelligent women capable of working hard are almost unlimited.”

Among those who admitted enjoying that exhilarating feeling in 1962 was Leaside councillor Beth Nealson, who became the town’s first female mayor that year. Urged to enter politics by colleagues in the local branch of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, Nealson won a seat on the Leaside Board of Education in 1951. Seven years later, she was elected to town council. At first it appeared she lost her 1962 mayoral campaign to Lloyd Dickinson by 14 votes, but a recount gave her a five-vote victory (Dickinson immediately declared he was done with politics, complaining he’d sacrificed up to $25,000 a year from his plastics business. His vow was short-lived, as he lost a 1964 rematch). Nealson, a.k.a. “Mrs. Leaside,” claimed she faced little discrimination in office: “With some of my colleagues there was never any difference,” she told the Star in 1964. “With others, everything was fine as soon as they got to know me and I established a reputation.”

Globe and Mail, December 28, 1962.

In neighbouring East York, True Davidson’s political career stretched back to activism within the CCF (the forerunner of the NDP) during the 1930s. After opening a private kindergarten, parents suggested she run for the township’s board of education in 1948 to campaign for similar publicly funded services. Within a year of her election, six kindergarten classes were launched in East York schools. She became the board’s first female chair in 1952. When she ran for council in 1958, Davidson believed the township required a master plan for its zoning bylaws. “East York should have planned development such as they have in European cities,” she observed. “We are small, compact and cohesive, and we could do a planning job that could be the envy of Canada.”

After her election as reeve in 1960, Davidson developed a reputation for sound bites. She wasn’t afraid to brutally criticize her colleagues. As one victim of her tongue, councillor Richard Horkins, noted, words poured out of Davidson “as hard as cannonballs. She always came right to the crunch point.” While many of her peers fought with Davidson, they respected her dedication to details and her intelligence.

At a speech she gave to the Association of Ontario Mayors and Reeves in 1962, Davidson, mixing quotations, humour, and her flair for poetry (she published a volume of work in her younger days), urged municipal politicians to use their oaths of office as positive motivation. One section of her speech remains relevant for current Toronto politics:

Perhaps we seek popularity, yield to flattery, hunger for power, bask in public notice and acclaim, or are blinded by our own self-importance . . . Some of us can be cowed by threats . . .Some of us are influenced by racial or religious predispositions . . . All of these constitute conflict of interest which can never be reached by the long arm and probing finger of the law. Only we can spot them, and at that only if we scrutinize our own conduct as severely as we scrutinize the government . . . Insofar as our ideals are high, we lift our municipalities with us. If they are low, we drag them down.

Both Davidson and Nealson fought against amalgamation plans proposed for Metro Toronto during the mid-1960s. Initially, a Royal Commission report issued by H. Carl Goldenberg recommended that Metro’s 13 municipalities shrink to four (Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, and Toronto). Davidson lobbied hard to preserve East York, to the extent of quoting Jane Jacobs on how smaller entities could better fight City Hall. When the province released its final plan in January 1966, it included an enlarged East York as one of the five suburban boroughs alongside the City of Toronto.

Metropolitan Toronto Council, 1965. Beth Nealson is third from left in the second row; True Davidson is second from right in the back row. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 283.

Despite Davidson’s prediction that she and Nealson would smoothly integrate Leaside into East York before the new borough’s official birth on New Year’s Day 1967, there were a few bumps. “Women are the peace makers of the world,” Davidson told the Star. “If there is any trouble in my council I always apologize.” One sticking point that Nealson won was how councillors would be elected—Davidson wanted them voted at large, while Nealson preferred a ward system.

For several months, it was unknown if the two officials would face off to become the borough’s mayor. When amalgamation was announced, Davidson hinted at a gentleman’s agreement where she would be chief executive, while Nealson would run for council and sit as a representative on Metro Council. This played into one of Davidson’s weaknesses, which her biographer Eleanor Darke defined as a growing sense that “she began to care too much about remaining mayor.”

Nealson ended the suspense when she launched her mayoral campaign on October 5, 1966. Municipal planning was the backbone of her platform, which seemed unavoidable after a recent fight over a $20-million apartment project on the boundary of East York and Leaside. Nearby residents fought the development on Mallory Crescent all the way to the Ontario Municipal Board, where the proposal was rejected. Nealson echoed ratepayer groups in vowing to “protect single-family home areas from undesirable intrusion by high density apartments.” Davidson’s support for the development led to complaints from Leaside residents that she was arrogant, ignored ratepayer groups, and wielded power with an iron fist. They also feared that amalgamation would raise taxes and weaken infrastructure services. A third mayoral candidate, East York councillor Royden Brigham, hoped to coalesce anti-Davidson votes.

The media played up the contrasts between the female front-runners. The Globe and Mail observed that Davidson “conducts herself with the decorum of an empress,” while Nealson “fosters somewhat of a little-girl-lost air but her opponents know her as an able and shrewd politician.” (Brigham, for the record, was “a bespectacled stick of dynamite with a delayed fuse.”) The Star compared their breakfast habits and fashion sense: Davidson’s love of fancy hats (“I never throw them away. I retrim them”) and Nealson’s preference for suits and two-piece dresses (“I’m just not comfortable in a one-piece dress at a meeting”).

The campaign saw Davidson tear into her opponents. Things were particularly heated during a debate at William Burgess Elementary School on November 28. Davidson called Nealson “a wishy-washy prissy little sweetheart” who was dominated by her department heads. As for Brigham, who was a lawyer, she beamed that the borough had a job ready for him: “[O]ur solicitor needs a junior to assist him.” When the audience thought both women were too harsh toward Brigham, who believed he had been “clawed,” he was given extra rebuttal time. “Well, he is a defenseless man,” Davidson noted sarcastically. “All men are, you know.”

The next evening, at East York Collegiate, Davidson told voters that Nealson would win if the election was a beauty contest. “If you want someone beautiful and elegant or glamorous,” she joked, “I’m not that.” Davidson was helped to the platform and cut short her speech when she ran short of breath. She spent the rest of the campaign in room 126 of Toronto East General Hospital. While reports indicated she was suffering from “strain and a virus infection,” at least one later account attributed her hospitalization to a heart attack. Whatever happened was serious enough to have her isolated in intensive care. Brigham curtailed his campaign, while Nealson pressed on. “The ratepayers fill the rooms to hear the candidates and to deny them this would be entirely unfair,” noted Nealson. “I won’t make any critical comments about True, but then I never have.” Nealson had her own health issues, as she spent six weeks on antibiotics to combat a bronchial infection, which sapped her energy at several debates.

Picture of True Davidson from the cover of her book The Golden Strings (Toronto: Griffin House, 1973).

Voters went to the polls on December 5. Davidson sat in her hospital room surrounded by bouquets of chrysanthemums, including one sent by Nealson. Doctors had ordered quiet rest for Davidson, and prevented her from following results on radio and television. Inevitably, the count trickled in to her. Having told voters “I have nothing to give you but love,” the electorate responded in kind. Though Davidson’s support of the Mallory Crescent project cost her in Leaside, she won by a 4,000-vote margin over Brigham. Nealson finished third, less than 200 votes behind Brigham.

The phone in Davidson’s room was hooked up to the loudspeaker system at East York’s municipal’s offices, where a crowd of 70 waited to hear her. “Do any of you people really know how deeply touched I am by all of this?” she noted. As photographers entered her hospital room, Davidson applied lipstick and put on a pair of earrings. “Don’t think that just because I’m sick and feeble you’re going to get over there and shoot me from my bad side,” she joked. “I look like a ghost.” Brigham and Nealson also participated in the hookup—Brigham observed “the race was not too bad for a defenseless male,” while Nealson offered her help in launching the new borough.

During her recovery, Davidson tried to ease fears among Leaside residents and ratepayer groups that they would be totally subjugated by East York (“we don’t have the same chicken-swallowing tendency Toronto has”). As municipal employees were reassigned with the merger, so was office furniture, as Davidson wound up with Nealson’s old desk. Davidson remained mayor until 1972, after which she pursued a PhD in literature and Canadian history at York University and wrote a column for the Toronto Sun. When she died in 1978, the Star remembered her as “flamboyant but never frivolous.”

As for Nealson, she worked in PR for Metro and as a publicity co-ordinator for the Toronto Citizens’ Centenary Committee. She testified in front of East York Council in 1976 on the decaying state of the Thorncliffe Park apartment building she resided in, and blamed the neighbourhood’s decline on municipal neglect, poorly maintained parks, vandalism, and absentee landlords. When she died in 1994, her daughter admitted that Nealson had faced a rough time from male colleagues during her time in office. The Star’s obituary referred to the 1966 election campaign as the “Battle of the Belles.”

A street for Beth Nealson. East York Mayor True Davidson presents shears to Beth Nealson, the last mayor of Leaside before it was absorbed by East York, to open the drive named for her, Metro Roads Commissioner Sam Cass holds umbrella in yesterday’s rain. Photo by Boris Spremo, dated October 6, 1972. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0070479F.

Both women are honoured with streets named after them, while Davidson’s name was bestowed upon a seniors residence.

Asked in 1962 what qualities women needed to succeed in politics, Davidson offered the following advice:

Any quality that makes for success in the home or the world of business is useful in public life. There is no experience that is not of value. I think a woman should like people, be articulate, have a public conscience, common sense, courage to try things and to have had a share of both pain and pleasure, being neither too sheltered nor embittered.

Sources: Call Me True by Eleanor Darke (Toronto: Natural Heritage, 1997); the November 29, 1962, December 28, 1962, January 11, 1966, October 12, 1966, November 29, 1966, November 30, 1966, December 2, 1966, December 6, 1966, and December 9, 1966 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the December 3, 1964, March 4, 1966, October 5, 1966, October 11, 1966, November 29, 1966, December 1, 1966, December 2, 1966, December 6, 1966, May 18, 1976, September 19, 1978, and January 15, 1994 editions of the Toronto Star.


From the December 3, 1964 Star, profiles of Davidson and Nealson that were part of a feature on women running for office in Metro Toronto in that year’s municipal elections. Also spotlighted were Helen Begg (who finished second in the race for reeve in Swansea) and Margaret Campbell (who was elected to Toronto’s Board of Control).

Toronto Star, October 11, 1966. Click on image for larger version.

Toronto Star, November 16, 1966. Click on image for larger version.

