The Choosing of an Interim Toronto Mayor, 1978

This story was originally published by The Grid toward the end of 2012. I don’t have the exact date, as it was one of those pieces which fell off the website before the publication folded for good. I don’t remember what the original title of this article was, though the sub-head probably mentioned Rob Ford during the period it appeared he might be tossed from office.

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Toronto Star, August 27, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

When Toronto city councillors voted for an interim mayor on September 1, 1978, the deadlock the media predicted came to pass. Candidates Fred Beavis and Anne Johnston had 11 votes each. Under the law, there was one solution to determine who would fill the last three months of David Crombie’s term: placing the contenders’ names in a cardboard box.

While it’s unknown if choosing Rob Ford’s successor will require the luck of the draw, the last time council filled a mayor’s term wasn’t due to a politician departing in disgrace. After six years at the helm, Crombie used an upcoming by-election in Rosedale to leap into federal politics. When he announced his bid for the Progressive Conservative nomination in March 1978, Crombie praised the public’s civic engagement during his tenure. “You can fight City Hall in Toronto,” he observed, “and if your point of view is sensible you can usually win.”

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Toronto Sun, September 1, 1978.

When Crombie officially submitted his resignation in August, the list of interim successors narrowed to two councillors. First elected in 1956, Fred Beavis was the longest-serving councilor and had sat on nearly all critical committees. The genial former roofer was backed by the Executive Committee and council’s right wing, and criticized for his support of developers, reviving the Spadina Expressway, and eviction Toronto Island residents. If chosen, he would be the city’s first Roman Catholic mayor. Beavis was favoured over Anne Johnston, who was first elected in 1972, served as the chair of the Board of Health for four years, and claimed to be the same height as Crombie. Her support came from the left and her fellow female aldermen, while criticisms included loose lips, lack of experience with critical issues, and a suspicion she was a puppet for mayoral contender John Sewell. If chosen, she would be Toronto’s first female mayor.

The decision was made during a tense 45-minute meeting. A proposal to adjourn and move into an informal caucus was quickly voted down. Official nominations were made for Beavis and Johnston. George Ben stunned his fellow councillors by declaring the process “asinine and an affront to the dignity of Toronto.” He criticized both candidates, declaring that Beavis was in it for “lousy reasons,” while Johnston was “a joke on the people of Toronto.” Ben nominated deputy mayor David Smith, who declined due to an informal agreement among councillors like himself who were running for mayor in the November municipal election not to seek the temporary position. Ben continued to fume, pointing to 40 civic employees watching the meeting who were indulging in “a rather disgraceful waste of taxpayer’s money.”

ts 78-09-02 beavis becomes mayorToronto Star, September 2, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

When the open vote split evenly, out came the cardboard box. The winner was drawn by Pat Murphy of the Association of Women Electors, who had covered council meetings for two decades. When Beavis’s name was pulled, it continued his recent good luck streak of winning church draws and community raffles. Johnston took her loss gracefully—she successfully motioned council to unanimously approve the result, then draped the chain of office around Beavis’s neck. She later lost to Art Eggleton in a 1985 mayoral run and was defeated as a councillor by newcomer Karen Stintz in 2003.

While other councillors toasted him with champagne, Beavis leaned back in the mayor’s chair and, true to his blue collar image, cracked open a bottle of Labatt’s Blue. “I figured something you always wanted all your life,” he told the Star, “was something you just weren’t going to get.” The only major hiccup during the transfer of power was forgetting to grab a key to his new office before his first full morning on the job. Beavis fulfilled his duties without major incidents, and was re-elected to the council seat he would retain for another decade. Crombie easily won the Rosedale by-election, while Sewell succeeded Beavis in the mayor’s seat.

sun 78-09-05 editorial Toronto Sun, September 5, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

In a municipal election day editorial, the Star reflected there was nothing wrong with Beavis having been the sentimental choice for the job. “In his years on City Council, Beavis always displayed a compassionate consideration for people of all political persuasions and a warm sense of humour. He carried these qualities into the mayor’s office too…We enjoyed having you as mayor.” We shall see if these will be critical qualities for whoever replaces Rob Ford.

Additional material from the September 2, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 3, 1978, August 27, 1978, September 2, 1978, and November 13, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

Rob Ford remained mayor until his term ended in 2014. David Crombie served as Rosedale’s MP until 1988, filling several cabinet positions for Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. Fred Beavis died in 1997, Anne Johnston in 2019.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Fred Beavis, 1978. Photo by David Cooper. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Reference Library, tspa_0031446f.

