David Croll: A Mayor Who Went Above And Beyond
On March 25, 2020, a couple of weeks after we were gobsmacked by the coronavirus, a unified City of Windsor Council voted to defer property tax payments and arrears for 90 days. Mayor Drew Dilkens heralded the compassionate measure as something Windsor has not seen since the days of legendary Mayor David Croll in the throes of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The reference piqued my curiosity, and I embarked on a bit of a research mission to find out more about Croll, other than the fact the park adjacent to City Hall is named after him.
I determined there is no danger that his name will ever be removed from the park in an enlightened era when University of Windsor alumni are petitioning for the removal of the name of Canada’s first Prime Minister — John A. Macdonald — from a prominent campus hall.
Macdonald was a staunch conservative who helped start the harsh residential schools that separated indigenous children from their families.
Croll, in contrast, would be comfortable embracing today’s Black Lives Matter crusade. Born in a Moscow slum in 1900, he emigrated to Canada with his family when he was five years old.
He rose to become Windsor’s first Jewish Mayor, Ontario’s first Jewish Cabinet Minister and Canada’s first Jewish Senator.
He served two terms as Windsor’s Mayor, between 1931 and 1934 and 1939-40. A lawyer and businessman, he first won office at age 30 in the wake of “Black Tuesday”, the stock market crash on October 29, 1929.
This is not to belittle what the current City Council is doing for its citizens in the pandemic era. For one thing, there is no consensus among economic tall foreheads that we are on the cusp of a Depression or if the pandemic will result in one.
Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine any Mayor matching Croll’s feats of generosity and humanity. Nationalities aside, he fought for the poor, wherever he might find them.
“He genuinely looked after people’s welfare,” concludes historian Patrick Brode, author of “Border Cities Powerhouse,” a recently published book that catalogues Windsor’s histry from 1900 to 1945.
Brode identified one of Croll’s greatest accomplishments as Mayor; convincing the province to pass the Moratorium Act, which delayed payments on individual mortgages that were in default.
In his book, “The People’s Senator: The Life and Times of David A. Croll,” author R. Warren James outlined claims by Croll in his 1932 re-election campaign that he reduced the city’s bonded indebtedness by $1.5 million in a two year period, while spending $500,000 on relief.
Later on in his tenure, after getting elected to the provincial legislature in 1934 and appointed Minister of Municipal Affairs and Public Welfare, on top of being Mayor, Croll was instrumental in the amalgamation of Windsor, Sandwich, East Windsor and Walkerville in 1935.Intended to address the crushing debt of the Border Cities, Croll and Premier Mitch Hepburn convinced the Ontario Municipal Board to approve the merger and flatten the debt.
According to an obituary in Maclean’s magazine in 1991, Croll arranged to forego paying interest on the city’s municipal bonds and instead used available funds to feed the hungry.
The Border Cities had to pay all the money back to the province, even when the debt extended right into the 1950s, reveals Brode: “All future debentures taken out by the city had to be approved by Toronto.”
For various reasons, one being the collapse of the auto industry, the “Dirty Thirties” cut deeper in Windsor.
As unemployment rose to 24.9 percent in 1933, the young Mayor joined citizens on the bread lines and soup kitchens. He put his own family on a welfare-level lifestyle as a mark of solidarity with the poor.
In December of 1933, he ordered the Windsor welfare department to give every family on its rolls a Christmas turkey.
In 1934, the city faced insolvency, which led to 28,638 persons receiving relief throughout the year.
Croll became a soul mate of Liberal Premier Hepburn, who recruited him to run for the provincial legislature in 1934. As mentioned, he served as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Public Welfare.
In 1937, however, he had a falling out with Hepburn when he supported Oshawa General Motors workers’ bid to form a union. Hepburn backed the company and the rift prompted the principled Croll to resign his cabinet post, and declare the immortal words: “My place is marching with the workers rather than riding with General Motors.”
Enhancing his career in 1945, Croll was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal representative in the downtown Toronto Spadina riding. A public housing apartment was named after him there.
He was appointed to the Senate in 1955, a post Croll held for 36 years until his death on June 11, 1991, at the age of 91.
In Ottawa, he was active in campaigns that introduced or expanded unemployment insurance, old age pensions and family allowances, as well as a battle for higher standards of living for Canada’s native people. All told, he spent over 60 years in public life.
Research for this column was gleaned from “The People’s Senator: The Life and Times of David A. Croll,” a book by R. Warren James, published in 1990; a 1991 article in Maclean’s magazine entitled “A Canadian of value” and “From The Vault: A Photo History Of Windsor,” published in 2014 by the Windsor Star.