As Toronto prepares to name a new mayor, and re-elect or oust a slew of city councillors, the Big Smoke’s collective eyes are set on the future.
But it’s also an appropriate time to re-examine the city’s political past. Toronto’s progressive reputation on the world stage may not have been cemented if it weren’t for two political pioneers, whose names may not be familiar to most, but whose work and brave initiatives helped curb the rampant sexism, racism, and bigotry that pervaded their times.
With the help of historian and political writer Mark Maloney, who is currently penning the book, ‘A History of the Mayors of Toronto’, CityNews pays homage to Toronto’s first woman councillor, Constance Hamilton, and William Hubbard, the first non-white to win public office in any major city of Canada.
“To set the stage you have to understand going back, women, (until 1919) were barred by law from running for office, you could not run for office, so she was the first woman to run for city councillor and win, she was a real fighter,” Maloney told CityNews.ca in an exclusive interview.
“Constance only served two years on council, but she was the first woman in Ontario to achieve elected office at the federal, provincial or municipal level.”
Constance, who was born in England in 1862, moved to Vancouver with her parents in 1887, where she would meet her eventual husband, Lauchlan Hamilton.
The couple moved to Winnipeg before settling in Toronto, where she expressed a keen interest in music and the pursuit of social justice. She took measures to protect female farm workers, who were often vulnerable to attackers.
“She was a very big believer in women and agriculture and keep in mind that in those days Toronto was very heavily surrounded by agriculture,” Maloney adds.
“She was worried about the women working in the fields being preyed upon by guys who would go after them and rape them, and she established these kind of bunk houses where women could live together as a group on an agricultural farm or facility and work safely. She also had an artist colony near Mississauga where she had painters and sculptors and musicians and they would come out and she would feed them, and cook for them and clothe them.”
In 1920, Toronto’s civic election became the first in which women over 21 could vote, or potentially hold office.
Hamilton battled eight male candidates in Ward 3, making history by winning and being sworn in on Jan. 12, 1920.
Despite the precedent-setting victory, her accomplishment was largely ignored at the time.
“If you go back and look at the newspapers of the day, there was hardly any mention. Today we would think that’s a real first, there was no editorial, there was no article about it.
“The city archives have almost nothing about her, I’ve had to piece her background together from several different sources, but they don’t even have a file on her or her accomplishments.”
“She had some interesting ideas though,” he continues with a growing smile. “She wanted all of the traffic in Toronto to stop for half an hour every day at the same time, each day, stop dead…to allow the kids to go out and play on the streets. It didn’t get through,” he laughs.
On a more serious note, she was a trail blazing reformer and advocate for woman, refugees, and artists. She also fought to raise the minimum wage and fight for better health care.
“Whereas AIDS is a big social preoccupation today, in those days it was Venereal Disease. And she was championing campaigns against VD in those days, she was really ahead of her time, a real fighter.”
Hamilton died in 1945. In 1979, Toronto established the Constance E. Hamilton Award on the Status of Women.
To get an idea of the times William Hubbard not only endured but eventually thrived in, take the portion of a letter penned by Colonel John Prince, a leading member of Ontario’s Legislative Council, as evidence. Published in the ‘The Toronto Times’, Prince called blacks, “necessary evils, only submitted to because white servants are so scarce.” He went on to write that blacks were, “the greatest curse ever inflicted upon the magnificent counties which I have the honour to represent in the Legislative Council of this province.”
Such attitudes, while shocking today, were quite prevalent in the late 1800s. But they didn’t stop Hubbard, whose parents were escaped slaves, from becoming a prominent social and political figure, not to mention the first non-white to win public office in any major city of Canada.
“Hubbard was an interesting guy, his parents were slaves from the United States and they settled in Toronto. There was a lot of prejudice as he was growing up, the Civil War was on in the U.S.”
“Hubbard went into politics in the 1890s, he lost his first election but then he won in 1894,” Maloney explains.
“He was a reformer, he went after corruption and he wanted improvements to the Waterfront and Toronto Island and the Works Department. He was quite a fighter in his day.”
Hubbard became revered for his honest reputation, and he wasn’t afraid to expose injustice and stick up for the ‘little guy’.
His stellar credentials led him to a powerful elected position on the four-man Board of Control.
“In 1904 Toronto brought in a new structure which lasted until 1969 and it was called the Board of Control…you had four controllers elected city-wide…that was your executive committee for the city, so all your major decisions had to first go through the Board of Control which was chaired by the mayor,” Maloney explains.
“He was elected to the Board of Control and to this day William Hubbard was the only black and only visible minority ever to have won elected city-wide office in the entire city of Toronto, not one other non-white person has ever been elected on a city-wide basis in Toronto even thought Toronto is 176 years old now,” he states.
“He was quite successful in pushing through some reforms. He was the father of Toronto hydro actually. In those days the electricity service was all in private hands amongst different companies. And he and a number of other people rallied about to say we should have a public hydro owned and operated by the citizens.”
Hubbard died in 1935.