The historical irony of William Peyton Hubbard

Park to be named after 1800s politician who was more progressive than our current mayor


At a time when blacks were being refused entry into many restaurants and hotels in Toronto, a man whose parents had once been slaves in Virginia – and escaped via the Underground Railroad – would often stand in as our city’s mayor.

William Peyton Hubbard trained as a baker and worked for 16 years at his trade, specializing in cakes. Every January, even as he entered his tenth decade, WP is said to have baked his own birthday cake. He also invented a bakers’ oven, which he patented and called the Hubbard Oven.

A new park slated for the grounds out in front of the Bridgepoint hospital at Broadview and Gerrard will be named after Hubbard. It’s a dedication heavy in historical irony. Our current mayor stoops to use the n-word, a slur rarely used in Hubbard’s presence as he forged his political career in a 1800s Toronto mostly populated by pale people protecting their turf from “foreigners.”

The park named after him will symbolically border Chinatown east where in the late 19th century Chinese residents’ only viable means of making a living was running restaurants or hand laundries. When white affluent shop owners wanted to drive the Chinese launderers out of business by demanding the city charge them high licensing fees, Hubbard vehemently opposed them.

While hand laundries are a thing of the past, bigotry and racial stereotyping are not, most glaringly evident in our current mayor’s denigration of people of Italian, Jewish and African descent.

But in the late 1800s, Hubbard as acting mayor was appealing to council for better treatment of the city’s Jewish community asking that “steps be taken to prohibit attacks being made on the Jewish religion”

Of his own race Hubbard wrote: “I have always felt that I am the representative of a race hitherto despised but if given a fair opportunity would be able to command esteem.”

Back then, however, Blacks had little in the way of fair opportunity in Toronto. They could be porters, factory workers, labourers but mostly their numbers were too small to make any political difference.

A hundred years should have changed all that but Torontonians currently live with a mayor who not only disparages minorities but votes against shelters for the homeless and LGBTQ youth. And here there’s another Hubbard connection.

In 1860, Toronto’s first homeless shelter opened next to the future site of Hubbard Park. Called The House of Refuge, it was a home for “the vagrant, the dissolute, and idiots.” That’s a quote from 1860, not Rob Ford.

For years Hubbard sat on the Board of the House of Industry on Elm Street, railing against those who claimed the city’s unemployed were shiftless good-for-nothings. As a boy Hubbard and his family of seven siblings lived for a time in the caretaker’s quarters in the Phoebe Street School, where his father was caretaker.

By the time Hubbard took office in the late 1890s his first-hand experience had given him a lifelong empathy for the plight of the needy. He would never be monied enough to consider replacing public policy with personal patronage, like some mayors we know. His mission was always hard work and dedication as when he petitioned the province for Toronto’s legal right to acquire land to be used for city parks.

When the then privately-owned High Park was donated to the city, he fought councillors who voted against accepting the gift.

He kept up the battle for the thoughtful acquisition of parkland, commenting: “Many years ago the city of Toronto was so desirous to obtain railways that we gave away, almost for a song, the whole of our beautiful waterfront to the railways.”

In 1935 William Peyton Hubbard was on record as Toronto’s oldest native born inhabitant. He was 93 and he died that same year.

Whenever you hear the big bell at Old City Hall chime out the hour (prick up your ears, Mayor Ford), think on the man whose name is inscribed on it as someone who had a genuine affinity for the underdog and a devotion to bettering the quality of life for the citizens of Toronto.

And when finally you sit on a bench in Hubbard Park, consider – as he did – what Toronto could be.

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