Occupy Etobicoke

In light of Occupy Toronto, I thought it worthwhile to highlight an earlier protest from Toronto’s history, when public demonstrations were considerably more desperate and dramatic.  In the course of recent research on an unrelated topic, I found several newspaper articles describing the overnight occupation of Sir Adam Beck School during the summer of 1936, an incident since commemorated by a plaque.

Etobicoke, like many parts of Ontario, had limited funds available to provide adequate relief for the unemployed during the depression, and during the spring of 1936 the township had been forced to impose severe cuts.  These cuts included the termination of all relief for single men, as well as a lower level of compensation for those still included on the relief rolls.  As a result, many of those who had been given government “make-work” jobs to earn their relief went on strike and demanded a restoration to the previous levels.

Excerpt from page 2 of The Evening Telegram, July 9, 1936.

After weeks of striking, and at the height of a major heat wave in July of 1936, it was decided that more drastic action was needed.  This article in The Evening Telegram (click on it to enlarge) suggests that Sir Adam Beck School, in Alderwood near Horner Avenue and Brown’s Line, was being used as a centre for the distribution of relief vouchers, which in turn could be redeemed for food and clothing.  On July 8, several hundred unemployed entered the school and informed relief officer C.C. Grubb that he was not allowed to leave.  According to the article, “spokesmen told the officials that they meant no harm but were taking this measure to bring to the attention of the authorities the necessity for immediate action in restoring the relief cuts.”  Grubb was soon joined by Etobicoke Reeve William A. Armstrong (the position of reeve being the equivalent of a mayor in what was then Etobicoke Township), and together the two men were held prisoner overnight in the school.

Grubb and Armstrong were kept in the boiler room of Sir Adam Beck School overnight until the demands of the unemployed were met, which, by next morning, they were.  Some of the protestors slept in the gymnasium or in hallways in an effort to keep cool.  A Toronto Star article from July 9 adds that into the night, “the sweltering unemployed sang songs, played cards and discussed the situation until early in the morning when many of them slept out on mattresses and mats to get what sleep they could.”  One of the protestors was reported to have needed medical attention after suffering a heart attack.

Conditions in the boiler room were described as “filthy.”  Grubb was quoted in the July 24 Toronto Star as saying “bread and lettuce was passed to us at 5 o’clock.  We played several hands of euchre.  Then the guards allowed the room to fill with workers and the air became stifling.  The water pipes, through condensation, dripped water.”  Grubb also claimed that protestors taunted him with both a hangman’s noose and a tar pot.

Newspaper accounts suggest that Etobicoke did not actually have the money to restore relief levels, having already gone over their relief budget.  Grubb and Armstrong seem to have been pawns, used by the protestors to impress upon the province the need for a greater relief budget in Etobicoke; upon capitulating to the crowd’s demands, the township had immediately transferred the problem of relief funding to Ontario.

Two days earlier, a similarly-sized occupation of a relief office in York Township yielded a similar result.  Premier Mitchell Hepburn ordered the arrests of the leaders of both occupations, vowing to “quash mob rule,” quoted in the July 10 Globe as saying “no longer are municipal and Provincial officials to submit to humiliation, as in the past few weeks” and “we have evidence that this is purely Communist propaganda.”

While certainly one of the more severe labour incidents in Etobicoke, this incident was actually one in a series of relief protests in Ontario in the 1930s, being neither the first nor the last.  As such, there is no neat way to wrap up this incident, as the province and its municipalities continued to struggle with the distribution of adequate relief throughout the depression.

Interestingly, the incidents in York and Etobicoke and July of 1936 were mentioned in an RCMP security bulletin, which can be read here [pdf]:  http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/RCMP/article/download/9497/9552

Thank you to Denise Harris of the Etobicoke Historical Society, who provided me with additional material on this topic.

Additional information from the Toronto Star for July 9, July 10, July 13, July 14 and July 24, 1936.

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