Torontoist reader John Black has sent us a pair of interesting family photographs that we can’t help but wonder about. The photos are of John’s great-uncle’s funeral in Toronto sometime during the early twentieth century. He and his brother immigrated to Canada sometime in their teens. While not much is known about him, we do know that John’s grandfather, Ivan Cherney, was born in 1893 in Okno, which was then part of Ukraine. Ivan anglicized his name to John Black upon arriving in Canada—so his brother may have changed his name, as well.
The pictures are so fascinating because of the sheer number of people attending the man’s funeral march. They are reminiscent of the Toronto that’s portrayed in Michael Ondaatje’s novel In The Skin of a Lion—a city where European immigrants live in a completely separate world from the ruling Anglo-Saxon whites. The funeral may be an example of an immigrant solidarity demonstration. Then again, John’s great-uncle worked for CN Rail and apparently died in an accident while working, so this march may be union-related.
Why did a humble immigrant labourer get such a massive funeral procession? Was this sort of thing commonplace in the Toronto of a century ago? Was this an undocumented piece of Toronto’s immigrant history? We’ve consulted academics, historical societies, and modern-day unions and so far we haven’t been given any satisfactory answers to these questions—but maybe you can. If you have any clues that can help us solve the mystery behind these photos, leave a comment or e-mail us.