Did you hear the One about the Cardinal, the Rabbi, and the Minister? Spiritual Leaders and Big Social Problems in 1970s Toronto

Emmett Cardinal Carter faces the media on the release of his report on police-community relations, 1979. Toronto Star/TPL.

David M. K. Sheinin

People sometimes do a double take when they learn that longtime Toronto city councilor Joe Mihevc holds a doctorate in theology. “How did you go from theology to politics?” they ask in mock opprobrium for the latter. Mihevc smiles: “It was easy to make the jump.”

Though most active in post-1990 Toronto, Mihevc is a holdover from an earlier era when religion and politics often went hand in hand. As a Canadian Methodist missionary in China during the 1940s, for example, James Endicott backed communist revolutionaries. Silenced by the United Church of Canada in 1946, he resigned from the ministry. But he remained a powerful voice on the Canadian left for decades in the “Ban the Bomb” movement and additional progressive causes. Like others, however, who crossed from spiritual leadership to the political sphere he divided Canadians. His critics included Lester B. Pearson who called him a “Red Stooge.”

In the 1970s, for about fifteen years something changed in the Toronto of Mihevc’s young adulthood. Leaders from across the mainstream political spectrum (and the public) turned to well-known spiritual mentors to help solve big social problems. Unlike Endicott and others who had appealed to limited constituencies, a handful of 1970s spiritual leaders won adherents across religious and political divides. They played outsized roles in Toronto public life. Foremost among them were Gerald Emmett Carter (Archbishop of Toronto, 1978-90, Cardinal, 1979-90), W. Gunther Plaut (Rabbi, Holy Blossom Temple, 1961-77), and Lois Wilson (president, Canadian Council of Churches, 1976-79, Moderator, United Church of Canada, 1980-82).

By the mid-1980s, the era of these prodigious spiritual leaders as pervasive moral authorities had come to a close.

What ushered in the era, and why did it end?

The Cardinal

In March 1979, Phil Givens, Chair of the Toronto Board of Commissioners of Police, wrote to congratulate Gerald Emmett Carter on his elevation to the College of Cardinals. “I do not understand,” Givens quipped, “why they call it a College when only one can hope to graduate, and even that is very indefinite.” Givens loved to kibbitz as did Carter whose genial nature appealed to Torontonians of all faiths (and of none). As Metro Toronto chairman Paul Godfrey found, Carter was easily approached. In August 1979, police killed Albert Johnson, a thirty-five-year-old African Canadian, the eighth police killing in just over a year. Two African Canadians, three people who spoke English as a second language, and four suffering from mental illness were among those killed. With Torontonians clamouring for police reform, it occurred to Godfrey that Carter might lead a municipal inquiry into police-community relations. At 9:45 PM one night he called Carter’s residence out of the blue. An aide answered. The Cardinal was sleeping. Godfrey insisted that it was important and a few minutes later Carter came to the phone demanding, “What’s so important it couldn’t wait until morning?”

But Carter was having fun with Godfrey and when he learned the purpose of the call, immediately agreed to lead an inquiry. According to Godfrey, Carter’s success did not rest in his inquiry recommendations (including neighborhood foot patrols and recruiting to make the force more representative of the city’s diversity). Carter’s skill was in his ability to bring together leaders from different faiths and different political orientations. “He was terrific,” Godfrey told me. “He didn’t find a solution, but he got people talking for such a long time that he defused the situation.” Ominously in retrospect, Carter told Godfrey privately at the time that it might take years to solve the problem of police-community relations.

The Rabbi

Gunther Plaut was everywhere in 1970s Toronto. Like Carter, whom he counted as a friend, Plaut was charismatic and a confidant of political leaders. He used his rabbinical pulpit at Holy Blossom Temple to advocate for human rights in Canadian foreign policy and more favorable government positions on refugee acceptance. But more important, in regular Globe and Mail columns and in a variety of other forums, Plaut won a far-reaching audience through a combination of dry, learned humour and alternatively, gritty takes on important ethical issues of the moment.

Ralph Abernathy and Gunther Plaut, 1970. Toronto Star/TPL.

One day, Plaut might opine on the rituals of baseball or the success of left-handed tennis stars Rod Laver and Jimmy Connors. Other days, he was more sombre. He often shocked Torontonians even as he convinced them. In an appeal to end discrimination against trans people, Plaut wrote that some interpreted Genesis 1:27 (“male and female created He them”) to mean that the first human being was bisexual. Though opposed to abortion, he tore into the Supreme Court of Canada for overriding a jury verdict that had acquitted Henry Morgentaler for performing abortions. And Plaut was thirty years ahead of his time in reasoning that forcing Canadians to retire at 65 was a breach of the Canadian Bill of Rights.

