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Toronto Islands

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The Globe, August 7, 1886

The Covid-19 encampments emerge out of a long history of urban informality and policing in Toronto. To appropriately situate them, returning to this history is crucial. While the pandemic itself was a unique conjuncture, people have lived in tent settlements since the earliest days of the city’s establishment, subsequent to even earlier Indigenous settlements in the area. An article in The Globe from August 7, 1886, describes ‘pleasure grounds’ comprised primarily of tents on the Toronto Islands. It notes, “the denizens of the Island live further – inland that is from the end of the Island. They are chiefly tents of duck and tents of canvas, tents with peak roofs and tents with flat roofs, tents striped and tents plain, tents with walls and tents without walls, tents in fact of every description and society”.

While these tents are described as luxurious and an association is made with Coney Island – signaling entertainment and amusement, in contrast with the Covid-19 encampments which were started out of necessity and in the middle of a deadly encampment, both were temporary, informal, and reliant on summer weather. Allison Evans in the (2022) article, “Tent encampments in Toronto, Canada: Excavating Northern housing informalities”, ties the creation of municipal bylaws on camping to the existence of the summer tent colony on Toronto Island. Evans helps us understand informality as characterized by self-built housing with no legal claim to the land its sits on, insecurity of tenure, a lack of basic services overcrowding, no formal planning, and household incomes well below the poverty line (p. 27). Evans observes that these bylaws emerged from regulations enacted by the municipal government in the early 1900s “to manage what were becoming unruly, disordered and violent conditions” (p. 34).

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Island Tent City in 1911.Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, item 166.

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Island Tent City on July 9, 1923.Toronto Archives Fonds 1266, item 1064.

Eventually, the Island itself would be subject to struggles with municipal force as residents who were descendants of the original Tent City inhabitants argued against their displacement. An article in The New York Times from February 6, 1985, by Douglas Martin, recounts the struggle, “for nearly three decades, government officials have been trying to evict the islanders in order to create more parkland for the 2.3 million people living in and around Toronto”. Evans notes that the islanders were ultimately successful, “in the Toronto Island tent city [...] residents had the social and political capital to force the City to formalize the space” (p. 38). Martin notes that the islanders on Ward Island, have been militant in resisting their displacement, and at a point had trained their children to lie down in front of lawmen. 

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The New York Times, February 6, 1985

Toronto Islands