Globe and Mail, December 6, 1966.

Globe and Mail, December 6, 1966. Click on image for larger version.

Books for a City’s Birthday

Originally published on Torontoist on March 6, 2009.


Toronto celebrates the 175th anniversary of its incorporation today, which provides an opportunity to look back at its accomplishments, determine what makes it work in the present, assess why we like living here, and ponder where its future lies. Past anniversaries have combined these elements in commemorative books, with two standing out from the pack (advance apologies to those who produced the 150th anniversary book—our blue-ribbon book selection committee couldn’t get past the sax-playing clown balanced on a unicycle in front of Union Station).


“The First Fire Engine, About 1837.” Illustration by Stanley Turner. Toronto’s First 100 Years (Toronto: The Corporation of the City of Toronto, 1934)

Through the course of fifteen chapters, Jesse Edgar Middleton steers readers of Toronto’s 100 Years through the city’s first century, accompanied by line drawings from Charles ComfortC.W. Jefferys, T.W. McLean, and Stanley Turner. In between tales of the past, several florid observations are made about the character of Torontonians, including their love of sports:

Toronto is an out-of-doors city. All through the long Spring and Summer evenings, made longer by the stultifying of the clocks, the parks are crowded by muscular young men and maidens crying “Love fifteen,” or “Vantage out.” Baseball, hard and soft, allures the boys, and even transforms many girls into strange amazons with set expressions, long-peaked caps and expansive serge bloomers. Yachtsmen and dinghy sailors lie well out to windward, take another turn of the sheet and trust in Providence. Pretty girls loll in canoes allowing their esquires the pleasure of paddling. Elders in white trousers trot down the lawn to watch the bias of the bowl and sporting Methusalehs come breezing up the hill to the Nineteenth Hole with their tongues hanging out.

Among the many statistics presented about the state of affairs in Toronto in 1934: 2,236 manufacturing plants employing more than 100,000 people to pump out $600 million worth of products; a Toronto Public Library system consisting of fifteen branches and a main reference building at College and St. George (now the Koffler Student Services Centre); an equal number of high schools and golf courses (seventeen); and a public transit fleet of 953 passenger streetcars, 95 service streetcars, 197 buses, and six ferries, none of which had seen a passenger fatality since the TTC’s establishment a decade earlier.
Little is said about the city’s future apart from a plan or two that didn’t pan out—don’t you love driving across the swing bridges connecting the Toronto Islands and the mainland as part of the busy scenic drive from Sunnyside to the Beaches?

In the epilogue, Middleton gives his thoughts on the personality of 1934 Torontonians and more colourful stereotypes from elsewhere that weren’t in evidence (or, perhaps, he purposely ignored):

But to live in Toronto, even for a short time, is to find congenial friends, people who are lavish in hospitality , and whose spirits are shot-through with kindness. It is a population mainly of English speech. There is more than a trace of American vivacity to lighten “the burden of Empire” and social life in its dozen-or-so planes is cheerful and satisfying. It is a community of moderationists.
Determined poseurs are not common, even among the artists. A long-haired denzien of the Boul. Mich. of Chelsea or of Greenwich Village would find himself a lonely figure. We have no Bright Young People of the uppermost social plane to afflict the police by doing paper chases at three in the morning. Neither have we a criminal quarter filled with Apaches of both sexes preying upon decent society.

These thoughts are followed by the program for a religious service held at the Canadian National Exhibition Coliseum late on March 5 to commemorate the anniversary. A 2,500-strong choir led the assembled in an seemingly endless list of hymns, while attendees were asked to “especially” pray for the federal and provincial governments. After a listing of civic officials and members of centennial subcommittees that range from reuniting war veterans to exhibiting postage stamps, the book ends with a lengthy series of advertisements.


For its 125th birthday, the city produced Toronto ’59, an oversized commemorative book that sold for $1.25 per copy. Like Middleton’s book, Toronto ’59 is organized into fifteen chapters, but the resemblance ends there. The scrapbook-style format results in a colourful, entertaining read that is more a snapshot of a city starting to take on its modern shape than a look backwards. Photo essays provide a look at the increasing diversity of the city’s population, the joys of late-1950s childhood in Toronto, and a look at popular theatrical reviews of the decade. Physical changes to the face of the city are well represented, including a shot of a bulldozer clearing land for the Don Valley Parkway, where “use of this natural route saved [the] city many millions in construction costs.”

In her essay “My Toronto,” Jeannine Locke provides one view on what gave Toronto its charm, some of which still holds true:

To me, one of the city’s most lovable qualities is that it doesn’t expect, let alone require, love…You can call University Avenue ugly, insult the Argos and vilify the Leafs without disturbing local hackles…Because Toronto doesn’t ask for admiration, the discovery of its charm is all the more satisfying. One expects to be thrilled by the spectacle of Montreal from the mountain. Seeing Toronto’s forest setting for the first time, from the rooftop of a skyscraper, one has the added thrill of surprise. It takes time to discover Toronto. It’s worth the time.


Advertisement, Toronto ’59.

Glimmers of the future include Eric Arthur’s piece on the winning design for the new City Hall:

It has been called many things, mostly in praise by the architectural press, but the word “breath-taking” was used by the Mayor [Nathan Phillips] at his first meeting with the press. That is still a very appropriate word. Throughout history, the church and town hall were the buildings that dominated the town…In modern Toronto, sometimes called the city of churches, we have many and all of equal stature. It is, therefore, appropriate that the building that houses our democratic government at the municipal level should dominate the city. Commercial and industrial buildings—even the proudest of our financial institutions—will lie under the shadow of the City Hall. In the 18th century, the age of good manners in architecture, the town hall occupied just that position of dignity and importance and Toronto’s City Hall, in a few years, will again occupy that proud position.

Most of the other glimmers of the future came from advertisers, ranging from IBM’s skyline to Dominion’s space-age supermarket designs.


The introduction of this piece alludes to the book prepared for Toronto’s 150th anniversary in 1984, which has a sax-playing mime on a unicycle on an unusually quiet Front Street on its cover. Published the previous year by McClelland and Stewart, it is based around literary and photo contests sponsored by the Toronto Sun.

In her introduction, Sun EIC Barbara Amiel observes that “most of the submissions came from citizens who had few grandiose literary pretensions, but for whom it was important to explain on paper why they cared about their home and neighbours. There was a lack of artifice and a genuine infusion of love in their writing that at times was more moving than the most carefully wrought metaphor.”

Amiel then imports the Sun’s trademark crustiness, noting how the contest limited entries to 150 words. “Torontonians can do many things,” she noted, “but counting may not rank high among them. Many worthwhile entries that couldn’t be edited down had to be omitted. This was, alas, especially true of some of the best entries from immigrants and our senior citizens.”


In his official letter, mayor Art Eggleton praises the book as “probably the first of its kind in Canadian publishing in which the essential Toronto is captured in the words and pictures of the people of Toronto.”

After nine pages of historical contexts from Sun history columnist Mike Filey illustrated by old static crowd shots, the book dives into reflections about the city. I have a suspicion there was another call to poets and freelance writers to fill out the book, as there are a few recognizable names sprinkled throughout. These include an ode to Dominion supermarkets by Raymond Souster, Irving Layton describing Kensington Market, and Harold Town elaborating on great cities. Several writers make multiple contributions.

1980s Toronto, where couples could make out atop a Toronto Sun box while waiting for a layover on the 501 streetcar to end.

There are some headscratchers. John Arena contributes a recipe for a “Black Squirrel Cocktail” consisting of Canadian Club, Hiram Walker’s Swiss Chocolate Almond, Kahlua, and cream. Nothing about the drink screams Toronto, so I’m wondering if it was what that editors downed at Winston’s (which the book doesn’t acknowledge that Arena owned) while compiling the book.

Other pieces include a memorial ode to Terry Fox where the writer boasts how they also lost a leg but conquered cancer, many salutes to Toronto’s rising towers, a seven-year-old who hates rabies, and assorted memories of growing up in Hogtown.

And then there’s this contribution, which was written by a horndog.

Overall, Celebrate Our City is what you would imagine a book assembled by the Toronto Sun in the 1980s would look like.

From Eaton’s to Sears to Nordstrom

Originally published on Torontoist on January 15, 2014.


Toronto Star, February 8, 1977.

After months of rumours following Sears Canada’s decision to close its Eaton Centre store, Nordstrom announced this morning that it will open at the corner of Yonge and Dundas. Scheduled to open in the fall of 2016, the high-end American retailer plans a three-floor department store; it’ll take up one-third of the space shoppers enjoyed when Eaton’s opened on the site in 1977.

Unlike Nordstrom, it took Eaton’s much longer than three years to get up and running. They first conceived of their plan—a massive, modernized store in the heart of downtown—in 1958. Early proposals called for tearing down Old City Hall and the Church of the Holy Trinity. They called it “Project Viking.”


Eaton’s in 1919. A Souvenir of Eaton’s Golden Jubilee 1869–1919 (Toronto: T. Eaton Co. Ltd., 1919).

Eatons had been on Queen Street, across from Simpsons (now the Bay) from the end of the Victorian era. Besides the main store, it spread out into a series of buildings—some used as retail space, some as office, some as manufacturing—along James Street, something like a polished version of how Honest Ed’s is stitched together. By the 1950s the old store was getting creaky and management wanted a new facility, or at least the chance to fix up what they had on Queen Street, and build a retail/office development around it.

Eaton’s asked numerous architectural firms to draw up plans for a new modern retail/office complex; those plans included the demolition of several historic buildings. Community opposition to the proposal, by this time renamed Eaton Centre, prompted Eaton’s president John David Eaton to cancel the project in May 1967. (He didn’t take it well: Eaton reportedly told associates that they should tell Mayor William Dennison that he could “shove Old City Hall up his ass.”)

Back at the drawing board, plans picked up steam again following discussions with developer Fairview Corporation (later Cadillac Fairview, which still owns the mall). Fairview placed three conditions on its involvement: Old City Hall had to be preserved; Eaton’s would be the main tenant in the office tower at the north end of the project; and Eaton’s had to move its store from Queen Street to Yonge and Dundas. Since Simpson’s was at the south end, this would provide an anchor store at each end of the mall, in a set-up similar to suburban shopping centres. The Eaton family balked at moving the store; it took a year of negotiation before they agreed.


