Before Jack Layton, the public mourned two former mayors at our main municipal building.
While the state funeral planned for Jack Layton tomorrow is unique for being the first held for an opposition leader, it won’t be the first time a former councillor lies in state in Toronto’s seat of government. That honour was also bestowed upon two men who rose from council to the mayor’s office but died before the end of their mandate. Old City Hall served as the venue for the public to remember Sam McBride and Donald Summerville in a way that may be similar to that we will see at the new City Hall today.
Fiery Sam McBride returned to the mayor’s chair in 1936, seven years after his first term ended. Described by the Star as “a two-fisted, red-blooded, go-getter who was ready on a second’s notice to fight for what he believed to be right and to champion the cause of the common citizen,” his second stint was marred by ill health related to a blood infection caused by a teeth-pulling. Though he continued to look after city affairs, his public appearances declined. On November 10, 1936, McBride suffered a stroke and remained unconscious until he died four days later. City council decided the appropriate venue to remember McBride, who was born in the nearby Ward neighbourhood and who had been involved in municipal politics for 30 years, was Old City Hall. Inspired by the funeral held for Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill in 1891, the plan was to have McBride lie in state at the base of the grand staircase of the building for four hours on November 16, followed by a funeral in the lobby at 2:30 p.m.
A long line of mourners stretched along Queen Street to grieve McBride that day. As members of city council took turns attending the casket, around 25,000 people passed through to pay their final respects. City offices were closed for the day, while courts ceased their sessions at 1 p.m. When the funeral began at 2:30 p.m. buses, ferries, and streetcars across the city ground to a halt to observe two minutes of silence. Officials requested that during that quiet time, local motorists should avoid honking their horns. For the overflow crowd in front of Old City Hall, loudspeakers were set up so they could hear the 45-minute service, while the rest of the city tuned into CFRB. The eulogy was given by Reverend W.J. Johnson, who noted that if the mourners could open McBride’s heart, they would see, “written in letters of gold, Toronto.” A procession led by 20 mounted police led McBride to his final resting place in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.