Historicist: “As Interesting as It Is Timely”

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Historicist: “As Interesting as It Is Timely”

Young journalist William Lyon Mackenzie King describes the “foreigners who live in Toronto.”

Mackenzie King at his desk in the summer of 1917. Library and Archives Canada / C-003176.

Mackenzie King at his desk in the summer of 1917. Library and Archives Canada / C-003176.

In the summer of 1897, William Lyon Mackenzie King returned to Toronto after having spent several months advancing his education in Chicago. At just 22 years old, the future prime minister had recently earned his third degree from the University of Toronto. Before pursuing a fourth degree at Harvard, King accepted a job at the Daily Mail and Empire and produced a series of four weekly articles examining urban issues, including two that outlined the apparent circumstances of people whom he referred to as the “foreigners who live in Toronto.”

As an undergraduate, King’s education had not been limited to the classroom. Recognizing his keen interest in labour issues and Liberal causes, his mentors had encouraged him to explore Toronto in order to learn more about the needs and concerns of its citizens. In his 2011 biography of King, Allan Levine writes that King began “venturing beyond the genteel university lecture halls and into the raw, mean streets of late-nineteenth century Toronto, where disease and depravity were the norm.” He spent time visiting and volunteering with missions, hospitals, jails, courtrooms, and anywhere else where he could learn more about Toronto and its people.

Mackenzie King at Harvard. Library and Archives Canada / C-055537.

Mackenzie King at Harvard. Library and Archives Canada / C-055537.

In 1895, King spent a week as a reporter for the Toronto News, after which he switched to the Globe, where his duties included covering the local police courts. In his diary, King wrote that he thought this was “a good plan to see the shadowy side of life, looking at everything from an economic standpoint… I fully intend to make academic work my profession and am taking Journalism as an extra year of practical experience in the great school of life.”

King spent the winter of 1896–97 in Chicago, where he divided his time between studies at the University of Chicago and living and working alongside Jane Addams at Hull-House, all while preparing his University of Toronto master’s thesis on the International Typographical Union. After returning to Toronto in 1897, he was contacted by Bert Woods, the city editor at the Mail and Empire. According to King, Woods visited him on September 6, and “offered me a position on the staff, permanent if I wanted it, or till I go, at $12 a week.”

After taking a few days to consider his options—at this time, King’s days were otherwise spent pursuing other writing projects and giving French language lessons—he agreed to Woods’s offer and promptly embarked upon a series of substantial articles examining the living and working conditions in Toronto and the new people who were settling in the growing city.

Following six days of feverish research, King’s first piece, “Crowded Housing, Its Evil Effects,” appeared in the Mail and Empire on September 18. Having seen first-hand the conditions of Chicago’s working-class neighbourhoods, King was concerned that similar problems of poverty and over-crowding could emerge in Toronto or other Canadian cities in the years to come. “The greatest curse to any city is its slums, and the significant feature of all slum districts is the congestion and overcrowding,” King wrote in the piece. “If the population of Toronto is to continue strong and healthy, congestion in crowded centres must be rigorously prevented; otherwise the children of coming years will wear the marks of physical and moral decay, which are already only too apparent in many of the artisan classes in American cities.”

Mackenzie King studying as an undergraduate in 1895. Library and Archives Canada / C-055549.

Mackenzie King studying as an undergraduate in 1895. Library and Archives Canada / C-055549.

Much of King’s first Mail and Empire article addressed conditions in and around St. John’s Ward (simply known to many Torontonians at this time as “the Ward”), an area bounded by College, University, Queen, and Yonge, which then had a high percentage of recent immigrants and low income housing. “Everyone is inclined to be ready to criticize St. John’s Ward,” King wrote, “but the reputation which this ward possesses today must be attributed more to the overcrowding of its houses than to any fault in the character of the tenants who inhabit them.”

His next two pieces focused on what he defined as the city’s “foreigners.” King’s idea of a “foreigner” was not based on a person’s place of birth. For the purposes of his articles, he noted that white English-speaking immigrants from the British isles, the United States, and Newfoundland were “so nearly akin in thought, customs, and manners to the Canadians themselves, in fact so indistinguishable from them in most respects, that in speaking of a foreign population they have generally been disregarded altogether.” Instead, his interest was with groups of people who did not conform to the notion of Toronto as a white, Christian city with British customs and culture. Historian Richard Dennis notes that this meant that, for King, “some second-generation migrants could still be regarded as ‘foreign,’ and that some English- and American migrants were ‘foreign’ if they were Jewish or ‘coloured’ or southern or eastern Europeans who had been born in Britain or America en route to Canada.”

King’s articles and diaries reveal his research methods. In addition to consulting records at City Hall, he paid a visit to the office of John M. Might, publisher of Toronto’s city directories, to get statistics on Toronto’s immigrant communities. Chiefly, however, King sought out representatives of the different cultural communities in downtown Toronto and the opinions of those who worked with them. In the week in which he conducted most of his interviews, he spoke with priests, shopkeepers, school workers, and a man who was regularly retained for interpretive work in the police courts. Richard Dennis observes that King “depended rather more on secondary sources and meetings with clergy and social workers than on talking to newly arrived immigrants.”