City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 420, Item 16.

Designed by chief architect E.L. Hankinson, plans for the 1 million square foot store included nine floors of retail space, stretching from teen fashions on 3 Below (now the Urban Eatery food court) to home entertainment and kitchen appliances on the sixth. Food offerings included snack stalls; Sir John’s restaurant, which served liquor (a development which would have horrified the store’s teetotaler founder, Timothy Eaton); and, on the sixth floor, the 1,000-seat Marine Room. The new store also offered an 8,500 square foot event space, though it lacked the grandeur of the College Street store’s Eaton Auditorium and Round Room.

On February 5, 1977, both the Queen Street and College Street Eaton’s closed for the last time. Over the next few days, employees, retirees, and shoppers got to preview the new Yonge-Dundas store. Reviews were favourable. “My God, it’s huge,” retiree Alf Ryan told the Star. “You need a compass to get around. I think I like it.”

The store officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on February 10, 1977. Premier William Davis joked that he was anxious for the store to open so that he could start receiving the sales tax. Music was provided by a 70-piece band from Malvern Collegiate and the 48th Highlanders pipe band—selections included patriotic toe-tappers like “Canada” and “A Place to Stand.” Plans for the Fort York Guard fire their muskets were scrapped after rehearsals, when officials decided the noise would upset elderly attendees. The Globe and Mail wrote that the opening day crowd “looked the same as it always does: ladies who answer to ‘duckie’ carting shopping bags, keen-eyed young matrons, youngsters in synthetic down jackets and real jeans, a few men.”

In August 1999, after years of declining sales and bad marketing decisions, Eaton’s filed for bankruptcy. Sears Canada picked up the remnants of Eaton’s two months later and decided to relaunch seven locations, including the Eaton Centre, as an upscale chain. Rechristened eatons (sans capital letter and apostrophe), the new store launched a month behind schedule in November 2000. Despite expensive remodelling and a flashy, aubergine-themed ad campaign, the new chain barely had time to overcome its initial mistakes before Sears threw in the towel in February 2002.

That summer saw the store finish its conversion into a Sears store. There were lingering attempts to carry a more diverse range of products than your average suburban outpost. Floor reduction, which had started in the 1990s, continued. Upper floors were replaced with office space. As Sears Canada’s fortunes declined, rumours ramped up over just how long the Eaton Centre branch would last, a question which was answered last October.

When the eatons brand was retired in 2002, Sears Canada CEO Mark Cohen noted that “The notion that customers see value in a top-drawer, high-priced, somewhat selective assortment is false. [Canadians] value very high levels of presentation and customer service but don’t exhibit any desire to pay for it.” Yet high-end retail has increased in recent years as the gap between upscale and downmarket merchants widens. It remains to be seen if Toronto will support three Nordstrom locations (Eaton Centre, Sherway Gardens, and Yorkdale), or if we’ll be writing about other branding change at Yonge and Dundas a decade from now.

Sources: The Eatons: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), the February 11, 1977 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the February 7, 1977, February 8, 1977, February 10, 1977, and February 19, 2002 editions of the Toronto Star.


Nordstrom opened its doors as this article predicted, welcoming its first customers in September 2016. But, like lower-case eatons, it did not prove a roaring success over the long run. In March 2023 Nordstrom’s announced it was closing its Canadian division. So yes, less than a decade later we’ll be writing about a branding change if another department store chain decides to occupy some of the store’s space.

The Wreck of the Resolute

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on July 23, 2011.

The Telegram, November 22, 1906.

As the steam barge Resolute wound down its shipping season in November 1906, it faced one of the deadliest months the Great Lakes had ever seen. A series of storms from Superior to Ontario that November resulted in numerous shipwrecks. The gales that seamen faced on November 21 and 22 resulted in at least 23 deaths. Six of those casualties occurred near the Western Gap of Toronto Harbour when the Resolute, which had shipped timber and coal throughout the Great Lakes for three decades, sank. Tragedy might have been averted had long-standing calls to deepen the shallow waters of the gap been heeded.

The News, November 24, 1906.

The Resolute began its fateful journey with partner schooner P.B. Locke in Erie, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1906, where it was loaded with a shipment of coal destined for the Toronto Electric Light Company. Both ships arrived at the Eastern Gap around 4 a.m. on November 21, where they encountered stormy weather that prevented a safe passage of the Eastern Gap. The Resolute sailed to the western sandbar of Toronto Island and moored in the ice until conditions improved. That afternoon, Captain John Sullivan went ashore to discuss the best course of action with harbour officials. Given that the Western Gap was a foot too shallow for either ship to navigate, Sullivan was told to continue waiting. Before returning to the Resolute, he cheerfully told officials from boat owners Haney & Miller that he would “go back and watch her. She’ll be all right.”

All was fine until the wind shifted around midnight. There was a second attempt to navigate the Eastern Gap, but conditions forced the ship back to its earlier resting spot. During this voyage, the ship began leaking and the load shifted. As the Resolute returned to the western end of the island, waves began washing the coal away. Around 2 a.m., the firehole filled with water and the steam pipes burst. As the ship listed, the crew rushed to the Resolute’s two lifeboats.

They had to act fast, as the ship began sinking. Within 50 yards of the ship, the first lifeboat capsized, sending its five occupants to a watery grave. Remaining crew members, like cook Lizzie Callahan, were quickly placed in the second lifeboat, regardless of how well they were prepared for the elements:

I didn’t have time to put on my shoes, and I was drenched to the skin. Captain Sullivan came to me and hurried me to the upper deck in order to get into the boat. Something seemed to have given away and the captain said I’d have to jump. I did so, and one of the men put a life belt around me, and I was placed into the boat. I was so numbed with the cold that I couldn’t move. I don’t know where we landed. I hardly remember anything about it. We had a hard voyage across the lake, and the sea swept all the coal off the Resolute’s deck.

Callahan vowed that after this experience, she was done with the sea.

Headlines from the November 22, 1906 Toronto Star.

Resolute mate and Buffalo resident Michael Haney almost died when he was struck in the neck by one of the ship’s davits. Pulled onto a lifeboat by a crewmate, he was angered by the reception the survivors received after a treacherous 20 minute voyage to shore:

When we landed they refused to take us in and if the lighthouse keeper hadn’t taken the woman [Callahan] she would have been a goner from the cold. I never saw such a country as this. No appliances for saving life in a city like this. Here I was drenching wet and no place to poke my head into or get a dry stitch. When I came out of the harbourmaster’s house I heard a man crying for help in a heart-breaking way and I took the boat and went out to the spot where Capt. Sullivan was calling for help in an exhausted condition. He was picked up and brought ashore… They don’t do things this way in my country. Had this been in Buffalo or any port in the United States the crew would have been furnished with dry clothes. I was a lucky man to land with 25 cents in my pocket.

As the second lifeboat was about to be cut off the ship, Sullivan was washed overboard. He saw the remnants of the top of the cabin and grabbed onto its fragile canvas. He was soon joined by second engineer Thomas Topping. As both men floated to shore, the difference in their attitudes was stark. While Sullivan tried to remain optimistic about his chances of survival, Topping, as the Telegram noted, “seemed to lose courage from the first.” Sullivan tried to keep his crewmate’s spirits up, but later told the News that Topping “was drowned before he left the Resolute.” Both men held on until they hit the breakers near the shore. “I tried to grasp him to hold him on,” Sullivan told the World, “but a big breaker struck us, and I clutched hard for my own life. Tom dropped and was washed away on the breakers.” Topping’s body was discovered by an ice-breaker the following March.

Illustration of Captain John Sullivan, Toronto Star, November 22, 1906.

Just after Topping drowned, Sullivan hit an eddy and was carried through the Western Gap to the shore, where he washed up near the foot of Portland Street around 5:25 a.m. Had he not hit the eddy, he likely would have been pulled down by the undertow around Toronto Island. He yelled for help for some time before being found—he later noted that it felt like no one was around. The Telegram observed that “Captain Sullivan’s escape was probably the narrowest and most thrilling through which even that hardy mariner has ever passed.”

Compared to the crew of the Resolute, those on the P.B. Locke had a far less frightening experience as it sat off Toronto Island. Though tossed around by the waves, the ship didn’t break up. A rescue team picked up its crew, along with those aboard another coal-bearing schooner caught in the storm, the St. Louis. By late morning, wreckage from the Resolute began washing up on the mainland. The compass settled in an ironic location: near the offices of owners Haney & Miller at the foot of York Street.

The Globe issued a harsh editorial on the front page of its November 23, 1906 edition:

The appalling loss of life through the wreck of the Resolute is the more affecting because it happened at our very doors, though to the sailorman in distress our threshold is no more hospitable than the iron shores of Lake Superior, and for all the difference in the means of assistance the Resolute might as well have gone to pieces off Silver Islet as on the sands of the summer resort of the second city in Canada. Within sight and sound of this great city, these men perished for lack of the least share of that concern freely expended in many directions in the interest of those who need is nothing compared with that of the toilers of the unsalted seas. They died because of the callousness with which the responsibility of providing an efficient life-saving service has been shifted from one quarter to another, and their beaten and disfigured bodies cast up on the beach cry aloud, not like Caesar’s wounds for justice, but for common humanity for those who have escaped this storm only to face the next. The fury of the great gale of the lakes no man may describe, for he who has seen its full terror comes not back from the doors of death.

Western Gap and harbourmaster’s house, circa 1907. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 187A.

Most of the blame for the conditions that led to the wreck was placed on successive federal governments for their “criminal neglect” to improve the gateways to the harbour. The excuse often used was that Ottawa was waiting for the city to stop dumping its sewage into the harbour before acting. Beyond pointless partisan bickering in the press, all newspaper commentators agreed that the feds needed to provide the $150,000 estimated cost of blasting the rocky bottom of the Western Gap.

Illustration of figures involved in the Resolute inquiry. Toronto Star, December 4, 1906.

An inquiry determined that the Resolute was seaworthy prior to the wreck and absolved the crew of any blame for the disaster. Captain Sullivan, who only suffered a few days of weary legs after washing ashore, was praised highly for his efforts—it was noted that had he not been washed overboard, he probably would have saved more of his fellow crew members. Two years passed before any work was undertaken to fix the Western Gap, but by 1908 ships of a similar size to the Resolute could pass through, which reduced the odds of similar tragedies at that location in the future.

