Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
“He chose the more lowly, and more Christ-like place.”
There are times when the inhabitants of a city decide to improve it. Such was the year 1886 in Toronto, when William Holmes Howland was elected mayor on a platform of righteousness. Throughout the campaign, Howland urged voters, “Let us keep the city, a God-fearing city, and I would rather see it thus than the greatest and richest city in the continent.”
Howland was born in 1844 into a prosperous family; his father became the first lieutenant governor of Ontario in 1867. William was educated at Upper Canada College and entered the family business at age sixteen. By twenty-nine he was the youngest insurance company president in Canada. He was one of Toronto’s leading young business executives and served as the president of the Toronto Board of Trade and later as a spokesperson for the Ontario Manufacturer’s Association.
While in England in 1876 he was unsettled by a wall plaque that read, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, thou art mine (Isaiah 43:1). The verse haunted him. Upon returning to Canada, Howland found Toronto amid a revival centred on the ministry of Anglican evangelist William Rainsford. Through Rainsford, Howland was converted from his nominal Anglicanism to a vibrant evangelical faith.
Howland began to channel the ability and energy that had led him to prominence in the business community into work among the needy. It is safe to say that Howland had a part in virtually every philanthropic and relief enterprise in the Toronto of that time. Howland worked hard on behalf of the poor—particularly children—in the lower St. John’s ward of Toronto, the most impoverished part of town. His experiences there transformed his perception of town. His experiences there transformed his perceptions of humanity. He learned of the evils of alcohol abuse. He discovered that the underclasses of Toronto did not feel welcome in the city’s fine churches.
Not one to just observe a problem, Howland was also a man of purpose. He founded the Toronto Mission Union, which ministered to the needs of the poor, the hungry, and the abused through its inner-city mission centres. He also founded the Christian Missionary Union, an evangelistic effort that sought to reach those Torontonians who would not normally attend the city’s more traditional churches.
In late 1885, a group of reformers in Toronto, made up of prohibitionists, union leaders, and those concerned about the poor, urged Howland to run for mayor. Although winning seemed impossible, he ran as an independent against the Tory party machine. Helped by the vote of land-owning women—voting for the first time in a municipal election—Howland won a surprisingly easy victory.
Once in office, however, he realized that it was not going to be as easy to achieve the desired reforms, as he did not have a reform majority among the city councillors. Undaunted, Howland put a twelve-foot banner on his office wall: Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain (Psalm 127:1). This was to be his guiding light through the next two tumultuous years.
Howland left his mark on Toronto in many areas, particularly in environmental issues. He began by enforcing tough rules in the areas of sanitation and public health. He instituted regulations requiring the cleanup of lands used for slaughterhouses and factories. The Don River was cleaned up, and significant attempts were made to supply safe drinking water to a rapidly expanding city. He also encouraged the development of suburbs so that working-class people could get out of the squalor and pollution of the inner city.
In addition, Howland challenged the large monopolies and business cartels that dealt with the city, forcing them to become responsible in their business dealings. He supported the employees of the Toronto Street Railway when their unreasonable and powerful employer locked them out. And through a judicial commission Howland was able to end the monopoly that an elite group of Toronto coal merchants had enjoyed for years by prosecuting city employees and coal merchants for kickbacks and for the embezzlement of city funds.
Through Howland’s reform in the area of public morality, Toronto received its well-known nickname, Toronto the Good. Staff Inspector David Archibald was appointed by Howland to head a special police squad whose task was to “combat cruelty to animals, women, and children, and to oppose gambling, prostitution, Sabbath-breaking, and unlicensed drinking.” This unique squad initiated the closure of brothels, prosecuted the operators of illegal drinking establishments, and reduced by a third the number of licensed saloons. It also introduced programs to curb the abuse of women and children. These were tangible manifestations of Howland’s desire to serve the people of Toronto.
Howland, though, did not stop here. He managed, against old-guard resistance, to launch public works for the unemployed and to interest investors in good working-class housing, and he personally spearheaded the drive to create the Mimico Reformatory for Boys, re-moving youngsters from the horrors of the Don Jail. He failed utterly, however, when he tried to create a hospital for dipsomaniacs; alcoholism—righteous citizens felt—was either a shame to be hidden or a crime to be punished.
Administratively, Howland implemented a new management system in the mayor’s office. Until then, councillors had controlled the direction of the city with parochial ward interests, a situation that led to a fragmented approach to city government. With Howland’s election, a new type of mayoralty was born, a mayoralty for the whole city. After Howland, the mayors of Toronto were expected to have a vision for the entire city.
Howland did not run for mayor in 1888. He choose instead to return to his involvement with charity work and the Christian Alliance (later the Christian and Missionary Alliance), of which he was Canadian president from 1889 until his death.
Howland died in 1893 of pneumonia. Toronto mourned, for it had lost one of its finest citizens. Poet Eliza Wills wrote a poem to express the sense of loss the city felt:
“In thousand hearts are planted deep,
Forget-me-nots of loving deeds,
Springing from broadcast scattered seeds,
To blossom while he rests in sleep.”
Howland was further eulogized as someone who “chose the more lowly, and more Christ-like place of feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, going amongst the hospitals and the prisons, and following in the very steps of the Lord himself.”