J. S. Woodsworth

His opponents in Ottawa described him as "a political saint." Years earlier, the starving immigrants of Winnipeg's North End saw in him a friend who helped to relieve some of their suffering. The railroads and politicians denounced him as a rebellious socialist, a threat to their establishment. At no time, however, could anyone undermine his integrity and determination to make Canada a better place for all.

James Shaver Woodsworth was born in 1874 at Applewood, the family farm near the village of Islington, Ontario. His father, a Methodist clergyman, moved the family to Winnipeg when James was eight. In time, James also entered the ministry. It was during his studies at Oxford that he became aware of the ways of the world. Next to the grandeur of Victorian society he came face to face with the misery in the slums of London. The division between wealth and poverty was also waiting for him when he returned to Winnipeg.

The North End had become the "dumping ground" for immigrants who could not afford the exorbitant price of prairie land, which was by this time under-the control of the railroads and a few enterprising politicians. Woodsworth gave up his comfortable position at Grace Methodist Church and moved his family into Mission House in the North End. He was determined that Winnipeg would not become another London. He not only fed the poor, but he also taught them English so that they might cope and survive in their new land of hope. This was the true beginning of a lifelong battle for Woodsworth. He was now out of the pulpit and among the people. His writings indicate the course of his life was to make 'the welfare of one….the concern of all. In the city, for good or ill, we are all members of one or another kind. Vested interests and property rights must give way before the rights of men and the welfare of society."

During his travels through the west, Woodsworth found himself in Gibson's Landing on the Pacific coast. It was here that he managed to work a small miracle. The town was divided into two sectors because of ethnic differences. As the clergyman for the "coast" people, he bought his supplies for the co-op store run by the "hill" people. The town was soon united.

With the coming of World War One, he moved his family again, this time to Vancouver, where he worked as a longshoreman. When the war ended, many of his fellow workers were laid off. The situation was the same right across the country; but in those days there was no such thing as unemployment insurance or welfare.

It was on his way back to Winnipeg in 1919 that he heard of the General Strike. In order to break the strike and disorganize labour's attempts to unionize, the government slipped in two pieces of legislation: a participant in the strike could be jailed, and if a striker was not a Canadian citizen, he or she was subject to immediate deportation. Woodsworth spoke to the strikers and condemned this undemocratic use of democracy. He was charged with seditious libel, but before he came to trial all charges were dropped. It was soon his turn to give the labourers of Winnipeg a chance to exercise their democratic rights. In the federal election of 1922, Woodsworth was elected to the House of Commons with an overwhelming majority.

Woodsworth allied himself with a small group of MP's known as the "Progressives." From the beginning he spoke out for what were unpopular issues. He fought every form of discrimination as he called for economic justice, denounced needless poverty, and alerted the government to the need for "national insurance" for relief against unemployment and its miseries. The Progressives, unfortunately, were only a loose knit group. Woodsworth saw the need for a united party, a political movement to achieve common social objectives. In the winter of 1932, after many meetings of "cooperative groups, " the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was founded, with Woodsworth as party leader.

During his tenure as a MP, Woodsworth was one of the few parliamentarians in this country to have a private members bill passed into law. His bill allows unions to strike without fear of job dismissal.

Woodsworth helped create Canada's social-security system. In 1926, Woodsworth realized his lifelong ambition when he and fellow Labour Party MP A.A. Heaps guaranteed Prime Minister Mackenzie King a coalition government in return for Mackenzie King's creation of Canada's Old-Age Pension plan. The following year, the plan was introduced and became the cornerstone of Canada's social-security system.

Until his death in 1942, Woodsworth continued his battle for social reform. It was his belief that we should never import socialism, but rather develop our own system. "if you are going to have socialism, have Canadian socialism…it should be indigenous to our needs here."

It is difficult to do justice to Woodsworth in this short space. As members of the Woodsworth Cooperative, we can be proud to carry on the work of our namesake. In fact, we have the opportunity to make J. S. Woodsworth's ideals become a reality. We will all have a role to play to make sure that the spirit of Woodsworth thrives in a community of cooperation.

A few parting words from Woodsworth's book "My Neighbour" might be in order to remind us of this man who would not tolerate injustice: "Someone is responsible! Every unjustly treated man, every defenceless woman, every neglected child has a neighbour somewhere. Am I that neighbour?"

By Peter Bernauer

Peter was a member of Woodsworth for over ten years. This article was reprinted form an early issue of the 'Woodsworth Monthly'.

About Woodsworth Co-op

Woodsworth Co-op has a mix of housing units. There is an eight story mid rise apartment building on Wilton Street with 122 units. The top floor (9th) houses commonspace – a large multi-purpose room and one of our two laundryrooms. Some units have direct street access from Wilton Street. The medium rise building has distinctive half-moon windows on alternate storeys. Two bedroom apartments in the mid-rise all have stairs into the units since they utilize the space over the common hallways for the second bedroom.

There are 72 townhouses on George Street South (east side), Albert Franck Place and Frederick Street (west side). The townhouses include stacked and “mews” units (garage on the ground floor). Unit sizes range from 1 – 4 bedrooms.

We are a federally funded not-for-profit co-op, developed by the Co-op Housing Federation of Toronto (CHFT). Our community is a mix of rent-geared-to-income and market-rent members. The co-op has a wide variety of committees and a weekly newsletter.  General members’ meetings are typically held five times a year.

