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A Response to the Great Depression

by Pat Schulz

The East York Workers' Association

In March of 1931 200 people met in a local school to discuss solutions to the unemployment problem. The newspaper account does not name the meeting's sponsors but the speakers were the reeve, R. M. Leslie, the local Conservative M.P., R. H. McGregor and two councillors, John Hollinger, who owned the local bus line, and Joe Vernon.[1] Clearly unemployment was not a matter of concern only to the unemployed or the radicals; the more conservative element in the community was also alarmed.

The East York Workers' Association was founded in June.[2] No account has been located of the initial meeting. One early participant in the East York Workers Nell Binns, suggests that "It was through people men especially -meeting at the welfare office to pick up their welfare vouchers that the idea of the East York Workers started."[3] It may have been this spontaneous an occurrence, although the fact that the first president of the organization, James Sutherton, was a socialist,[4] as was another founding member, Alex Lyon,[5] would seem to indicate a more conscious intervention by socialists. Throughout the depression the organized trade union movement and all the radical socialist and communist groups tried in various ways to organize the unemployed or to intervene in already existing organizations One early activist in the East York Workers' Bert Hunt, describes Sutherton's activities this way.

I heard of Jim Sutherton; he advertised in the personal column in the Star for interested people to meet him and join a socialist party. I don't know if he got any applications or not. I telephoned him and he told me he'd let me know when he could call a meeting, but it never happened. Then one Tuesday night... I went to the regular meeting of the unemployed and it was well organized. Sutherton was in control. They had a secretary, a financial secretary and a treasurer and charged 5 to join and 5 a month.[6]

Another early participant in the movement, Frank Kenwell, recalls that it developed from a Ratepayers Association in which Sutherton was involved.[7] (Sutherton was president of the Woodbine Greenwood Ratepayers Association and secretary of the Central Council of Ratepayers; so Kenwell is probably correct.)[8] The East York Workers' Association then, was formed from existing organizations and public meetings, bolstered by the day to day contacts of relief recipients in the welfare office and aided by the intervention of socialists like Sutherton. By 1934 the E.Y.W.A. had signed up 1,600 members.[9] Four to five hundred people attended weekly meetings at a local school.[10] With plenty of leisure and no money to spend on recreation, the meetings not only organized the participants into a defensive organization that could fight for higher relief and better living conditions, but also provided an educational and social experience.

Nell Binns recalls them as "mostly discussions amongst ourselves which was good it was tremendous really for people to let go to people who understood."[11] At one meeting in 1933, chaired by Mrs. Elizabeth Morton, items of social and township interest were discussed. Mrs. H. Haines of the Women's Study Group gave a talk on Marxism. Bert Hunt from the Young Men's Study Class spoke on "Why should the producers of the world's wealth be starving?" and an announcement was made of an eviction to be blocked. Then Mrs. Good sang to close this meeting of 800 people.[12] They also held debates on current affairs sometimes with Conservatives or Liberals taking one side of the argument and socialists the other.[13]

Occasionally they had visiting speakers. Premier Henry, who represented East York provincially, spoke at one of their first meetings. At later ones they heard Salem Bland, (a leading exponent of the social gospel), J. S. Woodsworth, Angus MacInnis, Frank Underhill, and Agnes Macphail (all of the CCF), Thomas Crudon, (chairman of the Ontario Socialist Party), Jack McDonald (a founder of the Communist Party who had been expelled for Trotskyism), and J. L. Cohen (a Communist Party lawyer who also helped them with legal problems).[14]

Bert Hunt describes the Woodsworth-MacInnis meeting.

