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Toronto June Rowlands, 93, Toronto’s first female mayor, broke through many glass ceilings

June Rowlands, seen in 1983.

JAMES LEWCUN/The Globe and Mail

In early 1991, Toronto's long-serving mayor Art Eggleton announced he wouldn't seek a fourth term. That decision set off a fiercely competitive and fractious political season that ultimately culminated in the election of the city's first female mayor: June Rowlands, then a 15-year council veteran from Rosedale who had already broken through three other important municipal glass ceilings.

The six-month campaign began with a wide open field featuring two other women on the centre-right – west-end councillor Betty Disero and former provincial Tory cabinet minister Susan Fish – and downtown councillor Jack Layton on the left.

After more than a decade of Mr. Eggleton's bland centrism, many veteran Liberal and Tory backroomers panicked at the possibility that the right-of-centre votes would be split, allowing Mr. Layton, the NDP standard bearer, to cruise to victory. With Bob Rae's NDP government at Queen's Park barely a year into its majority, the prospect of the political left controlling both poles of power was seen as too threatening.

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Ms. Rowlands, who died in Toronto on Dec. 21 at the age of 93, had served as Mr. Eggleton's budget chief and later a member of his executive committee. Not surprisingly, she was best positioned to inherit his political machine. Influential operatives such as lawyer Ralph Lean and strategist John Laschinger (who later managed David Miller's 2003 centre-left victory) joined her team, while pressure mounted on Ms. Disero and Ms. Fish to bow out (both eventually did).

Yet, as she showed on the campaign, Ms. Rowlands was anything but a female version of Mr. Eggleton. Given to crusty – and, to her critics and opponents, "racist" – pronouncements about crime, black youth and poverty, Ms. Rowlands emerged on the trail as a flinty political pugilist unafraid to speak her mind. When Mr. Layton pledged to create red-light areas for prostitution and prohibit cars from downtown, Ms. Rowlands countered with grim warnings about urban decay and polarization.

She famously revealed that she used to carry a hatpin to defend herself against assailants, and even encouraged other women to use cans of spray paint.

By voting day, with her leg in a cast from a fall outside her Bay Street campaign office, Ms. Rowlands was firmly in the lead, prevailing over Mr. Layton in an election that saw an unusually high turnout. "A victory of moderation and extreme caution," the Toronto Star's city-hall columnist David Lewis Stein sniffed.

Clearly emboldened by her hard-fought victory, Ms. Rowlands turned up at a mayors conference in Winnipeg a few weeks later, opining fearlessly in a scrum that white people may be genetically predisposed to heroin addiction.

But that shoot-from-the-lip manner didn't last long. At a press conference early in January, 1992, Ms. Rowlands declared that as the new mayor of a city in the throes of a bruising recession, she would focus her attention on the municipality's finances. "What I am going to try to do for the next six months is not to accept assignments or engagements outside City Hall. I am not going to respond so much to media for the next six months and I'm going to try not to leave town too often."

June Pendock was born on May 14, 1924, in Saint-Laurent, Que., and grew up in North Toronto, attending Lawrence Park Collegiate and the University of Toronto. She eventually landed a job as a service representative for Bell Canada in the 1940s. She met her future husband, Harry Rowlands, at Bell. The couple had five children, including two sets of twins, before they divorced. They lived in Rosedale, on Douglas Drive, although she later moved to Leaside.

In the 1950s and 60s, Ms. Rowlands became increasingly involved in various charities, residents associations and other groups, such as the Family Service Organization and the National Council on Welfare. In particular, she became increasingly active in the Association of Women Electors, an influential proto-feminist network whose members monitored developments at City Hall and regularly issued reports or briefs on issues such as poverty, public housing and the municipal budget. Ms. Rowlands, in fact, served as the AWE's president.

Her AWE activism led Ms. Rowlands into the thick of one of modern Toronto's defining battles – the proposed demolition and redevelopment of Trefann Court, an enclave south of Cabbagetown slated for "urban renewal."

"That was my first run-in with June," former Toronto mayor John Sewell (1978-80) recounts.

Mr. Sewell, then a community activist, backed efforts by local homeowners to block the demolition, while Ms. Rowlands came to the fight via a friend who was advocating for poor tenants looking for better housing.

She cut a curious figure in a conflict set against the backdrop of nearly derelict Victorian row houses and a poor neighbourhood. "A tall striking, platinum-blond woman" whose Rosedale attire and airs summoned images of Lady Bountiful, noted journalist Graham Fraser (former Commissioner of Official Languages) in his 1972 account of the fight, which Mr. Sewell ultimately won.

