“Here we are in the oldest part of Toronto,” says Maureen Hynes. It’s a sunny Sunday morning, and the Toronto labour expert is standing in the shade of a stunning historic three-story building at 157 King St. E. “This is St. Lawrence Hall, built in 1850,” explains Hynes. “It was a starting point for many demonstrations and — I have to say it — riots.”
Unlike those who once convened here to protest injustice so many years ago, the 70 or so people assembled in this spot today aren’t here to agitate. They’ve gathered to take the Labour History Walking Tour of Toronto’s historic “Old Town,” and learn about a time when uprisings, public hangings and massive demonstrations were once commonplace.
The historic stroll is a part of the Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts, a celebration of working class culture that continues until May 13. It’s organized in conjunction with the George Brown School of Labour and Jane’s Walks, a series of neighbourhood walking tours named in honour of urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs.
We stroll down King Street East past a number of plaques commemorating the newspapers that were once headquartered there. “Here’s the Daily Leader,” says Sue Smith, one of the walk’s three leaders. “It was at this paper that workers won the right to a 56 hour work week. And today we think 40 hours is a lot!”
At the park next to the Cathedral Church of St. James, the group stops to reflect on a more recent chapter in our city’s labour battles. “This is where protesters slept in tents for 40 nights as part of the Occupy movement, fighting for the rights of us, the 99 per cent,” says Hynes.
The walk highlights many pivotal moments in the city’s tumultuous labour history. We learn that in 1872, 10,000 Torontonians — one sixth of the city’s population at that time — marched in support of the Nine-Hour Movement, which advocated for a nine-hour work day.
“We’ve come a long way since then,” says walk co-leader J.P. Hornick, but quickly cautions the crowd that there are still many workers’ rights that have yet to be won.
“Right now one in five Canadians works more than 60 hours a week,” says Hornick. “We’re still fighting.”
For more on Mayworks, visit www.mayworks.ca.
On a personal note, this will be my last Urban Compass column for Metro Toronto. It’s been a pleasure sharing my explorations of the city with you each week. You can continue to follow my investigations of the urban landscape in magazines and newspapers across Canada at www.liagrainger.com.