We got in contact with Woodsworth's secretary in Toronto on Grenadier Road and we offered to organize a mass meeting if Mr. Woodsworth would speak. He agreed and we plastered the township with signs. When Mr. Woodsworth came to Toronto after we had told everyone in the township and in the city too, that we were having him, we got a phone call telling us that he would be unable to attend. We got busy we rushed to Grenadier Road and we really laid down the law described what we'd done we told them we'd have a mob and finally Mr. Woodsworth agreed that he'd have to cancel his other appointments and come. We filled both the Danforth Park Public School auditorium and the McGregor School auditorium to overflowing and had a speaker outside the meetings. We had his son-in-law, Grace MacInnis's husband in one meeting and Woodsworth at the other. Now I can't remember, they might have switched schools it wouldn't take long and make an appearance at both I imagine they did. But after the meeting the local committee met in Johnny Walker's home the biggest home of anybody sympathetic to us until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning discussing the CCF and Jimmy Woodsworth and Angus MacInnis.[15]

Within the organization various groups developed including a Young Men's and a Women's Study Group.[16] The latter, composed of about eight women met one afternoon a week to study Marxism. Each woman would do some reading at home and then they would hold a discussion at the meeting. Occasionally they would have an outside speaker but that was not the usual procedure.[17] The Women's Group organized a library, an important matter in a group that was rapidly evolving politically and whose members had plenty of leisure to read.[18] They also carried most of the money raising activities, but when on one occasion, the men decided how much money was needed, how to raise it, and how to spend it and then left the work to the women, they were called to order.[19] Women were frequently candidates and spokespersons for the group although less often then men. It was a women's deputation however that presented council with a demand for birth control supplies on the relief allotment. They solved their baby-sitting problems by leaving their children with a grandmother or neighbour or they brought them to the activities. They sold CCF literature and publications from the American socialist publisher, Charles Kerr.[20]

Many of the group's activities were social. They held dances (advertised in the New Commonwealth) and card parties (when they could find someone who still had a deck of cards). Nell Binns talked about the East York Workers football team.

The East York Workers formed a football team. My husband was secretary, coach and trouble shooter he didn't play but he was instrumental in seeing that the team functioned alright. He managed, I don't know how, but he managed to get another football team's cast off uniforms and we had a big tin box like one of the very old travelling trunks and we used to keep the uniforms in this box in our basement. After every game my husband and I would wash them and I would mend the socks and everything and we would hang them out on the clothesline. Then on Saturday when the men were going out to a game they would all gather and sit on our lawn until they were all there and a truck would come, they all chipped in for a truck to take them where they were going with the uniforms. We had a neighbour across the road who was a bit on the nosy side and she reported my husband and me to the welfare department. There were all these young men meeting on our lawn and us carrying out this tin trunk we must be making beer and selling it. We really got into trouble about it it's comical now but at the time it was a bit tragic.[21]

The group reflected the ethnic composition of the township; all the names in the accounts are Anglo-Saxon although one Italian family, the Buccinos, did participate in the group.[22]

One of the major problems confronting the group was that of developing spokespersons and candidates. They had a particular problem finding a president since few of their members were articulate enough to perform that function. Bert Hunt describes the succession of presidents:

(Jim Sutherton was) a very right-wing labourite, a British labourite. A pleasant Sunday afternoon, Sunday school type. Looking back at it, you know. But he was working in a territory where he was too advanced for the members even. To my way of looking at things, then he was the right man for the job ... well Jim Sutherton took sick. He had a tumour on the brain we didn't know it at the time of course. We wondered why he was acting a little queer. On one occasion, Bob McGregor (the local Conservative MP) got on the platform and claimed that he had his pockets full of papers to prove that Sutherton was sent in here from Moscow. Poor old Sutherton nearly went mad. The next thing we heard he was in Winnipeg and then we found out much later that he had died from a tumour on the brain. Bill Walker was the vice-president and Bill had been a very enthusiastic labourite all his life and he had a good appearance but he had no command of the English language at all he was semi-illiterate. He could just read and that was all. Bill took over the leadership but everybody felt let down quite a bit. Then he gave it up and a guy named Frechette took over. Frechette punched a welfare officer in the jaw he was demanding coal and he told the welfare officer you give coal according to the temperature not the calendar and I think he did a week in jail. Anyway we had to get him out of there because it was beginning to be too difficult. Bill Walker went back in and he was floundering. We had noticed some tall individual standing at the back of the hall never speaking he must have been at quite a few meetings. All of a sudden he makes a five minute speech perfectly fluent English an eloquent elocutionist. It happened to be an election night and he was elected to the audit committee. When he gave the audit report at the next meeting it was perfect. His speech was marvellous and he was immediately elected president. Nobody knew him from a load of hay.[23]

The new president was Arthur Williams and his account of his election was confirmed by Sarah McKenzie. "He just seemed to come up out of the ground as it were nobody had heard of him until the next thing we knew he was nominated and chairman."[24] The problem of course with this situation is that the man was elected not because his views were necessarily in agreement with those of the majority of the group (although Williams did state in his acceptance speech that he was a socialist[25]), but simply because he spoke well. Their lack of formal education and experience in public office was a serious handicap when these workers attempted to organize themselves.

