Electing Bob Rae

Originally published on Torontoist on October 1, 2015. I also wrote about the 1990 provincial election for TVO in 2018.


Globe and Mail, September 7, 1990.

On this morning 25 years ago, a ceremony took place at Convocation Hall. At the podium was Bob Rae, being sworn in as the first NDP premier of Ontario. His speech reflected on the unexpected thrill of victory he and his colleagues had experienced nearly a month earlier:

They say that the greatest joys in life are those that are unexpected. This day and this ceremony certainly fall into this category. The new government that is taking office today is made up of men and women from across the province, from all walks of life. Few of us ran in the last election feeling our party would win the election on September 6th; we ran because we had a message to bring to the Ontario public, because the cause of social democracy made sense to us and, in some cases, because no one else was willing to run.

The swearing-in marked the end of what had been a wild contest. When the 37-day campaign began, David Peterson looked like he would sleepwalk to victory. So he was calling an election two years early—polling was good, why not secure another majority government?


Toronto Star, August 8, 1990.

That arrogance undid the Liberals. Their campaign started so lazily that their headquarters still wasn’t equipped with a functioning phone system five days into the race, and workers arrived at the party bus only to find computer equipment was still boxed up. It also didn’t help that Peterson was publicly told off at his campaign launch by Toronto environmental activist (and current city councillor) Gord Perks.

With more than 50 per cent popularity in early polls, Liberal support slid. Many factors were at work: a growing sense that Ontario was ruled by arrogant yuppies who cozied up to developers and Bay Street, resulting in massive cost overruns for publicly-funded projects like SkyDome; the Patti Starr affair, where several MPPs were mixed up in a scheme diverting funds from a charitable organization into political coffers; Peterson’s deep involvement in constitutional crises like the Meech Lake Accord, which irritated many voters tired of the surrounding debates. Add in a sense the economy was faltering, and many observers wondered if the election call was a bad idea.

On the opposition benches, the once-mighty Progressive Conservatives were slowly rebuilding. Broken financially and spiritually, they had only chosen their first permanent leader in three years, Mike Harris, in May 1990. Internal party polling suggested they might win as few as four seats. When the writ dropped, only 31 candidates had been nominated. It didn’t help they shared the same party name as increasingly unpopular PM Brian Mulroney.


David Peterson chained by the Patti Starr affair, Mike Harris chained by Brian Mulroney, and Bob Rae chained to a balloon. Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, September 2, 1990.

As for the NDP, Rae warned his caucus to prepare for an early election, one he privately decided would be his last as party leader. He was pessimistic about their chances, figuring that at best they’d play kingmaker as they had five years earlier. Some party members were still ticked off about how the accord Rae made with Peterson in 1985 cost them dearly during the 1987 campaign.

Rae quickly benefited from the Liberals’ poor public performance, attacking the government’s integrity. As media scrutiny grew, the campaign team cranked out An Agenda for People over a few days in August. Promises included government-run auto insurance, stricter rent controls, increases to the minimum wage and daycare spaces, strengthening pay equity, and higher corporate taxes. Rae’s campaigning style improved, showing a stronger sense of humour than in previous races. Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservatives campaigned on lowering taxes and not much else—that message didn’t play well yet, requiring a few years to mature into the Common Sense Revolution.

As September began, all three Toronto dailies endorsed the Liberals. Some of the reasons were ridiculous—the Globe and Mail claimed Peterson’s government was “composed of generally nice people with good intentions.” The Sun couldn’t quite shed its Tory leanings, insisting voters had to choose between Peterson and Harris to avoid economic catastrophe under the NDP. Had they not been so weak, one senses the Sun would have preferred backing Harris, of whom they declared “time may well prove him to be a great leader and premier, providing he sticks to conservatism.” The Star saw the NDP as a credible alternative, but felt the Liberal economic record warranted their return.


Cartoon by Brian Gable, Globe and Mail, September 6, 1990.

These endorsements didn’t sink in. By campaign’s ended, panic-stricken Liberals attacked anything, but found few listening. At a campaign stop during the final week at a Shriners rib dinner in Woodstock, 320 of 350 ticket-buyers chose not to show up until Peterson left. Those who were there concentrated more on drinking beer and playing cards, impatient to get to the ribs.

