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A Response to the Great Depression

by Pat Schulz

East York in the Depression

The background circumstances that led to the development of an unemployed movement in East York can be outlined briefly. East York was incorporated as a township in 1924. A long-time resident describes how the township was built:

A great lot of it was still farmland — especially the part north of Mortimer to O'Connor... The people were mainly Anglo-Saxon... Mainly the houses were built by the people who were to occupy them. In my own case, my husband and I started to buy the land before we were married and it was part of an apple orchard that was being cut up into building sections. We did just about everything the law would allow us to do ourselves — digging out the cellar and so on — we used to save up money for about a month and spend it all on lumber and supplies to build the house and it would take three or four weeks to use that up and then we would buy just another load. When we moved in our house in 1924 we had one room and we added on to it gradually — very gradually — until it got to be a complete house eventually, about thirty years later.[1] [See Appendix for biographical sketches of people interviewed.]

A further indication of the preponderance of dwellings built by the future occupants is provided by a newspaper item in 1926 which reports a building boom and lists the applications. Many of them are for an addition to an existing building, a garage, a cellar or for one house. The largest application is for six pairs of dwellings, presumably made by a small developer but this is the exception.[2] A by-law passed in 1926 which prohibited "frame, clapboard, and rough-cast houses on Pape, Broadview, Donlands, and Danforth," the main streets of the township, indicates that these types of buildings were common but also that they were regarded as undesirable by the more affluent members of the community who were attempting to enforce the alternatives of brick and stone.[3]

That the township was not affluent even in the "booming twenties" is indicated by the fact that tax arrears were as high as $228,490 in 1924 and $498,118 in 1929 and relief costs in the township rose from $16,497 in 1925 to $20,241 in 1929.[4] Two newspaper articles in 1926 record the concern felt in the township about these mounting costs. According to the Telegram a by-law was proposed (and dropped) whereby taxpayers in arrears would lose their vote.[5] The other article in the Toronto Daily Star stated that it appeared unlikely that the township could meet continuing high relief costs in the coming winter.[6]

One reason for the high relief costs and tax arrears was that most of the residents were young families, recently settled there with few financial reserves and heavy mortgages and vulnerable to lay-offs because of their youth. Most of these were homeowners (one source estimates 90 per cent were in this category)[7] and a high percentage were of Anglo-Saxon origin (perhaps as high as 95 per cent).[8]

When the depression did strike, the community already had high levels of unemployment and resources inadequate to meet relief costs.[9] The building boom had forced the township to go heavily into debt for necessary services, such as sewers, roads and schools, and the precarious financial situation of many residents aggravated the situation. The impact of the depression on East York was enormous. Table I indicates both the numbers of persons on direct relief and their proportion of the population.[10] The peak was reached in February 1935 when over 45 per cent were on relief. The implications of that figure were staggering. It meant an impossible financial burden for the township. But even more important was its impact on the people involved. Because relief benefits were so low, one would expect some assistance from friends, family or neighbours who were still employed. But unemployment of this magnitude largely precluded such assistance. Charitable organizations had practically nothing to offer and the long duration of the crisis meant that all previously acquired resources were gone.

TABLE I: Number of Persons on Relief


on Relief


Percent of Population
on Relief*

January, 1930




January, 1931




January, 1932




January, 1933




January, 1934




January, 1935




February, 1935




December, 1935




December, 1936




December, 1937




December, 1938




December, 1939




December, 1940




December, 1941




*Percentages shown are approximate because population data was not always available for precisely the same dates as relief data.

The situation in East York, while by no means unique, was among the worst in the province by 1932. Table II shows that while East York did not feel the impact of the depression as quickly as did some other working class municipalities, by 1932 it had one of the highest relief percentages in Ontario.[11]

TABLE II: Percentage of Population Drawing Relief in Ontario Municipalities


Higher than E.Y.

Lower than E.Y.

Same as E.Y.

January 1930
9 reporting




January 1931
11 reporting




January 1932
16 reporting




In the early years of the depression, East York was among the most frugal in paying benefits to relief families, with the lowest to the third lowest payment level of nine municipalities surveyed, from January 1931 to March 1932.[12] By 1936 the situation had been reversed. When David Croll, Ontario minister of welfare, surveyed eight municipalities that year, he reported that East York paid the highest per capita allowance.[13]

Provision of relief was historically a municipal responsibility, but the magnitude of the problem swept aside historic and legal niceties. In the early years of the depression, federal and provincial aid to municipalities for the payment of relief took the following form:[14]

TABLE III: Percentage of Relief Cost Paid by Each Level of Government





Direct Relief




Relief Work (municipal)




Relief Work (provincial)




Later the joint federal-provincial contribution to municipal relief work projects reached 80 per cent. Federal-provincial contributions to direct relief also reached 80 per cent and at the time East York came under the Municipal Board Act in 1933 the province committed itself to paying 100 per cent of direct relief costs.[15] With the exception of 1937 it never did so, probably because of conflicts with the township council as to the level of benefits. Those in excess of provincial levels were paid by the township.

The costs of relief benefits rose precipitously throughout the period as Table IV shows.[16] The Toronto Star estimated in August 1936 that township taxpayers were paying one week's pay per year towards relief, while the corresponding figure for the City of Toronto was one day's pay.[17] Higher costs could theoretically be met by higher taxes but in reality this was not possible. The township's tax base was the small home owner or tenant because there were almost no factories, large businesses, or apartment houses in the township.[18] By 1933 tax arrears had risen to $1,130,483.[19] Between 1927 and 1931 East York had either the highest or the second highest percentage of taxes uncollected each year of 15 Ontario municipalities, sharing that position with Windsor. The percentage of defaulters ranged from 31 to 36 per cent.[20]

TABLE IV: Relief Costs and Provincial Government Grants
















Charity and Welfare

Direct Relief


not Available


not Available




















Miscellaneous including clinics, furniture, housing, hardware, taxes and water











Relief Board Salaries and Expenses






















Provincial Government Grants for Unemployment Relief











Cost of Relief to Township as a Percentage of Total Budget











Education Costs











When the council recognized in 1933 that it could no longer meet its debenture commitments, it was forced to place itself under the control of the province which had passed the Municipal Board Act the preceding year to deal with such contingencies. Under the terms of the agreement with the provincial government the township was to receive 100 per cent reimbursement of its direct relief costs but had to relinquish most of its local autonomy to the provincial government.[21]

East York was of course not the only municipality forced to utilize the legislation; Windsor and York Township also did so.[22] Furthermore York County guaranteed debentures for a number of defaulting municipalities in 1936 including New Toronto, Mimico, Weston, Etobicoke, York Township and East York.[23] The problem was of such a magnitude for the province that the Bureau of Municipal Affairs was reorganized as a full-fledged department in 1934 although the actual act was not passed until 1935. One of the department's first programmes was a Municipal Refunding Programme which indicates their continuing difficulties in this area.[24]

In the squeeze between rising relief costs, pressure for increased benefits and an insufficient tax base, the township council tried to cut costs. In 1931 they reduced by 10 per cent the wages of all township employees who earned over $35 a week. The plan was dropped two months later[25] but when the township's financial situation became desperate in 1933, all salaries were cut by 10 per cent.[26]

The council tried to share the existing work around and proposed laying off 30 workers and rotating 1,000 unemployed men though the 30 jobs.[27] That would average 1.2 hours of work per week, for each man. Later they proposed laying off all garbage collectors and road employees and replacing them with relief recipients, paying them relief allowances only. Since the higher levels of government would contribute 80 per cent of the cost, the savings would be substantial. The East York Workers' representatives on council opposed this because they obviously understood that working people would lose jobs and working for the paltry relief was totally unjust.[28] That plan was dropped.[29]

Some of the pressure to cut costs came from groups outside of the township. As early as 1933 the East York School Board was criticized by the York County Association of High School Boards for refusing to cut the pay of high school teachers and for continuing to issue free textbooks,[30] and was forced to comply on the first issue.[31] A press report in February, 1933 stated that if York County failed to cut costs in secondary schools by 20 per cent, the high school would have to close.[32] Later in the decade two of the largest public schools in East York, each having over 1,000 children, were reported to have no running water in them because the taps had been broken for at least ten years.[33]

Another source of pressure on the township council was the banks which periodically threatened to close out their overdrafts. In January 1933 they amounted to $294,000 and the banks would only continue them if the township practiced stringent economies.[34] East York bonds were trading on the market at this time at from 35 to 654 on the dollar.[35] The province was of course the most consistent and most powerful source forcing economies on the East York council.

Another technique for cutting costs was to persuade the unemployed to leave the township. There were several such schemes. One was the back-to-the-land movement. The land selected for the East York participants in the provincial back-to-the-land project was near Cochrane, midway between Sudbury and Moose Factory on James Bay. The settlers hoped, after three years work, to have title to 80 acres of land. Twenty-five families went from the township, the men going first to build the log cabins. While some came back almost immediately, they were condemned as quitters by those who stayed. Only the hopelessness of the situation in East York could have produced their letter published in the Toronto dailies which described conditions at Cochrane in glowing terms.[36]

The following details provide a picture of those conditions. In the spring following their departure in 1933, relatives who had remained in East York reported receiving letters from the settlers asking for help. Mrs. Hallam complained that her son, his wife and their five children, aged 18 months to eight years, had gone up the preceding fall. They received groceries worth about $8 per month, doctors' visits cost $12 and Mrs. Hallam's son, who was six feet tall had dropped in weight from 140 pounds to 125 pounds. They could not plant until June because of the frost and some families had so little food they could not send the children to school.[37] The Martin family, with six children, had been receiving parcels from relatives in East York and reported that long-time residents of northern Ontario had to go on relief or obtain a job in winter because no one could live on what could be grown in that climate.[38]

The township council was alarmed by the reports and felt somewhat responsible for the situation since they had partially financed the migration. They agreed to approach the provincial government regarding the matter.[39] Subsequently W. Finlayson of the Department of Lands and Forests investigated the matter and reported that everything up there was "fine" but that some families knew how to manage better than others.[40] No doubt some did, but no amount of good management could negate poor soil and too short a growing season.

The solution for single men was to send them to work camps for the construction of northern highways. Premier George S. Henry proposed this at a meeting of the East York Workers in August 1931.[41] Members charged that they were like army camps and that the wages were far too low; Henry denied both charges. He admitted no provisions had been made for single women. In October of that year 40 men took medicals and were seen off at the train station by a large delegation including the township council and a band. They were given chocolate bars and cigarettes and generally treated as if they were off to the wars.[42]

Nevertheless there was considerable discontent with the conditions. One group complained that they did not receive the promised work clothes.[43] Another group returned to East York with an account of 18 men being billeted in a farm house with only one basin and one towel. They were served rotten potatoes, had no medical supplies for injuries, were not allowed to smoke, were laid off after four days to find their own way home and were not paid the full amount owed them.[44] This was the solution proposed by the provincial government! In the later years workers were shipped out to farm areas as laborers.[45]

Another problem for the township involved the 450 men living in the brick kilns on the Don Flats.[46] While some were transients who stayed there because of the proximity of the camp to the railroads, others lived there for long periods of time.[47] A group of Finlanders joined the camp in the fall of 1931 when they were brought to Toronto for a construction job that failed to materialize.[48] When the township ordered the destruction of the camp most of the men left for the highway construction camps up north although a few were moved to the Exhibition Grounds.[49] The police broke up the brick huts and burned the wooden structures. One tree house was demolished along with shelters built in the trestles of the Governor’s and Moore Avenue bridges.[50] Two weeks later a group of Bulgarians tried to resettle the area. "The only one who could speak English told the officers they had no place to go and had been turned down for work on the Trans Canada highway and police told the men they could not remain so they packed and left."[51] Leaving the township was a potential solution for only a very small minority of families and, judging by the experiences cited previously, not a very attractive alternative. For those who remained in the township, the struggle for survival went on.