"From then on Williams was the East York Workers. He dominated them and controlled them."[26] He was elected in June 1933, by which time the organization was well organized and very active.[27] Its main business, of course, was the never ending struggle for food, clothing, and shelter. Frequently confrontations with the relief administrators took place on an individual basis. Sarah McKenzie recalls living in a draughty badly built house on Gledhill Avenue which took an enormous amount of fuel to heat. Her husband tried to get more fuel from the relief officials and was turned down. He went home, got his wife and child, and returned to the relief office because it at least was heated. Their child was a very curious toddler and they let her run about the office investigating it thoroughly for several hours. The relief workers then changed their minds and gave the McKenzies the fuel.[28]

Nell Binns recounts that on one occasion their furnace had broken down completely beyond repair.

So Billy went over to the welfare office and told them and they couldn't do anything about it. So he went down to Queen's Park and they gave him an order to go to a place on Broadview where they sold second hand furnaces. He got one there and it was $26.00 for the whole works. He got it home and he didn't have any tools to install it so that whole furnace was installed with a can opener. The funny part of it was that after he installed it and lit the fire three men came from the East York Welfare Office to say we couldn't have the furnace because they hadn't OK'd it. Queen's Park wasn't good enough for them. But the furnace was lit and so they couldn't take it away.[29]

Olive Hill (formerly Olive Deloge) recounts that when she applied for some medical assistance from the Department of Health, the visiting health officer asked her when her husband would be home. "You see, I use to have a French Canadian name and he said to me 'you know, I'm just dying to get together with a French woman.' He was an old drunk."[30]

Sometimes what began as an individual fight was taken up by the group. Nell Binns recounts this incident.

He had four quite young children and they all caught measles at the same time. They had a small radio that he had built himself and the children were sick and shut in and this radio was all they had to amuse them. A tube broke and he went to the welfare office and explained the situation to them. He thought a radio tube or the cost of a radio tube was very essential to him. Well he was laughed at by the welfare officials, and told that he would just have to stay home and amuse them, read to them and play with them. Fortunately he wasn't satisfied with that answer and took it to the council and he was turned down there and he approached his MPP and he was turned down there. But then a delegation from the East York Workers went to the welfare board and said they agreed that he needed the radio tube and they would be quite willing to chip in a nickel a piece out of their very meagre relief allowance but they would let the newspapers know about it, and in that way the welfare came across with the money.[31]

There were endless deputations to the township council complaining that the heating allowance was inadequate,[32] that hydro was being cut off to relief recipients in arrears on their bills,[33] that the clothing depot would give each person only one suit of underwear,[34] that the only dental treatment allowed relief recipients was extractions,[35] and that the relief investigator had rotten manners.[36] The main demand, however, was simply for more money and members of the township council became expert at dodging the deputations as did the East York Workers in pressing their demands:

...We wanted cash instead of vouchers and the councillors made a date to see a delegation. We never trusted them very much so the delegation went but just about all of the East York Workers were hiding around corners or sitting in trucks or somebody's house close by. The council just didn't turn up at all so we all went in the municipal office and we sat. We had taken a sandwich with us. Mr. Murphy ... played a concertina and we spent the entire day there and we danced and he played his concertina and we sang and we stayed there, until finally some of the councillors had to come. That was the time we got the voucher changed into cash.[37]

The method of payment of relief was the subject of endless controversy. The voucher system restricted recipients to purchases from specific stores and sometimes they could not be used in chain stores where prices were lowest. Some local merchants would illegally exchange the vouchers for cash at a discount and Williams cited the case of a policeman who was given $1.30 cash for an open voucher of $2.15.[38]

