A vote to remember: Leaside elects its first woman mayor

Beth Nealson: Leaside elects its first woman mayor. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.
Beth Nealson: Leaside elects its first woman mayor. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.

As Torontonians prepare to vote later this month, some Leasiders may remember when this community had its own mayoralty elections. One of the most memorable occurred in December 1962 between Leaside councillor Beth Nealson and incumbent Leaside mayor Lloyd Dickinson.

Ms. Nealson, a politically active housewife and mother, was a 28-year Leaside resident with eight years of municipal experience. She was the sole woman on the Leaside town council and, if elected, would become its first woman mayor. Mr. Dickinson, a local businessman, was a nine-year veteran of Leaside politics and had only recently been appointed mayor following the resignation of Mayor Charles Hiscott earlier in the year.

Throughout the fall, the rival candidates campaigned vigorously – delivering speeches, canvassing homes and running ads in The Leaside Advertiser. The contest was hard-fought. Dickinson questioned Ms. Nealon’s right to even run for public office on the basis that she did not own property in Leaside – which did not endear him to apartment dwellers in Leaside and Thorncliffe. Nealson responded by claiming her opponent had acted improperly earlier in the year when he and other councillors named retiring Mayor Hiscott town treasurer without properly studying or advertising the position first. On November 26, the two candidates addressed these and other issues before a crowd of some 250 people at Bessborough School auditorium.

A week later, on December 3, over 50 per cent of eligible Leaside voters cast their ballots. Throughout election night, the lead seesawed between the two candidates. When all 7,100-plus votes were counted, Dickinson had won by just 13 votes. But the race didn’t end there. Some ballots were found to be incorrectly marked, and Ms. Nealson requested a recount. Strangely, the Leaside Town Council rejected her request but was overruled by the courts. When the votes were retabulated on December 27, Nealson had won by five votes – becoming not only Leaside’s first woman mayor but also the first woman ever to hold that position in any Toronto municipality.

Dickinson did not lose graciously. He argued that all ballots cast in his favour were valid – regardless of how they were marked. He also sullenly complained that during his nine years in local politics he had lost $15,000-$25,000 annually of his own money.

Others pointed out that he deserved to lose – especially for his suggestion that only “property owners” were qualified to hold office. Even his supporters – who included the publisher of The Leaside Advertiser – acknowledged he was “not a good politician.”

Beth Nealson went on to serve as Leaside’s mayor for the next four years, earning the nickname “Mrs. Leaside” for her longstanding and effective service. She ran against Dickinson again in 1964, this time soundly defeating him by more than 1,100 votes. When Leaside and East York merged in 1966, she ran for a third time – but lost to another formidable female politician, East York’s True Davidson. Nealson died in 1994 at the age of 83. The very well-travelled Beth Nealson Drive in Thorncliffe is named in her honour.

This article was guest contributed by Ted DeWelles, Leaside Heritage Preservation Society.