Sources: More Than an Island by Sally Gibson (Toronto: Irwin, 1984); the November 23, 1906 and December 25, 1906 editions of the Globe; the November 22, 1906 and November 23, 1906 editions of the News; the November 22, 1906 edition of the Toronto Star; the November 22, 1906 and November 23, 1906 editions of the Telegram; and the November 23, 1906 edition of the Toronto World.


Editorial, the Telegram, November 22, 1906.

Winston’s—Where Celebrities Meet to Eat

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on August 6, 2011.

Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Durante, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 9224.

One example of how far Winston’s restaurant went to please their clientele of entertainers and business establishment figures: when comedian/musician Jimmy Durante’s manager contacted the restaurant prior to a visit in 1946, he noted that the entertainer was on a strict diet of unseasoned charcoal-broiled steak. Owner Oscar Berceller had never served a slab of meat cooked via that method, which was all but unknown in Toronto at the time. Many inquiries ensued before a suitable filet was found in Kingston, but the search and shipping costs proved pricier than anticipated. When Durante, pleased with his meal, requested the bill, Berceller indicated there wasn’t one. “Mr. Durante, the steak you just enjoyed cost me a little over $400,” said Berceller. “How could I present you with a bill that big?” The restaurateur told Durante about the province-wide search for a steak worthy of a beloved entertainer. Durante thanked the effort that went into the meal by dedicating the last song of his next performance to Berceller.

For half a century in two downtown locations, Winston’s prided itself on providing superior service and, as Gourmet magazine put it, “the most superb food on the North American continent” to well-heeled patrons. Whether it was the theatrical crowd favoured by Berceller in the 1940s and 1950s or the power elite catered to by John Arena in the 1970s and 1980s, the critical factor in Winston’s success was making its patrons feel comfortable.

The high degree of customer care helped when mistakes were made, such as the time Sarah Churchill, daughter of the restaurant’s British prime ministerial namesake, almost didn’t make it past the front door. Staff knew that Churchill would enjoy a meal while in Toronto to perform in The Philadelphia Story at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in December 1949. Upon arrival at Winston’s, the maître d’ not only failed to recognize her, but tried to turn her away for the sin of wearing slacks on an evening a special guest was expected. When Churchill asked who the dignitary was and discovered it was her, she replied “Really! Well, I happen to be Sarah Churchill.” Berceller stepped in and smoothed the situation. “Miss Churchill couldn’t have been more generous about it,” he recalled. “In fact, she embarrassed me with her humility… it took a really big person to tolerate a misunderstanding of that kind.” On future visits to Winston’s, Churchill arrived in an evening dress.

Illustration of the restaurant’s namesake, Winston Churchill, along with King George VI and Franklin Delano Roosevelt on a banner over the entrance of the CNE Press Building, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5683.

Enforcing a dress code was a long way from Winston’s origins as a greasy spoon purchased by Hungarian émigrés Oscar and Cornelia Berceller around 1940. Initially specializing in hamburgers, the diner at 120 King Street West was named after Winston Churchill to appeal to diners who barely trusted anything that wasn’t British. The restaurant quickly attracted customers from the theatrical world passing through the Royal Alex and from next-door neighbour/landlord the Globe and Mail. The newspaper’s publisher, George McCullagh, encouraged the Bercellers to expand their menu and establish a fancier restaurant that would counter raucous, prostitute-riddled nearby bars like the Metropole and Prince George hotels. McCullagh provided funding for renovations, the results of which were described by Globe and Mail columnist Dofy Skaith in 1946:

The light-hearted little restaurant of Oscar and Cornelia Berceller has blossomed into a beautiful, grown-up “glamour job” that would make New York look several times. It has a trim, white, modern facade with a massive, but tempting, door opened by a huge brass knob in the centre. Plump evergreens in tubs march across the front. Inside, what used to be one narrow room warmed into being by Oscar and Cornelia’s hospitality, is now two gracious rooms divided by a half-way up wall—the rest open, supported by stylized pinkish white columns. The walls are a delicious crushed strawberry pink-red you could eat with a spoon.

McCullagh may have inspired one of Berceller’s most successful gimmicks: key access. One possible origin of the keys was McCullagh’s desire to keep the public away from his private parties. Another was a complaint to Berceller after being approached inside Winston’s by a prostitute who had wandered in after the bars closed. Regular customers and celebrities received keys that were technically useless—because Winston’s didn’t qualify as a private club in the city’s eyes, the restaurant couldn’t place a special lock on the door to control access—but had great symbolic value as a gateway to an increasingly exclusive establishment. More than 1,000 keys, some gold-plated, were handed out over a 15-year period. The keys proved handy to doormen who easily turned away undesirable diners who lacked them (prior to the key system, Winston’s showed off its snobbier side by serving punier portions).

Advertisements, (left) the Globe and Mail, April 5, 1955, (right) the Globe and Mail, March 20, 1962.

Serving a theatrical crowd, Berceller couldn’t resist being a showman, to the point of composing a Winston’s theme song. Opinions about his musical abilities were mixed—when he asked composer Moss Hart to evaluate an after-dinner original tune, Hart replied “Oscar, I must tell you that the results are much better with your composed food than with your composed music.” Less humorously, in October 1960 Pierre Berton accused Berceller of trying to buy him off when the Toronto Star columnist received an unmarked envelope containing six $20 bills after Berton criticized a fellow restaurateur on a recent radio broadcast. Berton was disgusted by the possibility of received a payoff and wondered if all the positive press Winston’s had received was spurred by similar envelopes. “To what depths,” Berton wrote in an “open letter” to Berceller, “has the noble calling of journalism sunk when the town’s leading restaurateur blandly assumes that a columnist—any columnist—will cheerfully pocket $120 cash as a result of giving his restaurant a free mention?”

But perhaps Berceller then needed to buy publicity as Winston’s reputation declined in the early 1960s. New theatrical venues elsewhere in the city like the O’Keefe Centre and the Crest Theatre sent patrons and crews to other dining spots. Ed Mirvish bought the Royal Alex and developed his own neighbouring restaurants. Winston’s became shabbier as Berceller, believing change would destroy the room’s charm, resisted renewing the decor and menu. Months after suffering a heart attack in 1962, Berceller sold the restaurant to a consortium of local businessmen. He retained a small interest and stayed at the helm for awhile, but business sank until Winston’s nearly went bankrupt.

John Arena, 1970. Photo by Frank Teskey. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0029616F.

Enter John Arena to launch the next phase of the restaurant’s life. A native of Italy, Arena was supervising the food at the Rosedale Golf Club in 1966 when a Winston’s partner asked if he wanted to purchase the restaurant for two dollars. After Arena bought Winston’s and took on its debts, he quickly reshaped the restaurant from an evening destination for the theatre crowd to the lunch spot for Toronto’s business elite. Renovations brought in an Art Nouveau theme, along with red velvet chairs and Tiffany lamps. The menu leaned toward French-inspired fare heavy on the cholesterol. Cards were sent to patrons of Arena’s previous employers and to secretaries at the Toronto-Dominion Centre across the street. Arena’s hustling resulted in a 350 percent jump in sales during his first year. When the block was slated for redevelopment in 1973, Arena moved Winston’s a short distance north to 104 Adelaide Street West, next to the Concourse Building. In an eerie coincidence, the day the wrecking ball went to work on the old location in January 1974, Oscar Berceller died of a heart attack.

A golden version of the Winston’s logo used on the cover of Winston’s: The Life and Times of a Great Restaurant by Herbert Whittaker and Arnold Edinborough (Toronto: Stoddart, 1988)

By the early 1980s, Winston’s was the dining place for Peter C. Newman’s fabled “Canadian Establishment” of power brokers. Newman gave a sense of the lunchtime crowd served by waiters whose fingernails were inspected by Arena each morning:

The standard Winston’s two-hour lunch is a daily convention of the Establishment’s illuminati (not a high-tech microchip carver in the bunch) who want to remain within frequent sight and range of those who make the decisions that count—in other words, one another…Nodding their heads sagaciously like wise turtles, they sip their Meursault, aware that for them fame and fortune is not a one-night stand. They have chosen this restaurant as a stage on which to parade themselves and their egos.

To satisfy those egos, regulars were welcomed by Arena’s genial presence and remarkable memory. Advertising executive Jerry Goodis felt Arena made people “feel important, very special, and even very loved. He exudes a real joy that you have come to visit him. When you go to Winston’s, it’s like going home.” According to Conrad Black, “John is very astute and certainly takes good care of his clients if he’s of the view that they have some prominence.” Newman believed Arena was a lay therapist, there for his customers to unload their problems onto. Arena also knew how to arrange diners so that those who required privacy were left alone and those with simmering conflicts were kept far apart.

A sample menu from the John Arena era. Toronto à Table (Montreal: Clare Taylor and Bernard Moscovitz, 1977).

Of Winston’s 23 tables, up to 13 were permanently booked. A select number of patrons, notably politician John Turner, had private phone lines installed at their tables. Next in the pecking order were regulars, then anyone else. Booking a table wasn’t easy, as an average of 50 callers a day were turned away and given recommendations for other high-end eateries. Some patrons were placed in the 45-seat Game Room downstairs, which, despite the high quality farm-raised game birds on Winston’s menu, Newman described as “the Establishment’s gastronomic purgatory, reserved for clubwomen, faceless out-of-towners, and shopping centre developers who wear triple-knits thick enough to stop bullets.”

John Arena and chef Rolf Romberg. Photo by Keith Beaty, originally published in the October 22, 1988 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0029619F.

But as time had passed it by once before, Winston’s fortunes declined after Arena sold the restaurant to a hospitality group in 1989. Nothing worked well during the restaurant’s last decade under various owners who struggled with bankruptcy, departing regulars, lower corporate lunch tabs, and the public’s drift away from heavy, artery-clogging cuisine. Reviews of later incarnations criticized inattentive service that a perfectionist like Arena would have never tolerated. Like its first home, the second site of Winston’s was bulldozed, leaving no trace of the restaurant where theatrical and business stars were treated royally.

Sources: The Canadian Establishment Volume 2: The Acquisitors by Peter C. Newman (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981), Winston’s: The Life and Times of a Great Restaurant by Herbert Whittaker and Arnold Edinborough (Toronto: Stoddart, 1988), the October 22, 1946 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the October 8, 1960 and October 25, 1960 editions of the Toronto Star.


