Historicist: Roy Thomson, MP for York Centre?
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Historicist: Roy Thomson, MP for York Centre?

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Roy Thomson, Baron Thomson of Fleet, photographed by Gordon W. Powley, 1945. Archives of Ontario, C 5-1-0-113-2.

As he neared his sixtieth year, Roy Thomson had reached a crossroads. The newspaper baron’s publishing empire was entering the United States and Great Britain and he held the presidency of the Canadian Press. These accomplishments were tempered by the emptiness in his life created when his wife succumbed to cancer and by a sense that he had reached the limits of what he could do in the Canadian media business without repeating himself. As he noted in his autobiography After I Was Sixty:

This was a bleak period in my life. I threw myself into business activities but somehow nothing seemed the same. Now there was no one in whom I could confide, on whose understanding I could count…I know I had to get out of that rut. So I tried another card. I thought I might get in the Canadian Parliament and put myself forward as the [Progressive] Conservative candidate for the riding of York Centre.

Thomson’s political experience was limited to a stint as alderman in North Bay and an unsuccessful run as mayor there in the early 1930s. Would the growing suburbs of Toronto prove more receptive to him as a federal representative?

Progressive Conservative campaign advertisement. North Toronto Free Press, July 24, 1953.

Thomson campaign advertisement. North Toronto Free Press, August 7, 1953.

Thomson was named as the Progressive Conservative candidate for York Centre on February 7, 1953. One of six new federal ridings in Ontario, York Centre covered all of North York Township west of Yonge Street, a sliver of Vaughan Township south of Highway 7, and the town of Woodbridge. The area had sided with the Liberals in the 1949 federal election and polls indicated that Thomson faced an uphill battle.
The Thomson campaign stressed the benefits of his business acumen for the running of the nation. “For too long,” he noted in campaign literature, “the money which Canadians have invested in the Government has been wastefully spent because the investment has not been carefully managed. If I am elected, I shall make every effort to see that every Canadian gets a dollar’s value for every dollar of tax that he has to pay.” His stress on financial matters often implied that if the Tories were elected, the Ministry of Finance would be the best place for his talents. He also admitted during a rally involving all Toronto-area Tory candidates that “I’m not trying to solve all the problems of the world.”
Despite the polls, Thomson campaigned as if he were destined to be the winner, with a stamina that exhausted his campaign workers. He threw himself into visiting every home in the riding, yelling “I’m only selling myself, come have a look” when residents refused to open their doors. He also set up tea parties, which Russell Braddon described in Roy Thomson of Fleet Street:

He gave package-deal tea parties, where he provided everything from the tea service to the dainty sandwiches and asked only for a co-operative housewife who would fill cups and have all the neighbours into her home to meet him. The tea drunk, the sandwiches eaten, the hands shaken, he had the crockery washed and the plates replenished, and then moved the lot onto yet another house for yet another party.

Thomson canvassed until 5:30 p.m., stopping at that time so as not to interrupt any constituent’s dinner—not everyone wanted to digest political rhetoric with their meat and potatoes. This touch of gentility permeated the quiet yet close race in York Centre, about which the North Toronto Free Press was happy to note “there has been practically no evidence of mud-slinging or dirty tactics in the contest, and verbal personal attacks by one candidate upon another have been laudably absent.” Thomson didn’t even use his nearest paper, the Weston Times and Guide, as a stump to push his campaign. Braddon noted that CCF candidate William Newcombe was “almost unnerved to find his meetings covered on page one whilst Thomson’s appeared on page two.” Conservative-leaning papers like the Telegram softened Thomson’s image, noting that “he has a well-stocked library but Mr. Thomson’s taste in literary relaxation—whodunits—keeps company with that of thousands of Canadians. He is a man of simple tastes, and spends many of his off hours in his garden, with his pet Scotty always at his heels.”

North Toronto Free Press, July 31, 1953.

It was to Newcombe that Thomson admitted late in the campaign that “you know, I haven’t got a chance. We’re going to get beat by fifty per cent.” This proved true across the country, as Louis St. Laurent easily led the Liberals to a huge majority. Thomson didn’t fare too badly, losing to Liberal Al Hollingworth by just under 2,400 votes. Though he felt slightly humiliated, defeat proved a relief—“I can tell you if I had won the election, I would have certainly lost The Scotsman.” During the campaign, he had been presented with an offer to purchase a majority in the Scottish newspaper. Since Thomson knew that the paper was looking for a hands-on owner, and since he felt that dropping out of the election campaign to pursue the offer would leave the Tories scrambling and add an air of disrepute to his name, he sent over a pair of executives to show his interest. Within a week of the election results, Thomson was off to Edinburgh to start on the path that ultimately led to his ownership of the Times and a peerage. As Thomson summed up the long term effect of his unsuccessful Toronto political career, “I was adopted and defeated, thank heaven.”
Additional material from Roy Thomson of Fleet Street by Russell Braddon (Toronto: Collins, 1965); After I Was Sixty by Lord Thomson of Fleet (Don Mills: Nelson, 1975); the July 15, 1953 edition of the Globe and Mail; the July 31, 1953 and August 7, 1953 editions of the North Toronto Free Press; and the July 27, 1953 edition of the Telegram.