Historicist: The Greater Scheme of Things
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Historicist: The Greater Scheme of Things

Businessman and professor S.M. Wickett's early effort to form a regional government for the Greater Toronto Area.

State of the outlying districts as seen in the Fairbank area of York Township, ca. 1911. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2418.

In 1913, Samuel Morley Wickett, a novice alderman and businessman with, as one journalist put it, “as many letters after his name as there are labels on a steamer trunk,” studied the challenges of Toronto’s rapid growth. The result of his analysis was “a prophetic document” (in the words of one historian), radically calling for the establishment of a metropolitan area—a regional government to direct the city’s expansion through the cooperation of the surrounding townships and villages in areas of common interest. The proposal ultimately failed to garner widespread support, but it predicted the creation of Metropolitan Toronto 40 years later.

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Samuel Morley Wickett was born in Brooklin on October 17, 1872, and resided there until his father moved the family’s tannery business to Toronto in 1881. After studying at the University of Toronto in 1894, Wickett was encouraged by his professor, James Mavor, to pursue graduate studies in economics in Europe. After graduating with a Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig in 1897, he returned to Toronto to lecture in political economy at the university for a number of years. Eventually, his purely academic pursuits gave way to a more active role managing the family leather goods business after 1901.

(Left: Campaign ad for S.M. Wickett from the Toronto Star [December 27, 1913]).

He continued to engage his intellectual interests, however, through his prominent participation in the Canadian Manufacturing Association (CMA), writing statistics-laden reports and petitioning the federal government to more rigourously collect statistical information. At the municipal level, he helped form the Toronto Bureau of Municipal Research in 1913 to the same end: so that policies might be adapted and adopted based on careful study of existing conditions, rather than knee-jerk reactionism. In addition, Wickett was an advocate for efficient management of government bureaucracy and hiring of experts where necessary; technical training of Canadian workers to ensure the country’s businesses could compete in the modern economy; and public ownership of utilities and street railways. He wrote several pioneering studies on urban affairs, including City Government in Canada (1902), Municipal Government in Canada (1907), and City Government by Commission (1912).

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Wickett found occasion to implement his civic reform ideas in Toronto’s notoriously parochial and corrupt municipal arena when he was elected alderman in 1913 for Ward 2—where abuses of patronage were a prevailing feature of ward politics. The Star praised Wickett’s election as proof that high-calibre candidates could indeed beat ward heelers and glad-handers at the polls. “The modern city, by the variety of its work, is creating a new world, a problem which demands the supervision by the best brains in the country,” Wickett once said in another context. “We are only beginning to see the need of throwing the glad-hand artist and incapable into the discard.”

(Right: Cartoon accompanying Gadsby’s article in the Toronto Star [June 26, 1913]).

Through his three year-long terms on city council, historian John C. Weaver writes in a contribution to The Usable Urban Past (Macmillan of Canada, 1979), “Wickett worked assiduously for the implementation of his urban-reform objectives and met with some success.” Perhaps his most enduring legacy was his drive to reform the city’s appalling state of financial order, which culminated in convincing council to hire an expert administrator—well-known investment and securities advisor Thomas Bradshaw—to restore fiscal discipline.

In his tongue-in-cheek coverage of city politics that appeared in the Star (June 26, 1913), H.F. Gadsby characterized Wickett as “the only genuine high-brow in the city council.” As an ally of Mayor H.C. Hocken, it was said the fashionably-dressed and fastidious alderman was well-liked and respected by all on council—save perhaps the powerful controller and future mayor, Tommy Church.

“The aldermen are much interested in him for several reasons,” Gadsby explained. “They regard him as a great experiment. He is the finished product of Toronto University, with a European polish superadded. They respect him for the degrees he has captured, being themselves as bare of degrees as a pig is of wool. He is the Herr Professor in politics. He is Culture, so to speak, impinging on every-day life.” The only council colleague who could rival Wickett’s educational attainment was a dentist, Dr. Risk.

