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A Response to the Great Depression

by Pat Schulz

Escalating the Struggle:
The 1935 Strike

The reduction in costs achieved by the substitution of direct relief for relief works in 1932[1] failed to solve the province's financial problem and as the depression continued, the province was forced to bear an ever increasing share of relief costs. In November 1935 it once more tried to reduce costs by cutting benefits conceding payment in cash at the same time. A headline in the East York Weekly News read "Cash relief now effective, government tightens regulations."[2] The government proposed to reduce benefits to the level indicated in Table V.

Table V: Direct Relief Benefits; Weekly Food Allowance

Number in Family
























Monthly shelter allowance was 200 per cent of taxes on the property (that is if the taxes on a property were $8 monthly, the township would allow $16 to the tenant for rent). The maximum payable, however, was $14 for a family of four or less and $19 for a family of 5 or more. Water and light costs were allowed at $1 monthly. Additional funds were provided for cooking and heating fuel and for medical supplies. The maximum monthly clothing allowance is shown in Table VI.

TABLE VI: Maximum Monthly Clothing Allowance

Number in Family














In order to receive funds under this provision applicants had to both prove that they had a need for some specific item of clothing and had not used up their clothing allowance. In order to receive the maximum relief allowance men worked up to 56 hours per month on relief projects which frequently consisted of shovelling dirt from one part of Todmorden Park to another only to shovel it back the following week. Credits toward their relief allowance accrued at the rate of 55 per hour.[3]

The E.Y.W.A. responded to the proposal to cut benefits to these levels by calling a strike on 5 November.[4] Initially 2,700 families were involved, and the strikers participated in a number of parades and demonstrations at the relief offices.[5] When the township council responded to the strike by cutting off the cash relief and returning to vouchers, the strikers persuaded the relief recipients who worked in the welfare office to strike as well and pulled their children out of school.[6] This latter action would have affected provincial education grants which were based on daily attendance, and these tactics proved effective. On 13 November the council reversed its earlier position and reinstated cash relief.[7]

Meanwhile the manager of the Bank of Nova Scotia demanded assurance from the council that the provincial government endorsed their actions and that it would guarantee the loans for the cash relief project,[8] while the municipalities of North York, Fairbank, and Scarboro expressed their sympathy with the plight of the strikers.[9] The 18 November council meeting decided to refuse to meet the strikers until after they had met with Provincial Welfare Minister David Croll.[10] When the councillors failed to show up for their meeting with the strikers, the strikers took over the council chambers.[11] The council arrived and forty police were dispatched from neighbouring townships; Bert Hunt describes the ensuing melee.[12]

We had a big strike and everyone left the works programme and marched to the township office. There we had a big run in with the police we were holding the council prisoners until we got our demands. Williams was our leader and he was very enthusiastic about our activity at that time. Stewart Robinson (a man whom Hunt mistrusted, who later got a job as a relief investigator, and who was very active in providing evidence against fraudulent collectors of welfare) was mingling with the crowd and the policemen started pushing. Robinson punched one of the police-men in the mouth and then the fight really began. Two or three unemployed were arrested along with Robinson and charged in the courts and fined.

The strikers voluntarily withdrew but only after the council agreed to meet with them the following morning, and arranged a meeting at Queen's Park for 25 November.[13] That meeting was fruitless: the province stated that extra benefits would be paid only if the township would bear the cost.[14] Meanwhile the bank began to refuse to cash township cheques.[15]

On 27 November the council, unable to function financially because of the joint actions of the province and the bank, again changed direction, rescinded the previous motion and cancelled the cash relief work plan. The council meetings of 2 and 3 December followed through by reassuring the bank that relief would be issued in accordance with provincial instructions. The 3 December meeting voted to demand all car and truck licences from relief recipients before any payments would be made, and instructed the strikers to return to work or be cut off relief.[16] This latter decision marked a turning point-in the strike. Up to this time strike meetings had been well attended and no one had attempted to return to work.[17] Furthermore the strike had expanded; Long Branch and Lakeview had also gone out and plans were being made for a joint strike committee.[18] The Canadian Workers Association in York Township supported the East York strikers as well, protested the use of York Township police in East York, and planned to strike also.[19]

On 6 December a Massey Hall meeting sponsored by several unemployed groups was held to publicize and obtain support for the strike and was attended by 1,200 people.[20] The expansion of the strike and the development of united action among the unemployed groups around this issue was almost inevitable since the provincial cutbacks applied to other municipalities as well as East York.