Immigrants in Toronto, 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 104.

Immigrants in Toronto, 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 104.

Ultimately, King chose to profile seven different groups of “foreigners” that he believed had a significant presence in Toronto. While acknowledging small numbers of other “foreigners” who fell outside of these groups, he provided detailed assessment of the Germans, Jews, Italians, Syrians, and Chinese, as well as the local French inhabitants and the “coloured.” It is difficult to adequately summarize King’s recorded observations and conclusions; each of his four articles ran at least four columns and included a great deal of description. King biographers Henry Ferns and Bernard Ostry observe that, at this stage of his career, King “could gather facts and put them down with clarity… He showed little interest in or capacity for theoretical or critical analysis… [H]is writings bore upon them the stamp of Germano-American scholarships. They were dry, flat, neutral, and factual.”

King sought to estimate each “foreign” group’s numbers and to describe where and how the people lived, the industries in which they tended to be employed, their attitudes toward education, and other factors that struck him as relevant to whether these groups were likely to cluster together in poverty-stricken slums in future years. He was particularly interested in evidence of the “foreigners” participating in public life and whether or not they seemed to mingle with people from outside of their group. One of King’s strongly held beliefs at this time was that, in the words of Richard Dennis, “residential segregation of ‘foreigners’ was undesirable because it inhibited assimilation: it allowed newcomers to avoid having to learn English and, more generally, it meant that they took no part in civic life.”

The Mail and Empire, October 2, 1897.

The Mail and Empire, October 2, 1897.

King began his study of Toronto’s “foreigners” with an account of the local German population, which he estimated to be around 6,000. The city’s Germans, he observed, were engaged in several industries within the city, both as employers and as employees, including “piano-making, brewing, cigar-making, showcase manufacturing, and the fur and jewellery trades.” He noted the presence of a Lutheran church on Bond Street, and of multiple societies local Germans might join, and expressed satisfaction because the Germans appeared to be spread around the city, rather than clustered in one spot. “By being spread out, their interests have become those of the city at large, rather than of any particular group,” King wrote. “It may be said that the German people take a comprehensive and appreciative interest in the politics of this country, and that they sing the British National Anthem with feelings of no less patriotic devotion than those aroused by ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’ of their Fatherland.”

Next, King described the city’s Jewish population, which he estimated at 2,500. “The Jews are scattered over all parts of the city,” he wrote, “but there is a decided tendency towards grouping amongst the poorer members. York Street is distinctively the ‘Petticoat Lane‘ of Toronto, and the south side of Queen for some few blocks is not very different.”

He noticed a significant number of Jews employed in mercantile trades, and some were demonstrating an interest in organized labour. He also observed that many Jews had begun taking up peddling and scrap collecting, writing that “the number of Jewish peddlers who go about the city and out among the farmers in the country is fairly large, and the quantities of old rubbish that they collect and utilize is something amazing. Almost the entire rag and scrap iron trade is carried on by Jews, and of the eight pawn shops in Toronto they are the owners of four.”

In assessing their living habits, King believed that while their families were large and their homes small, Toronto’s Jews were not generally living in unhealthily cramped conditions. “The only immediate policy which it seems practicable adopt,” he advised, “is to check as far as possible the tendency to group, or the formation of a foreign section, in any part of the city. Only by spreading these foreign elements are they likely to become adapted to the new surroundings and properly assimilated with the general community.”

Chicken warehouse on Agnes Street. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 291.

Chicken warehouse on Agnes Street. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 291.

Toronto’s Italian community, King wrote, was somewhere between 700 and 800 strong, with the largest concentrations “along Chestnut, Elm, Edward, and Agnes Streets and Centre Avenue.” The Italians were employed in several trades, including railway work and the running of fruit and vegetable stores. “They control almost entirely the banana trade of the city,” King wrote. “They have over 100 banana carts, and during one year each of three wholesale houses in the city have supplied them with from thirty to fifty thousand bananas.” He also noted the presence of about 30 professional musicians among their ranks, and that “eleven own street pianos. Marcucci, who came here from England eight years ago, introduced the street piano, and since that time worn out five.”

King next addressed the “French colony,” which he estimated at under 800, with the majority “in the vicinity of Seaton and Sackville streets, between King and Queen.” Most of the French in Toronto were, King claims, French-Canadian or originally French-speaking residents of the United States, but were included in King’s list of “foreigners” by virtue of not speaking English. While many were factory workers, he noted that there were French Torontonians working at a variety of middle-class jobs, including printers, barbers, and “one or two doctors.”

Next, King described the “coloured population,” which he also put at around 800. As with his descriptions of other groups, King made note of several community organizations but found evidence of discrimination and poor employment prospects within the city. “The coloured man has proved himself a good citizen, and on this account it seems a pity that most of the young men among their number find it necessary to leave for the [United States]… In the United States their labour and ability seems to be more appreciated. They hesitate before seeking positions here, as they claim to find the white man is almost universally favoured.” He also described an incident in which “one of their number, after having practised for six months in a band of a city regiment, an after having been granted his uniform, was refused admission when about to be sworn in, and given, as a reason, that he might look ‘like a black horse among a lot of white ones.'”

