Social Justice and Human Rights

It may well be the British root of Toronto, that sense of fair play, that has made this city a leader in social justice and human rights. It is also the fact that generations of newcomers demanded it. That modern Toronto has fewer real slums and ghettos than most North American cities testifies to the essential fairness of the place. Though the poor can be really poor and the rich obscenely wealthy, there is a sense of peace on the streets of Toronto, an absence of fear and of violence that haunts other places. People here still believe that law and justice work. We've believed it for 200 years. Behind a staid and conservative exterior, Toronto has championed the cause of the unloved, the unwanted, and of social justice.

Anti-Semitism at Cherry Beach

Toronto's sense of social justice may be practical - an investment in peace and order. It is a legacy of progressiveness that can be traced back to Lord Simcoe, who abolished slavery in York before anywhere else in the Empire, or the Torontonians of 1843 who rallied around George Brown's anti-slavery group; or the Orange Order police who defended the rights of the Irish to march in 1875, or the vote for women in 1884, years ahead of the federal government.

Racial tensions flared regularly in Toronto, from the panic about too many former Black slaves arriving in the 1800s, to ugly anti-Jewish signs at Cherry Beach in the 1930s. One of Toronto's worst racial riots exploded in 1933 after a baseball game between a Jewish and Gentile team in Christie Pits. Swastikas flags were waved and thousands of teenagers fought bloodily into the night. But tensions weren't allowed to fester long in Toronto; political and social solutions were usually quick incoming. Another racial incident on the subway in 1976 led to a Task Force on Racism. Social peace is the strength of Toronto and the basis for its claim as a world-class city.

Backyard on Baldwin Street, 1964 by Albery Franck

The poor too, make their home in Toronto. The city's history is not simply of the mighty or of the monuments they build, but of the low wage earners, whose labour has fuelled the economy and built the roads and bridges.

Whether immigrant or native born, the poor provide a sub-text throughout this series. From the shanty homes that housed the Irish in Cabbagetown, to the run down district behind City Hall that was the first Chinatown, to Regent Park and the Jane Finch corridor, the poor have filled their neighbourhoods with the sound of children playing, vendors hawking; the chatter of women on the stoop. Always there are the clothes flapping on lines like the wings of birds, and the small gardens that bloom green.

Toronto author, Hugh Garner writes:


"Cabbagetown...most of the residents are English or Scotch, with a few Irish and Canadian families. Lately, there has been a small influx of central Europeans. The children wear brown woolensweaters and gray wool toques. They receive them in "Star" boxes, that are given to them at Christmas by a Toronto newspaper. The small boys roam the streets in gangs. When they grow older they steal watermelons from the freight cars. If they are caught, they are taken to juvenile court, and are handed over to the Big Brother movement for safekeeping. This works sometimes. The old people sit on the front steps in the summer evenings, chatting and laughing across the small lawns. On Friday and Saturday nights the men retreat to the Avlon or Shamrock beer-parlours. Behind the front windows of Cabbagtown lies drama, pathetic or shocking. There are the tragic arguments over the birth of illegitimate children to the unmarried daughters of the household. For love is cheap everywhere. It costs nothing and costing nothing is the one thing within the reach of all the young. There is love in Cabbagetown. There is the all-sacrificing love of a mother for her children. Children who grow thin and puny in front of her eyes. Love of children for parents who sit around stoves in the winter and on steps in the summer, fading away, old before their time. There is honour in Cabbagetown. Most of them still honour God. Some honour the King. Nearly all honour their parents, their children, and their friends. They themselves deserve honour."


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