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Friday (comparatively) FTW: Think this Toronto mayoral race is bad? In 1980 it was Nazis, homophobic cops, and the KKK

simon wallace

John Sewell, left, at a 1979 rally; George Hislop, right, with campaign manager Susan Sparrow on election night, 1980.

John Sewell, left, at a 1979 rally; George Hislop, right, with campaign manager Susan Sparrow on election night, 1980.

A friend of mine from Vancouver was talking to me about the Toronto election: “How is it that the anti-bike guy is in the lead?  I mean, to us in British Columbia, that just… it just doesn’t make sense.”  Indeed.  This Toronto municipal election is both absurd and frightening. Progressives around the city — dare I say around the country? — are sounding more than a little panicked. But it is important to remember, at this time of Thanksgiving, that not only could it be worse but that it has been much, much worse.

If you’ll oblige, take a trip with me back to the Toronto municipal election of 1980 — an election shaped (maybe even decided) by, I kid you not, the KKK, neo-fascists, virulent homophobia and a reactionary police force.

Click here to download a PDF of the February-March 1981 article from This Magazine.

John Sewell was running for a second term as Mayor. An environmentalist, a critic of the Toronto Police, a leftist (much more radical than mainstream progressives today) and an opponent of development (read gentrification) projects, he beat two conservative candidates for Mayor who split the right-wing vote in the 1978 municipal election.  Two years of controversy, however, provoked liberal and conservative voters to reconcile and in 1980 they united behind alderman Art Eggleton (now a Liberal senator).

There wasn’t too much that distinguished the candidates in the campaign: Sewell was definitely the further to the left and Eggleton was much more pro-development but these questions, while of tremendous importance, did not animate the contest. Rather, the major campaign issue was Sewell’s decision to endorse George Hislop’s candidacy for city council.  Hislop was a gay rights activist and had he been elected would have been the first openly gay elected official in Canada.

The spectre of a Sewell-Hislop gay axis motivated reactionaries to organize. The Toronto Sun started to talk about “gay power:” a term that, as Leo Casey wrote in the February 1981 issue of This, “came to symbolize a mythical hedonist monolith of lesbians and gays which threatened public morality.”  The “League Against Homosexuals” (an organization that — and remember this is just 30 years ago — advocated for the elimination of queer communities and queer individuals) circulated leaflets warning parents that “Your child or any child (could be) kidnapped, tortured, raped repeatedly, and finally murdered by sexually depraved deviants that now prowl our schools…”  A flyer from “Positive Parents” took a similiar line: “Militant homosexuals (come) into your schools to seek recruits among your children.” Renaissance International, a group with unclear origins, distributed over 100,000 pamphlets urging people to vote against Sewell and Hislop on account of their support for gay rights.

Many of these groups were formed by neo-fascists (mainly members of the KKK, the Nationalist Party and the then recently dissolved Western Guard) but they also had a broader appeal, particularly with the Toronto police force.  A League Against Homosexuals publication entitled Queers Do Not Reproduce, They Seduce was found in a literature stand at Toronto Police headquarters.  Whether it was strategically placed there by a right-wing activist or whether the police themselves were distributing is not known but, either way, its tone fit well with the homophobic orientation of the Toronto police.

One year later police would mount the famous bath house raids and five years earlier the police’s Orwellian Morality Squad suppressed an issue of Body Politic because of a cartoon in it that depicted two men engaged in oral sex. Nor were queers eligible for police protection. Each Halloween Eve during the ’70s and ’80s there was a large party for gay men at a Yonge street bar and each year many queers, cross-dressers in particular, were queer bashed.  Organizers asked police that that they be allowed to park large trucks outside the bar to provide some cover for party goers.  The answer was a firm no.  “The gay community is not going to tell us how to do our work,” one police officer told the Toronto Star.

Nor would police allow the gay community any sort of representation at city hall.  Sewell recalls that “signs were placed in police locker rooms advising officers to ‘flush Sewell down the drain,’ among other things, and pamphlets excoriating homosexuals were distributed from police stations.”  People were afraid of wearing Sewell campaign buttons or feared the consequences of putting up his campaign signs.

Despite the virulent and obvious attacks, however, leftists and progressives failed to intervene. Eager to win as many wards as it could for itself the NDP ran a candidate against Hislop and remained quiet while he was attacked. This is not, however, to suggest that the party would have lept to his defence had such a defence been politically expedient. Considering itself a party for working people first it, the NDP had difficulty convincing itself that queer issues deserved explicit and full attention. As one New Democrat put it: anyone should have freedom to choose “who they go to bed with” but the question of “how you earn the money to get the bed” is politically more important.

Even Sewell offered only muted support for gay rights. Homosexuality “is a difficult one for anyone to deal with, myself included,” he said at one debate. “I neither approve nor disapprove of homosexuals,” he told the Globe.  Meanwhile Eggleton, distancing himself from the reactionary right but still tacitly endorsing homophobia, warned that the kind of alliance Sewell struck with Hislop risked turning Toronto into a city like San Francisco: that is, dominated by homosexuals.

In the end Hislop and Sewell both lost, the latter by 1,767 votes.  The day after the election the Toronto Star’s Marina Strauss wrote that Sewell’s loss could be chalked up, in large part, “a strong rejection, by some people, of support for homosexuals.”

The political lessons of the 1980 election are manifold: progressives must defend each other, the police force should not be allowed to become politicized, etc.  Most importantly, however, remembering the 1980 campaign forces us to notice that many of its themes remain leitmotifs in the current contest.  This said, (bearing in mind that there are very important issues being debated) the past prominence of neo-nazis in municipal politics put the Jarvis bike lanes into perspective.

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