Williams As Reeve
The strike was defeated in
spite of their attempts at united action but simultaneously they won
an electoral victory — the strike leader and president of the East
York Workers, Arthur Williams, was elected reeve of the township in
The East York Workers had run candidates in municipal elections for
a number of years and had two supporters on council by this time;
but this was their first victory in electing a reeve. That it should
occur just as the strike was defeated indicates that a majority of
township residents supported the demands of the strikers. No doubt
they also realized that in a situation like the strike, it was
crucial to have municipal representatives who were solidly on the
strikers' side. Furthermore, in 1935 the numbers on relief reached
their peak, at 45.8 per cent of the population.
The first task confronting
Williams and the E.Y.W.A. was to defend his right to office. The
provincial government had passed legislation in April 1935
prohibiting anyone from taking public office whose rent was more
than three months in arrears. There can be no doubt that this
legislation was designed to keep relief recipients out of public
office. The East York Workers' Association mounted a considerable
campaign backed by the Toronto and District Labor Council, the CCF,
and the Communist Party.
Township residents were enraged at the idea of paying the costs of
another election and Williams' victory was assured when no one was
nominated to oppose him in a second election.
The next major problem was
the housing shortage in East York. The population had increased
slightly during the thirties and since few homes had been built,
relief recipients were having a difficult time finding housing.
Landlords did not wish to rent to them because they would receive
only 200 per cent of taxes from the township for rent.
A partial solution was a
government housing scheme with some initial funding from the
township. The province held the mortgage at three per cent and the
unemployed provided the labour. The monthly payment for such a house
was $27.76 and the mortgage was paid off in 20 years. Some of these
homes were built in 1936 and 1937 but the numbers were insufficient.
Some evictions had been
attempted and blocked in 1932.
There are no newspaper reports of evictions after that until the
problem re-emerged in 1936 with the increased demand for housing.
According to one press report, 2-300 evictions were pending, waiting
only for good weather.
The East York Workers
developed an effective technique for dealing with them:
Whenever anyone heard of an eviction they would phone one of the
members who still had a truck and he would go up and down the
streets where he knew there were members of the E.Y.W.A. like Paul
Revere riding, you know, shouting "eviction." That was enough — the
men and some of the women ran out and got in his truck and they went
and of course the bailiff had always gotten there first.
Before the bailiff had
completed the job of moving out the people and their furniture, the
E.Y.W.A. people would arrive and proceed to carry the furniture back
in. One newspaper account described 200 veterans and their wives
blocking an eviction by draping a Union Jack over the door and
grouping around the doors so the sheriff could not get through. The
women sang the national anthem and he left.
Of five evictions ordered for that day, only one was attempted and
it failed. They tried to evict that same family again a few days
later and failed again.
Reeve Williams was personally involved in blocking one of the
and on one occasion a council meeting was adjourned so that all the
councillors could help prevent an eviction.
The sheriff complained that the county police force was insufficient
to enforce the evictions. Eventually the council solved the problem
by ruling that bailiffs had to be licenced to practice in the
township at a cost of $25 and post a bond of $1,000. When four
bailiffs applied for a licence, the township council refused to
grant any for a two month period.
This solution to the
problem contrasts sharply with a similar situation in Verdun, a
suburb of Montreal. The landlords there carried a campaign to have
rents raised for relief recipients from $11 to $15 monthly. Relief
officials agreed to the change but could not persuade the provincial
and federal governments to pay their portion of the cost. Two
hundred families were thrown out on the street in spite of the
existence of the Verdun Workingmen's Association.
The Ontario government
meanwhile continued its campaign to reduce relief costs. David
Croll, the minister in charge demanded early in February 1936 that
municipalities purge relief rolls of exploiters and cheaters.
Council discussed the letter at its meeting of February 12 and
Deputy Reeve John Doggett, an E.Y.W.A. supporter replied:
Many employers are exploiting their employees by paying them boys
wages and telling them to apply for partial relief. That has proved
most detrimental because it has made it practically impossible for a
legitimate unemployed man to get work at a living wage.