Going into election day, Rae saw the polls pointing to a minority win. He wound up with 74 seats, compared to 36 for the Liberals and 20 for the PCs. Peterson lost his seat in London. In Metro Toronto, rookie NDP victors included Rosario Marchese, Tony Silipo, and current city councillors Anthony Peruzza and Giorgio Mammoliti.

sun 1990-09-07 page 71 mammo

Toronto Sun, September 7, 1990.

Yes, Mammoliti.

Billing himself as “George,” Mammoliti, then a maintenance superintendent for the Metro Toronto Housing Authority and president of his CUPE local, defeated Liberal incumbent Claudio Polsinelli in the riding of Yorkview by 1,600 votes. He accused Polsinelli of banking on support among the community’s Italians, observing over a victory beer that “this is a multicultural riding and you have to pay attention to all groups, not just one.” He had campaigned on improving rent reviews, strengthening security at housing complexes, and improving Jane-Finch’s lousy public image.


Toronto Sun, September 7, 1990.

A notable local NDP victor was Gary Malkowski in York East. Defeating Liberal Christine Hart, (who had resigned as culture and communications minister earlier in the year over integrity issues surrounding her nomination) by just under 800 votes, Malkowski became the first deaf politician elected federally or provincially. Though a rookie, the Star felt he conducted his campaign with “the air of a veteran politician.”

At his victory party at the La Rotanda ballroom on Dufferin Street, Rae joked that “maybe a summer election isn’t a bad idea after all.” His young daughter Lisa’s reaction to the win? “Daddy! You’re now the boss of everybody!”

The next five years were difficult, as the worsening economy and the government’s inexperience didn’t always mix. The mere mention of Rae’s name still induces agony among some voters. While the NDP benefited from voter rage, the 1990 election showed that for a moment, it was possible for a party which had largely been viewed as the conscience of the provincial legislature to overcome the socialist boogeyman stereotypes and hold office.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Rae noted while casting his vote, “the politics of fear is over.” If only that was the case more often in the electoral realm.

Additional material from Loyal No More: Ontario’s Struggle for a Separate Destiny by John Ibbitson (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2001); From Protest to Power by Bob Rae (Toronto: Penguin, 1997); the September 4, 1990 and September 7, 1990 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 17, 1990 edition of Maclean’s; the September 1, 1990 and September 7, 1990 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 2, 1990 and September 7, 1990 editions of the Toronto Sun.

“There Are Opium Dens in Toronto”

Originally published on Torontoist on November 30, 2011.


The Empire, June 30, 1892.

When Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) mused in Monday’s  Sun about the possibility of opium dens lurking within some Toronto massage parlours, we couldn’t help but conjure up pulpy images of seedy locales dripping with racist Yellow Peril stereotypes. Which got us thinking: did Toronto have a problem with opium dens back when Asians were always quoted in pidgin English and readers devoured tales of drug lords like Dr. Fu Manchu?

As a late-19th century newspaper expose succinctly put it: “There are opium dens in Toronto.”

Over the course of three days in the early summer of 1892, the Empire titillated readers with the account of a fearless reporter’s journey into the underworld of Toronto’s opium dens. Guided by a reformed “opium fiend” from Chicago, the uncredited journalist promised to astound the public “with a surprise approaching incredulity.” In the neighbourhoods where dens were located, police and residents claimed ignorance of their existence: “Some went as far as to pooh-pooh the very idea that they could exist in moral Toronto without the fact becoming known to the morality department at least.” While partaking of opium was once so socially accepted that raw materials were advertised in the Globe, by the 1890s it was seen as a shameful activity presided over by Chinese immigrants.

The media often laid the blame for the dens solely on their operators and usually glossed over the culpability of their white patrons.

