The East York
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.
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.
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
It may have been this spontaneous an occurrence, although the fact
that the first president of the organization, James Sutherton, was a
as was another founding member, Alex Lyon,
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.
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.
Another early participant
in the movement, Frank Kenwell, recalls that it developed from a
Ratepayers Association in which Sutherton was involved.
(Sutherton was president of the Woodbine Greenwood Ratepayers
Association and secretary of the Central Council of Ratepayers; so
Kenwell is probably correct.)
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.
Four to five hundred people attended weekly meetings at a local
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."
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.
They also held debates on current affairs sometimes with
Conservatives or Liberals taking one side of the argument and
socialists the other.
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).
Bert Hunt describes the
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
Within the organization
various groups developed including a Young Men's and a Women's Study
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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),
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."
He was elected in June 1933, by which time the organization was well
organized and very active.
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.
Nell Binns recounts that
on one occasion their furnace had broken down completely beyond
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.
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."
Sometimes what began as an
individual fight was taken up by the group. Nell Binns recounts this
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
There were endless
deputations to the township council complaining that the heating
allowance was inadequate,
that hydro was being cut off to relief recipients in arrears on
that the clothing depot would give each person only one suit of
that the only dental treatment allowed relief recipients was
and that the relief investigator had rotten manners.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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
He worried that many of
the men were militia members and consequently had guns at home.
But relief policies were not determined solely by the township
council. Provincial government decisions were crucial in the