But the council decision to cut strikers off relief was crucial. The first test came on 4 December, the day after council passed the resolution, and the work was completely blocked by interference from pickets.[21] The following morning 20 men worked while the police held back 150 strikers. After two hours of heckling the men quit but that afternoon 50 men worked again, while police reinforcements from York Township drove 100 pickets out of the park and arrested five.[22] That day council passed a motion that Todmorden Park be closed to the public during construction. The same meeting resolved to appoint a chief of police and six more constables. (They had been using an acting chief.)[23] The six constables were hired on the orders of Alf Gray, who was the provincially appointed supervisor.[24] That the Liberal government could find funds to hire six constables but not to maintain relief benefits is of course not surprising. This council meeting also discussed swearing in 50 special constables for the duration of the strike and the reeve, John Warren, took the opportunity to blame the strike on Communist agitators. His remarks were duly reported in the local Conservative newspaper.[25]

At a strike meeting on December 10, only 23 out of 800 in attendance voted to end the strike,[26] but three days later the local paper reported that 900 men were working, 500 were ready to work and 96 had been struck off the relief rolls for refusing to work.[27] Meanwhile a drive to obtain food for those strikers who were cut off relief had been launched, with the CCF playing a prominent role in its organization. The reaction of the township council to the drive gives a clear picture of the propaganda used against the strikers, appealing to prejudices against communists and foreigners and misconceptions as to the indigenous nature of the strike and the willingness of relief recipients to work. The press release stated:

Press reports that the CCF plans to supply food to the strikers is no surprise to council. Apparently they are quite willing to have the country support able-bodied men in idleness... The soup kitchen idea might meet with success in a community of people of foreign origin but in such a municipality as ours where practically all are of British stock and as such like to honestly toil for what they receive, we believe that they will be patronized only by the ringleaders of the strike and some of the single men imported here.[28]

The Communist Party offered assistance also but it was turned down, according to press-reports, because the strikers were afraid to be linked with "red" forces.[29] Bert Hunt, however, recalls that the Communist Party both financed the Massey Hall meeting and brought truckloads of food into the township during the strike. "They made a parade out of it a big parade."[30] On 14 December the strikers picketed parliament buildings at Queen's Park[31] and on 17 December had a meeting with Croll and Acting Premier Nixon, who were still unwilling to grant any concessions.[32] On 18 December the strikers voted to return to work as long as negotiations continued, probably just a face-saving device.[33]

The unity with other unemployed groups during the strike was one of the few times that the East York Workers established close connections with other unemployed groups. Bert Hunt remembered one early attempt at liaison:

When Frechette was president and he was pretty sharp at first he made connections with a Rev. Allan Ferry of the Mimico Lakeshore unemployed. Our idea was to organize a general council of all unemployed organizations around the city and the townships. At this time if there was any official Communist Party unemployed outfits we didn't know anything of them. They were all working the same as we were in the other unemployed organizations. We met the Rev. Allan Ferry out on Hay Avenue in Mimico, Humber Bay. It was too mild they had nothing to give us and we weren't politically developed enough to realize we could give them something. And we never followed it up. We met them occasionally at a May Day meeting in downtown Toronto we might bump into one or two of them that we had met. Our atheistic Frechette had his back up against the Rev. Ferry from the start and that put an end to the development. We were a bit conceited and arrogant about the size of our organization and proud of our radicalism. We looked down on these small groups and that is why we more or less worked as an independent organization.[34]

The only other example of attempts at linking up with other unemployed groups was their attendance at the Southern and Eastern Ontario Conference on Unemployment in June 1933. Unfortunately the report in the Mail and Empire tells little about the conference except that a dispute broke out over which song should be sung, God Save the King or the International.[35]

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[1] H. M. Cassidy, op. cit., pgs. 116-117.

[2] The East York Weekly News, November 1, 1935.

[3] All data on benefit levels is taken from The East York Weekly News of November 1, 1935.

[4] The Evening Telegram, December 4, 1935.

[5] The Vanguard, November 15, 1935.

[6] Ibid., November 15, 1935.

[7] East York council minutes, November 13, 1935.

[8] East York Weekly News, November 15, 1935.

[9] The Vanguard, November 15, 1935.

[10] East York council minutes. Communication #313, November 18, 1935.

[11] The Vanguard, November 30, 1935.

[12] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[13] The Vanguard, November 30, 1935.

[14] The East York Weekly News, November 29, 1935.

[15] Ibid., November 22, 1935.

[16] East York council minutes.

[17] The Vanguard, November 30, 1935.

[18] The Toronto Daily Star, December 4, 1935 and The Globe, December 13, 1935.

[19] The Mail and Empire, December 9, 1935.

[20] The Evening Telegram, December 6, 1935.

[21] Ibid., December 4, 1935.

[22] The Evening Telegram and The Toronto  Daily Star both of December 5, 1935 and The East York Weekly News, December 6, 1935.

[23] East York council minutes.

[24] The East York Weekly News, December 6, 1935.

[25] Ibid., December 6, 1935.

[26] The Globe, December 10, 1935.

[27] The East York Weekly News, December 13, 1935.

[28] The Evening Telegram and The Toronto Daily Star, both of December 10, 1935.

[29] The Globe, December 12, 1935.

[30] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[31] The Globe, December 14, 1935.

[32] The Mail and Empire, December 17, 1935.

[33] The Globe, December 21, 1935.

[34] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[35] The Mail and Empire, June 20, 1933.

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