Looking east on Rogers Road from Dufferin Street, York Township, September 13, 1924. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3337.

The city was growing rapidly, doubling its population between 1900 and 1912, when the addition of Moore Park and North Toronto became the last—until 1967—in a series of annexations that drastically increased Toronto’s geographic size. But the annexations had created conflict within the city, as annexed districts wanted immediate improvements in roadways and other municipal services. The common complaint in North Toronto at the time was that city council was indifferent to its interests.

“Planless piece-meal annexations,” Wickett realized, “have been unnecessarily costly.” He prescribed town-planning as a necessity for sound financial management. The city was too willing, in his mind, to bear financial burdens while others reaped the financial rewards. For example, the city would fund the BloorDanforth Viaduct, at a cost of $2.5 million in 1915, only to see land speculators benefit from the dramatic increase in property values in East York, beyond the city limits—and the jurisdiction of its assessment powers. The city should have first annexed the entire east side of the Don River, Wickett would argue in On Toronto’s Need of Reform (Toronto, 1915), and then insisted that it share in the cost of the bridge. Wickett believed that the cost of local improvements ought to be most heavily borne by the district directly benefiting. As early as 1913, he proposed “that all future annexations to the City should be carried through only on condition that the annexed districts be wholly liable for their own ordinary locals.”

Map of Greater Toronto and Suburbs (The Map Company, 1916)  From the University of Toronto Maps Library

Map of Greater Toronto and Suburbs (The Map Company, 1916). From the University of Toronto Maps Library.

As Weaver describes in Ontario History, Wickett envisioned “the area around Toronto as part of an organic whole which shares its economy with the city, [and] he considered planning for the region a necessary concomitant of future prosperity.” And he recognized that the city needed land for its industry and manufacturing, as orderly expansion to provide improved housing stock and amenities on the outskirts. Why shouldn’t municipalities and land developers beyond the city limits share in the costs of the city’s expansion—as well as its benefits?

On September 2, 1913, Wickett, as chairman of the transportation committee, recommended to city council the creation of a metropolitan area to enable all of the townships and villages in a 20-mile radius—between Oakville to the west, Caledon and Brampton to the northwest, Aurora to the north, Markham and Stouffville to the northeast, and Claremont and Whitby to the east—to cooperate and coordinate in areas of region-wide common interest. This area, which was supposed to represent the distance the average working man could travel in one day, also coincided with a natural watershed between the Oak Ridges Moraine and Lake Ontario.

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Declaring that cooperation was preferable to annexation, Wickett’s proposal called for the retention of each community’s self-government, even as they would work together “for the purpose of carrying out certain services which they can do jointly more effectively than they could singly.” The specific services Wickett proposed included: roads, electric radial railways, telephone service, electric lighting, water, sewage, and parks.

(Left: Map of Wickett’s proposal from the Toronto Star [September 3, 1913]).

According to Wickett’s proposal, a three-person commission—appointed by representatives of the participating municipal governments—would oversee the management of and coordinate improvements within the metropolitan area. The electric commissioner would oversee the power systems, the location of industry and residential, and the coordinated expansion of the streetcar network. The health commissioner would handle all duties related to the provision of water and sewage disposal. The roads and parks commissioner would turn macadam roads into good, permanent roads, establish parks and “breathing spaces,” and advise on town planning.

Sewer replacement at Dupont and Bathurst streets, ca. 1908. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 119.

These improvements in the metropolitan area would be financed, Wickett proposed, according to “the sound financial principle that the general ratepayer should be liable for the full cost of trunk-line services, but that for locals, property or districts directly benefited should pay the bill.” He added that “any taxes levied would be determined by service actually rendered.”

Wickett’s proposal, as formalized in Memorandum Re Metropolitan Area (Toronto, 1913), anticipated suburban resistance to a Toronto-initiated proposal—that it might represent Toronto trying to “put one over on” suburbanites—by strongly invoking the principle of “the mutual advancement of Toronto and its entire surrounding district.”