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[1] Interview with Nell Binns, March 24, 1974.

[2] The Evening Telegram, April 3, 1926.

[3] The Toronto Daily Star, June 23, 1926.

[4] Financial Records of East York, housed in Ontario Archives, Toronto.

[5] The Evening Telegram, June 10, 1926.

[6] The Toronto Daily Star, May 21, 1926.

[7] Interview with Duncan Little, Treasurer of East York, February 19, 1975.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In a survey of per capita debenture debt among a number of Ontario municipalities conducted by H. M. Cassidy, East York ranks among the top four during the period from 1924 to 1932. Op. cit.

[10] The material in this table was obtained from the financial records of the township, some of which are in the Ontario Archives while others are in the township offices; H. M. Cassidy, op. cit., pg. 45; and The East York Weekly News, April 2, 1937.

[11] H. M. Cassidy, op. cit., pg. 45.

[12] Ibid., pg. 187:

[13] The Evening Telegram, August 8, 1936.

[14] H. M. Cassidy, op. cit., pg. 65.

[15] Township auditor's report, 1933, in the financial records of East York. See also The Statutes of the Province of Ontario, 1932. Toronto, King's Printer, 1932, pgs. 91 to 136.

[16] The financial records of East York.

[17] The Toronto Daily Star, August, 1936.

[18] Ibid., November 1, 1932.

[19] Ibid., November 1, 1932.

[20] H. M. Cassidy, op. cit., pg. 260.

[21] Township auditor's report, 1933, op. cit.

[22] Daily newspapers, August 1936. Because clippings from the Toronto daily news papers on East York were collected by the local library in scrapbooks which were used for this paper, and because occasionally the clipping was not properly marked, the name of the news papers in which this material appeared are not known.

[23] The Toronto Daily Star, November 18, 1936.

[24] Conversation with Alec Ross, archivist, Ontario Archives, March, 1974.

[25] The Toronto Daily Star, March 21, 1931.

[26] The Mail and Empire, January 18, 1933.

[27] The Toronto Daily Star, July 22, 1931.

[28] The Mail and Empire, January 19, 1933.

[29] The Evening Telegram, January 21, 1933.

[30] Ibid., March 3, 1933.

[31] Ibid., January 23, 1933.

[32] The Mail and Empire, February 10, 1933.

[33] The Toronto Daily Star, March 12, 1937.

[34] Ibid., January 24, 1933.

[35] Ibid., November 11, 1936.

[36] The Evening Telegram, July 2, 1932, September 30, 1932, November 4, 1932. The Mail and Empire, August 11, 1932. The Toronto Daily Star, September 20, 1932 and October 1932.

[37] The Toronto Daily Star, May 4, 1933.

[38] Ibid., May 10, 1933.

[39] The Toronto Daily Star, The Globe, The Mail and Empire, all of May 16, 1933.

[40] The Mail and Empire, May 27, 1933.

[41] The Evening Telegram, August 8, 1931.

[42] Ibid., October 10, 1931 and the East York Weekly News, October 23, 1931.

[43] The Evening Telegram, November 23, 1932.

[44] The Toronto Daily Star, February 9, 1932.

[45] Ibid., July 20, 1937.

[46] The East Danforth News, September 17, 1931.

[47] Ibid., September 24, 1931.

[48] Ibid., September 24, 1931.

[49] The Globe, September 21, 1931.

[50] The East York News, October 8, 1931.

[51] The Evening Telegram, October 26, 1931.

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