Williams' defeat marked
the beginning of the end, in part because the worst of the crisis
was over in East York. The new council began by refusing to hear any
relief deputations, insisting they appear before the relief
committee only and by changing their time of meeting to the evening
to facilitate the attendance of businessmen.
In June they closed down the clothing depot in response to business
but even this conservative council defended relief recipients
against evictions by refusing to grant bailiffs' licences for two
The attitude of the province toward the new administration seems to
have been no different, however; on 8 January 1937, Alf Gray, the
provincial administrator, demanded that the relief rolls be reduced
by 25 per cent. By the end of the year relief rolls were down to
4,686 persons from 8,041 in December 1936. Relief costs declined
from $1,323,324 to $655,565
and relief recipients took only 77 per cent of the clothing budget
When the province cut off relief to single men aged 20 to 60 in 1937
only 47 men in East York were affected
and throughout 1936 and 1937 the question of partial reinstatement
of wages for township employees who had suffered earlier pay cuts
kept recurring with even David Croll encouraging the increases.
By 1939 the township had commenced paying off some debenture
principal and early in 1940 new debentures were issued replacing the
Nell Binns tells the story
of her husband's first job interview after years on relief.
My next door neighbour and I sat on our doorstep from when he left
until he came back. She was just as excited as I was about it —
actually we were both pessimistic. As soon he turned the corner he
started to nod his head and we knew he had got the job. There was no
question of what sort of work it was or what the pay was — he had
gotten a job, that was that. When he came up to us his eyes were
like two great stars and he said 'And what do you think? I'm
starting at 45¢ an hour.’ And I said 'Oh no — you can't be getting
that much.' My neighbour bustled in the house and got out a precious
tin of salmon she had been saving for years and a tin of peaches and
we waited for her husband to come home for lunch and we had a little
banquet. My husband needed tools but he had had to sell all he had
so the next door neighbour loaned him a hammer and my father had two
or three little odds and ends of tools and that's what he went on
the job with. He held that job for 24 years.
And so the depression
petered to an end, leaving behind people who would not easily
forget. For many years after the CCF club in East York was called
the East York Workers' CCF Club and in the Ontario CCF sweep of
1943, Agnes Macphail took East York for the CCF and Arthur Williams
took the Oshawa seat.
Some questions remain to
be answered. What factors in East York led to the development of
such a militant group? The Canadian Workers Association developed
along similar lines in York Township; it led a relief strike,
had a confrontation with the provincial government over the extra
tax levy for relief purposes
and occupied the township offices seeking higher relief.
In addition the Earlscourt CCF Club was expelled from the party at
the same time and for the same reasons as the East York Workers.
Both areas were settled in the twenties, both were areas of small,
do-it-yourself homes, both were primarily Anglo-Saxon, (in fact the
Fairbank area in York Township was called Little Britain), and both
were hit hard by the depression.
Both the economic and
ethnic homogeneity of these communities and the absence of any
sizeable elites, were assets in the mobilization of the residents.
The extent of the crisis tended to reinforce the homogeneity. The
large number of British working class immigrants, with their
characteristic class consciousness, and frequently with a trade
union or Labour Party background, was no doubt another positive
factor. It should be pointed out that the first president of the
E.Y.W.A., James Sutherton, was British born and Arthur Williams was
Welsh. Furthermore, British immigrants brought with them a strong
sense that this was their country and that they had the right to the
necessities of life. Continental European immigrants, on the other
hand, were far less confident in making demands.
How did the East York
Workers' Association attempt to meet the problem of its limited
geographic base and the constrictions posed by municipal finances?
As the events unfolded, their strategy evolved. By 1935 the
pressures from all directions had polarized the participants in the
struggle. Involved in a dead-end battle with a township council that
had no funds, the relief strikers under the leadership of the
E.Y.W.A. tried to broaden their political base and the focus of
their attack by linking their strike with strikes elsewhere, by
appealing to the general public with a Massey Hall meeting and by
pressuring the provincial government.