The argument put forward
by the province, that high relief costs were due to fraudulent
claims was a smokescreen for their unwillingness to make the
necessary financial outlay.
Williams' administration acted defensively in the situation and
assiduously searched out any welfare frauds. Stewart Robinson, the
man who punched the policemen in the council chambers in the relief
strike, was appointed a relief investigator and Bert Hunt charges
was on the streets of East York at 7:00 o'clock in the morning
watching for unemployed on welfare going to work. Several cases of
chiselling in courts — Stewart Robinson chief witness for the crown.
My own cousin was in prison for three months because the Victorian
Order of Nurses demanded he obtain blankets for his children who
were sick with pneumonia. He was earning only $12 a week and he had
only been working one month — he did three months.
Presumably the man had no
money and so he obtained the blankets from the relief department by
lying about his employment. Many of the fraud cases recorded that
year in the East York Weekly News are equally petty. One practice of
the relief administration, for example, was to remove a working
child from the relief rolls and deduct 50 per cent of his wages from
the payments to the family. Under that rule, a family of four that
had been receiving $5.67 per week for food, would receive $4.52 less
50 per cent of, say, a wage of $8.00 per week or $4.00, for a net
food allowance of 52 cents. It is not surprising that some families
failed to report a job. An article in the local newspaper is headed
"Failure to purge relief rolls responsible for levy" (that is a
special tax levy for meeting relief costs). The article charges that
had 160 chisellers been tracked down earlier East York's financial
situation would be substantially improved.
David Croll was also quick to point out that of eight municipalities
surveyed in 1936, East York paid the highest level of benefits.
Williams also tried to
economize by setting up clothing and drug depots for relief
recipients as a substitute for their purchasing these items from
retail stores. Nell Binns describes the drug depot this way:
They bought a whole lot of pharmaceutical lines — not actually drugs
but things like aspirins and laxatives and just anything that could
be bought without a prescription and they sold them to the people on
welfare at what they had bought them for — that didn't last too long
of course — they were stopped — on the grounds that there wasn't
sanitary places to keep them.
Bert Hunt recalls the
clothing depot and the drug depot in another light.
Previous to Williams being reeve we got a voucher to go to a store
and get some clothes that we needed. Maybe they were cheap but we
got a voucher. He started doling out clothes. They were able to go
to some of these jobbers and buy junk. For instance before the war
(World War I) ladies had laced up shoes up to here (points half-way
up his calf). Well they got those and took them to a cobbler who cut
the tops off to make oxfords out of them and that was what they
doled out. And they opened up a drug dispensary and had the gall to
stand in the meeting and say this is socialism — the public are
operating this drug store instead of a private drug store. But this
dispensary only dispensed junk. Milk of magnesia — they gave them a
lot of that. The complaints were bitter.
Other complaints came from
the local businessmen who sent a delegation of 50 people to council
to speak against the drug distribution system, and against the
expansion of depots to other items. Williams defended the
distribution depot system for drugs and shoes by pointing to savings
of $412.72 in the month of Apri1.
The East York Workers sent a deputation in September complaining
that they had received no cash welfare for two months and had to
stand for hours at various depots only to find that the depot didn't
have what they needed. The Relief Committee (Arthur Williams and Joe
Vernon) blamed the provincial government for the failure to pay the
cash welfare. Joe Vernon blamed those not in need for taking the
available supply of goods at the depots.
The provincial government,
having cut benefits the previous year, launched another economy
drive in 1936, this one aimed at the tax-payer. It threatened to cut
its contribution to direct relief payments and demanded that a
number of townships, including East York, York Township, and
Windsor, pass bylaws levying a special tax assessment for relief
purposes, in addition to regular taxes collected that year.
East York and York Township refused, making the councillors liable
to a $500 fine each, as the Evening Telegram was quick to point out.
The conflict escalated sharply when a sum of $15,000 in tax money
was seized by the province and put into a special account.
