Unless it’s Miss Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads block-rockingly telling me, I’m not one to embrace the history repeats itself trope. It gives too much agency over to this beyond our control notion of fate, of the march of time blindly spinning its wheels, oblivious to any sense of direction from us. We’re absolved of responsibility. Hey. Authoritarianism is on the rise again. Oh well. It’s just history repeatin’!
I’d argue that any sense of déjà vu we may experience in terms of current affairs is the result of our obstinate inability to learn from the past, from the mistakes we made, grievances we hold, just all `round stupid-head pettiness we cannot, will not let go of. We make history. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, yeah, history does seem like it might be repeating itself.
So you wanna talk endless Scarborough subway debates? Let me tell you about the late-19th-century struggle to run streetcars on Sundays in Toronto. We do have a way here of turning public transit decisions into pitched, prolonged battles.
The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company by Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles tells the story of the almost decade long back-and-forth it took to bring streetcar service into operation on the Lord’s Day. There are very few good guys in the book. Corruption runs rampant. Vested business interests infect almost every level of public life. Religious fervor masks class divisions. Toronto the Good? Maybe not. Toronto the good yarn?
Horse-drawn trolley/streetcars started up along Toronto streets in 1861. A 30 year franchise to run the service was granted to a private consortium, Toronto Street Railway Company. As will surprise very few people these days, the relationship between the company and the local government wasn’t always smooth. There were constant disputes over who was obligated to do what (maintain the street tracks, for one) and who was owed what as a slice of the farebox. Your basic P3 dynamics.
Sunday streetcar service was one item rarely put on the table for discussion. It was a no-go from the outset. A deal breaker.
The grip of religion on the city as portrayed in the book was a revelation to me. The City of Churches, Toronto was sometimes dubbed. I vaguely remember the Sunday shopping brouhaha, back when I first moved to the city in the mid-80s. Sunday blue laws were deep and long abiding.
Religion also delineated much of the class structure of the city at the time. Protestantism was where the power lie, with well over 75% of the population swinging in that direction. As Armstrong and Nelles point out in the book’s postscript, the fight over Sunday streetcar service was really about maintaining control of the city levers of power as much as it was keeping the Sabbath holy.
The fight too served to shine a light on just how corrupt politics in the city was at the time. How corrupt? Giorgio Mammoliti, by a few fold. Almost anyone and everyone, involved in this story, had a price and could be bought. Even among the proclaimed faithful money changed hands to sway decisions and elections. Christian values remained in the church, to be unsullied by everyday affairs. Unto Caesar and all that.
How corrupt are we talking?
In the 3rd and final vote on the Sunday streetcar issue (the one finally won by the pro side), there were allegations some men – pluggers, they were called, professional voters – cast as many as 25 ballots. Newspapers were paid to run favourable coverage. You might even call them advertorials. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of $11,000 was paid by the Toronto Street Railway Company to the various city newspapers to win that last vote.
Corruption hung so heavily around the workings of local politicians that, in 1891 when the company’s streetcar franchise lease was ending, any notion of making public transit a publicly run system was largely dismissed out of hand. Let the politicians make their fortunes from it? Leave that to private enterprise.
The devious doings surrounding the awarding of the new streetcar franchise told in all the gory detail in The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company led to the McDougall Investigation and the beginnings of a reform movement in the structure of Toronto’s governance. But not before another class struggle between those wanting fewer, ‘right thinking’ men appointed to an executive style board of control whose decisions could only be overturned by a 2/3s majority of city council and those looking to further expand democracy beyond the current restrictive bounds. An agreement was reached with a board of control appointed by council from amongst their elected ranks. The hope was to take the big decisions, especially those ones involving big infrastructure projects, out of the clutches of pure ward based horse-trading.
There was also the hope that civic reform might result in more fresh blood being elected to council. Again, modern readers will recognize such a thing is easier said than done. The first mayor and 3 man board of control established after the change were all very familiar faces on the scene.
Other feelings of things never changing crop up throughout the book. Penny-pinching Presbyterians certainly rings familiar right now during yet another budget debate over how to do things without spending any money. Although, back then, residents were rightly concerned about being fleeced by their politicians. Today we’re just more miserly minded, I think.
Privilege and private interests imposing itself on the public will also remain constant over the past 125 years or so. Then it was about the streetcars. Today, look to the island airport expansion clash. Wealth and control hovering around the city business is timeless, I guess.
Late Victorian Toronto also comes across in the book as unrecognizable to those of us living here now. Never mind the coming of electricity or the receding of religious rule. The city was abuzz with political engagement. Elections were held annually with short campaigns run over the Christmas holidays. Rallies were well-attended. One during the 3rd plebiscite on Sunday streetcar service had 5400 people show up. On election nights, crowds gathered outside newspaper offices to wait for the results.
Yes, only a small segment of the population officially “counted”. It was during this time that the right to vote was extended beyond merely property owning men to, well, men. Still, politics didn’t come across as a chore like it sometimes feels today. It seemed to be woven into the fabric of daily, civic life.
Or seen another way, maybe this was just an early display of Torontonians rallying around something they didn’t want. No to Sunday streetcars! No to Spadina Expressway! No to a bridge to the island airport! No to good governance (2010 edition). Toronto, a town, a city in spite of itself.
The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company is a quick, interesting read through a tumultuous time in the city’s history, as the pressures of industrialization and urbanization come down to bear on this otherwise sleepy, God-fearing borough. It does suffer from some repetition of election campaigns that didn’t really change all that much. And while it’s quaint to read about an era where satire and pointed political commentary came in the form of poetry, dreadfully bad poetry, there may be too many examples of it in the book.
It does leave one lingering question though. Has Toronto grown beyond the expectations English writer Rupert Brooke had of it when he travelled here a decade and a half after streetcars began running on Sundays? “It [Toronto] is all right,” the first chapter of the book opens with. “The only depressing thing is that it will always be what it is, only larger…” Prophetic? It all depends on what day you ask.
— historically submitted by Cityslikr