In Retro T.O., we revisit key moments in recent Toronto history that still reverberate today. This week: Rob Ford’s confrontation with Star reporter Daniel Dale may be dominating local headlines, but Toronto mayors threatening journalists with violence is really nothing new for us.
Shortly after becoming mayor of Toronto, Mel Lastman was asked if he worried about his wife Marilyn’s verbal snafus. “All the time,” he said. “But I find it cute and if people don’t like it, too bad.” The same could be said of Mel’s odd outbursts, yet few found it cute when Lastman uttered a death threat against CBC reporter (and current city councillor) Adam Vaughan in May 1999.
Thanks to a police leak, it was an open secret among City Hall reporters that Marilyn Lastman was caught shoplifting a $155 pair of designer pants at the Promenade Mall Eaton’s on April 19, 1999. According to the police report no charges were laid “due to her age as well as no outstanding offences on her record.” Sources close to Marilyn believed the pressures of Mel’s job had resulted in depression and prescription drug use. The incident was kept quiet until the satirical magazine Frank published a story that declined to name either Lastman.
When some city councillors indicated that Vaughan, who had a testy relationship with the mayor, was sniffing around the shoplifting incident, Lastman assumed he was behind the Frank piece. On May 11, 1999, Lastman noticed Vaughan talking with councillor Kyle Rae in the council chamber and angrily approached him. “Before I could say anything,” Vaughan told the Star, “he burst in on me and said, ‘I’ve heard you’ve been talking about my wife. Stop talking about my wife. Leave my family alone. If you don’t leave them alone, I’ll kill you. I’ll write every letter I have to to the CBC to get you fired. Do you understand?’” The outburst earned stunned looks around the chamber. “No one likes being threatened, especially with death and firing,” noted Vaughan. “It shakes you up a bit.”
Lastman issued an apology to Vaughan later that day. The letter noted that “it was improper to have a private conversation with you in a public place. It was also a conversation inappropriate in tone and language. If you have been offended by our conversation then I am sorry for my words. I would like to sit down in private with you to apologize in person and to have an appropriate private discussion about the difficulties we have had.” That night, Star publisher John Honderich called Lastman to indicate that the paper would publish the shoplifting incident the following day.
Click here for a close-up view of Mel Lastman’s apology letter,
as it appeared in the May 12, 1999, edition of the Toronto Star.
Several city councillors defended Lastman, citing his recent stresses. Doug Holyday felt sympathetic toward the mayor’s problems and indicated he wouldn’t question the outburst. Brian Ashton determined that Lastman’s threat was no worse than “what schoolyard kids might do, or you might say when you stub your toe in the workroom.” Budget chief Tom Jakobek believed that the threat would not reflect negatively on the city, despite it being “not a good call on his part.” Rob Davis, who claimed he was asked by Vaughan about Lastman’s family, believed that Vaughan had not taken “the most appropriate action for reporters.” On the other hand, the Toronto Sun, one of Lastman’s staunchest defenders, criticized his outburst. “What Lastman did was wrong in public or in private,” noted a May 13, 1999 editorial. “If he can’t see why, he might want to reassess his future in public life.”
Following the incident, the Lastmans spent two weeks in Florida. When he returned, the mayor attacked Toronto’s media for being a pack of liars, pointing to Vaughan and his father, CityTV reporter Colin Vaughan, as among the most negative of the bunch. In the long run, Lastman’s relationship with the media deteriorated so much that the Sun, which once dropped Don Wanagas as a columnist for criticizing the mayor, allowed Sue-Ann Levy to mock him. As the Globe and Mail’s John Barber wrote when Lastman declined to run for another term in 2003, open contempt of the media “became one of the hallmarks of his reign—and reciprocal feelings among once-fawning journalists helped considerably to shorten it.”
Additional material from the May 12, 1999, May 13, 1999, and January 16, 2003 editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 14, 1999 edition of the National Post; the May 12, 1999, May 13, 1999, and June 15, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star; and the May 13, 1999 edition of the Toronto Sun.