Near the north end of Chestnut Street, King wrote, one could find a small group of Syrians, estimated between 50 and 60. Neither his articles nor his diary reveal whom he consulted for information on the Syrians, and it seems possible that he did not speak directly with any of them. While King’s descriptions of other immigrant groups were, on the whole, quite positive and sympathetic, his description of the Syrian group was decidedly less so. “They are not as satisfactory in many respects as the other foreigners here,” King wrote. “The men are lazy and inclined to be dirty and quarrelsome… [The Syrians] crowd together, often in a disgraceful conditions.” King also mentions, somewhat cryptically, the presence of a “Catholic Syrian priest.” Subsequent research by others suggests that King was likely referring to Father Macarios Nasra, local Melkite priest.

Students at York St. Public School. "More than a dozen races are represented in this group of children." Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Students at York St. Public School. “More than a dozen races are represented in this group of children.” Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The final group described by King was the local Chinese population, which he estimated at 60, all of them men, scattered around the city. With the exception of one grocery store owner, King reported, all of them were “engaged in the laundry business.” “Some keep to the foreign dress,” he claimed, “but majority prefer to dress like ordinary citizens.” He further noted that many of these men were receiving instruction in the English language (and in Scripture) at local churches and the YMCA.

Although King’s descriptions reflect a number of stereotypes and misconceptions, his conclusions were, on the whole, fairly positive. “It must be admitted that the city is fortunate in having secured on the whole such a thrifty, honest, and industrious class as those to which the majority belong… Though a good many are in humble circumstances, there are practically none who are destitute.” He concluded that the majority of Toronto’s foreign population appeared to live in sanitary housing, and they generally showed an interest in participating in public life and in sending their children to school. His main conclusions from these pieces were a need to integrate immigrants into society by encouraging them to spread out, to ensure a high standard of housing downtown, and the need for improved statistical record-keeping so that future trends could be monitored.

Mackenzie King with William Mulock's grandson in 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 21150.

Mackenzie King with William Mulock’s grandson in 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 21150.

King’s fourth and final article in the series looked at labour conditions in the Ward and described conditions in non-unionized sweatshops. While conducting his research, he discovered one such sweatshop was producing bags for the Canadian Postal Service. Rather than include this in his final article, he instead arranged a meeting with William Mulock, Postmaster General and a law school classmate of King’s father. Mulock was very grateful for the information and promptly offered to pay King $200 to prepare an official report for the government on his findings. King did so, and his report led directly to new legislation, which forbade the government from accepting sweatshop labour for official contracts. This relationship with Mulock effectively represented the beginnings of King’s long career in Canadian politics.

In 1984, the Multicultural History Society of Ontario produced a special volume on “Toronto’s People” for the city’s sesquicentennial, featuring a collection of essays and historical pieces on the variety of different peoples represented in the city. Editor Robert F. Harney chose to begin the volume with a reference to King’s 1897 pieces, which he said stood “as typical of pre-World War Two Toronto’s dichotomous response to newcomers… If studying the city’s peoples was a subject ‘as interesting as it is timely’ for Mackenzie King in 1897, how much more should such study be for us now in a city with more than half of its people born elsewhere and fewer than half of ‘British’ descent.”


Additional material from: Baha Abu-Laban, An Olive Branch on the Family Tree: The Arabs in Canada (McClelland and Stewart, 1980: Toronto); Richard Dennis, “‘Foreigners Who Live in Toronto’: Attitudes toward Immigrants in a Canadian City, 1890–1918,” in Canadian Migration Patterns from Britain and North America (University of Ottawa, 2004); Henry Ferns and Bernard Ostry, The Age of Mackenzie King (James Lorimer & Company, 1976: Toronto); Robert F. Harney, ed., Polyphony: Toronto’s People, The Bulletin of the Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario (Spring/Summer 1984; Vol. 6, No. 1); The Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King, as made available online by Library and Archives Canada; W. L. Mackenzie King, Industry and Humanity: A Study of the Principles Underlying Industrial Reconstruction (Thomas Allen, 1918: Toronto); Allan Levine, King: William Lyon Mackenzie King – A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011: Vancouver/Toronto); The Daily Mail and Empire (September 18, September 25, October 2, October 9, 1897); Owen E. McGillicuddy, The Making of a Premier: An Outline of the Life Story of the Right Hon. W. L. Mackenzie King, C.M.G. (Musson, 1922: Toronto); Myer Siemiatycki, “King of the Ward,” in The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood, John Lorinc et al., ed. (Coach House Books, 2015: Toronto); Kenneth Westhues, “Sociology for a New Century: Mackenzie King’s First Career,” in Mackenzie King Citizenship and Community: Essays Marking the 125th Anniversary of the Birth of William Lyon Mackenzie King, John English et al., ed. (Robin Brass Studio, 2002: Toronto).


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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