From Protests to Parades: A Walking Tour of Labour History on Spadina

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From Protests to Parades: A Walking Tour of Labour History on Spadina

Leftist groups, including communists, met at various halls and buildings on Spadina, attracting many radical thinkers.

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The Workers' History of Spadina tour stops at a community centre on Cecil Street, which used to be a synagogue. Photo by Erin Sylvester.

The Workers’ History of Spadina tour stops at a community centre on Cecil Street, which used to be a synagogue. Photo by Erin Sylvester.

On a hot, sunny Sunday in late spring, a group gathered at Spadina and College, ready to learn about the hidden history of the neighbourhood. It was a weekend, which many people have off as leisure time thanks to the efforts of organized labour to create a five- or six-day work week. You may take eight-hour workdays and holidays for granted, but it wasn’t so long ago that arguing that workers deserved these things was a radical notion.

Craig Heron, a York University professor, labour historian, and author of Booze: A Distilled History, led the walk along Spadina. Heron wore a microphone, but often had to almost shout to be heard over the hustle and bustle on the street. “It’s always been an active community,” he said, turning up the mic to begin the walk. He was assisted at times by Heritage Toronto board member Ellen Scheinberg, an expert in Jewish history in Toronto. Many of the 20th century labour unions and leftist political organizations were founded by Jewish workers in Kensington Market.

Spadina and Queen used to be the centre of the garment industry in Toronto. The large buildings we now know as offices and filming locations for Suits used to be factories where hundreds of women and children worked long hours on sewing machines. Because of the terrible working conditions in the clothing industry, these workers started unions and began organizing to strike or demand better working environments. One of the most famous results of this organization was the 1931 dressmaker’s strike, which lasted two-and-a-half months, although it was ultimately unsuccessful.

Women at a fruit store in the Jewish market on Kensington Avenue in January 1932. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 26172.

Women at a fruit store in the Jewish market on Kensington Avenue in January 1932. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 26172.

While strikes today happen often, and many people are part of a unionized workplace, in the early 20th century, organizing into a union was fairly radical. Leftist groups, including communists, met at various halls and buildings on Spadina and attracted many radical thinkers to their gatherings. Labour organizations were mostly formed by Jewish workers from the families that lived in the Kensington Market area. Jewish immigrants to the area were some of the first to arrive as families, and many of the workers were interested in creating better working conditions for relatives. The tour touched on the history of the area as a centre of radical leftist politics and of being the first home for many immigrant groups, from Eastern European Jewish immigrants and refugees in the early 20th century, to Portuguese newcomers in the 1950s, and now Chinese, and other East Asian-Canadians.

Unlike many heritage buildings in Toronto, the sites Heron points to on the walk are mostly still standing, although they may now be used for different activities. For example, the Labour Lyceum, a major gathering place for the non-communist unions and labour organizations in the 1930s and 40s, is now a (currently closed) Chinese restaurant. Apparently, the original facade of the building is still there, underneath the signs advertising Golden Diamond Restaurant. There is a Heritage Toronto plaque on Spadina about the labour history of the building.

As the tour continued down Spadina, a parade passed by, with children waving from floats and scouts carrying flags as Heron described how changing liquor laws allowed new bars and beverage rooms, as they were called in 1930s Ontario, to open. Although the neighbourhood has long welcomed families, many of the people who arrived in the 20th century to work in factories were single men, many of whom were sending money to their families back home. This included the Chinese men who lived in the Ward who had arrived before the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented them from bringing their family from China. Many of the services on Spadina were built to cater to a population of young men alone and far from home. (For those interested in learning more about the Ward, there’s a Heritage Toronto tour for that!)

In this context, unions and workers’ organizations were even more important for calling for better working conditions and as social groups. A theme throughout the tour was the size of the rooms that many labour organizations met in. These halls hosted dances, plays, and political meetings, and were spaces where communities came together. Heron also stopped at the former Standard Theatre, which used to put on Yiddish plays and also radical performances (for the full story, you’ll have to go on the tour!).

The boxy buildings on Spadina mostly don’t have any sign left of the important labour and community organizing that went on inside. But this tour will introduce you to the stories of some of these radical movements in now-nondescript buildings. Many of the people and histories from this tour have been forgotten as the city changed, but these days, with the rising cost of living and increase of precarious work, the history of labour organizing and community building on Spadina feel closer than ever.

The tour lasted two hours, started at Spadina and College, and ended at Spadina and Queen.

The next Workers’ History of Spadina tour is Sunday, September 3 at 10:30 a.m. The 2017 Heritage Toronto Tour season runs from May to October.

This article is brought to you by Heritage Toronto.

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