MEDIA WATCH

A red light for Toronto the good?

The media will likely play an active and crucial role in the city’s debate over whether to have Canada’s first official red-light district

GEORGE BAIN July 24 1995
MEDIA WATCH

A red light for Toronto the good?

The media will likely play an active and crucial role in the city’s debate over whether to have Canada’s first official red-light district

GEORGE BAIN July 24 1995

A red light for Toronto the good?

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

The media will likely play an active and crucial role in the city’s debate over whether to have Canada’s first official red-light district

I was born in Toronto on Jan. 29, 1920, which is to say approaching the latest time anyone could be born in Toronto and claim to have grown up solidly rooted in the Toronto known as “Toronto the Queen City,” “Toronto the City of Trees,” “Toronto the City of Homes,” "Toronto the City of Churches,” or, simply, "Toronto the Good.” That Toronto was still with us when I was grown up.

Contrast that stability with the equivalent circumstances of, for instance, Peter Gzowski (b. July 13,1934). He said in a 1969 essay that one or two years either way from his birth date wouldn’t have made much difference. For his generation, it was not the date they grew up from that counted, but what they grew up to. That was the Toronto of the 1950s and ’60s, when they were in their twenties and thirties.

Significantly, Gzowski’s essay was titled Growing Up with Toronto, which was to say in step with it, not growing up in Toronto. My generation grew up in Toronto. I am not sure what that gained anyone, except perhaps the small distinction already alluded to of being different from those who came later. Certainly, it wasn’t the envy of the rest of Canada. Someone once said hatred of smug, dull, hypocritically puritan Toronto was the strongest unifying influence in the land. As the 1950s began, that was changing.

I found that Gzowski essay in The Toronto Book, an anthology published in 1976 by Macmillan of Canada. The editor was the late William Kilbourn (b. Dec. 18, 1926), a professor of history and the humanities at Toronto’s York University and an author. Kilbourn himself wrote in The Toronto Book, ‘Toronto became a big city in the 1950s, the fastest-growing in North America.” Population in that decade increased from 1.1 million to 1.6 million. All sorts of things happened to change Toronto in the Fifties. Nathan Phillips, Toronto’s first Jewish mayor—previously, the religions in Toronto city council had

been predominantly Protestant and conservative—routed the political old guard, and brought about a new City Hall and a great civic square which was denounced by the OG as an extravagant Taj Mahal. Twelve surrounding municipalities were incorporated in a new political structure called Metropolitan Toronto. Canada’s first subway was opened. And so on.

Strangely, a table in The Toronto Book headed, “Dates in Toronto’s History,” omitted two seminal events—reform of the liquor laws, actually in the late 1940s, and the opening up of Sundays, first to professional baseball, now, to just about everything. Both were made possible by enactments of the province, but were brought about largely by and for Toronto, which was about to become less capital-G Good. Thus, the start of Toronto’s ascent—or descent—to the status of World Class City. The purpose of this column is to recall those great first steps in the context of an envisioned next step—to licensed brothels, or “hoor” houses as they would have been called in the old Toronto.

Neither the idea of full-service bars (only in Ontario’s five largest cities to begin with), nor Sunday baseball (only between 1.30 p.m.

and 6 p.m. to begin with), was received with wild enthusiasm by what nowadays would be called the elites. Those included newspaper editorialists of whom it is necessary only to have known some—I did—to doubt whether their private view, especially on the coming of the public bar, coincided 100 per cent with the corporate view they expressed.

Both issues, bars and Sunday baseball, had their villains, as all bitter debates on moral issues must have—someone, or some ones, at which to throw the rocks. The villain in the reform of the liquor laws, and particularly in the eyes of the Toronto Daily Star, was George Drew, premier of Ontario. If initiating that reform wasn’t enough to enrage the teetotal Star of Joseph E. (Holy Joe) Atkinson, Drew gave further offence by suing the paper for libel over an unrelated matter even while that issue was aflame. That, of course, was on top of his continuing public indelicacy of being a Tory. His only saving grace to the Star was that his name, in the possessive, rhymed with booze—as in Drew’s booze bars, a neat bit for headings, which the Star used and, no doubt, was duly grateful for.

But the Star did not attack alone: the Toronto Telegram, even more Old Toronto than Old Tory, which is saying a lot, attacked as well. So did the Communist party, not necessarily because it loathed drink—but because it loathed Drew.

In the issue of Sunday baseball, the even more exposed villain was Allan Lamport, a Toronto city controller in 1950, later mayor. To illustrate what Lamport was up against in championing a more open Sunday, Eric Hutton in the July 15, 1952, issue of Maclean’s, cited a Toronto man’s having been fined $25 or 10 days in prison for painting a car on Sunday just a few years earlier, and city druggists having taken to demanding prescriptions for ginger ale after 19 of them were fined in one day for Sunday sales.

It had taken Lamport three years to persuade council to chance a plebiscite on the Sunday sports issue. Most of the churches preached against it. The 1950 municipal election produced a then-record turnout of voters, obviously stimulated by the issue. But none of the three city dailies supported Lamport, obviously unwilling to risk their own popularity. He still won, although not by very much. Against this background, it becomes an interesting question where Toronto will find a villain/proponent/sacrificial lamb to lead the way to the city’s achieving a third level of world-classism by becoming the home of Canada’s only red-light district. No less interesting is the question of what part the editorialists and the panelists on radio and television will play. And, of course, some daunting obstacles will have to be surmounted, such as the Criminal Code.

As licensing implies fees, and fees imply money, and since living on the avails of prostitution is a Criminal Code offence, there should be no shortage of volunteers to throw the first rock.

It bears thinking about.