Globe and Mail, October 22, 1946.

Globe and Mail, April 26, 1956.

Toronto Star, October 25, 1960.

On the backside of the sample menu published in Toronto à Table, a few late 1970s recipes from Winston’s. 

ts 88-10-22 review and book

Toronto Star, October 22, 1988. Click on image for larger version.

Globe and Mail, November 14, 1998. Click on image for larger version.

One of the final reviews published about Winston’s. It was the second time Joanne Kates covered the restaurant that year – her earlier review, published on January 31, ran under a headline which paid homage to an old cigarette slogan (“Winston’s tastes good, like a restaurant should”). At that time, she concluded that “this is a dazzling restaurant, a one-of-a-kind artwork. Will Toronto understand it? It’s out of style, expensive, and wonderful. We fear for its survival.”

Hurricane Hazel, Conflicted

Originally published on Torontoist on September 7, 2012.

“Sign of times? Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion holds a slightly altered campaign sign.” Photo taken October 1985 by Michael Stuparyk. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0066295F.

For Hazel McCallion, it was an unwanted holiday gift.

On December 11, 1981, the mayor of Mississauga was greeted by a process server delivering a writ. John Graham, a lawyer and former mayor of Streetsville whose political relationship with McCallion had deteriorated when they worked together during the late 1960s, filed an application accusing her of violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and requesting that she be removed from office if found guilty. As the server handed over the paper, he wished McCallion a “Merry Christmas.”

It wouldn’t be the last time “Hurricane Hazel” faced conflict-of-interest charges. If Rob Ford consented to take advice from anyone on surviving his current legal fight, he could turn to McCallion.

Ironically, McCallion had helped draft a proposal to modify the act while serving as the president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario in 1979. At the time, she felt that there were so many loopholes for politicians to fall through, the best thing to do was declare a conflict of interest even if it didn’t exist.

The core of Graham’s complaint was McCallion’s participation in private and public discussions around freeing up land for future development in five districts of Mississauga. Among the affected areas was East Credit, where McCallion and her husband Sam owned five acres that would fetch a nice price. Declarations of her conflict were spotty: totally forgotten at one meeting and unmentioned at another for several hours, until immediately before a critical vote (legislation stipulates conflicts be declared at the start of the session). While McCallion excused herself from voting on resolutions on East Credit and a neighbouring district, she participated in decisions on the other three. She also strongly urged a dissenting councillor to vote favourably. McCallion defended her actions by noting that everyone knew she had property at stake, and that she had no more financial interest in potential development than any other Mississauga landowner.

Toronto Star, July 23, 1982.

In his decision from July 22, 1982, Judge Ernest West ruled that McCallion had breached the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act by participating in discussions about the affected land, failing to disclose her conflict at appropriate times, failing to abstain from any related vote, and attempting to influence others. West refused to remove her from office, noting that she had made “a bona fide error of judgement” and that “in the euphoria of the adoption of a resolution…the mayor departed from her previous cautious approach to the issue.” The incident didn’t dent the mayor’s popularity, as she was re-elected that fall. “Everybody learns from their experiences,” McCallion told reporters after West’s ruling.

Perhaps she didn’t learn enough, or she forgot the lessons more than a quarter-of-a-century later.

In September 2009, Mississauga council voted for an inquiry after revelations that McCallion participated in council discussions around a failed $14.4 million deal to buy land from the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement Scheme (OMERS) for a hotel near Square One—a deal that her son Peter was involved in. The mayor claimed she couldn’t recuse herself from city matters despite her son’s involvement, that she had declared her conflict during council meetings, and that conflict provisions didn’t prevent her from participating in private discussions before the matter arose in council.

McCallion received plenty of support from constituents who felt she was entitled to screw up, and didn’t appreciate seeing her reputation soiled. There were suspicions that one of the inquiry’s prominent backers, councillor Carolyn Parrish, was preparing to run for McCallion’s job. (If so, Parrish’s strategy didn’t work: she was defeated in the 2010 municipal election.) A rally organized by the “Friends of Hazel” in December 2009 included speeches from supporters like Don Cherry, who has developed a penchant for backing mayors who wind up in conflict-of-interest cases.

As the inquiry unfolded through 2010 and 2011, a key issue was Peter McCallion’s official position in the sale. Affidavits differed as to whether he was a principal in potential site developer World Class Developments (WCD) or merely its real estate agent. Peter testified that he didn’t realize he was a part-owner of WCD, and thus didn’t mislead his mother during their discussions. The mayor claimed ignorance of her son’s role in WCD, yet witnessed an agreement that gave him ownership. She insisted her involvement was an attempt to fulfill a long-term goal of bringing a luxury hotel to the centre of Mississauga and that she would have devoted the same attention to the project regardless of who was participating. Documents revealed that the mayor had frequently hosted her son’s business partners and made numerous interventions with OMERS before the deal collapsed.

When the second phase of the inquiry began in July 2010, the mayor attempted to limit its scope but was shot down by the commissioner of the judicial inquiry, Douglas Cunningham, who observed that she and other councillors were elected to serve public, not private, interests. To Cunningham, an unbiased exercise of their duties was “not only the common law, but the common sense standard by which the conduct of municipal representative ought to be judged.”

In its final submission to the inquiry in January 2011, city lawyer Clifford Lax argued that the mayor should have recognized her inappropriate behaviour and that her son and his partners “exploited her office for her own ends.” Lax acknowledged that McCallion didn’t technically violate the Muncipal Conflict of Interest Act, but that its scope should be broadened beyond simply declaring a conflict to council.

“It is no answer to say that a public office holder may promote the financial interests of a relative where to do so also promotes the greater good,” Cunningham observed when he issued his report in October 2011. “To accept this proposition would in my view lead over time to the erosion of public trust in municipal government.” Though the mayor didn’t break the rules as written, and didn’t receive any payouts, Cunningham felt she should have steered clear of the matter. He called for a stronger definition of conflict of interest that stretched beyond financial relationships, and for provisions to make it easier for individuals or organizations to launch claims against elected representatives. He also suggested that lesser sanctions like a suspension or making a formal apology should be created, so that officials didn’t have to vacate their offices regardless of the degree of their offense (a call some are echoing in Rob Ford’s current case).

Though she continued to defend her actions, McCallion supported Cunningham’s reforms. “In life, we all need guidelines,” she noted.

McCallion’s troubles continue. An affidavit filed by former Parrish staffer Elias Hazineh requests her removal from office, claiming that McCallion voted on development-charge issues in 2007 that could have saved her son $11 million on the hotel project. This week, a judge turned down McCallion’s request to hold a full trial over the matter.

Sources: the August 17, 1979, December 14, 1981, December 16, 1981, July 23, 1982, and October 4, 2011, editions of the Globe and Mail, the July 8, 2010, edition of the Mississauga News, the October 3, 2009, and June 26, 2012, editions of the National Post, and the December 14, 1981, July 23, 1982, December 3, 2009, and January 28, 2011, editions of the Toronto Star.


In June 2013, McCallion was cleared of any conflict of interest charges. She remained mayor of Mississauga until retiring in 2014. She would remain active in civic matters up until her death at the age of 101 in January 2023, including a final controversial involvement in opening up the Greenbelt to development.


Toronto Star, July 23, 1982.

gm 83-03-05 mccallion profile

Globe and Mail, March 5, 1983. Click on image for larger version.

Making Yonge Street More of a Fun Street

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on August 7, 2010, with a few additions sprinkled throughout the text.

Sketch of proposed streetscape along Yonge Street, looking north from Gould, circa 1982. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 1.

“Yonge Street is Fun Street” boasted the sign that long graced the Funland Arcade at Gould Street. But during the 1970s, the Yonge strip seemed like anything but fun for many Torontonians, unless getting out your kinks was your kind of fun. By mid-decade, media, police, and politicians decried the number of adult cinemas, dirty bookstores, prostitution dens, and rub-and-tug parlours that had set up shop along Yonge, especially south of College. The combination of a police task force and public outrage over the murder of shoeshine boy Emmanuel Jaques in 1977 led to a decline in adult-centric businesses. Around the same time, the city commissioned a report to propose streetscape redesigns that would improve Yonge in ways that previous attempts like a pedestrian mall had faltered. Though many of the ideas never progressed beyond models and sketches, many improvements were made to Yonge Street during the late 1970s and early 1980s with varying degrees of longevity. Photos taken by the City of Toronto Urban Design department documented the construction and provide a time capsule of Yonge during this time period, especially between Dundas and College.

Music World store at southeast corner of Yonge and Gould. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 18.

Our trip begins at Yonge and Gould, where several record store chains reigned. On the southeast corner, the one-time Empress Hotel was years away from a wall collapse when it housed Music World. Of the record labels shown on the side of the building, the one that wasn’t considered a major is Pickwick, which was primarily known for its budget reissues (it wasn’t unusual for tracks to be dropped from the original release) and soundalike recordings. Given Yonge Street’s reputation for cheapness, Pickwick fit right in.

“Yonge” canopy along Gould Street. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 9.

Across the street was Sam the Record Man, which hadn’t yet expanded into the neighbouring Bank of Commerce. Added alongside the bank was a “Yonge” canopy designed to protect purveyors of jewellery, watches, and other street goods.

Chess match outside Sam the Record Man. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 59.

Besides the canopy, chess tables were added to the sidewalk along Gould. The corner became a mecca for chess players partly due to the reputation of Josef Smolij. The Polish native earned himself a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s fastest chess player, often destroying hopefuls who paid fifty cents to take him on within fifteen minutes. After being fired from a machinist job because he wasn’t allowed to set up a board next to his post, Smolij set up his board on the streets of downtown. His initial hangout was Allan Gardens, where he quickly drew crowds entertained by his skill and antics. As a 1978 profile in The Canadian noted:

Seldom does he lose (maybe once a week, more likely once every two weeks) and with each gambit and eventual checkmate that occurs, he unleashes a barrage of Polish-accented bravado that infuriates his opponent and entertains those who have stopped to watch. When the opposition makes a particularly bad blunder, Smolij lets him have it. “In Russia,” he will boldly state, “they send you to Siberia for that one. Yes, is true. Player scared to make bad moof [sic] in Russia.”

Josef Smolij, May 1984. Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0008032F.

