John Sewell

John Sewell, CM (born December 8, 1940) is a Canadian political activist and writer on municipal affairs; he was the mayor of Toronto, Ontario from 1978 to 1980.

John Sewell
58th Mayor of Toronto
In office
December 1, 1978  November 30, 1980
Preceded byFred Beavis
Succeeded byArt Eggleton
Toronto City Councillor for Ward 7
In office
1969  November 30, 1978
Serving with Karl Jaffary (1969-1974), Janet Howard (1974-1978)
Preceded bynew ward boundaries
Succeeded byGordon Cressy
Metro Toronto Councillor for Ward 7
In office
1974  November 30, 1978
Preceded byKarl Jaffary
Succeeded byGordon Cressy
Personal details
Born (1940-12-08) December 8, 1940
Toronto, Ontario
Spouse(s)Liz Rykert
Alma materUniversity of Toronto
Occupationpolitical activist, former mayor and councillor


Raised in the Beaches neighbourhood, in Toronto, Sewell attended Malvern Collegiate Institute and the University of Toronto from which he graduated with an English Literature degree in 1961.[1] He earned a law degree from the University of Toronto Law School in 1964 and was called to the bar in 1966.[2]

Municipal politics

Sewell became active in city politics in 1966 when he joined the residents of the Trefann Court Urban Renewal Area in the fight against the expropriation and levelling of the working-class and poor neighbourhood.[1] Sewell was also involved in opposing the building of the Spadina Expressway in the late 1960s and early 1970s.[3] He was first elected to Toronto City Council in 1969 as alderman for Ward 7, a predominantly working-class area including St. Jamestown, Regent Park, Don Vale, and Cabbagetown.[3] He also initiated the founding of a community-owned newspaper, Seven News, seen as an alternative to Toronto's corporate-owned daily papers.

Sewell became the leader of city council's reform wing, and was elected Mayor of Toronto in 1978.[4] In the 1978 election, the right-wing vote was split between two mayoral candidates, David Paul Smith and Tony O'Donohue.[5] Sewell won the election with less than 50 percent of the vote: Sewell won 71,305 votes, to O'Donohue's 62,173 and Smith's 45,071.[4]

Mayor of Toronto

Sewell was portrayed as a radical in the media and was dubbed "Mayor Blue Jeans" by the Toronto Sun at a time when wearing denim was still considered an identifier of the counterculture.[6] As an environmentalist famous for riding his bicycle to council, he opposed the development of banking and convention centres in the central business district that would become the hallmark of the mayors who followed. Sewell also established himself as a leading critic of the Toronto Police, demanding greater accountability to the public, and was a leading defender of gay rights, endorsing gay rights activist George Hislop's 1980 candidacy for city council, at a time when it was rare for public figures to express support for same-sex rights.

In the 1980 election, after two years of controversy, pro-development Conservatives and Liberals united behind the candidacy of Art Eggleton. Although Sewell maintained the support of many Red Tories, reform Liberals and New Democrats and won more votes and a larger share of the vote than in 1978, he lost the mayor's office to Eggleton.

Later life

Sewell subsequently returned to city council as an alderman in a by-election, to replace Ward 6 alderman Dan Heap who had been elected to parliament, and won re-election in 1982. He retired from municipal politics in 1984 to accept a job as a columnist at The Globe and Mail.[7] He subsequently moved to Now Magazine, then wrote a regular column in Toronto's eye weekly from 1999 to 2005. He has written a number of books and articles on Toronto urban issues.

Sewell served as chair of the Toronto public housing authority from 1986 to 1988 and is an acknowledged urban affairs expert.[1] He has served as chair of the Royal Commission on Planning and Development Reform in Ontario from 1991 to 1993. Sewell was an advisor to East London, South Africa's city council from 1994 to 1999 and as advisor on the re-establishment of local government in Malawi in 2000. Sewell also taught law, politics and social science at York University from 1989 to 1991.

In the late 1990s, Sewell founded the group Citizens for Local Democracy to fight the plans of the provincial Mike Harris government to abolish Metropolitan Toronto and amalgamate its constituent parts into a new City of Toronto "megacity".

In the 1999 Ontario provincial election, Sewell ran as an independent candidate in the riding of Toronto Centre--Rosedale, challenging Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Al Leach to protest the megacity. His entry into the race was controversial, with many activists accusing him of splitting the left-wing vote with the New Democratic Party (NDP). Sewell was also criticized for remaining in the race after Leach, whom he had personally targeted as the minister responsible for amalgamation, withdrew from the contest. The riding was ultimately won by Liberal George Smitherman; Sewell finished third, behind Tory Durhane Wong-Rieger.

