The East York Workers'
A Response to the
by Patricia V. Schulz
© Patricia V.
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.
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.
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,
The Dirty Thirties,
Ten Lost Years
and the somewhat euphoric Winter Years
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.
Cassidy's Unemployment and Relief in Ontario
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,
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
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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