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A Response to the Great Depression

by Pat Schulz


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.[1] In June they closed down the clothing depot in response to business deputations[2] but even this conservative council defended relief recipients against evictions by refusing to grant bailiffs' licences for two months.[3] 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[4] and relief recipients took only 77 per cent of the clothing budget that April.[5] When the province cut off relief to single men aged 20 to 60 in 1937 only 47 men in East York were affected[6] 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.[7] By 1939 the township had commenced paying off some debenture principal and early in 1940 new debentures were issued replacing the old ones.[8]

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,[9] had a confrontation with the provincial government over the extra tax levy for relief purposes[10] and occupied the township offices seeking higher relief.[11] 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.[12] 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 depression experience.

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.[13] 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 thirteen years.

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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[1] The Toronto Daily Star, February 2, 1937.

[2] The Globe and Mail, January 15, 1937.

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

[4] East York financial records.

[5] The Toronto Daily Star, April 7, 1937.

[6] The township agreed to pay their relief from township funds. The Toronto Daily  Star, June 5, 1937.

[7] The Evening Telegram, January 19, 1937.

[8] See the Auditor's Report on the Redemption of Debentures, December 31, 1939 in the East York financial records. See also "Plan for Adjustment and Reorganization of Certain Debenture, and Certain Other Indebtedness of the Township of East York," December 1, 1939, Ontario Department of Municipal Affairs. Available in the Ontario Archives.

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

[10] Daily newspapers, August 1936.

[11] Conversation with Ross Dowson, March 24, 1974.

[12] The Mail and Empire, May 11, 1936.

[13] The Evening Telegram, September 21, 1932.

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