- Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History by Bryan D. Palmer and Gaétan Héroux
Bryan D. Palmer and Gaétan Héroux
Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016
xvii + 523 pp., $34.95 (paper)
Toronto’s Poor is rooted in recent history. Since 1990, the Ontario Coalition against Poverty (OCAP) has waged an extraordinarily dynamic struggle against subordination, marginalization, and inequality in Toronto. Based in poor communities, it has from the outset chosen a path of militancy, seeking through “direct action casework” (312) to win concrete gains and demonstrating through collective action the systemic roots of poverty. The strategy has racked up victories on both counts: a study of OCAP estimated that it has won perhaps 90 percent of the welfare cases and 70 percent of the immigration and asylum cases it has pursued (314). And it has succeeded in keeping the city and provincial governments’ feet to the fire on a range of issues related to poverty. John Clarke, one of Canada’s premier antipoverty activists, declared at OCAP’s founding that forging a relationship with organized labor and forcing it to mobilize its membership in support of social movements was an important element of the coalition’s “fighting to win” ethos (316). His comments echo Bryan D. Palmer and Gaétan Héroux’s argument in Toronto’s Poor that unemployment—dispossession—is an integral element of capitalism and must be understood and confronted as such.
This is an engaged history; the authors have long been associated with the movement. Their goal is to write the history of Toronto’s dispossessed, putting the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, the destitute, and the marginalized at center stage. Their narrative focuses on three periods of particular challenge—and rebellion—in the history of capitalism in the city: initial industrialization, the Great Depression, and neoliberalism. These stand out because the poor were forced to mobilize and often did so with considerable impact. But the backdrop to their struggles is a picture of shameful continuity. Poverty is regularly recreated, and strategies for managing the poor in the interests of capital are reworked with a harsh and depressing consistency.
Starting with the making of the Toronto working class in the nineteenth century, the authors explore the rise of the capitalist labor market with an expansive understanding of class formation that defetishizes waged work. The processes of capitalism—the accumulation of wealth (with its partner, dispossession), competition, crises, the reorganization of production—all create precarity and wagelessness. Neither wages nor wagelessness define working-class life; rather, “it is bounded by both” (20). Effective and transformative working-class politics, Palmer and Héroux argue, requires understanding that poor peoples’ movements are labor movements. An injury to one is, after all, an injury to all; capitalist “progress” has not vanquished for working-class lives the threat, or the reality, of destitution.
For workers in nineteenth-century Toronto, this relationship was readily apparent. Few escaped times of extreme poverty as economic crises, wintertime unemployment, illness, or old age all took their toll. Life was a cycle of waged work and wagelessness. [End Page 139] As in other North American cities, the regulation of the poor was unforgiving and demonstrated the role of compulsion in an ostensibly free labor market. The cornerstones were the criminalization of the poor, incarceration (particularly in the House of Industry), and the “labour test” (49) designed to disqualify relief claimants, removing alternatives to even the most poorly paid and demeaning physical labor. Given that even skilled workers could easily become destitute, the conditions and treatment of the poor were pressing issues for all workers and their unions. Large, angry demonstrations demanding useful and remunerative work as well as the abolition of the labor test punctuated moments of particular distress. Developing some sense of direction and maintaining momentum, however, were challenging. But by the era of the First World War, the city’s socialists were increasingly providing both.
This process came to fruition during the crisis of the Great Depression as the Left, particularly but not only the communists, took up the struggle of the unemployed with particular fervor. At more than 150 pages...