Mel Lastman, a tiny giant of Toronto politics who led the amalgamated City of Toronto through its infancy, has died at age 88.
Lastman was a mayor for 31 years, first of North York and, in the final six years, of Toronto before he ended his colourful political career in 2003.
The small showman with the big personality helped turn North York into an office tower boomtown with a reputation for fiscal conservatism and relentless salesmanship honed as the millionaire owner of the Bad Boy furniture chain.
His madcap reign as chief magistrate of the forced marriage of former suburbs and the old City of Toronto saw triumphs, gaffes and personal scandal that failed to dim the gleam in his eye.
In 2013, when Lastman turned 80, the Star’s Royson James wrote: “For years, Mel was the craziest game in town — an instant media circus.
“He insulted premiers and prime ministers. He saved his choicest, crudest names for his council colleagues. And by the time he rode off into the sunset, his tail between his legs, many had forgotten he was a record-breaking mayor of North York who built a downtown out of sheer bluster and willpower.”
In a statement Saturday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said: “On behalf of all Toronto residents, I want to send my condolences to Mel Lastman’s family and friends at this time.”
As the first mayor of the unified city, Tory wrote, Lastman “was so committed to the city and worked throughout his time in office to make sure Toronto moved forward as one united city and into the 21st century.”
Tory noted that he co-chaired Lastman’s Toronto mayoral campaign and was part of Lastman’s informal “kitchen cabinet” group of advisers.
He called Lastman “a kind, good-hearted man with a larger-than-life personality who always wanted to do the right thing for people,” honoured with a square in his name in his beloved North York.
“As we mourn his passing, I want to thank Mel Lastman again for his service to North York and to the entire City of Toronto,” Tory wrote, adding flags at city hall and other civic buildings will be lowered to half-mast and a condolence book will be available for residents to sign.
Rod Phillips, now a Progressive Conservative MPP and Ontario’s minister of long-term care, was Lastman’s chief of staff at Toronto city hall.
“Mel Lastman was the iconic municipal leader of his generation. He in many ways was the founder of North York and he was the founder of the new City of Toronto,” Phillips told the Star in a 2016 interview when he was a business executive.
“Mel Lastman was a complicated man but he was at his happiest when he was fighting for his city. He never shied away from a fight, occasionally he looked for them. He did have his city in his heart all the time.”
Phillips recalled driving with Lastman from North York to Metro Hall, where the amalgamated council initially met, and the new mayor telling him he had visited every city facility in North York and wanted to do the same for Toronto.
“He said ‘So you have to find out how many facilities there are in the new City of Toronto. I looked in the big briefing binder and said there’s more than 6,000. He looks at me and says, ‘This is a big job.’ ”
Lastman was heralded for consecutive tax freezes and, although conservative, was able to work with council members of various political stripes including Jack Layton and Olivia Chow, whom he tapped to tackle the city’s homelessness issue.
Melvin Douglas Lastman was born March 9, 1933 and raised in the Kensington Market area. He left high school to work at an appliance store, opening his own on Weston Road in 1955.
A born salesman, he soon had a chain of 40 stores across Ontario.
Married to Marilyn Bornstein in 1953, the millionaire businessman was elected to North York’s Board of Control and later, in 1972, mayor of North York.
As North York mayor, Lastman championed the Sheppard subway being built and North York Centre as a “second downtown”.
Known for his flashy style, hot temper and outspoken views, he would go on to best main competitor Metro Toronto mayor Barbara Hall to be the first megacity mayor in 1997.
The megacity was foisted onto Toronto’s former boroughs by Mike Harris’ provincial government and objected to by local mayors, including Lastman. But the North York advocate threw himself into the ring to run the megacity — but not without controversy.
He at one point late in the campaign claimed he had not witnessed any homeless person in North York on the same day a woman experiencing homelessness was found dead in a North York gas station washroom.
The Most Powerful Sale & Affiliate Platform Available!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
“I think the windows must be tinted too darkly on his limo,” said then Metro Councillor Jack Layton.
While the votes were still being counted that November day, Lastman was quoted as saying: “It’s going to be a rough job, but I’m sure it will work.”
Sitting in the mayoral seat, Lastman continued to make headlines for a number of controversies.
Lastman, like Ford, was once criticized for resisting attending Pride, but found common ground in 1998.
“I didn’t know how I’d be treated. But everybody was so receptive, everybody was having a good time and here were people proud of what you are,” Lastman said in 2011 as Ford faced questions for his lack of attendance. “I told a kid: ‘Who’s better than you? No-o-o-body! You’ve got to feel that way about yourself. That’s what Canada’s about.’ That’s pride.”
And he urged Ford to attend, saying his son Dale had reminded him: “You’re the mayor of all the people.”
He was ridiculed for calling in the army during a major snowstorm in 1999 that buried the city in more than 50 centimetres of the fluffy white stuff.
But he was characteristically unbothered by the naysayers.
“Would I do it again? You’re darn right I would!” he said in 2009.
Coun. Mike Colle, who co-chaired two of Lastman’s mayoral runs, said Lastman “couldn’t hide his feelings.”
“Mel was worried sick about people that were calling the mayor’s office who were in the downtown streets like Manning Ave. … that the ambulances and the fire trucks couldn’t get up the streets because of the snow,” Colle remembered about the deliberations. “That’s what persuaded him to call in the army.”
He said that memory of Lastman — near tears — has stuck with him.
Lastman landed in figurative hot water in the summer of 2001 when commented on an upcoming trip to Kenya to support the city’s 2008 Olympics bid.
“What the hell would I want to go to a place like Mombasa for? … I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.”
Before the days of populist mayor Rob Ford, it was not unheard of for Lastman to take calls about garbage not being picked up in Scarborough and raise hell with city officials.
“What Mel had that was critical at that time was the enthusiasm and the passion and the ability to connect with people that there was somebody running the city that people could approach,” Colle said.
He said he’ll never forget that magnetism.
“I’ve never seen a political person or anybody where, wherever you were with him, people from all walks of life would come across the street to talk to him. They all felt like you could approach him.”
Colle said his success at city hall was in part his ability to delegate to others, pointing to Phillips, who was tasked with coming up with solutions to a lot of the unresolved issues of the new megacity.
“It was an immense task and he was never really appreciated for that,” Colle said of Lastman.
In 2011, approaching his 80th birthday, Lastman told longtime city hall columnist and former North York reporter Royson James that he was happy to have stepped out of the limelight.
“I could have gotten out earlier; probably would have been better off. Would have avoided a lot of problems that I wouldn’t want to discuss. They are best forgotten. I’m enjoying my life and my six grandchildren.”
With files by Joshua Chong
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe