The British Prime Minister preached peace during his visit to Toronto in 1929.
The train that pulled into Union Station around 6 p.m. on October 15, 1929 was eagerly anticipated. The station was decorated with flags, flowers, and plants to greet the world figure about to arrive. Railway workers ranging from baggage clerks to mechanics lined the platform eager to greet a man who had spent the past week in the United States negotiating terms of naval disarmament with president Herbert Hoover. When the visitor arrived, the workers waved their caps and tools. A shout arose: “Hurrah for MacDonald!”
British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald crossed the border that morning at Niagara Falls. En route to Toronto via a private Canadian National Railway train, MacDonald told the reporters aboard that his mission to promote global peace “cannot be measured in dramatic pronouncements.” He hoped to influence public opinion via methods such as radio addresses. Days before his arrival, the Telegram newspaper arranged the local broadcast on October 11 of a speech originating from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City. Hearing the speech in Toronto didn’t go smoothly; listeners in North Toronto experienced frequent interference, with MacDonald’s message of peace overwhelmed by a music program. When he was heard, MacDonald assured listeners that he would be happy to discuss with other countries disarmament ideas he and Hoover had devised. “There was nothing in address which could irritate an audience in Berlin or Paris,” a Telegram editorial observed. “The speaker seemed to be conscious that he was addressing the United States of Europe as well as the United States of America.”
The speeches continued when he reached Toronto. His jam-packed schedule began with a drive from Union to a welcoming dinner at Government House, the lieutenant-governor’s residence which stood in present-day Chorley Park. The next morning began with a 10:30 a.m. address to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), whose 49th annual convention was being held at the recently opened Royal York Hotel. AFL officials hoped that MacDonald, the first Labour Party leader to serve as British PM, would inspire those attending to fight for a united American labour movement. Instead, MacDonald discussed the importance of preserving peace, as workers would bear the brunt of casualties in any future conflict:
In the next war, death will be dealt out not only on the battlefield, destruction will rise from the bottom of the sea, destruction will descend from the heavens themselves; destruction will meet your wives, your children, your own. The civilian population left miles and miles and miles away back from the front—destruction will meet those silently, and they will be touched by the mysterious breath of poison and in a mysterious way they will drop down in the middle of your streets and die.
MacDonald declared himself a missionary of peace, one who, especially regarding the United States, had “come over to try to close old chapters of historical suspicion.” A few hours later, he gave a similar address to a Canadian Club luncheon.
At 3 p.m., MacDonald was the star attraction of the hottest ticket in town. He joined a procession into Convocation Hall, where the University of Toronto awarded him an honorary doctorate of law. As MacDonald walked toward the venue, shouts of “Atta boy, Mac!” rose from spectators. Seats were scarce for the general public, as most had been claimed by university staff and students. Police blocked several groups of people from charging into the standing-room-only hall. During the ceremony, which was broadcast live on CFRB, chancellor Sir William Mulock jokingly called MacDonald “the university’s youngest graduate” and noted how the world’s hopes were pinned on him and Hoover. MacDonald used golf as a metaphor for the advice he dispensed to attendees:
My handicap isn’t one to lead any of you to envy me, but I know the rules of the game, and know the wise advice, offered again and again by professionals, ‘Don’t pull.’ Hit the ball squarely, quietly, leisurely and with confidence, because when you begin to press, you ‘pull.’
MacDonald spent the late afternoon greeting the public at a reception hosted by the provincial government back at the Royal York. Among those he shook hands with was a five-year-old boy named after him. Ramsay MacDonald Shepherd’s mother was born in the same Scottish town as the visiting leader, and his great-grandmother was the nurse present when the future PM was born. The reception went smoothly until the crowd, which was admitted in small groups, surged into the greeting area. Chaos was averted by five police officers who, the Star reported, “bobbed up and shooed back the swarming crowd with a skill and finish that was almost suggestive of Queen’s Park, only much more gentle.”
Last on the day’s agenda was a men-only dinner held at Government House, the lieutenant-governor’s residence which stood in present-day Chorley Park. This ruled out the presence of his daughter Ishbel, who had accompanied him on the trip and spent her time in Toronto addressing women’s groups on labour and social issues.
At midnight, MacDonald’s train rolled out of Union en route to Ottawa. Summing up MacDonald’s visit, the Globe observed that he must have realized “that no British Prime Minister could spend a restful day in Toronto, none less than a Premier giving immediate and particular thought to the possibilities and reactions of international association.” Unfortunately, the decade ahead would dash his dreams of preventing a global catastrophe on the scale of the First World War.
Additional material from the October 11, 1929, October 16, 1929, and October 17, 1929 editions of the Globe; the October 16, 1929 and October 17, 1929 editions of the Toronto Star; and the October 12, 1929 and October 16, 1929 editions of the Telegram.