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Reviewed by:
  • Toronto's Poor: A Rebellious History by Bryan D. Palmer and Gaétan Héroux
  • Todd McCallum
Bryan D. Palmer and Gaétan Héroux, Toronto's Poor: A Rebellious History (Toronto: Between the Lines 2016)

With an impressive set of blurbs, a foreword from Frances Fox Piven, and an advertising campaign from activists like John Clarke, Toronto's Poor will have deservedly won a wide audience before this review makes it to print. A lengthy tome, it is structured around two case studies, Communist-organized protest during the Great Depression and the mobilizations of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (ocap) beginning in the 1980s, with shorter sections detailing the intervening years and the pre-1930 period. Toronto's Poor charts organizations involved in two different but interrelated struggles: a battle for greater amounts and different types of municipal relief and provincial welfare programs, and a challenge to capitalist property and power extending well beyond national limits.

Héroux and Palmer stress three arguments throughout. First, they emphatically direct our attention to capitalism's crisis tendencies, effectively recasting the question of why the poor are always with us. "The working class has no security that capitalism is bound to acknowledge, let alone preserve," they claim, situating these struggles in the long line of boom and bust cycles. (7) Second, using the concept of dispossession, Héroux and Palmer argue that our historical vision of this working class too often focuses exclusively on the securely employed and those dependent on their wages. But in its dialectic of creation and destruction, capitalism needs, and makes, both proletarians and potential proletarians. Drawing from a range of arguments, the authors persuasively expand the concept of dispossession. This involves both a more complicated sense of chronological process – dispossession is both "original" and ongoing – and a wider understanding of the conditions necessary to life with and without a wage. Finally, the authors emphasize the role of leadership in these movements, interpreting Communists and ocap activists in the context of the dynamic between radical leadership and "the agency and initiative of the dispossessed themselves." (6)

As a historian of the 1930s, I am impressed with this book's account of Depression-era urban organizing campaigns. Unlike most studies of relief programs, which focus on either single men or families, Toronto's Poor gives both full consideration while also devoting space to single women denied these forms of provision. That said, I found the section devoted to ocap most compelling, especially in its portrayal of the challenges of Direct Action Casework, designed to produce tangible gains that represented "something different than securing social work-like incremental improvements in the lives of the dispossessed." (312)

Because I agree with James Struthers's assessment that Toronto's Poor will become "the starting point for teaching and writing about the history of anti-poverty mobilization for years to come," I want to highlight issues I expect will figure in future evaluations. Because this book is about Toronto, I fear these movements will become national models, lesser versions of which dotted the Canadian landscape. It's my sense that Toronto is better grasped as home to a unique conjuncture of forces. Nowhere else did poor people's movements face a more international aggregation of capital. To borrow from Utah Phillips' "The Two Bums," it took the labour of dozens of people in dozens of countries to furnish Toronto's elite with a meal, and some of the profits generated locally from the exploitation of Toronto workers went to folks who never set foot in the city. And nowhere in Canada were poor people's movements represented as extensively via communications media, [End Page 310] including those they controlled. In most urban centres, unemployed organizing campaigns did not often generate the spectacular dimension apparent in Toronto, and I expect historians will accord this fact more significance than have past generations of scholars. These Communist- and ocap-organized campaigns posed a challenge both programmatic and tactical; both groups were usually condemned for their chosen forms of politics, whether the Communist free speech campaigns or ocap's squatting and demonstrations at the homes of politicians. And nowhere else did 1930s unemployed movements...


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pp. 310-311
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