Co-op History

Woodsworth was incorporated on November 8th, 1976 and members moved into the co-op in the autumn of 1979.  The project was sponsored by the Co-op Housing Federation of Toronto and the architectural firm was Sillaste & Nakashima.

The St. Lawrence Project

The St. Lawrence Housing Development Project was born during the early 1970s, somewhere in the offices of the City of Toronto’s planning and housing departments.

Housing was viewed as such an important priority that a department had been formed to foster housing development. In the preceding years, Toronto’s Housing Department had produced some noteworthy projects, but nothing large enough to really catch the public’s attention or to make a significant dent in the housing problem. This time the planners were asked to search for possible sites for a major housing project. From the several sites proposed they chose a 44-acre urban area south of St. Lawrence Hall and adjacent to the historic old St. Lawrence Market. The area was once known as the Old Town of York and was for a while the bustling core of the new city of Toronto. After the Great Fire of 1849, however, it never regained its former status. Through the subsequent decades it remained a nondescript and cluttered area of small factories, warehouses, trucks and boxcars adjacent to the railway yards.

Not far to the north of this area was a housing development known as Regent Park, a project which stood as a glaring reminder, to the politicians and the planners, on how not to plan and redevelop a housing site. In between Regent Park and St. Lawrence was Trefan Court another redevelopment project with many lessons for the politicians and planners.

The St. Lawrence site had many advantages. There was no housing which might have to be knocked down and no community to argue and/or consult with. The only inhabitants were transients who found it convenient to downtown, the railway and several agencies that specialized in the care of impoverished, homeless people.

The absence of a community was seen as a disadvantage by many, including politicians and planners. Therefore, in 1975, a St. Lawrence Working Committee was formed, comprising representatives from Regent Park, the Don Area, Cabbagetown, the Bain Avenue Coop and the local industrialists.

The concept of the new St. Lawrence Neighbourhood called for retaining many of the historic buildings and using the rest of the area for building moderate and low-cost housing, schools, stores, health care and recreation facilities for about 10,000 people.

The Co-op housing movement in Toronto

Just as St. Lawrence was seen as an opportunity to achieve some significant achievements by the housing and planning departments, the Co-op movement in Toronto saw it as an opportunity for major advancements in the role of co-ops in housing. Prior to this time, most^housing cooperatives were based on the renovation of existing developments. They were created often after considerable political and financial struggles.

The St. Lawrence co-ops were developed by several independent co-op groups, but Woodsworth was developed by the Cooperative Housing Federation of Toronto — the granddaddy of all of the development groups — after a group of men and women met and decided to build a housing co-op as an integral part of the new neighbourhood.

Their vision was to build a model downtown residential housing complex that would include cooperative-minded people from all walls of life, different lifestyles and occupations, varied racial and ethnic origins, all age groups, single and married, with and without children, with different levels of income, as well as a set number of men and women who required government assistance.

Agreement was finally reached on a housing complex that consisted of an eight-story building with 123 apartment units and 70 two-and three-story townhouses, for a total of 194 housing units. The new co-op was incorporated, construction extended over 30 months, and by the summer of 1979 was ready for occupancy.

The founding members decided to name the new co-op after the Rev. James Shaver Woodsworth, the renowned Canadian religious leader, pacifist, social worker and politician. Mr. Woodsworth spent his entire adult life fighting against poverty, injustice and every form of discrimination, and was a persevering advocate of democratic-socialism. He was the first leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the predecessor of the New Democratic Party.

In a way, the Woodsworth Co-op represented the flagship project for many of the pioneers of cooperative housing development in Toronto.

It is hard to quantify or make specific the benefits the current residents may have gained from that “favourite son” status. Compared to other co-ops in the community. Woodsworth seems to have good design, good location, a good community , a good size and good construction without extraordinarily high housing charges. In any case the physicians were willing to take their own medicine because many of these same pioneers moved into Woodsworth and are still residents.

Development Board

Woodsworth also benefited from an excellent development Board. That was the group of people who volunteered their time to act as an interim Board of Directors until the first resident board was elected. Most of them spent approximately two years on the Board. They helped to interview the original membership committee which then went on to interview everyone else. They were also party to the design of the co-op and the president, Dr. Hooker, frequently reviewed the construction to ensure that it was on budget. It so happened that his profession was construction quantity surveying so he was able to make better sense of all of that than almost anyone else.

First Membership Committee

Most of the original members found out about Woodsworth and about co-ops from the information sessions put on by the CHFT and the development board. After these meetings some of the prospective members were interviewed by the Development Board and by CHFT staff. These first members formed the original membership committee which then began the long and time-consuming task of interviewing every other person who was at the subsequent information sessions. Eventually, membership was offered to enough households so that the 194 units would be filled.

Pre-move and Move-in

Many of the original pre move-in General meetings were held at Innis College and the OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) building. From those meetings Woodsworth members and residents-to-be formed several committees, including a “shadow” Board which sat in on the development board to see what was going on and how things were done from the fall of 1978.

The original move-in was highlighted by great excitement, mud, a hike to Queen Street to get milk but a short hop to Market Street to get a bottle of rare wine), nothing natural (not even insects), and lots of rain!

Source: Woodsworth’s member handbook, 1991