In order to access the dens, the reporter had his guide bring a letter of reference written in Chinese from a den owner in Chicago. They were denied entry to dens located at 18 Queen Street East and 42 Jarvis Street (which the duo blamed on their healthy appearances), but they succeeded when they reached the premises of Sam Lee at 321 Parliament Street:

The exterior of the shop is very unpretentious indeed, and its interior is no better. The front window is closed up with shutters, and the place has the appearance of being kept by a man whose interest in life is gone. As the ex-smoker entered the shop the old man at the ironing board sighed, and again bent down to his work on the bosom of a shirt. The letter was shoved over to him, and he stopped ironing long enough to read it. After perusing its long columns he folded it up, raised a face wasted by 40 years of opium smoking. Wearily he shook his head.

“Me no smokee,” was his answer, in a husky voice.

The guide and the old man questioned each other for several minutes before access was granted to a narrow, musty stall in the corner of the store. The partitioned-off area contained a bed, pillows, and all of the equipment required to enjoy opium. A lengthy description of how to smoke the drug followed. Among the other users they encountered, at least one was deathly afraid that their Sunday school teacher would find them patronizing a den.

As the pair visited other dens, word spread around the proprietors and they were soon denied access. The reporter concluded that despite the suspicion he encountered, and their own occasional opium-taking, the Chinese community in Toronto were “a much superior class to those who are found in American cities. But for their extreme suspiciousness they would probably be a hospitable lot of men, quite as anxious to do a suffering ‘fiend’ a kindness as to take the few cents charged for the favour.” His final thought was that “no good would follow the extension of the horrible fetish of whose dominion only a glimpse has been given.”

News of the exposé spread as far as Saint John, New Brunswick, where the front page of the Daily Sun proclaimed that “now that the dens have been pointed out, it is quite likely a police crusade will be in order.” It wasn’t just yet; as a police officer admitted to the Empire, there weren’t any laws prohibiting the use of opium or den keeping, which left the force powerless.


A squalid scene next door to an opium den. Slum interior, 152 York Street, January 20, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 1.

The legal situation changed in 1908, when federal Minister of Labour William Lyon Mackenzie King drafted the Opium Act, which criminalized trafficking and possession for sale. The law seemed squarely aimed at the Chinese community, especially in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, as other provisions of the act allowed respectable pharmacists to continue selling opiates with no problem. The first charges in Toronto under the new act were laid in July 1909, when Lee Chung Lung of 154 York Street and Tie You of 169 Richmond Street West were fined $100 each for operating opium dens on their premises. Police Magistrate Rupert Kingsford warned that the two men were being let off lightly, as future offenders would be jailed. Ten found-ins were also brought to court, but their charges were dropped as “the keeper is most to blame, getting those poor wretches into his place to smoke that stuff.”

Over the next two decades, the Chinese community complained of receiving harsh treatment from the police whenever people were found in opium or gambling dens. Charges were often reduced or dropped by judicial officials with paternalistic streaks toward the Chinese. Stories about opium gradually faded from the news, and seem so far in the past now that even if Councillor Mammoliti’s current claims are true, the nature of the issue makes his concerns fit neatly with his penchant for bizarre actions in the name of the public good—can we expect to see him park outside a suspicious parlour with video camera in hand?

Additional material from Discrimination and Denial: Systemic Racism in Ontario’ Legal and Criminal Justice Systems, 1892-1961 by Clayton James Mosher (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), and the following newspapers: the June 30, 1892, and July 2, 1892, editions of the Empire; the July 1, 1892, edition of the St. John Daily Sun; and the July 28, 1909, edition of the Toronto Star.


The complete Empire series on opium dens. Because of the size of the files, you’ll find them via these links:

June 30, 1892 front page.

June 30, 1892 page two.

July 1, 1892 front page.

July 1, 1892 page two.

July 2, 1892 conclusion of series.

Tales from the 2010 Municipal Election Campaign


One of the campaign posters referred to in this post. College Street, near Palmerston, September 19, 2010.

Revisiting my back catalogue of work brings back plenty of pieces I’d forgotten I’d written. Case in point: I was more active covering the 2010 municipal campaign than I remembered. I knew I wrote my usual election tie-ins–old ads, Historicists about past campaigns, etc.–but not that I tackled the unfolding mayoral race.

