Throwback Thursday: Anne Cools’ political entrance

Volunteer Eric Morse looks back at 1978 and the launch of the political career of Anne Cools.

A postscript accidentally omitted from our last Throwback Thursday noted that Senator Anne Cools had retired from the Senate of Canada at the mandatory age of 75. Appointed by Pierre Trudeau in 1984, Anne Clare Cools was the first female black Senator in North America, and on her retirement was the last serving senator appointed by Trudeau the Elder. In 1978-80 she became an exciting and polarizing figure in what had been the vary staid and Establishment Liberal politics of Toronto Centre/Ward 7.

Darrell Dick /Toronto Star

Born in Barbados in 1943, she immigrated to Canada with her family in 1957. As a student at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in 1969, she was a participant in the famous (or notorious) sit-in that culminated in the destruction of SGWU’s computer room, for which she received a four-month jail sentence. In 1964, she moved to Toronto where she founded and ran one of the first shelters for abused women in Canada, Women in Transition Inc.

But it was her bid for the Liberal nomination for Rosedale in the October 16, 1978 by-election in Toronto Centre that gained her real local media prominence. The reform movement had been going locally in Toronto politics since 1966, and by 1978 it was peaking (Ward 7’s John Sewell was elected Mayor just after the by-election, in November 1978). Federally, things were more placid, until Cools came along.

Pierre Trudeau was entering the fourth year of his 1974 mandate looking decidedly threadbare (the by-election series of 1978 was a disaster for the Liberals, presaging defeat in May 1979). Rosedale riding had been held non-stop by the Liberals since Donald “Thumper” MacDonald first won it under Lester Pearson in 1962. It was, if anything, a bastion of small-c conservatism, and MacDonald’s resignation in March 1978 (he could see the writing on the wall) was not expected to change things. Seven News noted that U of T President John Evans had been nominated by the party establishment to assume MacDonald’s mantle. Seven News also noted that Anne Cools had been nominated but that Evans was expected to win easily. It was not so easy and turned into a two-candidate free-for all that became the largest contested nomination meeting ever held in Canada.

The National Film Board made a half-hour film — The Right Candidate for Rosedale — about the ensuing nomination battle. Since it was filmed from Cools’ perspective it is not balanced coverage but it casts the contest into sharp relief. Evans was the salon candidate (so depicted) and Cools the upstart. In most ways the battle defined the split between the top (above Bloor) and bottom (below Bloor) halves of the old Toronto Centre riding.

John Evans, party establishment nominee

It also mirrored the social split. By 1978 the area south of Bloor was already well launched on the road to being the most diverse district in Canada, both ethnically and economically; the film describes it as the south end of the riding as containing “The fragments discarded from the [urban] mosaic”.

The Liberals had never troubled to get out the vote in large numbers before 1978, so most of the south end was an untapped resource. Cools set out to recruit those who had never voted and sign them up for the Liberal nomination. The party elders dismissed her as “not the right candidate for Rosedale,”  but that was a bad miscalculation.

Cools went where Liberals had never gone before. She went into Regent Park. She went into St James Town. She signed up women – not exclusively, but especially – who had never voted before in their lives. There were massive phone campaigns, using only the human voice and the archaic touch-tone phone, with lists compiled in handwriting (the Evans campaign, forced to deploy unanticipated resources, fielded the modern Selectric).

Anne Cools with new women voters.

As June Callwood said, “It’s a very big wrench that she’s throwing in that machine. What she represents to me is the attempt of people who live in a riding to get their own candidate – to choose the candidate in the way we fantasize democracy should be … The way democracy does work now is the people in the backrooms shoose who is the easiest candidate to get along with.”

On the Evans’ side of the fence, spokespeople emphasized that Rosedale had had a cabinet minister almost throughout living memory, and that Evans, if elected, was certainly Prime Ministerial material. The media grabbed hold of it and it went national.

Some of the coverage wasn’t pretty.

“On a rainy nomination night” in April, the Cools campaign began busing supporters in to the Sheraton Centre hotel, which the film suggests was chosen for its intimidation factor but may simply have been the only place that could hold the crowds besides Maple Leaf Gardens.

There were 45 members of the Rosedale Liberal Association at the end of 1977. By April – more than 5,000. (The inaccuracy may not be accidental, since as an Informed Contemporary Source tells us, “in those days you could get away with just about anything.”) In any case, they packed the Sheraton ballroom.

In the presence of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Cools lost to Evans by an undisclosed margin. On October 16, Evans lost to PC David Crombie by nearly 2-1.

Cools won the Liberal nomination in 1979 and 1980, but lost both times to Crombie. In 1984, she was appointed to the Red Chamber by Trudeau. Her years in the Senate were largely quiet, but she continued her advocacy for women and was instrumental in the creation of the Special Senate-House of Commons Joint Committee on child custody and access after divorce. The Joint Committee’s 1998 report For the Sake of the Children recommended shared parenting. In 2004, the CBC chose her as one of the top 20 Canadian Women of all time.

But the greatest day of her career remains that wet April night in 1978, when she made the Liberal Party shudder.

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