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Don Valley

Don Valley was another notably attractive area for attracting informal settlements in Toronto. Environmental Historian Jennifer Bonnell’s work is particularly illuminative in this regard. In (2014) Reclaiming the Don she writes that amidst heightened levels of homelessness in Canadian cities during the first half of the 1900’s, “the Don became a receiving area for those who either could not or chose not to seek out other means of shelter” (p. 97). The global political and economic changes around the world of that time contributed to a huge influx of unemployed men in cities like Toronto – spurring the label of a ‘transient’ as opposed to the ‘resident unemployed’ who was deemed less deserving of city support (p. 98).

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Fonds 1548, Series 393, Item 15388-1; Roma camp showing woman cooking, tents and children by John Boyd Sr.

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Fonds 1548, Series 393, Item 15392; Roma camp showing a woman, children and dogs by John Boyd Sr.

Bonnell observes two groups of undesirables who took advantage of the absence of scrutiny that the Don Valley afforded: “Roma immigrants who camped in the valley in the 1910s and 1920s, and the unemployed men who formed a “hobo jungle” on the flats of the river in 1930 and 1931” (p. 98). The Roma in particular are identified by Bonnell to have been seeking refuge from authorities – they were vulnerable to imprisonment or ejection during confrontations with the local police – and so sought to carve a space for themselves at the edge of society (p. 99). Through newspaper articles, Bonnell documents how these Roma immigrants were ‘othered’ by neighboring residents who harassed the Roma camp residents, and complained to authorities about their ‘persistent begging (p. 103).

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Toronto Daily Star, December 2, 1930

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Toronto Daily Star, June 19, 1931

The Hobo Jungle’s visibility became more prominent as a result of great numbers of unemployed men in the 1930s taking refuge in the valley. One clipping above depicts how the men would sometimes sleep in warm bricks, being manufactured in the valley to stave off the chill from the winter months. Bonnell documents the label given to these men as ‘kiln-dwellers’ (p. 105). Unlike the Roma campers, the men were often framed – in part due to their own strident claims in editorials to newspapers – as ‘decent and respectable’ as opposed to transient trespassers. Bonnell earmarks a significance in ethnic differences and economic practices which produced a category of ‘resident’ in contrast to the ‘alien’. In the article clipping above, ‘Forty-Two Homeless Men Snoozed on Heated Bricks’, it is noted that the men are guests under the invitation of Franke E. Waterman, then general manager of Toronto Brick Co. who not only instructed his staff to allow the men to sleep in his brickyard but also “on several occasions stoutly resented the intrusion of policemen and plainclothesmen” (Toronto Daily Star, December 2, 1930, p. 2).

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April 25, 1932

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Toronto Daily Star, July 6, 1929

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The Globe and Mail, August 16, 1939

While Bonnell and newspaper clippings show some warm reception of these ‘hoboes’ during the 1930s, this did not mean that the unhoused were immune to arrests and policing. The articles whose clippings are included above reflect a journalist undertaking a series of investigative explorations of a residence run by the unhoused called a ‘hobo club’ after a police raid and in another a report of hoboes being arrested. Hoboes were also suspected of criminal behavior, with one mother fearing her child had been abducted by hoboes, an attitude that has not ceased with how the unhoused are captured in media today, and how they are policed. 

Don Valley