“Why should Toronto inaugurate the plan?” he asked. “Simply because Toronto grows as the country and towns round about it grow; and life in the City if made cheaper and healthier and better by the most intimate possible connection between City proper and surrounding country and towns.” He added: “The towns and rural municipalities may be expected to lend it hearty support because they have everything to gain by being brought into ready communication with their civic centre, which they can bring about more readily and cheaply by mutual agreement and concerted action.”

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At a boisterous Board of Control meeting in late September, an argumentative Tommy Church expressed skepticism of the metropolitan area proposal. Wickett and alderman John Wanless Jr., an educator by profession and Wickett’s colleague on the transportation committee, were appearing to convince controllers to endorse city council’s plan to invite representatives from all affected townships and villages to a conference to discuss the proposal. While dismissing Wickett as “the biggest flopper in the Council,” and the transportation committee as “useless,” Church explained that he’d presented a similar, failed scheme to council in 1909. “It’s a whole lot of nonsense—nothing will ever come of it,” Church concluded. “It’s an Utopian scheme.” But, in the end, Church voted with his colleagues to convene the conference.

(Right: Page from Samuel Morley Wickett, Memorandum Re Metropolitan Area [Toronto, 1913]).

Municipal and county government representatives from across York, Peel, Ontario, and Halton counties gathered in the council chambers at Old City Hall on October 22, 1913, to informally discuss Wickett’s proposal. “Let us be quite frank at once,” the alderman began, “so that we understand the starting point. The question has doubtless arisen in the minds of some delegates whether the proposition of a Metropolitan Area is purely a Toronto scheme or not.” Wickett then allayed such concerns with an appeal to mutual cooperation for mutual gain—not just in the districts immediately adjacent to Toronto, but in more remote communities—and emphasizing that his proposal did not entail annexation. “It is a question of just how we can best get together to work to our common advantage, without any single municipality—Toronto, for example—being able to dictate policy,” he said. Each municipality giving up a little jurisdictional power for the betterment of all, for example, would ensure that one municipality’s sewage disposal wasn’t contaminating another’s water supply. Issues appearing to be minor local concerns at the moment, Wickett emphasized, would become pressing concerns as the metropolis continued to grow.

To lend legitimacy to his proposal, Wickett invoked precedents of established regional coordination in Boston, London, and Berlin. “But we need not rely too much on precedents before taking action,” he wrote. “We have enough political genius in our Provincial Government, and among our Municipal Councils, to work out a system that can meet our own needs.”

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Wickett laid out his plan in detail, and discussion and debate followed. Some felt the only area of necessary coordination were roads. Others felt the proposed area was too large. The conference concluded with the suggestion that a subcommittee be struck to investigate and report back to a later meeting. This subcommittee would be augmented by the appointment of Provincial Secretary W.J. Hanna, and lawyers W.B. Wilkinson and J.F. Henderson as experts.

(Left: Coverage from the Toronto Star [October 23, 1913]).

The Star (September 4, 1913) endorsed Wickett’s plan as “a large, attractive, and seemingly practical idea—an idea which may interest other centres as well as Toronto, and may add very greatly to the usefulness of our municipal system.” Representatives of the outlying districts were also initially receptive of the metropolitan area proposal. Mayor Duggan of Brampton envisioned the metropolitan area as a wheel with spokes—each being a radial railway—connecting the hub of Toronto with the manufacturing districts in the adjacent suburbs and the fruit, dairy, and vegetable farmland beyond.

Delegates reconvened at Old City Hall on February 11, 1914, to further consider the metropolitan proposal. By this time, the more fully sketched-out proposal had evolved to establish “the metropolitan organization upon simple, noncontentious, and effective lines.” The area would be governed, the revised proposal outlined, by an unsalaried commission of five—with the chairman nominated by the Ontario government, two members selected by the City of Toronto, and two representing the other municipalities, chosen by an electoral college composed of county councillors. As expected, the revised proposal granted the metropolitan commission powers over water supply, sanitation, and drainage; town-planning and subdivision of land; and the exclusive power to grant franchises for public utilities. Interestingly, it added responsibility for policing—something entirely absent in the original proposal.

