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A Response to the Great Depression

by Pat Schulz

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 December 1935.[1] The East York Workers had run candidates in municipal elections for a number of years and had two supporters on council by this time;[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

Some evictions had been attempted and blocked in 1932.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10] Reeve Williams was personally involved in blocking one of the attempts[11] and on one occasion a council meeting was adjourned so that all the councillors could help prevent an eviction.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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.

Unfortunately the 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 that he

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.[16]

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.[17] David Croll was also quick to point out that of eight municipalities surveyed in 1936, East York paid the highest level of benefits.[18]

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.[19]

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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]

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.[23] East York and York Township refused, making the councillors liable to a $500 fine each, as the Evening Telegram was quick to point out.[24] The conflict escalated sharply when a sum of $15,000 in tax money was seized by the province and put into a special account.[25]

Williams resigned from the relief committee in protest,[26] 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 instead.[27] 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 soap box."[28]

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.[29]

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.[30] 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 relief.[31] 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 argued:

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?[32]

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.[33] 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."[34]

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 Arthur Williams.[35]

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).[36] Both poems were critical of Williams for failing to meet the needs of relief recipients and of his campaign for re-election.[37] Shortly after 19 members of the East York Workers were expelled[38] for their public criticisms of Williams and wrote letters to the local paper protesting the action and the policies of the relief administration.[39] In one meeting Williams stated that he would like to be Stalin for about one hour to deal with the dissenters.[40] 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.[41] 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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[1] The Globe, December 21, 1935.

[2] Township Financial Records, Municipal office, Bert Hunt and Nell Binns, op.  cit.

[3] The Evening Telegram, February 10, 1936.

[4] The Mail and Empire, February 24, 1936.

[5] The Evening Telegram, September 24, 1936, October 6, 1936 and January 28, 1937 and The Toronto Daily Star, October 1, 1936.

[6] The Toronto Daily Star, August 6, 1932, The Mail and Empire, August 11, 1932 and The Evening Telegram, November 24, 1932.

[7] The Evening Telegram, April 2, 1936.

[8] Nell Binns, op. cit.

[9] The Evening Telegram, June 8, 1936.

[10] The Toronto Daily Star, June 9, 1936.

[11] Ibid., April 1, 1936.

[12] Ibid., May 19, 1936.

[13] East York council minutes, 1937, pg. 98.

[14] The Clarion, May 5, 1936.

[15] The East York Weekly News, August 28, 1936 and a daily newspaper, February 4, 1936.

[16] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[17] The East York Weekly News, August 28, 1936.

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

[19] Nell Binns, op. cit.

[20] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[21] The Clarion, May 5, 1936.

[22] The East York Weekly News, September 4, 1936.

[23] The Evening Telegram, August 18, 1936.

[24] Ibid., July 15, 1936

[25] The Toronto Daily Star, July 27, 1936.

[26] The Mail and Empire, August 12, 1936.

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

[28] Daily newspaper.

[29] The Toronto Daily Star, August 26, 1936.

[30] The Evening Telegram, August 27, 1936.

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

[32] The East York Weekly News, December 4, 1936.

[33] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[34] The East York Weekly News, December 4, 1936.

[35] Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[36] Details of that debate can be found in W. Rodney, Soldiers of the International: A History of the Communist Party of  Canada, 1919-1929. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1968,1pg. 139.

[37] The East York Weekly News, August 28, 1936 and September 18, 1936.

[38] Ibid., October 2, 1936.

[39] Ibid., October 16, 1936.

[40] Ibid., October 16, 1936.

[41] Ibid., November 6, 1936.

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