When Crombie first announced his intention to run for Parliament in March 1978, the Star spotlighted three councillors expected to seek the interim mayoralty: Beavis, Johnston, and Tony O’Donohue. “I ran for mayor in 1972 and drew 58,000 votes,” O’Donohue told the Star. “I’m not going to disappoint those people now and turn around and not run for interim mayor.” He also told the Globe and Mail that he was the “logical choice.”

Beavis, who had declared he would only go for the interim position and not run for mayor in that fall’s municipal election, was stunned by O’Donohue’s decision. “Tony once stated he would support me for interim mayor,” Beavis told the Star. “First I’ve heard of him changing his mind and I don’t know if it’s a change of heart or what. We’ve had no falling out and nothing changes my mind.”

Somewhere along the line O’Donohue focused on the municipal election, where he finished second in a three-way race with Sewell and David Smith.

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Globe and Mail, September 2, 1978.

“Beavis was not sophisticated, but was trustworthy in that he did what he said, and he was genuinely liked by almost everyone on Council.” – John Sewell, on favouring Beavis for his Executive Committee following the 1978 election.

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Toronto Sun, September 3, 1978.

Additional material from How We Changed Toronto by John Sewell (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2015), the March 4, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 4, 1978 edition of the Toronto Star.

222 Lansdowne Avenue

This installment of my Ghost City column for The Grid was originally published on November 13, 2012.

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Toronto Star, June 24, 1936.

Over 75 years after the first cash register rolled off the line at the National Cash Register (NCR) plant at Dundas Street West and Landsdowne Avenue, the bells are still ringing. The shell of classic industrial architecture seems appropriate for the warehouse-style grocers who have taken advantage of the building’s ample room for refrigeration, storage, and merchandising since the mid-1970s.

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The Globe, June 25, 1936.

Before NCR purchased the property during the mid-1930s, site occupants included the original home of St. Helen’s Roman Catholic Church (which moved a block east) and, during World War I, army barracks. On November 27, 1935, Canadian Manufacturers’ Association president W.S. Morden turned the sod for the $300,000 plant. Opened in June 1936, the 75,000 square-foot facility included a machine shop, assembly area, and stock department. It was intended to supply cash registers and other business machines to Canada and the rest of the British Empire. The yellow-bricked Art Moderne façade was designed by architect Thomas E. Muirhead, whose other works included the Kenson Apartments on Grosvenor Street. The Star noted that the plant offered employees “comfortable working conditions and lighting of the most modern kind.” NCR also provided a generous Christmas bonus—employees who had worked more than three months for the company by the end of 1936 received $25, with an extra buck per year of service. The company’s growth prompted two additions built between 1947 and 1950.

The site switched from building cash registers to utilizing them when Knob Hill Farms bought the building in the mid-1970s to serve as its first warehouse-style “food terminal” location within the City of Toronto. Customers could watch trucks unload fresh goods in the middle of the produce department and butchers practise the fine craft of meat-cutting. “I don’t like to do things behind closed doors,” noted chain proprietor Steve Stavro. “I want the customers to see everything and feel part of it. If you’re selling proper merchandise, you should have nothing to hide.” Among the perks the store offered were late shopping hours and a courtyard statue of Neptune Stavro imported from Italy. It wasn’t the prettiest store, but it offered affordable prices and a deeper selection of multicultural foods than other chains.

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Toronto Star, August 28, 1975.

Knob Hill Farms was packed from the moment it opened in September 1975. The 200-space parking lot barely coped with the 50,000 customers who filed through during the store’s first week. The store easily absorbed the $25 fines it received for violating the Lord’s Day Act by staying open on Sundays. Stavro felt it was the only day of the week many of his customers could grocery shop, a position still vindicated by the long lines seen at any supermarket on an average Sunday. The combination of weak financial penalties and traffic jams led Toronto city councillor Tony O’Donohue to call for tougher bylaws on Sunday openings if Queen’s Park didn’t enact promised legislation surrounding the issue. The province soon passed new Sunday opening laws that resulted in Knob Hill Farms, along with other non-convenience-store food purveyors, locking its doors during the official day of rest. Not until 1992 did the store open on Sunday without worrying about fines.

After a quarter-century run, the store closed along with the rest of the Knob Hill Farms chain in 2000. Near the end, customers complained about wide pools of water streaming from aging refrigerators. The store sat vacant for several years, during which it was designated as a heritage property, before reopening as a No Frills, which provided a modernized take on Knob Hill’s low-cost warehouse concept.

Additional material from the September 18, 1975 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the November 27, 1935, June 24, 1936, December 16, 1936, August 28, 1975, and October 1, 1975 editions of the Toronto Star.