Yonge Street in Aurora, ca. 1908. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 156.

Delegates were eager to endorse aspects of the proposal. “Transportation is the main thing,” Councillor J.J. Porter of Toronto Gore, declared. “I live 17 miles from here, but I might as well be in Gravenhurst or Owen Sound. It’s a disgrace that such things should be so.” But many questioned the value of inter-municipal coordination on such a large geographic scale. “Outside of transportation I don’t see any advantages in having it so big,” the Reeve of Scarboro, J.G. Carnell, expressed the common sentiment. “There is always a danger of government becoming too complicated and I think the extended area would increase this difficulty. I think that the water and drainage questions could best be dealt with by each municipality. We don’t want to make this too cumbersome.”

Wickett reiterated to those gathered that the area had been arrived at, in part, because it represented a natural drainage basin. He pleaded with his suburban and rural colleagues to look beyond current local concerns towards future issues threatening to affect them all. “Undoubtedly the existence of water supply is a matter for the future,” he implored. “But that ought not to keep us from going forward now.”

Based on newspaper coverage, there appeared to be little consensus around the table. Some endorsed the focus on policing; others objected to it as overstepping into municipal prerogatives. Many were unwilling to discuss the idea further until their parent municipalities had considered the proposal fully. The day ended with a call for further meetings and discussions.

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Representatives of York Township, alderman Wanless reported soon after, made overtures to city officials about forming a smaller metropolitan area comprising just York Township and Toronto. William Findlay Maclean, member of Parliament and the populist owner of the Toronto World newspaper, argued before Wickett’s transportation committee that the creation of a more modest metropolitan county—comprising only Toronto and the townships of York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke—would be easier to attain than Wickett’s ambitious scheme. But he had few answers to questions about how his proposal would be governed or financed.

(Left: Coverage from the Toronto Star [March 7, 1914]).

Reacting to Maclean’s more modest proposal, Wanless admitted that Wickett’s broader scheme had “seemed to frighten the people.” Despite the limited support for Wickett’s metropolitan area proposal among the affected municipalities, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Michael B. Moir asserts that Wickett’s unrealized proposal had sufficient support among the municipalities, but died at the provincial level.

“There is no doubt we must work out a scheme for a metropolitan area,” said Wickett, who would die suddenly of a heart attack in the early morning of December 8, 1915, shortly before the conclusion of his third term on city council. “The needs of the districts around Toronto are growing and the interests are great. For our own protection, and in the interests of the general development, some scheme must be adopted. If the municipalities cannot do it in friendly debate, then the debate will no doubt be transferred to the Legislature.” It proved to be a perceptive comment, predicting the creation of Metropolitan Toronto in 1953.

Additional sources consulted: James Lemon, “Plans for Early 20th-Century Toronto: Lost in Management,” Urban History Review Vol. XVIII, No. 1 (June 1989); Lemon, Toronto Since 1918 (James Lorimer & Company, 1985); John C. Weaver, “The Modern City Realized: Toronto Civic Affairs, 1880-1915,” in Alan F. J. Artibise and Gilbert A. Stelter, eds., The Usable Urban Past: Planning and Politics in the Modern Canadian City (Macmillan of Canada, 1979); Weaver, “Order and Efficiency: Samuel Morley Wickett and the Urban Progressive Movement in Toronto, 1900-1915,” Ontario History 69 (1977); and articles from the Toronto Star (January 2, April 3, July 25, September 3, 4 & 26, October 22 & 23, November 4, and December 10 & 30, 1913; February 6, 11, 18 & 19, March 7, and October 6, 1914).

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