My contribution was two installments of Torontoist’s weekly roundup of the mayor’s race, “Campaign Chronicle.” Here’s the first, originally published on September 25, 2010.

Note: the original versions had plenty of links that are no longer valid. It seems the Globe and Mail and the Star have done a good job of keeping their links the same over the past seven years, the National Post and Sun not so much.

Despite front-page rumours and calls for anyone with weak polling numbers to drop out, as of this writing, the five leading mayoral candidates are hanging in the race. George Smitherman is being positioned as the anti–Rob Ford figure for other candidates to coalesce around, but will anyone follow? The growing spectre of the Grim Reaper stalking several campaigns has lead to loopier, more attention-grabbing policies and advertising campaigns. With the week’s major polls indicating that at least a third of Toronto voters still can’t make up their mind, expect the hallucinatory experience this race has been so far to continue.

Ford’s rising popularity and the strong lead he showed in the Nanos poll as the week began left media outlets scrambling to figure out how somebody they loved painting as a buffoon has become, among decided voters, the leader of the pack. The Sun has settled into being his cheerleader, which reduces the odds of Ford sending out angry emails to his supporters about its coverage. Other city papers are breaking out their crystal balls to predict who will be the power brokers in a Ford administration and who will be in the opposition.

The endless series of mayoral debates (including the one we live-blogged) carries on, and fatigue may be starting to show as candidates become more selective about which gatherings merit their presence, or at least those where the audience will include some supporters. Case in point: the Toronto Environmental Alliance debate on September 23, where Ford made a pit stop before heading to a police retirement party, while Rossi didn’t appear at all. They missed a debate that moved beyond talking points and provided a juicy quote from Joe Pantalone.

Oh Yeah!
In a Globe and Mail article about local Red Tories perplexed as to why centre-right candidates aren’t leading in the polls, writer John McGrath notes that Ford has broken through the “high walls of the Liberal fortress” like “an angry pitcher of Kool Aid.” Come to think of it, Ford has turned as red as the walking sugary beverage on occasion…

Invitees Included the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Doormouse
In the wake of the Nanos poll Monday morning, conservative gadfly Ezra Levant declared Ford’s commanding lead to be “Toronto’s Tea Party!” Allusions to politics south of the border were carried on with the revelation of Ford’s red, white, and blue lawn signs.

Making Voters an Offer They Can Refuse
Speaking of signage, Rocco Rossi’s campaign unveiled its latest ad campaign, which plays upon the candidate’s Italian heritage to show him as the Don the city needs…and we’re not talking the river. The image of a “goodfella” staring out above a darkened city did not impress some members of the Italian community, as, even if Rossi meant the ads to be playful, the images do reinforce certain stereotypes. The campaign could have been different: “I was going to use ‘It doesn’t take great hair to be a great mayor,’ but then George Smitherman came into the race and I thought he would steal it,” Rossi told the Sun.

Let Bygones Be Bygones
Remember Giorgio Mammoliti? The all-over-the-political map councillor (Ward 7, York West) who filed a human rights complaint after Ford allegedly hurled a derogatory term for Italians at him during a council session? That incident appears to be water under the bridge as the former mayoral candidate announced his support for Ford on Wednesday. Mammoliti has inspired other reconciliations among former political enemies—rumour has it that Sir Francis Bond Head is now backing Rebelmayor’s campaign.

Mayoral Idol
When asked by the Star on Tuesday which mayors she admired, Thomson listed three she felt had “accomplished change.” Her idols are David Crombie (“brought youth and a fresh approach”), Michael Bloomberg (“brought in visionary city planning”), and Rudolph Giuliani (“cleaned up crime, homeless issue”).

Arts and Transit
This week’s report card assessment of municipal candidates was issued by ArtsVote. Less than half of those registered to run filled out the form. Downtown incumbents received higher grades than their suburban counterparts, fuelling the arguments of those looking for wedges between the core and outlying areas. Recommended for remedial class was Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt), who received an F (“actively working against the arts”).

The right flank of council would likely receive failing grades if the Public Transit Coalition issued grades. The umbrella grouping of transit advocates and union members launched a media campaign on Monday to oppose the privatization of the TTC as proposed by four of the five mayoral frontrunners.

