The Jewish Mayors of the “Belfast of Canada”

by | Feb 6, 2024 | Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

If the BBC is to be believed, Toronto is the most diverse city in the world. According to official data, over half of the people living here are not from here. And so, it’s probably hard to imagine a time in Toronto’s history when the city wasn’t home to 250 ethnic groups and more than 175 languages.. In the late 19th and early 20th century,Toronto was so white and so Protestant that it was better known as the “Belfast of Canada.”

Throughout this city’s history, Jewish leaders have played pivotal roles in shaping policies, fostering inclusivity, and changing Toronto for the better. Nathan Phillips, after whom the square in front of City Hall is named, was known as “the mayor of all the people” from 1955 to 1962.  He was also Jewish.  He was succeeded (eventually) by Phil Givens, who served from 1963 to 1969.  Givens, too, was also Jewish.  And almost 20 years later, Mel Lastman would lead Toronto through the biggest change in its 200 plus years of existence – amalgamation.

Nathan Phillips was the first politician to challenge the Protestant monopoly of city politics. His predecessor, Mayor Leslie Saunders, was the Deputy Grand Master of the Ontario Orange Order.  Sanders’ re-election campaign focused on maintaining Protestant power in Toronto. Phillips’ victory changed everything.  In his victory speech, he said:“I shall represent all the people, and I mean all the people in the broadest sense, fairly and without discrimination. I shall cut intolerance, wherever it shows itself, at its roots. In plain language, I will try and be you, all the people of Toronto, and reflect your aims, ideals, aspirations and ambitions.” Phillips won re-election as mayor four times. 

Phillips’ eventual successor, Phil Givens, continued in Phillips’ footsteps. He would not only continue to transform the city’s cultural institutions, making them more inclusive, he oversaw the transformation of the city’s core by overseeing the completion of the iconic Toronto City Hall. His dedication to art also motivated his spearheading a public campaign to purchase The Archer, a sculpture by Henry Moore for placement in Nathan Phillip Square. This effort, which irked many folks who didn’t care for the modern art piece, probably cost him his job, and he lost his reelection bid in 1966.

Mel Lastman, served as mayor from 1998 to 2003.  He, like Givens and Phillips, were proud Jews, and he conducted business both as Mayor of North York and as Mayor of the “mega-city” as if he was still selling appliances out of his family’s business in Kensington Market.  He was Toronto’s first mayor post-amalgamation, which required finesse in merging diverse communities across the GTA into a unified municipal entity.  Although colourful and a master of retail politics, he was also a problematic figure. His lavish spending on his son’s bar mitzvah garnered criticism as well as his extra-marital affairs. His casual racism also cost the city its bid for the 2008 Olympics.

Toronto is many things today, and many of those things are thanks to its Jewish mayors and the community they represented in City Hall.

A black and white portrait photograph of Nathan Phillips, the mayor of Toronto, wearing the Civic regalia around his neck.
A black and white portrait photograph of Phil Givens, the mayor of Toronto, wearing the Civic regalia around his neck.
A colour portrait photograph of Mel Lastman, the mayor of Toronto, wearing the Civic regalia around his neck.

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