By David Wencer, originally published December 8, 2011
How conditions forced citizens to hold their Reeve hostage
On the afternoon of July 6, 1936, angry citizens of York Township stormed the local relief office and occupied the building. They held the township’s relief officer and later the township’s Reeve as their prisoners, along with several employees of the relief office. The crowd’s demands? That relief in the township be restored to its earlier levels, so that the unemployed and impoverished of York need not live in the newly-erected tent village.
York Township was, in 1936, unincorporated land northwest of what were then the City of Toronto’s boundaries. The township’s area at this time corresponded roughly to the pre-1998 City of York, minus the Town of Weston, which was an independent town. During the 1930s, York Township was one of the most needy regions of the Toronto area, although by no means the only community devastated by the depression. The Township was mostly a residential area with few employment opportunities; many of York’s residents were would-be commuters to Toronto who lived in York for, amongst other reasons, the comparatively low cost of housing. As the depression dragged on, the City of Toronto began to reserve jobs for those actually living in Toronto, thereby driving up unemployment rates in the surrounding suburbs. As a result, the Township of York found itself with very high rates of unemployment which, over several years, lead to high rates of unpaid taxes.
Lacking a sufficient tax base to fund services, in November of 1933 a bankrupt York Township was forced to apply to the Province of Ontario for supervision. This was not an unusual occurrence during the depression, as many municipalities found themselves in similar fates, prompting the Ontario government to form the Department of Municipal Affairs, for the purpose of supervising insolvent municipalities. Municipalities under supervision received aid from the Province, both financial and organizational. York historian Wilbert G. Thomas wrote in 1996 that “eventually, in the Toronto area, all but the City of Toronto, Forest Hill, and Swansea were under provincial supervision.”
High rates of unemployment across Ontario resulted in the Province’s first attempts at establishing a relief system for those who lacked the financial means to survive. Initially this system involved small jobs, essentially designed to make work and to allow people to earn money; later it evolved to include direct handouts from the government. The establishment of the Department of Public Welfare and the difficulties of administering relief in Ontario are outlined in an online article by John Stapleton and Catherine LaFramboise. This article notes some of the more contentious issues at the time, such as who was eligible for relief, and whether this relief should come in the form of direct cash or through vouchers.
Early in 1936, the provincially-supervised York Township realized that at its current rate, it would run out of budgeted funds for cash relief for the unemployed before the end of the year. The shortfall was blamed on several causes including mismanagement of the relief fund, the Province of Ontario’s reduction of the amount of relief money it was willing to provide to the municipality, and the abuse of relief by some citizens. York Reeve Marsh Magwood actually accused the City of Toronto of paying the first month’s rent for any Toronto man receiving relief who was willing to move to York Township which, if true, would have increased the financial burden on York.
To deal with the shortage of relief funds, in late May of 1936, York Relief Officer R.B. Geggie, York Reeve Marsh Magwood, and Hugh Conlon of the Ontario Municipal Affairs Department proposed a series of relief cuts to last until August, with the hopes of the township saving enough money so as to be able to restore the relief levels by September. These cuts included cutting off all single males between the ages of 18 to 50, counting the wages of “employable children” when calculating entitlement to relief, eliminating the clothing allowance during the summer months, and lowering the overall rate of money paid out in relief. Magwood explained that “we cannot spend all the relief moneys in a few months and then hand the problems over to the Governments.”
Within a week of the relief changes many young, single men who had been stricken from the rolls moved to a vacant lot near Bicknell Avenue and Rogers Road and began constructing shacks, which they named after Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburnand Minister of Public Welfare David Croll. This particular lot already served the community as a public space, and had been the site of mass public meetings where labour issues were discussed. As such, some had already dubbed this lot “Red Square” when young men began moving and constructing shelters from scrap from dumps and supplies donated by sympathetic York citizens. The Telegram described the new commune thus:
“Built with old bits of tin and covered with waterproof tar paper that was given them by a township factory, the huts that are now complete, stand about four feet high. Each hut sleeps four men… One of the first appointments of the camp was that of cook. None of the boys had had any experience, but they were all game to try. J. Farrow was chosen and he can have the job as long as he likes… Another important appointment was that of storekeeper. This fell to Charlie Manning. All goods turned over to the camp are cared for by Manning and not a single thing can be handed out without his authority. Len Righton is chairman of the building committee. Handy with a hammer and saw, Righton directs the building of the shacks… Outside of sending a delegate to Queen’s Park to-morrow the boys have no definite plans save to sit tight and wait for developments. All they want, they say, is a chance to earn an honest living.”
