Meet a Toronto Mayor: Nathan Phillips

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Meet a Toronto Mayor: Nathan Phillips

Foibles, quips, and town pride—how the "Mayor of All the People" brought the human touch to City Hall.

Each month in the run-up to the municipal election on October 27, Torontoist will profile one of the 64 people who served as Mayor of Toronto—people who shaped the city, displayed colourful personalities, or managed to do both.

Mayor Nathan Phillips wearing chain of office in his (Old) City Hall office. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3996.

For many Torontonians, Nathan Phillips lived up to his billing as “Mayor of All the People.” It wasn’t just that he broke the long stranglehold of the Orange Order on the office by becoming the city’s first Jewish mayor, nor was it his constant promotion of tolerance as Toronto became more culturally diverse—instead it was his warm, amiable nature, his love of being with the public, and his unabashed pride in the city he ran for eight years that endeared him to the people of Toronto.

Phillips didn’t take himself too seriously. Veteran Toronto Sun City Hall columnist John Downing, who helped assemble Phillips’s autobiography, believed this trait was “a priceless asset. He cut through pomposity and while his asides could have the bureaucracy tied into knots of rage, the public loved it.” He turned mishaps into running jokes—early in his first term as mayor, in 1955, the press went crazy after he observed that a display of nude pencil sketches by Graham Coughtry and Michael Snow had no place in a student centre like Hart House. For years afterward, Phillips ribbed reporters by claiming on numerous occasions that he was an art expert. Another running joke involved his refusal to kiss any attractive women during public events even if they requested one, as he felt it was beneath the dignity of the office.

Cartoon by Duncan Macpherson, the Toronto Star, February 28, 1959

Cartoon by Duncan Macpherson, the Toronto Star, February 28, 1959.

He also developed a reputation for treating official guests lightheartedly. (Many walked away with one of the dozens of neckties he kept in his office.) One of the most notorious incidents involved the Soviet ambassador to Canada. When Amasap Aroutunian signed the City Hall visitors’ register in February 1959, Phillips stood behind him. The mayor thought the ambassador’s signature looked as if it read “rootin’ tootin.’” Depending on the source, Aroutunian was either amused or disgusted; some councillors, meanwhile, were less than delighted when Phillips referred to his distinguished visitor as “Your Excellency Rootin’ Tootin’” and demonstrated how municipal government worked by showing his collection of editorial cartoons drawn by the Toronto Star’s Duncan Macpherson.

From his youth, Phillips had politics in his blood. Born in Brockville in 1892, Phillips spent his formative years in Cornwall. He split on his childhood goals—he never became Prime Minister, but he demonstrated a precocious understanding of law. Following an apprenticeship with future federal Supreme Court justice Robert Smith as a teen, Phillips was accepted to Osgoode Hall in 1910. “My first impression of Toronto was that it was very quiet and didn’t differ much from Cornwall except for size,” he recalled years later. “That was because it was Sunday.”

Phillips was just shy of his 21st birthday when he graduated in 1913, which delayed his calling to the bar for several months. He loved being in court. “The greatest satisfaction a lawyer can get in his profession, I feel, is to win a decision which shatters a long-standing injustice,” he noted. His interests included divorce-law reform and working toward legal and personal equality for women in Ontario.

Nathan Phillips, Jack Kent Cooke, and Frederick Gardiner at Maple Leaf Stadium, between 1955 and 1962. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2624.

When Phillips entered politics in the early 1920s, his eye was on Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill. He never reached either, losing as a Conservative candidate federally in 1935 and provincially in 1937 and 1948. Municipal politics was a different story. He contemplated approaching the Ward 5 (Trinity-Bellwoods) Conservative association for support during his first city council bid in 1923, but when told they were anti-Semitic he instead joined the association in Ward 4 (which included Kensington Market). Elected as an alderman on January 1, 1924, Phillips went on to be re-elected a record 27 consecutive times. “Nothing important or significant happened during my first year on Toronto City Council. In fact, nothing startling happened during the 28 years I served as alderman,” he later joked. He was joined on council by his son Howard in 1949, making them the first father-son combo to serve simultaneously.

After unsuccessful mayoral runs in 1951 and 1952, friends urged him to shelve his hopes for the job. “Perhaps I am not a reasonable person,” he noted, “but if I had given up, I would not have been available to seize my opportunity two years later.” That opportunity arose when Allan Lamport resigned in 1954 and was replaced by Councillor Leslie Saunders. The new mayor, who also served as the Deputy Grand Master of the Orange Lodge, went out of his way to offend those who didn’t subscribe to his ultra-Protestant beliefs. Saunders didn’t realize that declaring Toronto a Protestant city wouldn’t fly given the changing nature of the metropolis. Though Phillips stayed out of the initial controversies surrounding Saunders, Star reporter Bob MacDonald urged him to run for mayor in the upcoming election. After securing support from the Star and Toronto Telegram publisher John Bassett, Phillips filed his paperwork. During the campaign, he felt people weren’t voting for him so much as opposing Saunders.