I Was Told There Would Be No Math
One of the areas of the campaign that has shown a high degree of creativity is number-crunching. The most extreme case of number rounding emerged from the Ford camp, which claimed the cost of adding bike lanes to Jarvis Street left taxpayers $6 million poorer. The city’s price tag on the project? $59,000.

Here’s the second installment I wrote, originally published on October 16, 2010 and which was also partly written by Hamutal Dotan.

With the departure of Rocco Rossi from the race Wednesday night, the designated frontrunner field slimmed down to three candidates this week (though uber-diehard supporters can relax in knowing that his name will still be on the ballot). Whether you thought Rossi brought a touch of class to the race or scratched your head at his latest attention-grabbing tactic, his exit from the race will rob it of some of its colour. Be prepared in the next week for more calls to embrace strategic voting, likely for George Smitherman at the expense of Joe Pantalone and the other candidates still hoping to sit in the mayor’s chair. And who knows: perhaps those calls for strategic voting may cause some of us to start looking more seriously at alternative forms of balloting, such as RaBIT, and pressuring the province to implement it in time for our next go-round in 2014.

So, what happened this week?

Follow the Bouncing Poll
At least two polls gained media attention this week. An Ipsos-Reid/CFRB poll released on Wednesday showed Smitherman (31%) and Ford (30%) neck-and-neck, with Pantalone and Rossi bringing up the rear. A Forum Research poll released on Friday post–Rossi exit showed Ford back on top with a six-point lead. Though samples in both cases were small, the key battleground in each poll was the still-sizable contingent of undecided voters, which was in the 16–25% range. With numbers like these, it’s still anybody’s guess what the end result will be.

The Week in Rob Ford Controversies
While his face stared at voters from the cover of Maclean’s, Rob Ford was sued for $6 million by Boardwalk Pub owner George Foulidis after the candidate refused to apologize for suggesting the restaurant owner bribed city officials to gain a vending contract from the city. Tuesday morning found a series of signs erected in the median of University Avenue which declared in stark black and white: “Wife-beating racist drunk for mayor!” The signs, placed by an anonymous person ticked off at the course of the election campaign, were promptly removed.

In an interview with Dandyhorse magazine, Ford noted that bicycle issues had become too political and compared the debates about cycling infrastructure to the battles over abortion.

Now That You’ve Dropped Out of the Race, Where Would Like to Go?
For Rossi, the answer isn’t Disneyland but Spain, where he will spend up to three weeks on a hiking pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Former Mayors Weigh In
The number of former mayors of Toronto offering their endorsements grew this week when Art Eggleton followed John Sewell’s lead and offered his support to George Smitherman after the candidate’s speech at the Toronto Board of Trade on Friday. We have yet to hear from David Crombie, June Rowlands, or Barbara Hall, but we do know that somebody claiming to be Mel Lastman isn’t a fan of Ford’s. As far as other endorsements went, Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) sent his regrets to Pantalone and lent his support to Smitherman, while John Parker (Ward 26, Don Valley West) officially backed Ford.

Report Cards
The Toronto Environmental Alliance issued their final grades, which showed a clear split among candidates in their stands on green policies, if only because half of the frontrunners bothered to fill out the survey. Smitherman and Pantalone earned top scores, while the absentee Rossi and Ford flunked for not even pretending to care.

The Secret of Rob Ford’s Success?
According to an article in today’s Globe and Mailhis post-industrial gut. The same article postulates that David Miller was out of touch with Torontonians because of his weight loss. Thoughtful analysis at its best, ladies and gentlemen.

adventure rob ford cover

One of the memes of the 2010 campaign involved a picture of Rob Ford experiencing issues with an umbrella. Torontoist republished a pile of pics, including this one I created using the cover of Adventure Comics #425 (original art by Michael Kaluta).

On my own blog (originally published on October 28, 2010), I wrote my thoughts about election night, including how I wanted to throw the radio out the window when Sue-Anne Levy gloated about Ford’s victory. 

