Toronto’s ‘tiny perfect mayor’ David Crombie turns 80 this weekend

By Steve Paikin - Published on Apr 22, 2016
David Crombie speaks to the Globe and Mail in 2010. (Globe and Mail/Fred Lum)

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Normally, by the time former politicians turn 80, they are well on their way to slowing down, smelling the roses, and taking a welcome break from controversial issues.

Not David Crombie.

Toronto’s beloved “tiny perfect mayor” is astonishingly still going strong as he gets set to celebrate his 80th birthday this Sunday.

Crombie hasn’t been the mayor of Toronto since 1978, and yet his reputation as an honest broker that governments frequently tap to solve problems remains undiminished all these years later.

He became Toronto’s 56th mayor in 1972, ushering in an unprecedented era of reform at city hall. For the first time, it seemed the city’s biggest developers weren’t in charge of planning. Crombie’s council brought in a 45-foot height restriction bylaw, which allowed many neighbourhoods to be preserved rather than bulldozed over for the newest development.

The St. Lawrence neighbourhood in downtown Toronto is considered one of his crowning achievements – a midrise, mixed-use, mixed-income community.

Back then, mayoral terms were only two years long, and Crombie was re-elected in 1974 and 1976.

He left city hall in 1978 just before his third term ended, and won a federal byelection for the Progressive Conservatives in Rosedale riding. He had a unique ability to be accepted by the wealthier Tories in the riding’s north end, while at the same time, be seen as a champion for the less-well-off south of Bloor Street. He ran against University of Toronto president John Evans, the Liberal candidate whom many saw as a potential successor to prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Crombie won a smashing 8,600-vote victory, ending Evans’ political career right then and there.

A year later, when Joe Clark upset Trudeau in the 1979 election, Crombie became minister of health and welfare. It didn’t last long. The minority Clark government fell after just seven months, Trudeau won a majority in 1980 and the former mayor found himself on the opposition benches for four years.

When Clark stepped down from the leadership in 1983, Crombie ran for the job. But despite his personal popularity, a combination of his poor French skills and being from the city everyone loves to hate handcuffed his campaign. In fact, the convention’s eventual winner, Brian Mulroney, used to joke that Canada would really shine “when I become prime minister, and David Crombie becomes my minister for francophone affairs.” The line always got a laugh. Crombie came fourth behind Mulroney, Clark and John Crosbie.

When the Tories won the biggest majority government in history the following year, Mulroney made Crombie his minister for what was then called Indian affairs and northern development, and later secretary of state and minister responsible for multiculturalism.

Crombie stepped away from Parliament in 1988. But unlike most ex-politicians in their 50s, Crombie’s influence in public life only rose. He became the first chancellor at Ryerson University, where he once taught. He was a constantly sought-after adviser to municipal and provincial governments on urban issues, at one point becoming CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute.

In 2008, just shy of his 72nd birthday, the Toronto District School Board tapped him to figure out how to keep its unfunded swimming pools open; and he did.

He’s still a go-to-guy for the province, chairing Ontario’s co-ordinated land use planning review, even though he joked to his fellow committee members, “the only thing I know about agriculture is when I go shopping at Sobey’s.” But Crombie’s reputation as an honest broker of competing interests made him perfect for the job.

An officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of Ontario, he still serves on the governors’ council of the Toronto Public Library Foundation, the boards of CivicAction and the Planet in Focus Foundation and is the honorary council for the Loran Scholars program.

In fact, Crombie is so busy that trying to find time for him to come to TVO for an interview on the occasion of his 80th birthday proved to be quite a chore. Even though he lives just across the road from our studios, it was hard to get him over here – his schedule is still so packed.

Turning 80 does not come with unambiguous joy for Crombie. His wife Shirley has been suffering from Alzheimer’s and now lives in a care facility. And his well-known actor son, Jonathan, died a year ago from a brain hemorrhage at age 48. At the time, Crombie told me philosophically: “Johnny had a wonderful life. It was just too short.”

It is hard to think of a happier warrior in Canadian politics than David Crombie. As he celebrates this milestone, he deserves our admiration and respect for having lived such a good life, and contributed so much to making Canada in general, and Ontario’s capital city in particular, a better place. 

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