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John Gilinsky

A Great Depression Remembrance of Soldier and postwar Veterans Housing

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John Gilinsky

The following letter to the editor of the Toronto daily newspaper "The Globe" (later in 1930's merging with the Toronto Mail to become "The Globe and Mail") was published by a Canadian officer responsible for the medical services in the large Canadian Expeditionary Force camp that were quickly established right from the start in August 1914 on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. As the Great Depression took firm hold many men "rode the rods" that is hoboed around via the railways looking for work generating major headaches for the bulk of the Canadian population who lived in villages, modest sized towns and rurally. Such smaller sized population centers suffered from the same conditions as these transients and were frequently none too welcoming to strangers seeking support from already depleted meagre local resources. However the letter writer uses his experiences during both the World War and the immediate aftermath in housing soldiers and veterans in Toronto to remind readers of the real practical value in reusing the war time emergency for the peace time emergency due to the depression. What is most poignant is his humanity in making specific suggestions based in fair measure on his direct local WWI experiences and his basic humanity in respecting and according dignity to these men both veteran and non-veteran. I submit this on the eve of the Canadian Remembrance Day 2015 to show how the war combined with the Great Depression harmed veterans and their societies overall.

Marlow, F. W. (Toronto) "Housing The Destitute" in "The Globe" September 21, 1931 page 4 (Letters to the Editor)

"To the Editor of The Globe: "Let us then be up and doing."

Having read and heard so much about the urgent need for humanity toward men, and noting the apparent absence of concentrated effort or a definite plan to meet a most serious situation, the writer is impelled to submit suggestions which are not devoid of some merit.

During the Great War - which, alas, was the starting point of our present economic troubles - the [ Canadian National ] Exhibition buildings for eight months each year afforded excellent quarters for soldiers in training in the military district [ Military District No. 2 ] with headquarters in Toronto. Two-tier wooden bunks were quickly erected, creosoted and furnished with palliasses and blankets. Heating and extra sanitary accommodation were provided. Quartermaster's stores were established and kitchens and messing rooms were arranged. Never before nor since have those splendid buildings of the world's greatest annual exhibition been used for a better purpose or to so great advantage. When there was a need of winter quarters their transformation into barracks was expeditiously and economically accomplished. All officers and men quartered there recall with some pride Exhibition Camp, Toronto. Indeed, it is a matter for some surprise that tablets have not been erected there to indicate to the millions who visit Exhibition Park something of what it contributed during the war.

Buildings Available

Since then several new buildings have been added. Among these are the Ontario Government Building, the Automotive Building and the Horse Palace, the last mentioned built in this year of depression, 1931, at a cost of a million dollars to house horses for a few weeks each year.

Horses and other animals that are unhoused, unfed and uncared for are objects for activity on the part of that admirable body, the Toronto Humane Society, who urge that all cases of animal distress be reported to them. The most urgent need of today is a Toronto Human Society for concentrated effort to see that no human with the city's limits need go unhoused, unfed and neglected. To carry on the work of such segregation is desirable; and where could humans lacking life's necessities be better or more economically provided for than in one or more of the Exhibition buildings? Where could a location be found to equal that of the Automotive Building, beside the Princess Gates, and with the street railway near by, [ i.e. Toronto Transit Commission streetcars ] or an older building near the Dufferin Street gates?

While the furnishing of such quarters for humans and arrangements for their sustenance would have to be undertaken by the city, it is not only conceivable, but more than likely, that, with the establishment of such a creditable relief centre, voluntary contributions in money, clothing, food, reading matter and various other necessities would pour in freely. People with means do not hesitate to give when they know where to give and when and how their gifts will be useful. Innumerable opportunities would be afforded to many anxious to help. As the residents would be men of almost every occupation, the numerous services required to carry on could be almost entirely organized from their ranks. Each would be required to do his share of keeping the house in order. Simple rules for discipline and duties should be observed, but officialdom should be maintained at a minimum. The objective should be a home, and not an institution.

A Plan Outlined.

Necessary medical and sanitary services could readily be provided by the city's Health Department. Recreation and exercise could be arranged, also entertainment and instruction along various lines. The dwellers would necessarily be registered, and an employment bureau would be established for individual or collective employment. men provided with work form such a home should contribute to its maintenance, so long as they live there. Small individual jobs in the city's homes will provide work more frequently when registered men form a civic relief centre are available. It is certain that many small jobs remain undone, and the house-to-house job hunter is turned away because those at home, generally the women, naturally hesitate to admit a man whose identity is not vouched for, and whose intentions may be a matter for conjecture. For extra civic work, such as snow-shovelling, men would be immediately available and in this an[d] many other ways cost of relief would be reduced.

The establishment of such a home at the present time need not create a precedent, but if in other years there arises the same necessity the plan, once having been tried, will no doubt commend itself.

The writer was director of the medical services in this military district during the war, with winter headquarters at Exhibition Camp, and hence is not unfamiliar with the adequacy of the Exhibition buildings for housing men from October to May. Having also had much to plan and arrange for the reception and care of returned soldiers, he is well informed as to the effective work that can be performed by a strong voluntary aid committee when co-operating with an official organization, and would suggest the selection and naming of such to give aid to the civic authorities.

Many to Be Assisted.

Think of it: Six hundred men, war veterans many of them, squatting on the Don Flats [ i.e. the site in part of the 2015 PamAm Games held in Toronto ], existing but scarcely living, and hundreds more who have not come out into the open, though having little more than a sheltering roof in crowded, insanitary surroundings, and winter coming.

From reports it appears that the Don dwellers are orderly and unusually sanitary. They are not of the mob, but are men, human beings, not seeking charity, but work. Let them be removed from their soon uninhabitable quarters and establish a home for them and others in like position; and with very little help - and help must inevitably be forthcoming - they will once again live and hope and work and smile and realize the joy of something accomplished."

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