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.
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, 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. O’Brien 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 O’Brien’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.”
Advertisement, 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 soon 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.
Left: advertisement, the Telegram, December 4, 1954. Right: cartoon, the Telegram, December 1, 1954.
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.
Advertisement, the 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.
Advertisement, the 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.
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.
Cartoon, 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.
Additional material from 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.