Lesson Plan: The Ward – from Slum to City Hall

Few Torontonians today know that the location of our current City Hall was once an overcrowded slum known as “The Ward.” In the early decades of the 20th Century,  the area bordered by College, Queen, Yonge, and University was Toronto’s worst slum, a landing pad for the poor immigrants who worked to build this city.

The district was a jumbled mix of  family homes, rooming houses, small businesses, and restaurants. The Eaton’s factory and annex was at the South-East end of The Ward and employed many of The Ward’s residents. Landlords took advantage of peoples’ desperation, and rents were higher than most of the inhabitants’ wages, forcing extended families to cohabit and take in boarders. Sometimes the Health Department would condemn a property, but because demand was so high and the Department didn’t have the resources to follow-up, the landlord would soon rent the space out again without bringing it up to standard.

In 1913, Toronto General Hospital razed part of The Ward to construct a large, new hospital.  At this time, according to a report by Charles Hastings, head of the Department of Helath, there were over 3,000 households in The Ward, most of which were occupied by 2-6 families.

The inhabitants of the ward in the early 20th Century were immigrants mainly from Italy and Eastern European countries. The largest group living in The Ward were European Jews who immigrated between 1890-19320.  By the mid-1930’s, The Ward had become Toronto’s first Chinatown.

1913: A gril stands on Elizabeth Street, view of Old City Hall in teh background

A View of Old City Hall from 21 Elizabeth Street, May 15, 1913 (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 187)

Lesson Plan Overview

I designed this lesson plan, for a Grade 10 Canadian History course, as an assignment for my OISE History class, around the critical question: Was living in the city worth it at this time?

In this lesson, students will discover what it was like to live in a Canadian city around the time of World War I. They will uncover the push and pull factors that brought various groups to Canadian cities, and the social and technological factors that allowed cities to sustain population growth during this period. Students will learn about “The Ward,” a notorious Toronto slum, through an examination of primary and secondary sources. Finally, by looking at Canadian urban life from different perspectives, students will judge whether the benefits of living in Canadian cities outweighed the challenges.

The complete lesson plan and a slideshow of primary documents (photographs, newspaper articles and other ephemera) are available as PDF’s for download here:  Growth of Canadian CitiesGrowth of Canadian Cities – Primary Documents.

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