Smolij moved from Allan Gardens to Yonge Street after police noticed the crowds he drew and assumed that so many people couldn’t be fascinated by chess—the man with the massive grey beard had to be a drug front! By the early 1980s, Smolij set up his board every night from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Gould Street, ready to take on anyone, though inflation caused his games to rise to a dollar. The games provided his sole source of income, which scarcely fazed Smolij, whose motto was “I am poor in the pocket but rich in the mind.” He failed to miss a single game of street chess from April 1978 until February 1985, when he was admitted to Wellesley Hospital suffering from severe gall stones and hyperthermia. Some brain damage resulted, but he scarcely lost his ability to speed through chess matches. After spending several years in a city nursing home, Smolij was reunited with a sister he hadn’t seen since World War II and moved to Berlin in 1992 to live with her.

Chess in the shadow of Funland. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 41.

Chess matches continued on at Yonge and Gould, which was named Hacksel Place in honour of another enthusiast, until 2003.

A&A and the Great Chocolate Chip Cookie Machine viewed from Elm Street. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 20, Item 15.

Taking a look from Elm Street, we see Sam’s long-time rival A&A. The store was founded by Alice and Mac Kenner in 1946—according to Mac’s obituary in the Toronto Star, he chose the name so that the store would be listed first in the Yellow Pages. The rivalry with Sam’s began after the Record Man moved from College Street in 1961. After the Kenners sold out in 1971, the company went through several owners over the next two decades, including Columbia Records. By 1991, the combination of over-expansion, recession, increased competition, and poor business decisions led the by-then 260-location chain to declare bankruptcy. New owners slimmed down A&A, but the flagship was among the casualties of a second bout with bankruptcy in 1993.

A portion of the Great Chocolate Chip Cookie Machine sign, circa 1978. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 609, Item 11.

Also visible is the Great Chocolate Chip Cookie Machine, a short-lived chain which claimed to be the creator of the cookiegram. A lucky recipient would be greeted with a twelve-inch-wide chocolate chip cookie with any (non-vulgar) message. “We’ve been very well received,” manager Marsha Solnicki told the Globe and Mail in 1978. “It has been a very exciting, warm experience. We haven’t had any trouble at all. People have not abandoned Yonge Street.”

By the time parallel street improvements on Elm Street were done…

A later view from Elm Street. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 20, Item 23.

…so was the Cookie Machine. While this pedestrian would be denied a treat, he could figure out how to spend his evening by consulting one of several “City Nights” information kiosks rolled out just off of Yonge.

There’s very little about Falafel Burger in old newspapers, other than a humorous poke at it in a 1979 Toronto Star look at the revitalization efforts by writer Lynda Hurst and activist Lynne Gordon. “Everything thing from fellatio [referring to the Cinema 2000 adult cinema] to falafel in one block, we giggled. And at $1.60, the falafel is more expensive.”

Northwest corner of Yonge and Elm. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 20, Item 7.

Before leaving Elm Street, let’s pause and look at the northwest corner and take in several business long gone from this location.

McGill Street before it was closed off at Yonge. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 36, Item 98.

One long-lasting decision was the closure of McGill and Granby Streets at Yonge.

Model of proposed redesign for Granby Street. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 36 , Item 6.

Models were built featuring archways bearing each street’s name.

Proposed archway for McGill and Granby streets, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 36, Item 53.

Only McGill Street received an arch, and it wasn’t a freshly-built piece of architecture. The structure that was used was salvaged from St. Andrew’s United Church on Bloor Street after it was demolished in 1981.

Sketch of proposed streetscape on Yonge Street looking north toward College Street, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 21, Item 8.

Up at College Street, the improvements included the island in the middle of Yonge Street shown in this design sketch.

College Park Shops. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 21, Item 13.

The physical landscape wasn’t the only thing to change at Yonge and College as the 1970s drew to a close. Two years after Eaton’s closed its art deco department store to consolidate its downtown operations at the Eaton Centre, the structure reopened on March 22, 1979 as College Park. A consortium led by A. E. LePage realtors determined that the store could be converted into a mixed-use facility with a retail emphasis on mid- to high-end furniture (tenants in the first phase included DeBoers and Roche-Bobois). While most of the building had been rented by opening day, the fate of the Eaton Auditorium and Round Room on the seventh floor was left up in the air—both spaces fell into disrepair and were threatened with demolition before they were restored and reopened as the Carlu event space in 2003.

S. S. Kresge store, southeast corner of Yonge Street and Carlton Street, circa 1979. Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 21, Item 36.

On the southeast corner, the Kresge five-and-dime store soon passed into history. This location closed around the same time the Canadian division of the Kmart Corporation (which had recently changed its corporate name from S. S. Kresge) celebrated its fiftieth birthday in 1979 by moving its head office from above this store to Brampton.

How the scene shown at the beginning of this post turned out. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 20.

Despite the efforts at physical improvement, the Yonge Street strip remained a sore issue among civic officials. When the sex shops faded away, their low-end bargain store replacements did little to alleviate the street’s image as a tacky place to be. Shoppers stayed inside the Eaton Centre. More plans to revitalize the street came and went, resulting in projects such as Dundas Square and 10 Dundas East (which many thought would remain an eternal monument to the hoarding industry).

Funland or U Land? Photo circa 1978. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 609, Item 9.

Despite all the complaints, we continue to recognize Yonge as our main street and, even in tiny ways, recognize it still has potential to live up to Funland’s boast.

Sources: the June 28, 1978 edition of The Canadian; the April 1, 1978 and March 24, 1979 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the March 23, 1979, October 5, 1979, January 9, 1980, October 10, 1982, September 14, 1985, October 21, 1988, and November 11, 1992 editions of the Toronto Star.


star 1979-10-05 yonge street shedding its sleaze

Toronto Star, October 5, 1979. Click on image for larger version.

Sports Illustrated, September 3, 1979.

The Loyal Orangeman Versus the Mayor of All the People

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on September 18, 2010.

Toronto Board of Control, 1956. Left to right: Leslie Saunders, Ford Brand, Nathan Phillips, Joseph Cornish, William R. Allen. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 1258.

For the first half of the twentieth century, one prerequisite to be a serious contender for the mayor’s chair in Toronto was membership in good standing with the Orange Order. As 1954 dawned, it didn’t appear that the situation would change much: Orangeman Allan Lamport had won a third term and the challenger most likely to run against or in place of him that December, Leslie Saunders, was a high-ranking official in the Order. Yet 1954 wound up being the beginning of the end of Orange dominance over civic affairs, thanks partly to a series of snafus by Saunders. The municipal election of 1954 not only proved a key element in breaking the Order’s hold, but showed that antagonizing the press wasn’t a good idea and that you didn’t have to be Protestant to take the mayor’s chair, even if it took you three efforts.

Cartoon depicting Allan Lamport, The Telegram, June 24, 1954.

Our story begins at the Toronto Transit Commission, where the combination of an expanded administrative board and the death of Chairman W.C. McBrien left several key vacancies. Sensing the prospects of steadier employment with the TTC than at the whim of voters, Mayor Lamport resigned from office in June to make himself available as a candidate for McBrien’s job (he wound up as Vice-Chairman when William G. Russell won the top spot). On June 29, Saunders, a veteran member of the Board of Control who was serving as president of City Council, assumed the mayoralty amid general respect for his abilities as an administrator.

Saunders’s honeymoon was short-lived. Shortly after assuming office, Saunders was also named Deputy Grand Master of the Orange Lodge, just in time for the annual Orange parade in early July to celebrate William III’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Saunders decided the parade would be the perfect opportunity to issue a statement to Torontonians “reminding them of their British heritage” by stressing how important that the battle was as a victory for democratic and religious freedoms for all (even if some of faiths were deemed less worthy than others). Amid its glorification of the Orange Order, the statement requested citizens “to thank God for those whose courage against wrong hastened the dawn of freedom,” and compared the triumph of Protestants over Catholics to more recent victories against “the Hun, the Nazi and the Fascist.” One problem: Saunders issued the statement on official city stationery.

To Catholic councillors and other Orangemen in the city government whose views were less fervent than Saunders, the statement was received like an intolerant slap against citizens who weren’t connected to the Order. Controller David Balfour felt that the mayor should represent all faiths; in response, local Orange Order Secretary B.G. Louden challenged the Catholic Balfour to run for mayor. Saunders did not apologize for issuing the statement. “I’m proud,” he said, “to be able to make a statement of this kind to the people of Toronto on this great day in Orange history.” His statement did not find favour among the press, whose views were best summed by an editorial in the Telegram which noted that “the only rivers that Leslie Saunders is expected to concern himself with as Mayor of Toronto are the Don and the Humber.”

The Telegram, December 4, 1954.

Watching from the sidelines was former city councillor Nathan Phillips, who was taking a rest from elected office after a quarter of a century as an alderman and two unsuccessful mayoral runs against Lamport in 1951 and 1952. As controversy about Saunders’s statement grew, Phillips was contacted by Star reporter Bob McDonald to see if he would consider a third run for the mayor’s chair. Phillips decided he would, but only if his wife supported another run (she did) and if he could secure more newspaper support beyond the Star, which had backed his previous campaigns. He contacted Telegram publisher John Bassett, who indicated that Phillips could soon tell anyone he “damned well pleased” that he had Bassett’s full support. That Phillips was Jewish would make for an interesting angle in editorials in all of the city’s papers criticizing Saunders for trying to provoke religious strife. Upon hearing of Phillips’s entry, Saunders told the press on July 10 that when all the ballots were counted, he would be “be sitting right where I am now.”

Phillips’s entry into the race was timed well, as Saunders bounced from one fiasco to another. The mayor’s relations with the press were frosty at best when he had a confrontation with three reporters who entered a Board of Control meeting on July 14. The meeting was supposed to be held in private out of respect for any candidates named as potential successors for outgoing Parks Commissioner Oscar Pearson. The reporters from the Star and Telegram refused to leave due to their editors ordering them to be there. Much yelling ensued, mostly from Saunders. He was reported to have said “You’ll obey me! The newspapers aren’t going to tell me what to do!” Then Saunders chastised the reporters for not being good gentlemen by ignoring his requests to leave. The Mayor’s tactics appeared to outrage half of the four-person board, as Balfour and fellow Controller Roy Belyea stormed out of the room and accused him of being an autocrat.

