A Brief History of the Politics of Toronto Subways

The year was 1910, a man named Horatio Clarence Hocken launched his bid for the mayoralty, using subway creation as one of the main planks of his campaign.

Losing by a formidable 4,000 votes to George Reginald Greary, who vehemently denounced the plebiscite item on the ballot to create “a tube and surface subway transit system”, these men found themselves in the same place so many Toronto candidates have since: either endorsing a more efficient system of public transit as a wise social investment in Toronto, or denouncing the cost as an unwise risk, unlikely to generate sufficient return on investment.

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Photo: Hocken and Geary campaign, as well as pro-subway posters from the 1910 Toronto Municipal Election. Source: http://bit.ly/1kMpnnM

The plebiscite item would pass, but the following two years would be plagued by a notoriously unsuccessful tendering process. Greary’s tenure was brief and largely uneventful, ending in 1912 when he resigned to take a position as the City of Toronto’s legal counsel.

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Photo: Political Cartoon, ‘The pipe dream of Hocken Pasha’, The Toronto Star, December 22, 1909, Source: http://bit.ly/1GGhs58

Hocken again ran on a ballot with subway transit as a plebiscite item for a second time in 1912, though this time, he won, and did so in spite of his support for creation of a subway. The Toronto voting public, weary after the failed tendering for the subway plebiscite approved two years earlier, drove a stake through the heart of Toronto’s subway ambitions.

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Photo: The Toronto Star, circa 1913 Source: http://bit.ly/1O57H34

Posthumously, Hocken’s mayoralty was characterized by his many social reforms, including the opening of public parks to the general public, instead of exclusively to athletic societies, building of public bath facilities a water sewage and filtration plant, and sewer systems. He also established Toronto’s first public housing entity, as well as a public health nursing programs, under which Toronto saw deaths per 100,000 of communicable diseases dropping from 114 to 27.

He even purchased an abbatoir and cold storage facility to protect small local butchers from being driven out of business by a large national meat monopoly, and also founded the Toronto Star. He found transit expansion to be of vital social importance for Torontonians.

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Photo: The Telegram, 21 August, 1958 Source: http://bit.ly/1jOfvK1

Greary’s mayoralty, conversely, was characterized mainly by his endorsement of commercial development along Toronto’s waterfront, and not much else. He found subway creation to be of the highest order of waste that the City of Toronto could take on.

Somewhat ironically, he passed away exactly one month after the Yonge subway line was opened in 1954, while Hocken passed away in 1937, never even getting to see the revival of Toronto’s subway ambitions in the years after WWII.

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Photo: Cartoon satirizing the cancellation of the Eglinton West Line, 21 July, 1995 Source: http://bit.ly/1id4eRI

The moral of the story is as such: transit expansion in Toronto, and the GTA, has been slow and largely reactionary. Those with grander plans for the city are left to fight against the unyielding foe of fiscal naysaying, and often aren’t around long enough to see the fruits of their labour.

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Photo: Rob Ford, 2012 Source: http://bit.ly/1P2KzAM

Now, a century later, Toronto finds itself right back where it began, a city divided by the transit debate, and candidates pinning their campaign hopes to ‘visionary’ transit planning. While Mayor Tory’s SmartTrack plan has seen $2.6 billion in federal funding, the plan is not without complication. Perhaps most ironically, if the Eglinton West line which was cancelled by Premier (and a semi-distant predecessor as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party) Mike Harris in 1995 had been built, it likely would have alleviated the Eglinton headache Tory inherited which is complicating implementation of his SmartTrack project.

The more things change in Toronto transit, it seems, the more they stay exactly the same. Always an eye on the present, with nary an eye on the past, and never far enough in the future to outlast the next election.