John Sewell Biographical Information

A brief biography of John Sewell

John Sewell was born in Toronto in 1940, and raised in the Beaches area of the city where he attended Malvern Collegiate. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Toronto in 1961, majoring in English Literature; a law degree from the University of Toronto Law School in 1964; and was called to the Ontario Bar in 1966. Rather than practicing law, John became a community organizer in the Trefann Court Urban Renewal Area in downtown Toronto , working with local residents to stop the expropriation and demolition of their neighbourhood.


He was elected to Toronto City Council as an alderman in December 1969 and devoted his time fully to council activities for the next eight years, serving both on City Council and from 1974 - on Metro Council as well. He championed the causes of protecting neighbourhoods, resident participation in City Hall decisions, protecting historical structures, advocating for public transit, helping to increase the stock of affordable housing for low-income households, and containing urban sprawl.


In late 1978 he was elected Mayor of Toronto for a two-year term. As mayor he advocated an end to the discrimination of gays and lesbians, at the time a very forward-looking position; helped rethink transit service in Toronto , including freezing fares and introducing a monthly pass; and helped establish an independent police complaints commission.


He was re-elected as a councillor in late 1981 and served until his resignation in 1984 when he became an urban affairs columnist with The Globe and Mail , Canada 's national newspaper.


In 1986 he was appointed chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority, a provincial agency which provided 33,000 rent-geared-to-income housing units to over 100,000 tenants.


John taught law, politics and social science at York University from1989-91.


In 1991 he was appointed chair of the provincial Commission on Planning and Development Reform in Ontario . The Commission reported in 1993 on an improved land-use planning system for the province and almost all of its recommendations were enacted by the provincial government.


Since 1993 John has pursued a number of related interests in the city writing a weekly column for several Toronto newspapers - from 1993 - 1999 with NOW Magazine; from 1999 - 2005 with eye weekly - and for other publications such as Post City Magazine (since 2000). During this period he has been actively involved in many community initiatives including the redevelopment of public housing sites in Toronto. He was a leader of Citizens For Local Democracy which unsuccessfully opposed the amalgamation of local municipalities into the Toronto megacity in 1998. Since 1999 he has managed the website, and has written its monthly bulletin on local government in Canada . He administers the website of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, , and writes its monthly bulletin. He established the group Direct City Action in May 2006 to deal with city issues, and administered its web site, and Bulletin, at, throughout 2005. John has also played a leadership role in various local causes including the (unsuccessful) attempt to keep Maple Leaf Gardens as an active ice rink, and protecting Union Station as a key transportation facility in Toronto (also unsuccessful). Since Fall 2005 he has been researching a history of the suburban areas around Toronto (the so-called 905 area) for a series of four lectures at York Univeristy in November 2005, repeated under the sponsorship of the Toronto Society of Architects and UrbanSpace (with considerably more resrearch) in February 2006 at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto.


During the last decade, John has been involved in several international consultations, including working over a five year period with local residents and the municipal council to restructure and manage local government in the City of East London (now Buffalo City), South Africa, after the election of President Mandela; advising on the re-establishment of local government in Malawi; and evaluating housing and local government programs of UN-HABITAT.

John was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2005.


John has written widely for many publications and has delivered many speeches on planning and local government issues in Toronto, across Canada and in the United States . He is the author of a number of books including:


A New City Agenda , July 2004 (Zephyr Press)

Mackenzie, a political biography of William Lyon Mackenzie , 2002 (James Lorimer and Company)

Doors Open Toronto, Illuminating the City's Great Spaces , 2002 (Random House)

Houses and Homes: Housing for Canadians , 1994 (James Lorimer and Company)

The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles With Modern Planning , 1993, ( University of Toronto Press)

Police: Urban Policing in Canada , 1986 (James Lorimer and Company)


Rowland Travel Guide to Toronto (with Charlotte Sykes), 1985

Up Against City Hall , 1972, (James Lorimer and Company)

John Sewell lives in Toronto with his wife Liz Rykert and their border collie George.