William Peyton Hubbard was born in Toronto in 1842 in what was then known as “the bush”, an area near present day Bloor and Bathurst Streets. His parents were slaves who had escaped from Virginia via the Underground Railroad and settled in Canada.
He worked as a baker for 16 years and invented and patented a commercial oven, The Hubbard Portable. In the 1870s he married his high school sweetheart Julia Luckett. He began working for his uncle’s livery-cab chauffer service. One cold winter’s day, Hubbard was driving his horse-drawn cab down Don Mills Road when he came upon an accident. A man’s horse and buggy had overturned and sent the man into the Don River. Hubbard jumped from his cab and saved the man who over time changed Hubbard’s life. The man was George Brown, a noted abolitionist, founder of the Globe newspaper and one of the Fathers of Confederation. To show his gratitude to Hubbard for saving his life he hired him as his personal driver and the two became friends. Years later Brown encouraged Hubbard to consider politics but it was not until 1893 at the age of 51 that he entered the race for a seat on Toronto’s city council. He lost by only seven votes and the following year he ran again, this time successfully, making history in the process. He became the first non-White person elected to public office in any major city in Canada. He would go on to win 14 more elections, serve on various commissions and committees as well as Deputy Mayor in 1906 and 1907.
During his political life Hubbard executed many changes. In 1898 he was appointed to the 4-member Board of Control and in 1899 he oversaw the move of the city’s municipal offices from the St. Lawrence Market to the premises at Queen and Bay Streets, now referred to as “The Old City Hall”. He proposed a major provincial law that would change the process of forming the Board of Control to a citywide election instead of council choosing the members from within their ranks. Ontario approved the measure in 1903. Hubbard was among the first elected controllers in 1904 and to this day he is the only non-white person ever elected based on a citywide vote.
During his years on council he lobbied for improved infrastructure (waterworks, road upgrading, etc.). He was responsible for passing more than 100 civic bills. He served in a leadership role as a member of The Union of Canadian Municipalities and the Ontario Municipal Association. In 1906 he received 15,035 votes for controller but in 1907 his support began to erode and his vote count fell to 6,500.
Hubbard and Sir Adam Beck, the founder of Toronto Hydro, were advocating for a publicly owned Hydro system. Hubbard lobbying on the municipal side while Beck fought provincially. Hubbard spearheaded efforts that led to the creation of the Toronto Hydro Electrical system. Many business and corporate leaders, who preferred hydro to remain private, resented these efforts and in 1908 Hubbard was defeated for the first time. In May 1908, at the age of 66, he was sworn in as a Justice of the Peace for York County. He returned to city council in 1913 but retired at the end of the year because of his wife’s ill health.
On April 30, 1935 William Hubbard died of a stroke in his home at 660 Broadview Ave. He was 93 years old.
Although racial discrimination was prevalent during his time, and he experienced much of it, his determination, pride and courage made his many accomplishments outstanding even in today’s climate. He said, “I have always felt that I am a representative of a race hitherto despised, but if given a fair opportunity would be able to command esteem”.
– An oil painting of William Hubbard hangs in the municipal offices at City Hall, as a fitting tribute to Toronto’s and Canada’s first Black elected official.
– In 1989 the William Peyton Hubbard Award For Race Relations was established. Among the recipients: Leonard A. Braithwaite, QC, George Elliot Clarke, Dub Poet Lillian Allen, and Dr. Alvin Curling.
– In 1992 Ontario Hydro established educational Awards for Black University and College Students in recognition of Hubbard. Since May 2000 Ontario Hydro’s successor Hydro One has continued to support Black students through the William Peyton Hubbard Memorial Awards. The awards are granted annually to two Black students (where possible one female, one male) studying power industry related disciplines at a recognized Ontario University or College and also offers them a work term or summer employment at Hydro One.
– Hubbard’s home at 660 Broadview Ave. is now part of Montcrest School. A plaque commemorating his house is in the northeast corner of Riverdale Park