So here we are, just a little over a month before Rob Ford officially assumes the duties of Mayor of Toronto. Based on the numbers from Monday night, there were slightly more people walking around Tuesday with long faces (or nursing hangovers) than those giddy at the prospect of derailing the gravy train (and nursing hangovers). The results capped a campaign where anger reigned supreme and both candidates and voters did their best to imitate the Incredible Hulk.


I admit it. I drew a line to connect the two stumps of arrow next to Joe Pantalone’s name. Not my ideal candidate, but as the sort-of-stand-in for the outgoing administration, I could live with myself if I voted for him.
Neither Ford nor George Smitherman were enticing prospects. The only thing I discerned all along from the former provincial cabinet minister’s campaign was that he was running for mayor just to become mayor. Give Ford credit: his policies were unpalatable, but there was no question about where he stood. Smitherman’s vagueness allowed him to swing toward the right side of the spectrum when Ford gained momentum, then swing back toward the middle when he became the anointed lead for the anyone-but-Ford brigade…though Smitherman’s swings weren’t as wild, or bizarre, as Rocco Rossi’s.

The notion that voting for Smitherman was a must-do in order to prevent a Ford victory sealed my decision. I’ve never been impressed with strategic voting and its tendency to backfire (remember Buzz Hargrove’s attempts to corral votes in certain directions?). The concept encourages negativity as voters are directed to vote for someone just to prevent a more odious candidate from winning rather than cast a ballot for anyone more aligned with your belief system or who serves as a lesser evil than the designated lesser evil. It’s human nature that we don’t like being told what we should do, which affected my decision and may have swayed other angry voters to the Ford camp (I admit being one who relished insulting Ford for being a buffoon without thinking about the boomerang effect).

While David Miller made missteps, he was nowhere near the anti-christ figure he was made out to be in some circles (hello Toronto Star!). I still admire his positive energy and sense of care for the city. While driving through Leslieville on Saturday, I noticed Miller on the sidewalk outside Bonjour Brioche. I almost yelled out the window something praiseworthy, like “the city’s going to miss you” or “thanks for seven great years.”


I sat down at my computer just before CBC Radio started its coverage at 8 on election night. Besides natural curiosity over how the night would unfold, I intended to help supply the Torontoist live feed with anything interesting that floated across the airwaves. Within twelve minutes of the polls closing Ford was declared the victor.

It hadn’t been a good day generally (for election- and non-election related reasons), but hearing Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Anne Levy sound oh-so-smug as her paper’s poster boy cruised to victory was more than I could take. I got up and yelled at the radio “Oh, f@*k off, Levy!” (possibly with more unprintable words), then rushed over to turn it off. Had the window been open, it might have been the end of my long-time waker-upper.

Sensing I needed to cool down and get some air to regain perspective, I decided it wasn’t worth getting any angrier by sending off more missives. I closed my email, tossed on a pair of pants, flipped the radio back on (luckily Levy had moved on) and waited a few minutes before heading out for a stroll down Bayview with Sarah. We pondered the consequences of the vote and tried to find silver linings amid the gloom that most of our acquaintances reported as they heard the results. The street was quiet, with only a few souls walking or dining. Televisions in bars were fixed on football. Mannequins in store windows offered no comment on the night’s proceedings. The walk provided the calming atmosphere I needed to come back to Earth.


So far, we’ve learned that interviews with our new mayor and football practice don’t mix, streetcars aren’t going to disappear anytime soon, and rumours are floating of nepotism among candidates for the new executive committee. Opponents and pundits are slowly recovering from their shock to figure out how to ride out the next four years. Should progressives tone down the insults that didn’t work during the campaign and find respectful, constructive ways to reach out to and understand the anger of voters who chose Ford? Should they find every means possible to convincingly counter the inevitable gaffes that so far have increased Ford’s appeal? Pray our new mayor commits a snafu so bad that council turfs him? Embrace the quasi-apocalyptic visions predicted during the campaign and wait to rebuild the city after 2014? Keep fighting the good fight at grassroots/community level? Flee to Calgary?

Life rolls along. We’ll survive, one way or another.