Once again, Louden challenged somebody to run for mayor, but this time it was fellow Orangeman Belyea, who Louden warned to watch his tongue if he didn’t want to lose the up to ten thousand potential votes the Order could deliver. Saunders invoked a press ban at City Hall, which was the cue for the media to write editorials echoing the complaints of the controllers. The ban lasted for a day before Saunders reversed himself and declared that he would no longer have any private meetings with city councillors. As revenge, Saunders attempted to blacken Belyea’s reputation by questioning why the controller hadn’t served his country proudly during World War I, after Belyea stated that “dictators are being fought all over the world. Now is the time to fight them at home.” The electoral silly-season had kicked into high gear.

Amid these antics, both the Star and Telegram printed their endorsements of Phillips before the month was over. Both papers praised Phillips for his long public service record and for his dignified bearing,the antithesis of Saunders’ increasing irritability. As the Star noted, Phillips “possesses tact and natural friendliness and by these qualities, as well as by cogent arguments, he will, we think, improve Toronto’s standing in the Metro council, and represent her well in his contacts with municipalities outside this area.” For his part, Phillips vowed to run a campaign based on tolerance for all regardless of their religious affiliation.

The Telegram, December 4, 1954 (left), December 1, 1954 (right).

The question of who the Globe and Mail would support remained in the air for awhile, as neither of their favoured candidates could decide if they would run. Press speculation was that if Belyea didn’t run, former Toronto Board of Education Chairman Arthur Brown, who was defeated by Lamport the year before, would make a second attempt to become mayor. Belyea dithered for several months until he decided in late September that he would run again for the Board of Control. A few weeks later, Brown declared his intentions and the Globe and Mail printed their endorsement (while the paper found Phillips an agreeable person, they felt he never shown any signs of leadership or innovative thought). Saunders responded to the news by saying Brown was “wasting his time. I’ll lick him just as easily as anyone else. He’ll be pie.”
Over in the Phillips camp, the former councillor had an inkling that the campaign might be turning in his favour.

My campaign ran smoothly. I sensed that support was coming to me from every part of the city. I didn’t hear much said either for or against Brown, but there certainly was a rising tide against Saunders. As I look back, I don’t think it was so much a case of the people voting for me as it was of the people voting against Saunders. People do not often vote new governments into office. They vote old governments out.

Globe and Mail, November 26, 1954.

Among the crucial endorsements Phillips received was one from the Sunday Sports Committee headed by former controller Fred Hamilton, an old enemy of Saunders who was certain the incumbent candidate would reopen the issue of allowing sporting activities on Sunday and find a way to ban them again. An ad produced by Hamilton showing a collage of anti-Saunders articles left the Mayor fuming.

But this was only one of the image problems plaguing the Saunders camp. An attempt to ban municipal candidates from appearing before the Board of Control during the campaign, which appeared to be aimed at Phillips, backfired when the majority of the Board of Control opposed it. An ad listing prominent Torontonians who supported Saunders’ campaign was questioned when it appeared that some of those listed were unaware their names would be used in such a way. Three days before the election, Brown condemned the mayor for reportedly allowing a suite in the Royal York Hotel to be used for secret meetings of city council executives and to lavishly entertain visitors. The rumours of a secret clique running were too enticing for newspapers to resist running headlines decrying extravagances. Phillips demanded an investigation into the suite, which ultimately revealed that there wasn’t anything too shameful going on.

Globe and Mail, December 2, 1954.

Saunders felt confident of his chances on election day, believing the righteous citizens of Toronto would see through the “lies” in the press and cast their ballots in their usual fashion. He felt it was impossible that he would be unseated on December 6, especially to previous losers like Brown and Phillips. As the results came in, he maintained a positive face.

I had no idea that I could be defeated. We carried on an active campaign over radio, press and an 110,000 distribution of election literature through an agency. A victory party was arranged in Victoria Hall. As I listened, on my radio in my car, I was well down. My driver encouraged me, remarking that there were several polls to hear from, but I knew that I could not gain sufficiently. I listened until I had passed Arthur Brown, whose purpose in the running could only have been to split the Church and Gentile vote…Then I went up to our headquarters knowing I was defeated. At least I could walk with my head up, despite the unprecedented campaign waged by the three papers, Hamilton, et al.

Ett Phillips relaxing at home. “Did you ever see a dame like that?” her husband observed when this photo was taken in November 1962. Photo by Reg Innell. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0073605F.

Phillips had greater worries during election day than the results. The night before, his wife Esther (“Ett”) began preparations for the post-results party. On her way down to the basement to retrieve a turkey, her foot caught on a metal strip and she fell down the staircase. Mrs. Phillips was rushed to the hospital and underwent brain surgery. The candidate got little sleep that night and stayed in constant contact with the hospital during what Phillips later called “the longest day” of his life. He barely thought about what he would say after the votes were tallied until an editor from the Telegram called him around 10 p.m. to indicate that he had likely won in a very tight race (less than four thousand votes separated Phillips from Saunders, with Brown just over a hundred votes behind the incumbent). Phillips took fifteen minutes to draft a speech, in which he thanked the voters and discussed what really mattered to him at that moment.

As I speak to you, my heart is filled with sadness because my wife suffered a serious accident last night as a result of which she is in the hospital. She is still not out of danger and I appear before you now to express our thanks and gratitude because I know she would want me to. I have been deeply touched by the many inquiries during the day and the prayers offered for my wife’s recovery. I believe in prayers, and I ask you to continue to pray for her, because if I ever needed her, I need her more than ever now. Mrs. Phillips has in her the inspiration a husband needs to help him carry on.

Mrs. Phillips went on to make a full recovery, though her memories of the accident and the following days never returned.

Phillips then touched on the general nastiness of the campaign and expressed his pride at Toronto voters for rejecting the tactics from the Saunders camp.

Every person should be proud of his ancestry, and I am proud of the blood that flows in my veins. I am sure that every other citizen is proud of the blood that flows in his veins. I shall represent all the people, and I mean all the people in the broadest sense, fairly and without discrimination. I shall cut intolerance, I will try and be you, all the people of Toronto, and reflect your aims, ideals, aspirations and ambitions.

The Telegram, December 7, 1954.

The speech earned Phillips the nickname “Mayor of All the People,” a title he tried to live up to during his tenure. Third-place finisher Brown offered his congratulations and seemed at ease despite his loss…which was something that could not be said for Saunders. He refused to offer a formal concession to Phillips and never stopped blaming the press and non-Orangemen for engineering his defeat. His statements after the election lacked even traces of graciousness amidst his utter disbelief that the voters didn’t rally for him (“This is hardly the reward a person should receive for that type of service. No man has served Toronto better than I.”), and he never got over how the press turned against him, having had praise heaped on him before becoming mayor.

Having lived in East York for several years, Saunders eventually turned his political attentions to that municipality. As in Toronto, Saunders would serve as interim Mayor of East York in 1976, but with far less controversy. He never apologized for his fervent Orange beliefs or any actions he took during the 1954 election campaign. Yet the zealousness of his actions and his apparent ability to think only in terms of black and white, in contrast with the growing multicultural makeup of the city, helped spark the demise of the Orange Order’s hold on power in Toronto. The parades no longer draw the crowds they once did, and no mayor since the retirement of William Dennison in 1972 has been a member.

Sources: Mayor of All the People by Nathan Phillips (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), An Orangeman in Public Life: The Memoirs of Leslie Howard Saunders by Leslie Saunders (Toronto: Britannia Printers, 1980), and the following newspapers: the July 10, 1954, July 15, 1954,and November 18, 1954 editions of the Globe and Mail; the July 29, 1954, and October 5, 1954 editions of the Toronto Star; and the July 10, 1954, July 13, 1954, July 14, 1954, July 16, 1954, July 21, 1954, and December 7, 1954 editions of the Telegram.


Globe and Mail, June 29, 1954.

Globe and Mail, July 12, 1954.

Toronto Star, July 15, 1954.

The Telegram, July 15, 1954.

The Telegram, October 6, 1954.

The Telegram, November 17, 1954.

Globe and Mail, November 22, 1954.

The first of several editorials in the G&M backing Arthur Brown. While Phillips, Saunders, and Brown had a tight race, the only other mayoral candidate finished far behind, with just under 5,000 votes: former Bellwoods MPP A.A. MacLeod, a member of the Communis…erm…Labor Progressive Party and the uncle of Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine.

Globe and Mail, November 27, 1954.

Globe and Mail, November 29, 1954.

Globe and Mail, November 29, 1954.

Toronto Star, November 29, 1954.

The Star’s endorsement of Phillips.

Toronto Star, December 3, 1954.

The Telegram, December 3, 1954.

The Telegram, December 4, 1954.

The Telegram, December 4, 1954.

Toronto Star, December 7, 1954.

The Telegram, December 7, 1954.

The Telegram, December 9, 1954.

Voting Rights in Toronto: Who Has (and Hasn’t) Been Allowed to Cast a Ballot in Our Elections

Originally published on Torontoist on September 15, 2014.

Ballot box preparation, Township of North York office at 5000 Yonge Street, 1964. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 261, Item 1.

For most of Toronto’s history, the privilege of voting in municipal elections belonged to an elite group. If you were male, 21 or older, and owned a certain amount of property, you automatically gained membership. If you were a male tenant, or a woman in general, the road to getting the municipal franchise was long and frustrating, often pitting the city against the reluctance of Queen’s Park.

The limitations on who could vote were enshrined in the document that created the City of Toronto, the York Incorporation Act of 1834, and written in convoluted legalese:

That the Aldermen and Common Councilmen of the said City shall be elected respectively by the majority of votes of such persons being male Inhabitant Householders within the Ward for which the Election shall be holden, or the Liberties attached thereto, as shall be possessed at the time of the Election, either in freehold or as tenants for term of years, or from year to year, of a Town Lot of Dwelling-house within the said Ward or Liberties: Provided always, that a portion of a House in which any Inhabitant shall reside as a Householder, and not as a Boarder or Lodger, and having a distinct communication with a street by an outer door, shall be considered a Dwelling-house within the meaning of this Clause: And provided also, that no person shall vote at any such Election, who has not been a resident Inhabitant with the said City or Liberties thereof, for the period of twelve calendar months, and who had not resided within the Ward for which the Election shall be holden, or the Liberties attached thereto for the period of three calendar months next before the Election.