Their subsequent election
of Williams as reeve indicates that both their experiences in the
relief strike and the brewing eviction crisis convinced them of the
necessity for sympathetic municipal representatives.
The subsequent fight with
the province over special tax levies and the ultimate defeat
convinced the voters that confrontation between one township and the
provincial government was counter-productive. No matter how much
they supported the goals and tactics used by the E.Y.W.A. in that
situation, they clearly could not wring a victory from a Liberal
government holding power in the province. Williams' charge that the
provincial government was harder on non-Liberal councils only
accentuated the point.
One reaction to the defeat
on the tax levy was to again broaden the arena of struggle, by
taking up the task of defeating the Liberals provincially and
replacing them with a CCF government. Since the group had affiliated
with the CCF in 1933, it was clear that they understood that
necessity. Election returns for the period for the provincial house
are an indication of the number of voters who held this position. In
the 1937 election the township cast 3,756 votes for Williams and the
riding as a whole gave him 6,008. The majority of the township votes
would be closely tied to the experience with the E.Y.W.A.
A considerable number of
East York voters did understand the need for a provincial government
sympathetic to their problems. But no matter what they thought, the
rest of the province had not developed politically along with them.
The CCF, therefore, was not a practical immediate solution. The
practical immediate and "lesser of two evils" solution was a return
to brokerage politics — the concept that success in politics is
achieved by making friends with those in power or electing a council
that can go about making friends with those in power. This
perception of politics is more characteristic of groups dependent on
government welfare than of working class groups, since it flows from
a feeling of helplessness and a need for assistance from persons
stronger than oneself.
Five years on relief and
two major set-backs may well have sapped the East Yorkers'
conviction that together they could win. It should be noted,
however, that even when Williams was defeated, 37.7 per cent of the
electorate still believed that their interests were best served by
his continuance in office. This attitude might be attributed to
stubborn loyalty but is more satisfactorily explained by the total
The limitations of the
E.Y.W.A. experiment have been indicated but the group had an
impressive list of achievements. They established that evictions
would not be tolerated in East York, a policy that continued to hold
even under the more conservative council of 1937. Relief benefits
were substantially higher because of their efforts. In 1936 East
York paid the highest per capita benefits out of eight
municipalities surveyed whereas in 1931 and 1932 East York was at
the bottom of the scale.
In addition they paid cash benefits when other areas were still
issuing vouchers, a gain all the participants interviewed regarded
as highly significant. Considering the township's financial
condition these achievements were remarkable. The East York Workers'
Association succeeded in shifting some of the burden of the
depression from the shoulders of the relief recipients and tax
payers, onto the shoulders of the debenture-holders and the
provincial government, in spite of the fact that the latter two
groups had all the power. And finally the contribution the group
made towards the maintenance of feelings of self-worth and dignity
among relief recipients cannot of course be measured but may well be
among its most important achievements.
Nell Binns had worked in
the cotton mills in Lancashire prior to her coming to Canada with
her parents in 1919 when she was 17. The family were all union
members; her father and she voted Conservative, her mother Liberal.
She married and moved to East York with her husband who worked in
the shipping room of a plumbing supply house. He was laid off, they
went on relief and became active in the East York Workers in 1931.
She was executive secretary and her husband was their organizer for
Bert Hunt moved to East
York in 1927 when his parents bought a home there. He was unmarried
at the time and a plasterer by trade, He vas on the executive of the
East York Workers as a representative of the single people who
always had difficulty collecting any welfare.
Sarah McKenzie moved to
East York with her husband Jack in 1922 but lost the home they were
buying there and returned to the city. In 1925 they moved back to
East York. Her husband was a furniture truck driver with Simpsons
until 1929 when he was laid off. He tried to organize bread
deliverymen in the 1920's and by the election of 1934 they were both
supporters of A. E. Smith's campaign and the Communist Party.
Olive Hill moved to a
house in East York in 1933 which rented for $28. a month. Her
husband was working at a job which paid $22. a week when they got
married and $14. a week in 1935. She was frequently ill and had to
ask for assistance with medical bills and drugs.
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