Meetings were organized by the unemployed in York throughout June, while various levels of government struggled to create jobs. Many of those who had been given “make-work” jobs in York Township, upwards of five hundred people, went on strike, refusing to earn their low wages while their neighbours had their relief aid severely decreased or, in many cases, eliminated. On June 24, a crowd of women blockaded the York Relief Office on Dufferin, near Oakwood, not leaving until word came from Reeve Magwood that emergency food vouchers were to be issued for two days to those who needed them. The next day, local labour activist Ewart Humphreys organized a march from the township to Queen’s Park. Throughout the month, Magwood met with various Ontario representatives, hoping to get the Province to make up the shortfall.
By the end of June, the Telegram reported that 3,600 were on strike in York Township, alongside others from Etobicoke and North York, with no end in sight. York Township lacked the money to restore relief levels, and Welfare Minister Croll repeatedly stated he would not bail out the municipality.
On July 6, a mass demonstration, several weeks in the planning, commenced at 2:30pm in a field to the south of the relief offices. According to the Telegram a deputation of five men and five women were chosen to depute to Relief Commissioner Geggie, in an effort to restore relief levels to their previous rates. After it was apparent that this would not produce the desired result, a crowd of at least five hundred, reportedly lead by women clutching babies in their arms, moved in on Constable Taylor, the lone policeman guarding the relief office building on Dufferin. Taylor was backed into the building and up the stairs and, after futilely beating at the crowd, was overcome after protestors began throwing chairs. Police reserves were soon summoned. As the crowd threw stones at them, the police succeeded in tearing the main door from its hinges, preventing those occupying the building from barricading the entrance. The police then took up positions by the entrance to keep others from trying to squeeze in.
The crowd was initially not deterred, and several physical altercations took place. These fights reportedly ceased after special allowances were made for protest leaders, who had deputed that afternoon at York Council, to enter the building and address the crowd from an “improvised balcony.” The Star quoted one of these leaders as saying “We’ve got the Reeve, Geggie, and the others in our power… Don’t go home for supper. You are going to get better suppers after this… We are going to hold them until they come across if we have to stay here all night.”
During the siege, those employed at the relief office were not allowed to leave and endured the occupation during a major heat wave. At 4:00pm, telephone negotiations commenced with York Township Council, and lasted well into the evening. Sometime after 6:00pm, Reeve Magwood arrived and was permitted to enter the building, where he joined Geggie and the hapless relief staff. The remainder of York Township Council remained in committee to try to resolve the matter. Geggie and Magwood were in a small office upstairs, surrounded by about fifty strikers. The Star wrote that “as persons crowded into the office, the temperature rose rapidly and ties, coats, vests and even shirts were thrown off by the perspiring occupants of the temporary prison.”
As the occupation continued, the crowd was joined by others, some employed sympathizers, others relief strikers from North York and other parts of the Toronto area, reportedly bringing the total up to as high as four thousand. Refreshments of sandwiches and soft drinks evidently emerged for the protestors in the evening, andthe Star reported that the crowd could be heard singing “We’ll hang old Geggie to a sour apple tree.”
At 10:30pm, the remainder of Council arrived at the relief offices and hastily reversed all of the cuts, restoring relief rates and returning single men to the relief rolls. The victorious crowd soon dispersed, the problem of finding the money now in the hands of the Ontario government.
Since York Township had returned the rates to a level which the Township could not afford, Public Welfare Minister Croll soon forcibly increased the tax rate on the township, which many York citizens openly and defiantly refused to pay. Significant changes to the structure of the relief system in York were implemented that autumn. R.B. Geggie resigned. But York continued to have financial struggles throughout the 1930s, and remained under provincial supervision until 1941. Tent communities in York came and went over the next few years, and reports of relief-related incidents similar to this one continued all over Ontario throughout the depression.