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Toronto tales

Juliette Daigre and Tom Malleson guide us round Canada’s most radical city

December 20, 2011
7 min read

As the largest Canadian city – with much wealth, much poverty, a significant urban indigenous population and large-scale immigration – Toronto remains a hotbed for Canadian radicalism. In the summer of 2010, it was the scene of the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history, with 1,100 people – from activists to passers‑by – arrested during protests at the G20 summit. The radical community is still reeling from the trauma of those summer days.

Toronto has long been a focal point of radical politics in Canada, its history marked by struggles for labour rights, public transport, housing, healthcare and LGBTQ rights. For those wishing to explore the city and its radical past, there are three excellent labour walking tours. Much of the history of Toronto’s working people has been buried beneath ice rinks and office towers, so the tours require a little imagination, but the initiated can still unearth evidence of past workers’ struggles.

A trip to the Toronto Street railway stables (now the Lorraine Kisma Theatre, 165 Front Street) puts you at the site of a historic union battle. When, in 1886, the Toronto Street Railway refused to recognise the Knights of Labour as the workers’ union, thousands of citizens boycotted streetcars driven by scabs. It was the city’s first big streetcar strike. The original horse barn for the Toronto Street Railway still stands. It was built in 1886–7.

Terauley Street was where the Ward was once located. It was Toronto’s best-known slum and served as a gateway neighbourhood for immigrants seeking refuge from the the Irish potato famine, the failure of the 1848 revolutions and oppressive regimes in Russia and eastern Europe. Many of the lanes and streets have disappeared as the Ward was razed for the construction of the Toronto General Hospital. To find a visible record of the city’s many immigrant workers, visit Elizabeth Garnett’s Memorial to Chinese railway workers (Blue Jays Way), dedicated to the people who helped construct the Canadian Pacific railway. Between 1880 and 1885, 17,000 Chinese men worked on the project in dangerous conditions and intense social isolation. More than 4,000 Chinese workers died.

The building that housed the Toronto Labor Lyceum (346 Spadina Avenue) still stands. Emma Goldman spoke here in the 1930s, and on the day after she died, in 1940, this was the location of a three-hour memorial. The Post Office (Terminal ‘A’, 40 Bay Street) marks the site of more recent union struggles. In 1981 the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) demanded maternity leave. After a 45-day strike, CUPW became the first national union to win this right.

It is also possible to discover the people’s history behind traditional tourist spots. When the construction of the CN Tower (301 Front Street West) was finished in 1975, two workers conducted a daring celebration when one, assisted by the other, parachuted to the ground. Both were fired.

If all that history leaves you thirsty, then a visit to Kensington Market should revive you. This multicultural neighbourhood is home to independent cafes, radical bookstores, hippy clothing shops and vegan food. Favourite hang-outs include Wanda’s for great sweet pies and Ideal for coffee. Alternatively, head to The Stop (1884 Davenport Road), a community food centre that runs one of Toronto’s most accessible food banks as well as a drop-in space offering workshops and legal advice on employment and housing.

Come As You Are (701 Queen Street West) is an awesome co-operative sex store that is worker owned and operated, offering a wide range of sex toys, tips and literature as well as workshops on everything from rope bondage to female ejaculation. The 519 community centre (519 Church Street) runs a range of anti-oppression, anti-violence and anti-poverty programs and is located at the heart of Toronto’s gay neighbourhood, where the American Queer as Folk was filmed. Bike Pirates (1292 Bloor Street West) is a volunteer-run, DIY bike shop – just don’t come here expecting to have your bike repairs done for you!

If it’s books you’re after, Toronto has a great selection of radical bookstores. First stop is one of Toronto’s oldest LGBTQ bookstores, Glad Day Bookshop, found at 598 Younge Street. At 73 Harbord Street is the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, a non-profit bookstore dedicated to promoting anti-oppression and feminist politics. Finally, mosey over to A Different Booklist (746 Bathurst Street), where this ‘black power’ bookshop is a centre of activity for Toronto’s African and Caribbean diaspora.

To sense the character of Toronto as a radical city, you don’t have to look further than last year’s G20 protests. The Toronto Community Mobilisation Network ensured that protest was firmly rooted in ongoing local community struggle. Dedication to the principle of community organising by those who are directly affected by an issue is one of Toronto’s most notable strengths (indeed, the term ‘organiser’ is far more common here than ‘activist’).

This principle, with its corollaries of radical democracy and self-determination, forms the foundation of three organisations that account for much of Toronto’s radical activity: No One Is Illegal (NOII), Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA). These groups constitute much of the pulse of contemporary Toronto radicalism (at least in the downtown core): explicitly striving to involve and empower the marginalised communities that they work in, and being infused by anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist identity politics.

NOII-Toronto, led in large part by women of colour, has changed the face of Toronto activism over the past decade, bringing an anti-racist and migrant justice analysis to the fore. One of its major victories has been passing a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in Toronto schools, making schools here the only ones in the country that don’t ask parents about their immigration status to enrol their kids.

CAIA struggles for Palestinian self‑determination in a city with a strong and committed Zionist presence.

OCAP, recently celebrating its 20th birthday, continues its direct action casework against poverty, homelessness, and police repression. A major recent campaign was to sign up thousands of welfare recipients for a special diet allowance (a relatively unknown welfare provision that enables poor people to get a couple of hundred extra dollars per month for medical reasons). Thanks to OCAP and supportive medics, poor people managed to squeeze almost $30 million out of the system before the liberal government cut the programme in the wake of recent austerity measures. Following OCAP’s example, there are now CAPs all across the country.

Another feature particular to radical Toronto is an almost complete lack of political party organising, with nearly all the major organising groups operating on broadly anarchist principles of social movements and community self-determination. Of course, while these groups operate without a formal ‘leadership’, the activist community here, like elsewhere, still struggles to find ways to resolve the invisible hierarchies that constantly creep into ostensibly horizontal, participatory organisations.

Toronto’s tradition of non-hierarchical organising has made it fertile ground for the recent Occupy movement, and Occupy Toronto has sprung up as an important space for activism. The spirit of autonomy and self-determination is thrilling. Whether the movement is able to set roots remains to be seen. But here’s hoping.

Tom Malleson and Juilette Daigre are social justice activists and community organisers in Toronto. Tom is co-editor of Whose Streets? The Toronto G20 and the Challenges of Summit Protest

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