Toronto's Poor: A Rebellious History by Bryan D. Palmer and Gaétan Héroux (review)
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Toronto's Poor: A Rebellious History. Bryan D. Palmer and Gaétan Héroux. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016. Pp. xvii + 523, $34.95 paper

In April 1989, thousands of activists gathered in Toronto's Queen's Park to protest economic conditions that had sent poverty, unemployment, hunger, and homelessness on the rise and to demand expanded social welfare provisions in response. The rally, which brought locals together with streams of trekkers from Ontario-wide hunger marches, was the largest the province had seen since the Great Depression and helped launch a new era of self-consciously militant organizing and anti-poverty coalition building. It was also part of a much longer, largely neglected history that is chronicled in this book: of poverty, protest, and, as Bryan Palmer and Gaetan Heroux tell it, of organized resistance to the dispossession wrought by capitalism's inexorable advance.

The collaboration behind Toronto's Poor is itself a product of this history, forged in the 1990s and early 2000s when Palmer, a historian of labour and the revolutionary left, and Héroux, a long-time anti-poverty activist, worked together in the direct action mobilizations organized by the Ontario Coalition against Poverty (ocap). The commitment to direct engagement extends to the book, which the authors mean as a contribution to present and future activism as well as to the historical canon. It also generates important theoretical insights, most notably a conceptualization of poverty that is grounded in Marxist theory and radical action and that encompasses a broader range of waged and non-waged working-class experience than is conventionally recognized in the academic literature. Poverty, as a state of deprivation produced by capitalist accumulation, stems from the processes of dispossession that strip all workers of control over their lives and labours, calling for movement leadership that "can harness the discontents of dispossession to the vehicle of class struggle" (20). [End Page 811]

In a narrative structured around historical episodes of capitalist crisis and working-class resistance, Palmer and Héroux highlight the role of left-led efforts to organize the wageless and unemployed, from late nineteenth-century protests against Toronto's infamous labour tests (requiring recipients to "crack the stone" as a condition of relief) to contemporary campaigns to protect the rights of the homeless and destitute against the encroachments of gentrification. The Great Depression figures prominently in this account, as a period of extreme working-class dispossession, Communist Party influence, and radical class struggle among the vastly swelled ranks of the unemployed. Palmer and Heroux devote an equally lengthy section to the mid-1970s through the present, as a similarly destabilizing period of serial crises, global economic restructuring, and neo-liberal austerity that has left a growing majority of waged and non-waged workers in a state of precarity and has witnessed the rise of ocap-style militancy in response. Drawing on local newspapers and organizational archives, the authors chronicle street-level politics in impressive detail, showing equal appreciation for the levels of need that are driving people to rebellion and the spirit of militant resistance animating their protests over time. Their close reporting brings out the variation and ingenuity in movement culture, as organizers rely on decidedly low-budget tools–occupation, public demonstration, anti-eviction blockades, among others–to bring visibility to their struggles. It also underscores the intensity of official resistance to poor people's demands, replete with recurrent discourses of undeservingness to justify policies of neglect, retrenchment, and denial.

What is less clear from this account is whether and how these rebellious actions have contributed to building solidarity across the varied "gradations" of working-class dispossession, as the authors suggest they have. For this, we need to know more about the less visible work–of social learning, education, coalition building–that has led people to find common cause across difference and to commit to collective struggle. This seems especially important in recent decades when, following decades of reform politics demanding "personal responsibility" from the poor, invidious distinctions between waged and "welfare dependent" people are more entrenched in policy and mainstream politics than ever before. The authors might also have done more to examine gender, race...


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