In the decades since she first moved to Toronto in the 1960s, Barbara Hall has woven herself into the city’s social history. First elected to City Council in 1985, Hall went on to become Toronto’s second female mayor (and the city’s 61st overall) in 1994. In 2005, Hall was appointed to the Ontario Human Rights Commission as chief commissioner, and after serving in that capacity for almost ten years, she chaired the panel reviewing the floundering Toronto District School Board. A park named in her honour can be found near Church and Wellesley.
You’ve moved around a lot in your life. How did you come to live in Toronto?
I was born in Ottawa. And then I lived in Victoria, moved back to Ottawa, then London England, Halifax, Victoria, rural Nova Scotia, and Toronto. So I came to Toronto in 1967. I lived in a number of places in Cabbagetown, but I bought this house about 30 years ago.
How did you get into city politics?
I was a lawyer, practicing family law, and I had a client who moved back home with her children even though her husband was violent, and several years later she was killed—by her husband—and I saw that as being partly the result of a lack of affordable housing. She wasn’t able to find affordable housing for her and her children. And so I got involved with some non-profit groups as a volunteer, working on issues of affordable housing. It was probably this that caused people to approach me about considering a run.
I was a councillor for three terms, and then I was concerned about the lack of leadership— positive leadership—and looking around for who I could support to run for mayor, and the finger kept pointing at me, so I ran, and was successful.
How did you approach the job of Mayor?
My philosophy was that successful leaders build teams—wherever the leadership is—so I spent a lot of time building teams, and I think that the things that were most successful about my time in politics were all things where WE did it, as opposed to I did it.
Can you give an example of that philosophy in action?
Probably the thing that I’m most known for is bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to support what’s called ‘The Kings’, which many people say has been the most important and most successful city initiative in many decades. If one took King-Spadina and King-Parliament as the centres of circles drawn in each place, those were basically fairly derelict industrial lands.
There was no residential building permitted in those areas. The industrial buildings didn’t suit 21st century industry, and so many of them were vacant. Many had ‘for sale’ signs. Many had already been torn down because the owners could generate more revenue from surface parking lots. My concern was that if these areas continued to become more derelict, that was going to impact the core—which is always fragile—and that we could end up the way many large American cities did—with no one downtown and unsafe downtown areas.
So I brought together a group of people, including Jane Jacobs, and developers, heritage buffs, planners and economists, and we ultimately put forward a plan that would change the zoning in those areas to permit…basically, a flexible zoning that would allow the full range of uses. So we’ve seen large amounts of residential housing, and streets where you couldn’t buy a quart of milk or a loaf of bread, now have supermarket wars because there’s so much residential housing that all the businesses are coming back, along with vibrant city life.
What is one of your most enduring memories of being mayor?
Well, one is that first time marching in Pride in 1995, and the screams and yells and affection of the community was very powerful.
You were the first Mayor of Toronto to march in the Pride Parade. Do you think it’s still important for mayors to do that?
I do think it’s important. I think it sends a message of acceptance and diversity and inclusion that I think is important. It’s hard now to remember what it was like before; before I was mayor, I had marched in the parade a number of years, in support of various AIDS organizations, for example, and I saw that there would be people in various parts of the parade—either with signs or yelling— jeering negative things towards the parade.
For me, it was a no-brainer that I would march in Pride as mayor, but back then, the leaders from the community were not there. The police chief, the fire chief, politicians from all levels were not there at all, so it was not just a national story. There were reporters from the States, from Europe, because the mayor of Canada’s largest city was going to be in Pride. And it’s still a community where there are significant numbers of hate crimes…and certainly, there are still issues of discrimination that exist, so to me, leadership should be about projecting what can be and what should be.
You were the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission from 2005 to 2015. What exactly does that job entail?
Well, the Chief Commissioner chairs a board of commissioners, but also a staff of a hundred or so, who develop policy and education for Ontarians about Human Rights, and work to advance Human Rights in the province.
I think we all know that disability is an area that’s protected under the Human Rights Code, but when I got to the Commission I was surprised to learn that almost all of the issues that came up were related to physical disability, and that in the same way that mental illness was in the closet in families and in our society, it was in the Human Rights Commission closet as well. So what are the issues there, and how could we educate people, and support people with mental health issues to come out, and be protected when they come out? And what are their needs?
What should the big Human Rights focuses be in Ontario now?
Well, systemic racism continues to be an issue. We see a lot of things that come up in the context of policing and racializing people. We see studies that say that if you’re applying for a job and your name is, you know, Smith, as opposed to Mohammad, or Singh or something else, that you’re more likely—much more likely—to get an interview.
I think that Toronto—and Ontario and Canada—are the best in the world. I’ve travelled a lot, and you know, I love our city, and country, and I love our diversity and the things that we do that really are an example to the world. But, having said that, I think what we have is fragile, and we have to keep working on it.
You’ve had a rather varied career; family law, politics, HR Commission, and most recently, heading the panel that ran public consultations on the Toronto District School Board. Is there a connecting factor?
Well, all of them are about how people live together in society. And I think my role has always been to think about a healthy community—a healthy city, in a very broad sense. All of these things contribute to how we live together, either in our personal relationships or in our various roles. How we have the opportunity to live in safe, healthy communities, to have an equal chance of fulfilling our dreams and abilities. Those are the things that I’ve had the privilege of working on in different ways, and those are the things that still generate passion in me.
The city named a park after you in 2014. What’s it like when someone wants to name a park after you?
Well, you’re thrilled. You’re humbled. You think ‘does that mean I go and weed every night?’ I told you that I came here in 1967, and because my family moved a lot, I lived in sixteen different houses as a child. And I— if asked where I was from—would say’ Canada’, in those days. But I have really put down roots in Toronto, and I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else. And to have a park named after me, that’s very, very special.
What are some of your favourite spots in Toronto?
I love walking down Broadview, South of the Danforth, and looking across at the skyline. That view of Toronto, I think it’s a gorgeous view. I like the ravines—walking in the ravines, and riding my bike along the bike trails there. But I also love marching down University Avenue, or running down University Avenue as part of a marathon or a fundraiser or whatever, with thousands of other people out enjoying the life…. Smelling the curries in Little India on a hot summer evening. My list of favourite places is very long.
Do you consider yourself retired at this point?
Sort of retired. I’m still on the boards of a couple non-profits, working on similar issues to those I’ve done over my life. I guess I still get quite a few invitations to speak to groups, and in the next couple of weeks, I’m going to Thunder Bay to speak about women and politics. So I do quite a few things like that. I laugh sometimes trying to think of how to describe me, and I guess I’m… I’ve always been an activist, and I’m still an activist-citizen.