In 2005, Sewell was made a member of the Order of Canada. Sewell lives with his wife, Liz Rykert in Toronto.[1]

On June 26, 2006, Sewell announced that he would seek election in Ward 21 running against Joe Mihevc in Toronto's 2006 municipal election. Sewell said that he was motivated to run due to the construction of a streetcar right-of-way along St. Clair Avenue that was supported by Mihevc. He also stated that he was disappointed at the record of Mayor David Miller. "Living in a megacity demands more citizen participation and community consultation, not less," says Sewell. While his candidacy received much publicity in the local media, he was defeated by Mihevc. Sewell received a 3326 votes compared to Mihevc's 8096.[8]

Sewell, a former resident of Riverdale, resides in Ward 21 and has his law office on Beverley Street. He is active in the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition. In November 2008, Sewell was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He received chemotherapy and as of November 2009, the cancer is in remission.[1]

Election results

2006 Toronto election, Ward 21[9]
Candidate Votes %
Joe Mihevc8,09656.7
John Sewell3,32623.3
John Adams2,71319.0
Tony Corpuz1501.1
1999 Ontario general election
Party Candidate Votes%
LiberalGeorge Smitherman1775638.9
Progressive ConservativeDurhane Wong-Rieger1364029.88
IndependentJohn Sewell882219.33
New DemocraticHelen Breslauer40198.8
GreenJoseph Cohen3920.86
FreedomPaul McKeever3440.75
IndependentMike Ryner2360.52
Family CoalitionBill Whatcott2320.51
Natural LawRon Parker2050.45
1982 Toronto election, Ward 6 (Two elected)
Candidate Votes %
John Sewell13,419
Jack Layton9,892
Gordon Chong8,213
Oscar Wong2,479
Bill Beatty1,563
Martin Amber546
1980 Toronto election, Mayoral
Candidate Votes %
Art Eggleton87,919
John Sewell86,152
Anne McBride3,429
Bob Bush2,479
Fred Dunn1,100
Armand Siksna867
Ronald Rodgers846
Chris Faiers590
Andrejs Murnieks571
1978 Toronto election, Mayoral
Candidate Votes %
John Sewell71,885
Tony O'Donohue62,173
David Smith45,071
Joe Martin1,658
Ron Morawski1,546
John Beattle1,239
Louis Thomas826
Richard Sanders778
Zoltan Szoboszloi439
Hardial Dhir379
Walter Lohaza336
Andries Murnieks323


  • Inside City Hall: The year of the opposition (1971) A.M. Hakkert. ISBN 0-88866-507-5
  • Up Against City Hall (1972) James Lorimer and Company. ISBN 0-88862-021-7
  • Rowland Travel Guide to Toronto (with Charlotte Sykes) (1985) Rowland & Jacob. ISBN 0-921430-00-0
  • Police: Urban Policing in Canada (1986) James Lorimer and Company. ISBN 0-88862-744-0
  • The shape of the city: Toronto struggles with modern planning (1993) University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-7409-X
  • Houses and Homes: Housing for Canadians (1994) James Lorimer and Company. ISBN 1-55028-437-1
  • Redeveloping public housing projects (1999) Caledon Institute of Social Policy. ISBN 1-894159-67-5
  • Doors Open Toronto, Illuminating the City's Great Spaces (2002) Random House. ISBN 0-676-97498-8
  • Mackenzie, a political biography of William Lyon Mackenzie (2002) James Lorimer and Company. ISBN 1-55028-767-2
  • A New City Agenda (2004) Zephyr Press. ISBN 0-9734112-2-8
  • The Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto's Sprawl (2009) University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-9587-9
  • How We Changed Toronto (2015) Lorimer. ISBN 978-1459409408

Mackenzie: A Political Biography

The work is a biography and historical defense of William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of Toronto and leader of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion.


  1. Contenta, Sandro (2009-11-15). "John Sewell proud of a lifetime of ruffling feathers". Toronto Star. Archived from the original on 2012-10-24. Retrieved 2010-05-07.
  2. Sewell, John, 1940- (1972). Up against city hall. Toronto,: J. Lewis & Samuel. ISBN 0888620209. OCLC 787400.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. Dineen, Janice; John Spears (1978-11-14). "From hippie alderman to city mayor". The Toronto Star. Toronto. p. A11.
  4. City Staff (1978-11-14). "Metro Elections, How You Voted, City of Toronto". The Toronto Star. Toronto. p. A12.
  5. Christie, Alan (1978-11-14). "2-time loser O'Donohue blames split vote". The Toronto Star. Toronto. p. A3.
  6. SUN, Toronto; Share Fear the conservative vote split, Toronto Tumblr Pinterest Google Plus Reddit LinkedIn Email; Tumblr; Pinterest; Plus, Google; Reddit; LinkedIn; Email; cops, NewsWARMINGTON: Outrage over sentence handed to gunman who shot at (2013-10-28). "Fear the conservative vote split, Toronto | Toronto Sun". Retrieved 2019-10-16.
  7. "John Sewell: banned and proud of it". Retrieved 2019-10-16.
  8. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-10-09. Retrieved 2012-04-06.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. City Clerk's Official Declaration 2006 Archived 2011-06-07 at the Wayback Machine
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