Historicist: Brash, Bungling, and Beloved
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Historicist: Brash, Bungling, and Beloved

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

Mayor Allan A. Lamport presenting a ribbon to Thelma Brewis at the 1952 Miss Toronto Beauty Contest, Exhibition Stadium, on July 19, 1952. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 1732.

With election day looming, among our current crop of municipal candidates, there is one who is seen as particularly gaffe-prone and deserving of not only a Gaffe-o-Meter but also, at least for a time, his own satirical blog. After all, with his foibles over the course of his career on council well documented, this front-running mayoral candidate has: called a fellow councillor “Gino boy”; got into a shouting match with the public at a Leafs game; denounced funding for AIDS programming because it “is [a] very preventable” disease “if you are not doing needles and you are not gay”; berated the homeless and jobless; and dryly stated that “those Oriental people” are “slowly taking over” because they ‘work like dogs.'”
One might think that such a record of one faux pas after another false step inside and outside of the council chamber would make Rob Ford an outlier, but he’s only one amongst a firmly entrenched tradition of local politicians whose indiscretions or flubs have been repeatedly overlooked. “The buffoonery of Toronto’s city hall has usually been of a harmless, and indeed ingratiating, quality,” veteran municipal affairs reporter for the Star, Ron Haggart, wrote in a 1968 piece later reprinted in William Kilbourn’s Toronto Remembered: A Celebration of the City (Stoddart, 1984). Some of the most egregious blunderers were also the city’s most beloved politicians.

Alderman MacGregor with military chaplains at Queen’s Park in 1916. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 710B.

In 1925, Donald MacGregor, a “soft-faced music teacher,” in Haggart’s appraisal, who was then serving as a city controller, waited outside a meeting of the council’s property committee until alderman (and future mayor) Sam McBride emerged. Shouting, “You dirty yellow dog!” MacGregor pounced on him and chased him into the empty council chamber. McBride, a gruff lumber merchant from The Ward who had his own well-earned reputation for fisticuffs, had apparently questioned the respectability of MacGregor’s credentials as a music teacher during a recent debate of minor importance. Smarting from this insult, MacGregor rained punches on McBride’s head, even after the future mayor fell to his knees and clung to one of the chamber’s railings. A doctor later noted that MacGregor’s Masonic ring did particular damage, leaving at least “six separate and discernible cuts and bruises on McBride’s head and neck.”
Prior to the creation of Metro Toronto, the reeves and deputy reeves elected in the twenty-six villages and towns of York County—an immense region of 850 square miles dominated by farmland and dotted with hamlets—would meet in Toronto three times a year. With a modest budget, this York County Council administered common services for the entire county including judicial administration and major roadways connecting the disparate settlements. After the Second World War, when its membership rose to fifty-one, it was a point of pride for the council that it was the fourth largest legislative body in the entire country.
But it was an unwieldy and unproductive organization, its business always conducted at an “unhurried and unconcerned” pace according to Timothy J. Colton in Big Daddy (UTP, 1980). “We didn’t have much money to spend or many important things to do,” county councillor William I. Hearst is quoted by Colton. “The council was a good place to argue, sort of a debating society where you could work off your tensions.”

Image from the Globe and Mail of January 10, 1955.