One shoe repairer was charged with cashing vouchers and with using linoleum to repair shoes although he was paid for leather. He supposedly received $4,000 in four months.[39]

According to Binns, "Anyone who needed glasses was sent to this one store on the Danforth and the man, finally, after a few years, was arrested. He was putting just plain window glass in frames."[40] Another example of problems with the voucher system was indicated by a Sammon Avenue grocer:

People come in here, for example and want to take olives or sardines or fancy things on which there might be more profit for me. I won't allow them to do it although I would have a lot more relief voucher trade if I did. I make them take sensible things that they really need.[41]

The vouchers did not specify precisely which food items might be purchased but the more affluent members of the community, like this store-owner, seemed to feel they had every right to intervene in the spending of the relief recipients' meagre allowance.

Switching from vouchers to cash solved these problems and it was regarded as an enormous victory for the Association.

Township officials granted some of the demands of the East York Workers partly because they were sympathetic to their problems and partly because they were afraid of them. Early in 1931 Deputy Reeve Harry Meighen expressed these feelings in a speech to the York County Council:

When the home is gone and children starving their spirit changes...In Leaside and East York there are unemployed billetted in caves (referring to the men living in unused brick kilns on the Don Flats) ...(and) a meeting of unemployed was held in East York last night attended by 250 and if an agitator came among them anything might happen.

He worried that many of the men were militia members and consequently had guns at home.[42] But relief policies were not determined solely by the township council. Provincial government decisions were crucial in the situation.

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[1] Toronto Daily Star, March 12, 1931.

[2] New Commonwealth, December 1, 1934.

[3] Nell Binns, op. cit.

[4] Interview with Bert Hunt, January 9, 1975.

[5] The Worker, July 25, 1931 contains an article which refers to Lyons as a Fabian.

[6] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[7] Telephone conversation with Frank Kenwell, February 18, 1975.

[8] The Evening Telegram, September 21, 1932.

[9] New Commonwealth, December 1, 1934.

[10] Nell Binns, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Evening Telegram, April 5, 1933.

[13] Nell Binns, op. cit.

[14] Henry's speech was reported in The Evening Telegram, August 8, 1931. A copy of Bland's speech can be found in the United Church Archives. The details of the Woodsworth meeting of February 26, 1936 are recounted by Bert Hunt. Angus MacInnis spoke then also according to Bert Hunt, and Nell Binns also remembers his speech. Frank Underhill and Agnes Macphail spoke on January 25, 1936 and February 13, 1933 respectively. The meeting for Thomas Crudon was reported in both The Toronto Daily Star and The Evening Telegram of March 22, 1933. Jack McDonald's speech was reported in The Toronto Daily Star of May 10, 1933. Nell Binns remembers J. L. Cohen's assistance, which was confirmed in a conversation with Phyllis Clarke, Autumn, 1974.

[15] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[16] The Evening Telegram, April 5, 1933.

[17] Interview with Sarah McKenzie, January 12, 1975.

[18] Olive Chester, daughter of Fred Richardson, has in her possession one book with the stamp of the Women's Group in it.

[19] Nell Binns, op. cit.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[24] Sarah McKenzie, op. cit.

[25] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[26] Ibid.

[27] The Evening Telegram, June 21, 1933.

[28] Sarah McKenzie, op. cit.

[29] Nell Binns, op. cit.

[30] Interview with Olive Hill, January 7, 1975.

[31] Nell Binns, op. cit.

[32] The Evening Telegram, January 19, 1937.

[33] Toronto Daily Star, May 3, 1932.

[34] The Globe, November 3, 1936.

[35] The Evening Telegram, April 7, 1936.

[36] Toronto Daily Star, January 10, 1933.

[37] Nell Binns, op. cit.

[38] The Evening Telegram, May 5, 1936.

[39] The Toronto Daily Star, December 3, 1936.

[40] Nell Binns, op. cit.

[41] The Toronto Daily Star, April 5, 1933.

[42] Ibid., June 26, 1931.

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