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Larger than life mayor spearheaded growth in Timmins

Leo Del Villano had unenviable task of leading Timmins during amalgamation

One of Timmins' most charismatic mayors gained worldwide fame with a legendary publicity stunt. But Leo Del Villano was more than just a larger-than-life character, he led The Porcupine Camp through one of its most controversial and difficult times — the provincial government’s forced amalgamation to create the City of Timmins.

Del Villano was born in Timmins in 1913. His father, Leucio Del Villano, immigrated to Timmins from Italy in 1912. Leucio worked as a blacksmith for the Hollinger Mine.

Growing up in Timmins, as a young man Leo worked a variety of jobs including positions in mining, forestry and local business. He met the love of his life, Mildred, and they were married in 1936.

In 1946, he was elected to Timmins town council. This was a historic victory, as he was the first person born in Timmins elected to its town council.

The Dec. 12, 1946 edition of The Porcupine Advance, outlined the then-political newcomer’s election platform.

“I feel that improvement of every department of our municipal offices is in the interests and welfare of our townspeople,” he said. “Improvement and progress is an important factor in our civic government.

“I feel that having been among the people of Timmins for many years, I am quite qualified to look after the business and interests of the electors of Timmins.”

The drive for improvement and progress stayed with him throughout his political career.

Ten years later, Del Villano served his first of three stints as mayor of Timmins. He was mayor from 1956-59, from 1961-66, and from 1969-1976, for a total of 18 years in the top local seat.

He made international headlines in 1959. Del Villano read news from London, England, about complaints of the hats worn by the Queen’s palace guards becoming ratty. Always an opportunist, he organized a hunt to find the necessary black bear belts to replace the hats.

Media outlets around the globe ran stories and photos of the outspoken mayor vowing to collect pelts for Queen Elizabeth.

While his bear hunt became a legendary tale, Del Villano brought substance, not just flash, to the mayor’s office. Being a proud Timmins native, he was dedicated to improving life in his town. He helped build parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities. He had a big role in the building of Golden Manor. Del Villano was also a big supporter of the building and expansion of the Timmins airport — now known as the Victor M. Power Airport. He also led the charge in petitioning the provincial government to create an Emergency Gold Mining Assistance Act to help protect mines throughout The Porcupine Camp.

But arguably his biggest challenge was overseeing the amalgamation of the City of Timmins locally.

Amalgamation saw four municipalities and 24 unorganized townships join together to become a city. At 2,955 square kilometres, it was the nation’s largest city by area.

In 1972, the provincial government passed An Act to incorporate the City of Timmins-Porcupine.

The act reads, in part, “On the first day of January, 1973, the Corporation of the Town of Timmins, the Corporation of the township of Mountjoy, the Corporation of the Township of Tisdale and the Corporation of the Township of Whitney are amalgamated as a city municipality bearing the name of the Corporation of the City of Timmins-Porcupine and the geographic townships of Adams, Blackstock, Bristol, Carman, Carscallen, Cody, Denton, Deloro, Eldorado, Evelyn, German, Godfrey, Gowan, Hoyle, Jamieson, Jessop, Kidd, Langmuir, Loveland, MacDiarmid, Macklem, Matheson, Murphy, Ogden, Price, Robb, Shaw, Thomas, Thorneloc, Turnbull and Wark, and (a) portion of the Town of Iroquois Falls.”

The act also made provision for local voters to select the name of the new city during the election of its first council. Rather than the bureaucratic City of Timmins-Porcupine, the people voted for the City of Timmins. City of Porcupine was also a name considered by voters.

But the province’s arranged municipal marriage was more of shotgun wedding than a mutual agreement.

Chronology of the Amalgamation forming the City of Timmins (1973), is a paper by Rick Duthie MA and David Leadbeater PhD from Laurentian University. Read the document here.

Starting in 1969, numerous meetings were held with provincial and municipal officials to discuss the possible consolidation of the four municipalities.

Meanwhile, many voters in the Porcupine Camp, particularly Tisdale and Whitney, were upset.

“December 7, 1970 — Plebiscites on consolidation are held during municipal elections in Whitney and Tisdale Townships,” the paper reads. “A Cochrane district local election produces one of its lowest turnouts, but turnout is higher where there are plebiscites. Voters reject the idea in both municipalities.

“Tisdale — Consolidation as well as the idea of a two-tier system of municipal government are both rejected by Tisdale Township voters by a wide margin. Consolidation is rejected by 1,184 votes to 237. Two-tier government is rejected by 728 to 544.

“Whitney — Voters are 90 per cent opposed to consolidation, 164 opposed and 17 for.”

Mountjoy Township council was also opposed to the amalgamation, but it was backed by the Town of Timmins.

Led by Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs Darcy McKeough, the provincial government pushed ahead with the plan.

Opposition reached a fever pitch at a meeting, organized by McKeough, to hear an announcement on area government. Members of the public, four municipal councils and their staff were invited.

“June 12, 1972 — In a highly charged meet at the McIntyre Arena, Darcy McKeough imposes consolidation,” the paper reads. “More than 300 people gather at the McIntyre Community Centre to oppose consolidation with picket signs. Large numbers of police are present.”

On Oct. 2, 1972, the election was held to select the first council for the new city. The new council had a total of 15 members, one mayor and 14 aldermen.

Del Villano was voted in as the first mayor for the City of Timmins. Aldermen/women included Mike Doody, Don Collins, Dan Kelly, Maurice Londry, Vic Power, Leon Laforest, Ernie White, Alan Pope, Fern Durepos, Roy Davis, Hank Bielek, A.G. Couture, Ruth Newell and Dennis Pope.

By 1981, the provincial government agreed to reduce the council numbers to nine members (one mayor and eight councillors) from 15, under the current ward system.

In 1990, Leo Del Villano suffered a stroke. He died on Sept. 22, 1992.

Even today, the achievements of the personable Northern leader still impact the lives of Timmins residents.