Both were elected to council, with Ms. Rowlands representing Ward 10, encompassing Rosedale and Moore Park, in 1976. By then, she had established ties to the city's Liberal machine, working first as a researcher for the party caucus at Queen's Park and later standing for election in the 1975 provincial race (she lost).

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Ms. Rowlands would say she represented the "militant middle."

"She and I ended up getting along relatively well," Mr. Sewell says. "She cared a lot about social policy."

Indeed, Ms. Rowlands's early political/policy preoccupations included issues such as the development of more affordable housing for low-income families. At one point, she and another member of council, Joanne Campbell, staged a filibuster to block the conversion of thousands of rental apartments into condos – a move she later described as her proudest moment.

Through the 1980s, she was also a driving force on council behind repeated attempts to ban smoking from restaurants and other public spaces (her husband was executive director of the Ontario division of the Canadian Cancer Society).

Yet in the aftermath of the 1977 murder of shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques, Ms. Rowlands threw her lot in with the council faction that sought to clean up Yonge Street, restrict body-rub parlours and regulate strip joints. She dismissed a proposal to establish a group home for gay youth as "a bloody disgrace" – a comment that reflected the wider homophobic backlash triggered by the Jaques murder.

When Mr. Eggleton defeated Mr. Sewell in 1980 after the latter spoke out about the importance of gay rights, Ms. Rowlands' star began to rise. She secured appointments as not only the budget chief and a member of the executive committee, but also to the Toronto Transit Commission and eventually the Metro Toronto Police Services Board. She was the first woman to serve as chair.

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Mr. Eggleton, who is currently serving as a member of the Canadian Senate, recalls her as a "stickler for detail" who was known for her thoroughness and interest in health issues. Despite her caustic political profile, he says, "She was a very happy person. You didn't often see her grumpy."

While Ms. Rowlands isn't generally seen as a politically progressive figure, she nonetheless asserted a feminist position on a range of issues, pushing, at one point, for the use of hiring quotas to increase the number of women in the senior ranks of Toronto's civil service. As part of a pioneering generation of female politicians, along with figures such as Anne Johnston, Joanne Campbell and Ann Vanstone, she put her name to a push to replace "alderman" with "councillor," rejecting terms such as "alderwoman" and "alderperson."

That sensibility may have led to the most memorable move of her mayoralty – banning the Barenaked Ladies from performing at a 1991 New Year's Eve event at Nathan Phillips Square because the group's name was deemed to be sexist.

While accounts of who precisely was responsible for this decision vary – Mr. Eggleton describes it as "a misunderstanding" – Ms. Rowlands undeniably wore public responsibility both for the decision and, ironically, the band's huge success due to the record sales triggered by the media coverage of the ban.

As mayor, Ms. Rowlands stuck to her promise to keep a low profile, and even took on the role of budget chief in an era marked by an exodus of large companies to the suburbs, plummeting house prices and soaring wage increases for the city's public-sector unions.

City officials recall her capacity for taking a briefing well – a largely unrecognized but critically important skill for politicians – and her impatience with functions that had little to do with city business, such as gatherings of Greater Toronto mayors, which she routinely skipped.

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Kyle Rae, a former long-serving downtown councillor, recalls that one of council's major accomplishments during her term was the city wresting control over hundreds of hectares of the polluted Port Lands from the Toronto Harbour Commission – a move that laid the groundwork for the waterfront revitalization efforts of the past 15 years.

But Ms. Rowlands's term was marked mainly by in-fighting and factionalism on council. In 1994, she was caught flat-footed when asked to comment on a riot on Yonge Street precipitated by the Rodney King jury ruling in Los Angeles. By the time the 1994 municipal election rolled around, she was facing a challenge from Barbara Hall, who was younger and considered to be more progressive and much more accessible to ordinary Torontonians.

Although early polls showed the two women running a close race, Ms. Hall began to pull ahead in the final weeks as the mayor's base of support wavered and the large portion of undecided voters shifted their support to the former human-rights lawyer. When the votes were tallied, she had prevailed over Ms. Rowlands.

Unlike almost every other living Toronto mayor, Ms. Rowlands clearly viewed the 1994 outcome as the end of a career in public life that had extended almost two decades. She left the limelight completely. She didn't do interviews or seek other appointments or elected positions with other levels of government.

Ms. Rowlands leaves her children, Doug, Joyce, Murray, Bruce and Alec; and grandchildren.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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