Thursday, June 27, 2019



Not everyone would agree. A few thought Anne Johnston, who has just died at the full age of 86, was just cantankerous. Yet she was an alderman who made Toronto council better just by walking into the horseshoe of desks.
She would hiss at a colleague for a stupid vote, shout an insult to the press gallery, and settle down  for another day of wheeling and squealing over the issues dear to her heart like helping the disabled.
We were original members of the board of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame which is still chaired by David Crombie who along with David Smith and Anne were uncomfortable partners in the politics of a northend which was used to getting its own way.
I miss her at the meetings because of her rugged approach which was forged in her early life as an occupational therapist with disturbed patients.
She almost was the first woman mayor of Toronto. When Crombie was the giant killer who defeated in a 1978  by-election a Liberal being groomed to be PM ( John Evans of U of T) council deadlocked 11 to 11 on a mayoral replacement.
No one was willing to budge. So Roy Henderson, the city clerk, found an old box that had contained envelopes, put in two pieces of paper with the names and pulled out the one for Fred Beavis, a plain east end politician who had the nickname of The Honest Roofer.
A key draw in  the city's life which John Tory just got wrong by saying it was from a hat. It made Beavis the first Roman Catholic mayor of Toronto since it was incorporated in 1834. And Toronto had to wait another two decades to elect its first female mayor.
It was significant, however, that the champion of the old guard had to win by luck over a feisty newcomer with only six years of experience. Then Anne went on to become one of council's longevity champs until her ward rebelled and advertised for an opponent who went on to defeat her.
The 1970s were a grand decade in municipal politics with the reformers sweeping the cobwebs from bylaws and it was common for the 23 councillors and a few journalists to party together and travel together and fight together and generally enjoy urban politics.
I remember writing about Anne with affection, detailing her attributes in one of my daily columns on Page 4 of the Sun. Then I chastised her towards the end.
She sued! I couldn't believe it. No one could. I got a puzzled call from Alan Shanoff, the newspaper's lawyer, saying he couldn't figure out how she could prove libel since the column basically was filled with praise.
So I phoned Anne. She chatted pleasantly about how she really wasn't mad at me but a lawyer in the ward who owed her a favour said he could get a lot of money out of the Sun and it really wouldn't affect me.
I explained that I had never been successfully sued and that newspapers didn't keep Editors who cost them money in libel suits.
So Anne called off the suit.
After all, she had often  "used" me in the normal City Hall way of  planting ideas, but she had even "used" me as an enforcer.
Council used to go to the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities in a happy mob and work like mad all day and party hard all night.
I was minding my own business, and that of a few suburban aldermen at my table at the main evening event in Halifax, when Anne appeared from the dance floor, dragging a Newfoundland mayor from some town with a longer name than he was.
She pulled him up to me, told me to stand and explained to the mayor that I was her husband and when she told me he had been feeling her bottom in an enthusiastic way while dancing, I would beat him up.
The mayor sprinted to safety, Anne and the table roared, and I said I had to go write a column which didn't involve punching people.
That was Anne, always in the centre of things, whether she was promoting a Welsh choir - her roots in her birthplace included the family knowing Dylan Thomas -   crusading for people locked in wheelchairs, or just having a grand time keeping the contractors at City Hall more honest than they were used to.
You know, the good old days that we talk about often weren't that great. But they were in City Hall when we had councillors like Anne around. She accomplished without an army of paid aides to staff the office or go to meetings for her.
I'm sure that right now she is complaining to St. Peter that there is too much density near the Golden Gates and Welsh choirs should be featured more in hymn sings. And, damn it, the disabled sign for her chariot hasn't arrived yet because even the blasted civil servants in heaven can screw things up, just like they do back at Nathan Phillips Square.

1 comment:

Bono said...

Nice read, City politics was so much more civil then.