In which a future mayor gets whacked on the nose by his future opponent.
Each month in the run-up to the municipal election on October 27, Torontoist will profile one of the 64 people who served as Mayor of Toronto—people who shaped the city, displayed colourful personalities, or managed to do both.
Bert Sterling Wemp might not have given the impression of being a man who’d lived a remarkable life. “He was one of the most colourful Torontonians,” Globe and Mail columnist Bruce West observed upon Wemp’s death in 1976, “while at the same time giving the superficial appearance of being quiet, bland and altogether unimpressive. Small of stature and usually rather serious of mien, he sometimes seemed almost prim as he looked at you over the rims of his glasses.”
Yet Wemp was a highly decorated First World War flyer, a battlefield correspondent during the Second World War, and a dedicated public servant. He also beat the odds and defeated one of Toronto’s fieriest politicians during a scrappy mayoral contest.
Born in 1889, Wemp became a copy boy with the Telegram at 16, and was quickly promoted to the role of full-time reporter. Though he took classes at Victoria College to prepare for a possible career as a Methodist minister, Wemp stuck with journalism, enjoying a 60-year career at the Telegram. He employed a quieter writing style than the hyperbolic one usually seen in the paper, preferring to craft meticulously detailed stories.
In 1915, after completing flyer training in Toronto, Wemp enlisted with the Royal Naval Air Service. The skill he displayed during First World War reconnaissance flights and bombing runs, especially against German bases in Belgium, earned him numerous honours. He was the first Canadian to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, and was also decorated with the Order of Leopold by Belgium and the Croix de Guerre by France.
After the war, Wemp returned to the Telegram, rising to city editor by the late 1920s. He also entered municipal politics, with stints as a school trustee, alderman for Ward 2 (which covered the area between Jarvis and the Don River, then stretched north along the east side of Yonge to the edge of Hoggs Hollow), and member of the Board of Control. His concurrent roles as councillor and shaper of the Telegram’s municipal coverage raised some eyebrows, but didn’t prevent rival papers from supporting his candidacies.
In September 1929, he announced his intention to run against incumbent Sam McBride for mayor. The main issue was a separate ballot question on a bylaw to implement a “civic improvement plan” (CIP). In March 1929, a special planning committee issued a report recommending a major reshaping of downtown traffic patterns, which would have seen the creation of a series of grand avenues named after First World War battle sites (Arras, Cambrai, Passchendaele). Its centrepiece was Vimy Circle, a roundabout at University Avenue and Richmond Street inspired by Paris’s Place de l’Étoile, which would have been flanked by a series of skyscrapers. The $19-million plan was promoted as a solution to traffic woes and employment problems, and marked one of the city’s first attempts to shape itself as a world-class city.
When the election campaign officially began in mid-December, voters endured a nasty battle involving newspapers as much as actual candidates. For the CIP were McBride, the Mail and Empire, and the Star. Against were Wemp, the Telegram (from which he resigned his city editor position in mid-December), and the Globe. Wemp felt the CIP benefitted only a small section of downtown and didn’t address wider infrastructure issues across the growing city. As presented in the Telegram, “Wemp’s Alternative All-Toronto Development Programme” promoted a series of street extensions and widenings to improve traffic flow in and out of the core and the elimination of several troublesome level railway crossings along St. Clair Avenue in the city’s northwest side. Accusations were made that certain wealthy landholders, such as North American Life Insurance and the Star, would benefit from the CIP’s proposals.
Journalistic objectivity flew out the window during the campaign, especially at the Star and the Telegram. Both papers wasted ink and trees slamming each other and their preferred candidates. Tensions spilled over into campaign events: Wemp, fearing a chaotic screaming match, withdrew from a Massey Hall debate when McBride refused to include a moderator.
During a speech at Keele Street Public School on December 28, 1929, McBride mentioned the debate fiasco. “Controller Wemp is a coward,” he told the audience. Heckling ensued. When he thought he heard unflattering remarks from anti-CIP council candidate Claude Pearce, McBride charged back to the platform, fist raised in the air. It would not have been unreasonable to think the hot-tempered McBride could have started a fistfight at this point, given his penchant for coming to blows with fellow councillors (including Wemp, whom he had charged at and hit on the nose with papers five years earlier). Depending on the source, the crowd then either rallied to the absent Wemp’s defence in the midst of the chaos, or cheered McBride. The Star conveniently neglected to print the word “coward” in its coverage.
But McBride had made a fatal mistake: calling Wemp a coward pushed his allies into action. Both the Globe and Telegram published large photos of Wemp wearing his military decorations. The Telegram asked readers to consider Wemp’s war record and ask themselves if this man could be cowardly. As for McBride, a Globe editorial proclaimed that “the individual who shouts ‘Coward’ at his opponents and threatens assault from a safe distance is not Toronto’s idea—or ideal—of a civic campaigner.” War vets proclaimed their support for Wemp and shouted at McBride during subsequent speeches. The Toronto Flying Club held a special flight on election day in Wemp’s honour.
A record number of voters—more than 107,000—showed up at the polls on January 1, 1930. The effect of the “coward” speech on McBride, who was perceived as the leader throughout the campaign, was clear: he lost to Wemp by nearly 4,400 votes. The CIP bylaw was also defeated, partly because of the successful campaigning on the anti-side, and partly because of worries stemming from October’s stock market crash. As Mark Osbaldeston later observed in Unbuilt Toronto, the plan was ”more about giving the core a grandeur and spatial cohesion than it was about improving traffic flow.”
In his victory speech on the balcony of the Telegram, Wemp promised that “the outlying districts of this great city [would] not be neglected.” He was true to his word: his alternative development plan was implemented piece by piece, though some of its elements (such as a Sherbourne Street extension that evolved into present-day Mount Pleasant Road between Bloor and St. Clair) took years to materialize. His administration also hired the City’s first permanent planning commissioner, Tracy leMay. The new mayor also punished the Star for its campaign behaviour by banning its radio station, CFCA, from City Hall unless other stations were present.
During the election nomination meeting on December 18, 1930, Wemp declined to run for a second term. He cited health reasons, specifically an upcoming series of operations necessary to mend abdominal injuries suffered during the war. Recovering in hospital on election day, he was no doubt pleased to hear that McBride had failed in a comeback attempt.
Wemp later returned to the Telegram, serving as a European correspondent during the Second World War, and accompanying the Allies during the invasion of Italy in 1943. Following his retirement from the paper in 1964, he frequently appeared at major civic events. One of his last public appearances, in September 1974, involved unveiling a plaque marking the 75th anniversary of Old City Hall, a building he simply called “beautiful.” The following March, Mayor David Crombie visited Wemp at North York General Hospital and presented him with a replica of the mayor’s chain of office. The gesture touched Wemp, who wept in appreciation of the honour.
Additional material from Unbuilt Toronto by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2008); the December 30, 1929, and December 31, 1929 editions of the Globe; the September 19, 1974, February 6, 1976, and February 9, 1976 editions of the Globe and Mail; the December 30, 1929, January 3, 1930, February 2, 1966, February 5, 1976, and February 4, 1989 editions of the Toronto Star; and the December 20, 1929, December 30, 1929, and January 2. 1930 editions of the Telegram.
This post originally miscalled the author of Unbuilt Toronto David Osbaldeston, when in fact his name is Mark Osbaldeston. We regret the error.