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A Response to the Great Depression

by Pat Schulz

The East York Workers' Association
A Response to the
Great Depression

by Patricia V. Schulz

Copyright 1975 Patricia V. Schulz

The cover is a photograph of East York civic workers in the Great Depression.


The responses to the depression of the 1930s in Canada were many and varied. The politicians in the Conservative and Liberal parties flailed helplessly about looking for solutions, vacillating between imposition of higher tariffs, relief spending and public works based on deficit funding, and periodic cuts in expenditures in order to return again to balanced budgets. Employers cut staffs and salaries while workers who managed to keep their jobs, survived on lower incomes made slightly more tolerable by reduced prices.[1] Farmers stuck it out on the basis of subsistence farming or migrated leaving the farms to the dustbowl and the mortgage-holders. Young men who were unemployed rode the rods from place to place looking for nonexistent jobs. Unemployed families tried to subsist on relief handouts that were hopelessly insufficient. Some of them wrote begging letters to R. B. Bennett, the prime minister, asking for extra money for a suit of underwear or a pair of shoes so children could go to school.[2] Others got involved in organizations that tried to find jobs and protect the living standards of relief recipients; the East York Workers' Association was such an organization. It was one of the largest and most successful of the many that were formed.

The history of these organizations has not been written although the condition of unemployed families has been covered in several books. The Wretched of Canada,[3] The Dirty Thirties,[4] Ten Lost Years[5] and the somewhat euphoric Winter Years[6] deal with the unemployed primarily as individuals, each trying to make her or his way through the crisis. Relief payments to these families created an enormous financial crisis for all levels of government; this problem is referred to in The Rowell/Sirois report.[7] Cassidy's Unemployment and Relief in Ontario[8] poses the economic contradictions of the situation, but because the book was printed in 1932 prior to many of the conflicts between relief recipients, debenture holders, taxpayers, and politicians in all levels of government, it does not examine the political repercussions. What needs to be written on unemployed families is a book similar to the evocative and moving The On To Ottawa Trek,[9] which deals with the transient unemployed.

This paper is an attempt to provide some insight into the activity of relief recipients in the township of East York, an eastern suburb of Toronto. While it was not a typical township (for no such phenomenon exists) it was not unique in the problems it faced. Such suburban communities as York Township and Lakeview, in the Toronto area, and the suburbs of Windsor and Montreal[10] had similar experiences.

This paper attempts to illustrate that the wave of community organizing in the 1960s and 1970s is not without precedent. Hopefully it may be of some value to present-day activists, both as an inspiration and as an analysis of some of the problems and limitations in the field. I know the former members of the East York Workers' Association who assisted me with this paper would see that any value it possesses, lies in its possible contribution to ongoing social change.

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[1] A.E. Safarian. The Canadian Economy in the Great Depression. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1970, pg. 82.

[2] L. M. Grayson and M. Bliss, (Editors). The Wretched of Canada, Letters to R. B.  Bennett, 1930-1935. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1971.

[3] Ibid.

[4] M. Horn, (Editor). The Dirty Thirties,  Canadians in the Great Depression Canada, Copp Clark, 1972.

[5] B. Broadfoot. Ten Lost Years, 1929-1939. Toronto, Doubleday, 1973.

[6] J. H. Gray. The Winter Years. Toronto, MacMillan of Canada, 1966.

[7] D. V. Smiley, (Editor). The Rowell/Sirois Report, Book I. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1973.

[8] H. M. Cassidy. Unemployment and Relief  in Ontario, 1929-1932. Toronto, J. M. Dent, 1932.

[9] R. Liversedge. Recollections of the On To Ottawa Trek. Toronto, McClelland and Steward, 1973.

[10] See H. M. Cassidy, op. cit., for a description of the situation in other Ontario municipalities. The Worker and The Clarion, newspapers of the Communist Party provided good coverage of the unemployed movement. Charles Lipton mentions the Verdun Workingmen's Association in The Trade Union Movement of  Canada, 1927-1959. Montreal, Canadian Social Publications Ltd., 1966, pg. 257.

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