Williams resigned from the
relief committee in protest,
and suggested to David Croll, that $190,000 due to be paid out in
interest on East York debentures, be allotted to the relief deficit
Croll, in turn, charged that "Mr. Williams clings to his old tactics
of appealing to mob rule. He apparently hasn't grasped the point
that an executive office demands tactics somewhat different to a
In York Township, since
the council would not pass the by-law, the province had the tax
bills printed up and sent out. Williams charged that Croll was not
so hard on councils composed of Liberal Party members but was
ruthless with Windsor (Labor), York Township (Conservative), and
East York (Socialist). The province even delayed sending out the
councillors' pay cheques in an attempt to pressure them.
Of 12,000 bills that were
finally sent out in East York, levying taxes in the amount of
$101,000 only 657 in the amount of $8,650.75 had been paid as of
four days before the deadline.
The taxpayers had apparently taken Williams' advice and not paid the
levy. Williams threatened not to pay the county levy nor issue
cheques to debenture holders until relief financing and the special
levy were settled to the satisfaction of taxpayers and people on
Nevertheless this battle was lost because the province possessed the
legal and economic power to force the township residents to pay
their back taxes. During the ensuing election campaign this problem
was raised. The local Conservative paper, the East York Weekly News
In the final analysis, things being as they are, the best men we can
have on council this coming year are those with whom Queen's Park
authorities will play 'ball'...Can those who not only failed to
impress the provincial authorities, but definitely antagonized them,
ever hope to get the best possible co-operation for East York?
There was also
dissatisfaction with Williams within the ranks of the East York
Workers' Association. The criticisms of the depot distribution
system have been cited, and Bert Hunt was also critical of the close
relationship between Arthur Williams, Stewart Robinson, the relief
investigator, and Joe Vernon, the other councillor on the relief
committee and the relief officer from 1937 on.
The East York Workers ran a full slate in the December 1936
municipal election and Williams' support for Vernon, a Liberal who
had consistently played a conservative role in the township, was
seen as an attack on the E.Y.W.A. slate. The local newspaper carried
the following note just prior to the election, under the headline,
"Workers' candidate slighted by reeve, Vernon boosted over radio —
running mates of Williams protest action": "A boost for Vernon by
Reeve Arthur Williams over the radio a few nights ago has caused
much feeling in the ranks of Williams' supporters ... It is stated
that the Reeve was taken severely to task by his committee."
Some of the disagreements
were of a longer duration and Bert Hunt charges that at times
Williams undermined the group's militancy.
We were asking for a demonstration at the relief office to put a
little pressure for an increase in welfare. Williams was against it,
but the majority was for it, so Mr. Williams uses his talent. He
made a speech and I don't know whether he said "get hit on the head"
ten times or 20 times but they voted against it. And I was sitting
in the front row and he knew I was one of them that advocated it and
he says "You see, they don't want it, they're scared of a
demonstration." And I says, "You scared them." And he grabbed me by
the throat. You see I said it loud enough that everyone could hear
and he grabbed me by the throat. And that was my first contact with
Hunt's hostility to
Williams reached the point of writing poems critical of Williams in
the local paper which was owned by the Conservative candidate for
reeve, John Hollinger. Hunt was a member of the Lovestone group
(supporters of Jay Lovestone who was expelled from the Communist
Party in the U.S. for backing Bukharin in his fight with Stalin).
Both poems were critical of Williams for failing to meet the needs
of relief recipients and of his campaign for re-election.
Shortly after 19 members of the East York Workers were expelled
for their public criticisms of Williams and wrote letters to the
local paper protesting the action and the policies of the relief
In one meeting Williams stated that he would like to be Stalin for
about one hour to deal with the dissenters.
Subsequently one of the expelled men, who had been secretary of the
Relief Strike Committee was evicted from his house, in what was
charged to be an act of spite on the part of Williams and Vernon.
No doubt all of this contributed to Williams' defeat in the election
in which he received only 37.7 per cent of the vote, although the
predominant factor was probably the electorate's understanding of
the limitations of the power of a municipal council.
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