William Hubbard Park will honour city’s first Black politician
In 1894, William Hubbard became Toronto’s first Black elected politician when he was voted an alderman.
As the city’s only Black councillor 122 years later, Michael Thompson is proud to say he’s standing on the shoulder of greatness.
The Ward 37 councillor became aware of the pioneer politician in 1998 while he was a staffer at city hall.
“I heard the name mentioned in the hallway,” said Thompson at the launch of Hubbard Park last Saturday. “I learned a little bit more about him and when I became a councillor, I got a photo of Hubbard from the archive. It was stored and had no real place of prominence in the city.”
Thompson’s office is now adorned with three photos of Hubbard.
“I am honoured to be able to have the ability to have his photos in my office and to be able to tell his story,” he said. “Often times as the only Black person on city council, I have to ask myself ‘What would Willie do?’ I do that often because, on many occasions, there are tough decisions to be made.”
Mayor John Tory said Hubbard was a model citizen who deserves the accolade.
“This is the most fitting name that we could ever have for a park like this,” he said. “If you look at Mr. Hubbard, what you have here is a man who was a lot of things that we would want to see in people today from every walk of life. He was an innovator, he was an activist, he was a public servant, he was a good citizen and he was somebody who came forward and served his city for an extensive period of time.
“He came from a small Black community that numbered a thousand out of a total population of 47,000 and he won city-wide elections. I think if there is a lesson in this, it is that our democracy and the sense of inclusiveness that existed even then gave him the opportunity to serve as he did. We need to have a Black History Month because we need to be reminded of these chapters in our history and what was great about some of them and what wasn’t so good about others. This is a good one in a sense that it shows that a combination of our democratic system and a spirit of inclusiveness in the city allowed this man to make all the contributions he did.”
Several of Hubbard’s relatives attended the dedication ceremony, including his great-granddaughter, Barbara de Leeuw who resides in Rochester, New York.
“Our family is extremely honoured to have his accomplishments recognized in such a public way,” she said.
She said she learned of his achievements through her parents.
“We knew him as W.P. and they talked about him speechifying at the family table and that tradition continues,” said de Leeuw. “We learned that he was referred to as the ‘Cicero’ (Marcus Cicero is considered Rome’s greatest orator) because of his oratory skills and that he baked his own birthday cakes up until he was 90. When he was no longer a public servant, he would sit at the dining table and talk about the issues of the day.”
Despite Hubbard’s vast and remarkable accomplishments, de Leeuw senses that many family members weren’t aware of the scope and magnitude of what he did.
“I don’t think they understood his contributions to history until Daniel Hill (he co-founded the Ontario Black History Society), whose doctoral thesis was on ‘Negroes in Toronto’, met my mother,” she said. “My mom said he danced a little jig when he found out she was a historian and she had a treasure trove of family records.”
Catherine Slaney, a distant relative of Hubbard and great-granddaughter of Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott, the first Black Canadian to graduate from medical school in Canada in 1861, authored Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Line that was released in 2003.
“Our family is extremely proud of what’s happening here today,” she said.
Hubbard was born in 1842 at the corner of Bloor St. W. and Brunswick Ave. to freed slaves from Virginia who came to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
A cab driver and baker who invented a special oven that was patented, Hubbard was delivering bread in the early 1870s on Don Mills Rd. when he spotted a pair of runaway horses dragging a carriage towards the nearby Don River.
Not fearing injury or losing his life, he brought the horses under control and rescued its passenger – politician/journalist, George Brown – who was one of the fathers of confederation and the founder of The Globe that merged with the Mail & Empire in 1936 to become The Globe & Mail.
Impressed by his rescuer’s courage, Brown hired Hubbard to be his driver and later encouraged him to seek a career in municipal politics which he did.
He won 14 more elections, served as acting mayor for several years and helped change the Municipal Act so that the city could bid on buildings sold to cover tax arrears. Previously, property was sold to the highest bidder, whether or not the bid was high enough to cover owed taxes.
The former York County Justice of the Peace also successfully persuaded property owners to take part in local improvement initiatives that led to a grid of sidewalks and the push for publicly-owned hydro that resulted in the creation of the Toronto Electric Hydro system.
Retiring from city council in 1913 because of his wife’s ill health, Hubbard – who also was a member of the Union of Canadian Municipalities and Toronto’s powerful four-member inner cabinet – succumbed to a stroke in April 1935 at his 660 Broadview Ave. residence. He was 93.
A plaque commemorating Hubbard was unveiled in Riverdale Park in 1979. The commemorative plaque was updated in 2009 by Heritage Toronto in collaboration with the Ontario Black History Society and the Riverdale Historical Society and installed at 660 Broadview Ave.
When the Toronto Star was compiling a list of names to feature in its 1992 centennial magazine celebrating 100 prominent Torontonians, late Urban Alliance on Race Relations founding member, Dr. Wilson Head who was on the seven-member advisory panel put together to consider the selections, successfully lobbied for Hubbard’s inclusion.
In 1989, the city established the William P. Hubbard Race Relations Award that’s presented annually to individuals whose outstanding achievements and commitment have made a significant contribution towards a positive race relations climate in the city.
Three years later, Ontario Hydro launched educational awards in Hubbard’s name for Black university/college students. Since May 2002, the successor company – Hydro One – has continued to support Black students through scholarships honouring Hubbard’s monumental achievements.
Ontario Hydro’s head office auditorium in downtown Toronto was renamed after Hubbard in the summer of 1993.
“Hubbard’s name shows up in no corporate history that I know of, but his achievements live on,” said then Ontario Hydro president, Dr. Allan Kupics.
As part of the renaming ceremony, Richard Ratiarson and Karen Taylor were presented with the inaugural William Hubbard scholarships.
City councillor, Paula Fletcher, oversaw the naming of the park located near the restored Don Jail building and Bridgepoint Active Healthcare on Gerrard St. near Broadview Ave.
“With this beautiful park, Toronto finally has a public space that recognizes the important contributions of this outstanding citizen and it’s just steps away from his former home,” said Fletcher.
The park’s name was chosen through a public naming contest.