Still, Phillips gave a powerful victory speech on December 6, 1954, although he was melancholy over the absence of his wife, Ett, who was hospitalized with a concussion after falling down stairs the night before. He was proud that most Torontonians had rejected Saunders’s ideology, demonstrating the city’s gradual acceptance of its increasing cultural diversity.

Every person should be proud of his ancestry, and I am proud of the blood that flows in my vein. 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.

The speech inspired Phillips’s enduring nickname: he was Mayor of All the People.

Ett and Nathan Phillips in the middle of Bay Street  Photo by Paul Rockett  Maclean's, February 27, 1960

Ett and Nathan Phillips in the middle of Bay Street. Photo by Paul Rockett. Maclean’s, February 27, 1960.

His inaugural address in January 1955 set the tone for his mayoralty. “Every great city experiences growing pains and Toronto has arrived at one of the most critical stages in its history—it is virtually bursting at its seams and what we do today will affect Toronto for centuries to come,” he declared. Three key projects were discussed: an east-west subway line (“The people living in the eastern and western parts of the city are entitled to, and should receive, the same consideration as the people living in the north part of the city”), a civic auditorium (which evolved into the O’Keefe Centre), and a new civic square.

Building a new City Hall and accompanying square had been an off-and-on project since voters approved it after the Second World War. Architectural designs had already been commissioned, but Phillips wanted an international competition. When Phillips proposed a contest in March 1955, council’s Board of Control rejected the idea out of respect for the architects already involved in the project. After a pair of public votes (one in favour, one opposed) and the election of a friendlier Board of Control, the competition moved forward, resulting in the selection of Viljo Revell’s iconic design in 1958.

Cartoon by Duncan Macpherson, the Toronto Star, December 28, 1960

Cartoon by Duncan Macpherson, the Toronto Star, December 28, 1960.

When the construction contract was awarded in 1961, city council voted unanimously to name the civic square in honour of Phillips. He was immensely proud of the project, and of Torontonians for finally approving it. “The people in their wisdom invested in the future of the city,” he said during the placing of a time capsule in November 1962. “This structure is the evidence of their faith.” After it opened in 1965, Phillips was frequently seen strolling across the square, beaming when he looked upon the dedication plaque at City Hall.

Re-elected as mayor four times, Phillips likened his role to an ambassador; he did his best to represent the city and remain approachable to the public. He didn’t deny that the formalities and minutiae of City Hall occasionally escaped him, leading to accusations that he was a “social butterfly” more interested in attending functions and greeting dignitaries than governing the city. Few exalted him as an innovative, masterful administrator, though peers like East York mayor True Davidson felt that “behind that folksy, fork-wielding facade was one of the sharpest minds I’d encountered.”

Phillips packed as many events into his day as humanly possible, and was often accompanied by Ett, to whom he was married for nearly 60 years. The pair attended so many functions that they kept spare sets of clothing in his office. The sheer number of ceremonial dinners he attended nightly made the Phillips experts at dining and dashing. “He would eat soup at the first affair, hurry to the second to talk and eat the grapefruit, and continue through six or seven meetings until dessert at the last stop of the night,” the Star once observed.

Cartoon by Duncan Macpherson, the Toronto Star, December 4, 1962

Cartoon by Duncan Macpherson, the Toronto Star, December 4, 1962.

By 1962 there was a sense, especially among the press, that Phillips had held office long enough. When Councillor Donald Summerville approached him to declare his intention to run for mayor, Phillips indicated he planned to retire after one more two-year term, which he hoped would coincide with the completion of the new City Hall. When Phillips indicated he would be happy to give way to Summerville in 1964, the councillor replied, “I do not have lots of time.” That prediction was tragically accurate—Summerville defeated Phillips by a wide margin in December 1962, and died less than a year later from a heart attack during a charity hockey game. Many implored Phillips to attempt a comeback in 1964, but, as he put it, “I don’t want to become controversial again.”

In retirement, despite a heart condition, Phillips continued to dabble in law and act as a civic booster whenever he could. People continued to greet him as “Your Worship” or “Mr. Mayor” long after he left office. He spoke out in favour of development, favoured amalgamation of the municipalities within Metro Toronto, and worried about housing costs and shortages.

When he died in January 1976, Phillips was remembered above all for his love of the city and its people. “To countless newcomers,” the Star eulogized, “he made Toronto seem a friendlier place, and he gave them a sense of being citizens and not strangers. There was a great deal of truth in the title he loved to give himself, ‘the Mayor of All the People.'”

Additional material from Mayor of All the People by Nathan Phillips (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967); the Toronto City Council minutes for 1955; the February 27, 1960 edition of Maclean’s; the June 24, 1964 edition of the Globe and Mail; the February 27, 1959, August 3, 1974 and January 7, 1976 editions of the Toronto Star; and the January 8, 1976 edition of the Toronto Sun.

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