In 1977, a report commissioned by the Anglican Synod of Canada recommended endorsement by the Church of the termination of life at birth for those with a severe intellectual disability. In his finest moment, Plaut assailed the report as a denial of those with an intellectual disability their humanity. “What constitutes a human being?” he asked. “Is there a line beyond which a person is no longer considered human?” His answer was an unequivocal “no.”

The Minister

In 1969, shortly after Lois Wilson had been appointed to a new parish as a United Church minister, her new church burned to the ground. In the two years that followed, Wilson pitched a rebuilding plan to parishioners that included a small apartment building. Units would be rented at market value to support the new church. Wilson proposed that a few units be held aside at a lower rent for newly arrived refugees to Canada. It took her months to convince parishioners of the plan and to get through to initially befuddled members of the congregation what refugees were and why they should receive a special rate on the rent.

Lois Wilson, 1985. Toronto Star/TPL.

Wilson often pressed her flock to the left on progressive political issues, and was ahead of the political curve on vital moral issues of the day. As moderator of the United Church of Canada, she visited a Church mission in India where she was appalled to find that United Church missionaries were trying to convert local residents to Christianity, a practice she ended. Like Plaut, she used her pulpit to advance human rights. She also played a key role in promoting the acceptance of refugees as a core tenet in Canadian foreign policy, and in the creation of Canadian “Inter-Church Committees” in defense of human rights.[1]

A Rapidly Changing City

A confluence of factors allowed for the advent of Toronto’s 1970s spiritual leaders as political advisers and moral authorities. In the late 1960s, many Torontonians were still religious in what they considered a traditional sense. The city remained dominated by longstanding conservative religious mores that included store closures on Sunday. But while Wilson, Plaut, and Carter drew on the deference Torontonians still afforded religious leaders, their moral and theological worldviews were a far cry from fire and brimstone. They reflected progressive shifts in their respective faiths locally, nationally, and in some cases internationally. Each often used their pulpit, broadly conceived, to press others to the political left – though that meant less further to the left for Carter than it did for Plaut and Wilson.

As did many political leaders, they also shed the formality and distance from the public of their 1960s predecessors. That dovetailed with the emergence of a generation of progressive municipal politicians influenced by traditional religious upbringings in Toronto, progressive shifts in their faiths, and the intersections of those shifts with political upheaval in 1960s Canada and the United States. With grains of both humour and truth, Toronto mayor David Crombie (1972-78) recently summed up the political style of his longtime “frenemy,” reform mayor John Sewell (1978-80) in reference to Sewell’s staunch religious upbringing: “He’s a Baptist preacher but doesn’t know it.” Reform city councilor and Sewell ally Gordon Cressy (1978-82) cut his teeth in social work as a Christian missionary in 1960s Chicago housing projects. For these and other politicians, as for Mihevc a generation later, there was nothing unusual about a public sphere in which reform minded political and religious leaders drew on one another.

Each of the three represented aspects of the progressive wing of one of the three major political parties – Carter the Progressive Conservatives, Plaut the Liberals, and Wilson the New Democratic Party. The ease with which each moved across party lines in 1970s Toronto reflected that city politics tended to be more progressive than party politics elsewhere in the province.

By the mid-1980s, though, the era had begun to fade. City politics and activism passed the spiritual leaders by, in some cases by setting in place what the latter had proposed. In addition, Toronto had quickly become far more racially and ethnically diverse. The spiritual leaders of the 1970s had little insight into burgeoning Caribbean and Southeast Asian communities on the forefront of the conflicts with police that Carter had privately admitted to Godfrey would not be solved for a generation.

Carter’s report on police reform gave moral credence to ideas that had been kicking around the city for years. By the early 1980s, some of what he and others had proposed (more diversity in police recruitment, for example) had been implemented. But when it became clear that police-community relations were not improving, Carter’s inquiry report was largely forgotten. Much of what Plaut advocated anticipated and was entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982). As Secretary of State for External Affairs (1979-80), Flora MacDonald consulted with Lois Wilson and drew on her advocacy in making human rights and refugee acceptance centerpieces of Canadian foreign policy, even as those positions had become commonplace thinking among United Church and other parishioners in Toronto. Carter, Plaut and Wilson, then, were marginalized in part by their success, and by a quickly secularizing Toronto that no longer reserved a position of public deference for religious leaders.

David M. K. Sheinin directs the Trent University History Graduate Program and is Académico Correspondiente of the Academia Nacional de la Historia de la República Argentina. Raanan Rein, Stefan Rinke and David have co-edited Migrants, Refugees, and Asylum Seekers in Latin America (Brill, 2020).

[1] Christopher Lind and Joseph Mihevc, eds., Coalitions for Justice: The Story of Canada’s Interchurch Coalitions (Ottawa: Novalis, 1994).

Further Reading

Gunther Plaut, Unfinished Business (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1981).

Lois Wilson, Turning the World Upside Down (Toronto: Doubleday, 1989)

Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter, Report to Civic Authorities of Metropolitan Toronto and its Citizens (Toronto, s.n. 1979)

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