The Ward, Toronto

St. John’s Ward, colloquially known as “The Ward”, was situated in downtown Toronto, on the traditional territories of the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations1. It was the first settlement destination for many newcomers to Toronto between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries; home to Toronto’s early Jewish community, Toronto’s first Little Italy and Toronto’s first Chinatown. A densely populated and truly multicultural neighbourhood, it was also home to African-Canadians, Irish refugees, previously enslaved African-Americans and more. Numerous attempts were made to demolish The Ward in the name of slum clearance and by 1965 it had been largely torn down. Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square are among the urban developments that now occupy the land where The Ward once stood.

Despite the poverty, discrimination and hard work that characterized life in The Ward for most of its residents, many of them have shared fond memories of this dynamic neighbourhood. In Block by Block, our youth researchers learned about immigrant experiences in the area by interviewing community members who grew up in the Ward, as well as their children. We also interviewed first and second-generation immigrant Canadians who worked or still work on the grounds where The Ward once stood. Interestingly, there are many commonalities between their stories and those of past residents. These are stories of community pride; strong relationships; struggles for inclusion and recognition; entrepreneurialism; and perseverance in the face of discrimination. We hope you’ll enjoy the glimpses into their stories that this exhibit has to offer. We also hope that you’ll participate in our ongoing conversation about newcomers and neighbourhoods by considering the questions we’ve posed in response to their reflections. How is the newcomer experience in your neighbourhood today similar to that of past residents of The Ward? How is it different? What can we do to better support newcomers in Canadian neighbourhoods?

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Intercultural Dynamics in the Ward

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“There were lots of families. The street was filled with Jews, Italians, Blacks, Chinese. Down at the bottom of Elizabeth, all around there.” –  The Honourable George E. Carter

“My dad grew up very poor, and yet he never talked about it as something that was negative or bad. He ended up living in The Ward his whole life. He grew up there, and then his dentist office was down there. So he was very comfortable in that place. There were a lot of different groups but everyone seemed to get along.” – David Ackerman

The Ward was a diverse neighbourhood. Our storytellers remember it as a place where people from different cultural backgrounds got along and worked together. They seem to suggest that this harmony was borne of both mutual necessity and daily interactions. How do you experience intercultural dynamics in your neighbourhood? What kinds of intercultural solidarity do you think are needed today?

Community Hubs in the Ward

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“That Mount Carmel Church group, it was a sports group, it was a social group. It seemed to be the real hub of all of their social activities. Later on, they were godparents to each others’ kids and in each others’ wedding parties. The people in those pictures, they’re all from the ‘hood.” – Joe, John, and Paul Piccininni

“We remember this area as a huge hub. The restaurants, the Chinese community, the hotel, the court, the bus station, the university club, the government office, the United States Embassy. They all were important places.” – The Hon. Jean Augustine

The Ward was home to a range of community hubs, created by different ethnic and religious groups. Not only did these sites host cultural activities and community gatherings, they played other important roles for marginalized newcomers. These were places where newcomers could find their first Canadian jobs, establish their own businesses, learn about new opportunities, and even fall in love. What happens to marginalized communities when such sites are demolished?

Integration and Identity

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“I was expecting to come to the big city and follow my dreams.” – Charmie Deller

“There’s a word my uncle told me in our language, meaning ‘principles’. He said there’s three contexts to it: land, spiritual, and people. He said those culminate in the core traditional values of what it means to be an Omushkego Cree … Those principles helped me when I transitioned here to not forget who I am.” – Michael Etherington

Moving to a new city or country can challenge you to develop stronger connections with the people, cultures, and knowledge you’ve left behind. It can also challenge you to pursue new avenues and experiences. What has kept you grounded as you have made your home in a new country or city?

Labour and Entrepreneurialism

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“At the time my life was very simple—go to the laundry, go downtown, and then go back to the laundry.” – Jim

“We’ve been here for twenty years. It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice. Now we just found out that the landlord sold the building, so I don’t know what is going to happen.”- Adhela Akoojee

Discrimination in the workforce led many Ward residents to run their own family businesses or work for each other. Their ingenuity and entrepreneurialism helped them establish themselves in Toronto. What opportunities and hardships do new immigrants face in the workforce today?

Civic Action

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“In 1965, the city had plans to demolish what would have been the rest of Chinatown. This time, the Chinese community fought back.” – Arlene Chan

“The purpose of the Black Educators Working Group was to lobby the provincial government for inclusive curriculum and anti-racism training for teachers. I met regularly with distinguished educators, principals, teachers for the Black community.” – Dr. Beverley Salmon

Political organizing can take many different forms, from formal governance to local neighbourhood committees. When The Ward’s Chinatown faced the threat of demolition, it was the community’s residents that banded together to resist these changes. Today, the area remains the site of protests and political lobbying and plays host to Toronto’s municipal government. How do you see yourself advocating for social justice in your community?

1. Toronto District School Board, 2016