The minimum monetary property value set by the province varied over time. Amendments under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1849 set the minimum at 50 pounds (pre-decimalization); by the time a revised Municipal Act passed in 1866, the minimum was $600, later reduced to $400. The ownership restrictions effectively shut out the city’s growing working class, despite calls as early as the mid-1860s to extend voting rights to all male taxpayers aged 21 and older.

Although women chose educational trustees as early as 1850 (since schooling was seen as a domestic concern), getting the municipal vote took nearly half a century. The fight for women’s suffrage gained traction after women’s property rights were officially recognized in the early 1870s. Organizations such as the Toronto Women’s Literary and Social Progress Club (TWLSPC, founded by pioneer suffragette Dr. Emily Stowe) urged city council to petition the province to extend the vote. Defenders of the status quo made ridiculous arguments against doing so: women lacked the mental capacity to comprehend politics, extending the vote to women would destroy marital bliss, the whole political process was too degrading, and virtually every other misogynistic complaint you could think of.

There were even fears that allowing women to cast ballots would disrupt child-rearing. “Some people think it will take women from the fireside, and cause them to neglect the babies and spoil the dinners,” observed a TWLSPC member during a meeting held in the city council chamber in March 1883, “but there need not be much fear that our absence will greatly affect our domestic concerns.” The TWLSPC soon renamed itself the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association, and fought for the vote at all levels of government.

1914 calendar advertising Belle Ewart Ice Co. with reference to women’s suffrage. Toronto Public Library.

In March 1884, Queen’s Park passed legislation that allowed women to vote municipally, though the franchise was restricted to spinsters and widows, and only those who met the same property ownership qualifications as men. It was believed married women, even if property was held in their name, would be represented by their husbands at the ballot box.

Thanks to implementation delays, it wasn’t until January 4, 1886 that women in Toronto cast their first municipal ballots. Reform candidates such as mayoral contender William Holmes Howland counted on the 2,000 eligible female voters to support their stands on middle class concerns like the temperance movement. The Globe predicted that the injection of female virtue would cause inebriated, rowdy behaviour on election day to vanish: “No woman need fear having to endure any insult or having in the slightest degree to part with her womanliness in consequence of exercising her privilege of voting.”

Nearly 40 years passed before married women were allowed to vote, over which time countless attempts by city council and opposition parties in the Ontario legislature to change the rules failed. But the will was there, as shown by council’s actions when its Civic Legislation and Reception Committee heard from a delegation of 30 local suffragettes on January 11, 1912. Constance Boulton noted how the “public spirited ladies of Toronto” influenced council to back major infrastructure projects like the Ashbridges Bay water treatment plant. Dr. Margaret Gordon, president of the Toronto Suffrage Association, observed, “We are allowed to vote only when our husbands die. They do not die until we are well up in years.” The councillors in attendance (apart from George McMurrich, who believed that giving women the franchise would discourage their husbands from voting) praised the suffragettes. “There are hundreds and thousands of women in this city who pay taxes yet are without a voice in municipal affairs,” reflected controller J.O. McCarthy. “It is not square. The individual who pays taxes has some right to a voice in the government that spends them.”

Two weeks later, council voted unanimously to apply to the province to extend the franchise to married women. Mayor George Reginald Geary originally insisted on a rider that recommended that if a couple was jointly assessed for taxes, only the husband would vote. Sensing the mood, he consented to dropping it. Fifty women were on hand for the vote, but only after councillors gave up their seats to allow more to enter a council chamber packed that day for a separate debate on legalizing Sunday tobogganing.

James Pliny Whitney. Wikimedia Commons.

But the province didn’t feel like rocking the boat. When three proposed bills allowing women’s suffrage were defeated in the legislature on April Fools’ Day 1913, Premier Sir James Whitney noted that they were contrary to British precedent. “The restriction of the franchise to men is a good custom that is quietly helping to corrupt the world,” an editorial in the World noted, “and it will have to change.” Married women were granted the right to vote in provincial elections in February 1917, but they had to wait until the passage of the Municipal Franchise Act in 1922 to vote in municipal elections.

The next great battle was extending the franchise to anyone 21 or older, regardless of their property holdings. While some community leaders, like Mayor Jimmie Simpson, supported the idea during the 1930s, others not only opposed it, but also wanted to reduce the number of eligible voters. At a provincial hearing on reforming municipal taxes in April 1938, Property Owners’ Association of Toronto president H.E. Manning argued that the administration of social services and assistance to the poor should be eliminated from municipal budgets. “With the removal of the above services from the municipal field any sentimental reasons for preserving an unrestricted municipal franchise disappear,” Manning stated. “The temptation to win elections by promises of spending the taxpayers’ money on airports, uneconomically cheap housing projects, harbour improvements and other enterprises not particularly the concern of either local government or property ownership will persist as long as non-taxpayers control the election.” In a piece published by the Globe and Mail a few months later Dr. Charles Sheard wrote, “to have members of Council representing tenants is like being asked to contribute to a charity by a canvasser when she herself contributes nothing, but merely seeks to point out to others wherein their duty lies.”

Globe and Mail, November 9, 1956.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, calls to update voting qualifications grew louder. The existing laws allowed tenants to vote only if they met absurdly convoluted qualifications. In 1949, for example, the Municipal Act stipulated that tenants had to rent two or more rooms that could be assessed for at least $400 worth of taxes, and in which they regularly cooked and slept. If an adult lived in their parents’ home, they were disqualified from voting if they ate meals in the parent’s portion of the residence. Extending the franchise to tenants was seen by some as a blow to the ego of taxpayers.

In a referendum during the 1956 municipal election, Torontonians were asked if they would allow city council to request the province extend the franchise to all people 21 or older who had resided in the city for at least a year and were British subjects. The ballot question exempted public votes on money matters, which would continue to require proof of property ownership. By a two-to-one margin, voters approved of the idea.

Yet the province stalled. When the matter finally arose in March 1958, proposed legislation required Ontario municipalities to hold a referendum before extending the vote, with the exception of the three cities (London, Port Arthur, and Toronto) that had already done so. The province’s municipal law committee unanimously approved the proposal on March 24, but overnight dictates from Premier Leslie Frost and his cabinet provoked backtracking. The next day, the committee announced the three exempted cities had to hold fresh referendums. The move was defended by Renfrew South MPP James Maloney, who believed the bill should be reconsidered because “there are certain matters in it which trouble my people down at Renfrew”—namely, the notion Toronto was receiving preferential treatment. Bewildered opposition officials, including Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the forerunner of the NDP) leader Donald MacDonald, wondered why on earth anyone in Renfrew cared. He chalked up the mood shift to “railroading tactics.”

Globe and Mail, November 21, 1958.

City council reacted swiftly. Another referendum question was placed on the 1958 municipal ballot; it passed by an even larger margin than the last one. In response, Queen’s Park allowed an extended franchise (with some lingering restrictions) to be implemented in 1960, on condition that a pricy separate voters list prepared by a separate enumeration team was maintained for newly eligible electors. The move reeked of spite.

Over the course of the 1960s, city council worked on proposals to base voter qualification on residency instead of the few remaining property ownership restrictions, most of which were abolished years earlier for federal or provincial contests. These efforts caused at least one right-wing councillor to cry “Communism!” Loosening the franchise occurred gradually in the suburbs within Metro Toronto, though communities like Scarborough resisted as long as possible.

Toronto Star, October 26, 1972.

The piecemeal process of reform ended in June 1972, when the province passed the Municipal Elections Act. The new legislation lowered the voting age to 18 and removed the last property value qualifications—the main requirement was Canadian citizenship or being a British subject (the latter a right Toronto retained into the 1980s). The city’s current voter qualifications reflect these changes; they also allow non-residents who own or rent property within the city’s borders to vote, which some observers say is a means of padding the electoral rolls.

Current efforts to extend the vote to non-citizens are not without historical precedent. In 1971, councillor Joe Piccininni proposed allowing non-citizens who owned property in the city to cast ballots. The idea was attacked in letters to the editor by those who argued that the right to vote is one of the few incentives to become a Canadian citizen. Yet, as Ryerson University political science professor Myer Siemiatycki pointed out in a 2006 report on voting and social inclusion, nearly 16 per cent of Toronto’s population was ineligible to vote due to lack of citizenship. Will this group bring about the next stage in the evolution of our municipal franchise?

Sources: Mayor Howland: The Citizens’ Candidate by Desmond Morton (Toronto: Hakkert, 1973); Statutes of His Majesty’s province of Upper Canada, passed in the fourth session of the eleventh provincial Parliament of Upper Canada (Toronto: Robert Stanton, 1834); The Muncipal Franchise and Social Inclusion in Toronto: Policy and Practice by Myer Siemiatycki (Toronto: Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, 2006); the August 30, 1866, March 7, 1883, January 12, 1912, and January 23, 1912 editions of the Globe; the April 29, 1938, July 27, 1938, December 1, 1949, June 9, 1961, May 10, 1962, and April 21, 1972 editions of the Globe and Mail; the March 25, 1958, December 16, 1958, April 12, 1960, December 9, 1971, and December 13, 1971 editions of the Toronto Star; and the April 2, 1913 edition of the Toronto World.


According to the City of Toronto’s website, the following can vote in the 2022 municipal election:

  • Canadian citizen
  • 18 years old and older
    • Either a resident in the city of Toronto, or a non-resident who owns/rents property in the city or has a spouse who owns/rents property in the city
  • Not prohibited from voting under any law

Four bullets points list who officially cannot vote: prisoners currently serving sentences, corporations, an executor or trustee who isn’t serving as a voting proxy, and anyone who has been “convicted of a corrupt practice” under section 90(3) in the Municipal Elections Act, 1996.


Globe and Mail, July 27, 1938.

An opinion piece arguing why those who didn’t own property did not deserve to vote in Toronto municipal elections. Later that year, mayor Ralph Day opposed suggestions that eligible voters needed to show their tax receipts before they could cast their ballot.

Globe and Mail, January 31, 1945.

One example of an unsuccessful attempt at municipal franchise reform from the mid-1940s, proposed by controller Stewart Smith, who belonged to the Communi…err…Labor Progressive Party. I would have words with Mr. Walton about renters not having a stake in the city.

Editorial, Toronto Star, February 1, 1945.