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Just a week after Allied soldiers stormed the Normandy beaches in June, 1944, a Toronto labour group grabbed headlines with a proposal that seemed to catch the updraft of optimism coming from the anticipated victory in Europe.
The Workers’ Education Association (WEA) announced it had developed plans for “ideal workingman’s home.” If replicated, the WEA said, it could ease the city’s housing crunch, which, the group predicted, would grow worse when Canadian soldiers began returning home. Incorporating architectural suggestions from across Canada, these sturdy one-and-a-half storey dwellings would be fitted with modern amenities meant to accommodate large families. The price: just $ 4,700.
The WEA had even secured a site on which to build a prototype — a 57-foot lot on O’Connor Dr., east of Broadview Ave. Its plan was to hold a lottery to raise funds to build the first one, with the owner of the winning ticket taking possession.
There was one wrinkle, however: when WEA officials purchased the property, they discovered an unwelcome surprise on the deed: a so-called “restrictive covenant” preventing the land from being sold to “Jews or persons of objectionable nationality.”
The WEA’s director, Drummond Wren, together with lawyers for the Canadian Jewish Congress, launched a court action to have the restriction struck down. When the case was finally heard, in May 1945, the owners of neighbouring properties were asked if they’d like to appear, but no one showed up to object.
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The case set in motion a crucial five-year period during which Canadian courts handed down a series of rulings that ultimately banned racially-motivated riders on land deals — a practice that traced back to suburban development in the early 20th century. But while those landmark decisions and the resulting legislative reforms did eliminate racially restrictive covenants and other discriminatory practices in the housing market, bigotry persisted for years in rental markets, recreation areas and private members clubs.
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According to McMaster University urban geographer Richard Harris, residential builders relied on a wide range of deed restrictions in order to create suburbs they could market to “exclusive” buyers. They included riders governing materials, minimum building values, minimum lot sizes, as well as lists of excluded buyers.
In some cases, the covenants precluded sales to Jews, Black people or “Asiatics.” With others, such as Westdale, an upscale Hamilton suburb near McMaster, the covenants also excluded nationalities such as Serbs, Austrians and Italians.
One 1949 covenant, a copy of which is kept at the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA), specified no buyers who were “wholly or partly negro” or anyone whose family had come to Canada from any region of continental Europe south of the 55-degree latitude and east of 15 degree within the past four generations.
Others, Harris noted in his 2004 history of Canadian suburbanization, Creeping Conformity, relied on unambiguous messaging: Lawrence Park marketed itself as “highly restricted.” The Kingsway was promoted under the slogan, “a little bit of England away from England.” “No one who failed to fit the image would have bothered, or perhaps dared, to apply,” Harris wrote.
With anti-Semitism surging in Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s, wrote historian Stephen Speisman, Jews found themselves banned not only from certain neighbourhoods but also clubs, resorts, dance halls and even the Toronto Islands.
However, by the time Wren challenged the restrictive covenant on that O’Connor lot, public (and legal) opinion appeared to have shifted.
Ontario Justice J. Keiller MacKay’s impassioned eight-page judgment, released on Oct. 31, 1945, decried the practice as “injurious to the public good” and said it was incumbent on society to “repel all fissiparous tendencies which will imperil national unity.” MacKay’s decision was also filled with references to international anti-discrimination treaties and quotes from statesmen including Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, decrying the suffering inflicted on Europe’s Jews.
Some editorialists agreed. “What race prejudice will do to a nation is plain to see in the fate of Germany,” the Globe and Mail opined two days after the ruling was handed down. The Toronto Star published the entire text of the judgment.
Despite what seemed like a full-throated condemnation, the legal dilemmas posed by racial restrictive covenants resurfaced just three years later in what was described in one account as a “bitterly contested” case involving a picturesque private cottage resort known as Beach O’ Pines, on Lake Huron near Sarnia, Ont.
The resort, established in the early 1930s, had unambiguous riders baked into its land title documents: “The lands shall never been sold, leased, rented or otherwise occupied or used in any manner by any person of the Jewish, Hebrew, Semitic, Negro or colored (sic) race or blood, it being the intention and purpose of the grantor to restrict the ownership, use, occupation and enjoyment of the said recreational development to persons of the white or Caucasian race.”
But in early 1948, one Beach O’ Pines owner, Annie Noble, decided to sell her lot to Bernard Wolf, of London, Ont. They applied to the courts to have the restrictions set aside, but were met with objections from other owners.
Unlike the Wren case, Ontario Court of Appeals Justice Walter Schroeder saw no legal or public policy reason for striking down a contractual agreement between private individuals seeking to “establish and maintain a place suitable for pleasant summer residence.” “There is nothing criminal or unusual involved; the public interest is in no way concerned,” his June 1949 ruling stated.
While the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith condemned Schroeder’s verdict as “shocking,” some observers, including editorialists who had lauded MacKay’s 1945 decision, this time supported Schroeder for his legal reasoning and his defence of the rights of individuals to associate with whomever they want.
Yet Ontario’s Progressive Conservative premier Leslie Frost decided not to let Schroeder’s decision stand. In March 1950, his government passed a law barring the practice. “There is no place in Ontario’s way of life for restrictive covenants,” Frost said. The opposition agreed and the bill passed unanimously.
Later that year, the Supreme Court of Canada settled the matter once and for all, overturning Schroeder’s decision and declaring restrictive covenants invalid. But unlike MacKay’s legal rhetoric in the Wren decision, the Beach O’ Pines case, known as Noble and Wolf v. Alley, turned on the fine points of property law, says retired University of Toronto law professor Arnold Weinrib. Restrictive covenants, he explains, have to do with the use of the land, not the users of the land. “You really do have to be a lawyer to understand what was said (in the decision) and why.”
Although the law was settled, the OJA’s anti-discrimination files contain numerous documents dated after 1950s about incidents of racial discrimination from landlords who didn’t want to rent to Jews or Blacks, or high end cottage resorts that marketed themselves exclusively to gentiles.
Rumours about the practices of some exclusive Toronto clubs circulated for many more years. As recently as 2004, references to the Rosedale Golf Club’s practice of blackballing some applicants, among them McDonald’s Canada founder George Cohon, surfaced in a wrongful dismissal suit (Cohon was eventually admitted and the policy officially discontinued).
The Beach O’ Pines resort, which still exists, has a lengthy history of the property on its website. But the document makes no mention of Nobel and Wolf v. Alley or its far-reaching significance in Canada’s neighbourhoods.
As for those workingman’s homes, there’s no evidence the WEA ever did manage to build one on that lot on O’Connor. Yet a version of it — the familiar green Monopoly bungalow — became enormously popular after the Second World War, built in dozens of new Toronto suburbs that were developed without restrictions.
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