By Gerald Paul
William Hubbard was Toronto’s first Black – and first visible minority – councillor, but he saw himself first as an able and respected municipal politician.
Hubbard made history as the first Black elected to public office in any major Canadian City, as Col. John Prince, a leading member of Ontario’s Legislative Council stated back then that Blacks were “necessary evils, only submitted to because white servants were scarce….it has been my misfortune and the misfortune of my family to live among these Blacks.”
And this was a time when, as former Lt. Gov. Lincoln Alexander noted, “Toronto was an awful place to live ( in the 1930’s and 1940’s) because the opportunities weren’t there. Discrimination was rampant.”
So, just imagine being born in 1842 in a small cabin in the rural area near Bloor and Bathurst Streets know as “ bush” but through it all, you were made to bloom where you were planted!
Hubbard became a baker by profession and as a forward thinker he invented and patented a successful Hubbard Portable: a new commercial baker’s oven.
But it was while working with his uncle’s livery – horse-drawn cab chauffeur service — a chance encounter with a famous mentor served as an inspiration to enter public life.
As Hubbard drove his horse-drawn cab down Don Mills Rd. he came upon an accident. A man was perilously close to the river’s edge, and was about to plunge into a cold Don River in the winter’s morning of in the early 1870’s.
Hubbard saved the man: George Brown, noted Toronto abolitionist, newspaper editor and father of confederation.
Hubbard went on serve as Brown’s driver and was encouraged to enter public life.
So, he took on the challenge, and in 1893 ran for Toronto city council in Ward 4, an affluent neighbourhood. He lost by seven votes. He persevered and the following year he made history. And he would win 14 more elections.
In 1898, Hubbard was first appointed to the distinguished four-member Board of Control, then the City’s inner Cabinet. The next, year, he moved from the St. Lawrence Market to the elegant stone building at Queen and Bay, fondly known as Old City Hall.
This pioneer was a strong advocate for the City of Toronto’s interests. Hubbard served as a member of the nation’s first and largest Municipal body, the Union of Canadian Municipalities, where he encountered racism head-on.
A test of his strength came when someone, in reference to him, noted “there is always one n….r in the fence in the larger Cities,” but when the vote was cast during the 1903 UCM convention, he received 15, 035 votes for Controller, more than almost any council member to that point.
Hubbard will also be remembered, alongside Adam Beck, for advocating for a publicly owned hydro system, and coined the slogan “public power”, with the creation of the Toronto Hydro-Electric system.
After municipal politics, he was sworn in as a Justice of the Peace for York County in May, 1908, at the age of 66. On April 30, 1935, he died of a stroke at his home on Broadview near Danforth.
In a review of the biography for the Canadian Historical Review in December 1988, Hubbard “saw himself as an able and respected municipal politician, not as a representative of the Black or minority community.”