Perhaps the county council’s real purpose was that it afforded politicians from the far-flung settlements and suburbs an excuse to travel to the big city for a bit of fun and recreation. And the representatives certainly indulged in such festivities, particularly in the bar rooms of the King Edward and Victoria hotels (both located conveniently close to the meetings rooms on Adelaide Street), or a short streetcar ride away at the Woodbine horse track.
The public was well aware of this behaviour and occasionally the politicians felt compelled to try to rebut “the criticism from some of the public for the past ten years or so that we come down here to play euchre and sleep,” in the words of one county warden.
The irony was that this same gentleman, William E. MacDonald of New Toronto, was reputed to be one of the council’s worst offenders. “[H]e had an unequalled flair for composing speeches on the streetcar from Woodbine,” Colton writes, then after giving the speech with “crisp conviction,” promptly “returning to the horses with a lapse of no more than several races.”
Frederick G. Gardiner, then early in his political career and representing Forest Hill at the York County Council, found the body so frustrating that, in 1937, he exclaimed that “[t]en men standing on their heads” could do a better job of governing.
Gardiner soon got his chance to run affairs in a more business-like manner when appointed chairman of Metro Toronto upon its creation in 1953. But in pushing through the major public works and infrastructure projects that propelled Toronto’s post-war urban growth and economic prosperity, Gardiner’s forceful demeanour sometimes tipped toward outright anger when faced with resistance from elected officials. “I’m ready to fight in the gutter or in a more rarefied atmosphere with Latin and Greek,” Gardiner growled at Ross Parry, a newbie alderman questioning Gardiner’s seemingly unchecked power in 1957. “If you’re going to throw bolo punches, be prepared to take some back.” Future mayor Philip Givens added the impression he had of the Metro Chair while an alderman: “He scared the hell out of you. If he cut you up, he did it thoroughly. He eviscerated you, he left your entrails all over the floor.”
Gardiner could also be self-deprecating about his own public image. As Colton notes, he told the press that the only music he loved was “the symphony you play on a cash register” and “that if somebody came to me and got a blood transfusion they would freeze to death.” His sense of humour and quick quips poked fun at others with a surprisingly homespun charm. He once said that debating with Scarborough Reeve Oliver Crockford was “like shovelling fog with a pitchfork,” and he once called Mayor Nathan Phillips a “financial accident going somewhere to happen.”
Phillips, too, was frequently quoted in the newspapers for his humourous statements—although in his case it wasn’t always clear that his solecisms were as intentional as he claimed. Phillips, Haggart writes, “fancied himself as the master of the intended malapropism; it was part of his image his voters loved so well, that he was just an ordinary guy thrown in with all those political wolves, a rather generous assessment of a politician who survived longer at city hall than any other.”
In an infamous incident, the new Soviet Ambassador to Canada, economist Amazasp Arutunian, paid a visit to Toronto in 1959. Unable to pronounce the name, Phillips referred to him as “Rootin’ Tootin’.” Although Phillips claimed in his autobiography that he’d made the comment in friendly jest, and that the ambassador enjoyed the humour as he signed the visitor’s register at city hall, reporters at the time said that Arutunian appeared perplexed by the quip. In a six-column, front-page headline, the Star asked “Did Mayor Insult Russian Envoy?” And Phillips’ remark was reprinted in newspapers across the world. Phillips’ popularity survived the incident (and several other gaffes over the course of his career) intact, lending credence to his own assertion that the city’s various ethnic groups—including many recent arrivals from communist countries—”loved having their mayor kid an important Russian official.”
Another favourite of the Toronto press was Allan A. Lamport during a long career in municipal affairs as alderman, controller, mayor, and transit commissioner. His repeatedly botched usage of the English language made recording “Lamportisms” a local sport for political observers. Haggart listed some of his personal favourites. On the difficulties of getting the government to reach decisions, “Lampy” said: “It’s like pushing a car uphill with a rope.” On political infighting, he said: “If anyone’s gonna stab me in the back I wanna be there.” On the need to halt an expensive project, the politician demanded: “Let’s not just discontinue it, let’s stop it.”
“In politics,” Lamport told Frank Tumpane, columnist for the Toronto Telegram, on another occasion, “you need more of the kind of men who will crawl out from behind the woodwork.”

Mayor Allan A. Lamport (centre) and Metro Chairman Frederick G. Gardiner (second from right) at official opening of Yonge Street subway, March 30, 1954. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 8962.

For all the innocent entertainment provided by his quotable sayings, Lamport’s buffoonery extended to his political actions. A “bon vivant,” as Mark Maloney explained in the Star, in two years alone Lamport “spent $370,000 (in today’s dollars) on champagne, steaks, wine, cocktails, liqueurs, cigars, and room service in Suite 1735 of the Royal York Hotel.” Despite prompting a judicial inquiry as a result of funding these luxuries from the public purse without council’s approval, Lamport remains a beloved figure in the city.
Until Ford arrived on the public stage, the most recent local politician to consistently grab the headlines for all the wrong reasons was Mel Lastman. From the moment he jumped from doing television commercials for his store into municipal politics as a North York alderman until his retirement as the first mayor of the megacity, Lastman was equal parts bombastic and blundering.
His greatest hits include threatening the life of a journalist reporting on his wife’s arrest for shoplifting. He sparked controversy before a trip to Kenya in support of Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Olympics by admitting hesitation about the trip. He said: “I’m sort of scared about going out there….I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.” And, when asked by CNN about the actions of the World Health Organization during the 2003 SARS outbreak, he answered: “They don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t know who this group is. I’ve never heard of them before.”
Yet, although he remains a more polarizing figure than Lamport or Phillips, there was always a certain charm to his bluster and tactlessness, like an uncle who makes comically politically incorrect comments at Christmas supper.
“The idiosyncrasies of Toronto politicians have always seemed to me, however embarrassing,” Haggart concluded, “to be harmless enough, frequently providing better television on the local news than the same old retread situation comedies, and hardly a distraction at all from the indisputable fact that the city [is] honestly, competently and progressively governed.”
Other sources consulted: Robert Fulford, Accidental City (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1995) and Nathan Phillips, Mayor of all the People (McClelland and Stewart, 1967).