Racism, Past: Toronto's Bygone By-Laws

By Chantal Braganza

This piece began with a simple premise and kind-of crude headline: A History of Racist Bylaws in Toronto. It presumed the existence of such bylaws, that there were enough of them to constitute a history (possibly a timeline—how readable!) and that they were as easy to find as a sushi shop on Bloor.

Surprise: it’s really not that simple. Happily (with one major exception) Toronto doesn’t have a history of enacting obviously prejudiced municipal rules. What we do have is a habit of going through municipal proceedings without considering all the different types of people who live here, who might not have certain Anglo-Saxon values or whose community-specific practices might be considered “undesirable” (whatever that means).

So forget the timeline. Here’s a look at what happens when the law gets in the way of a community who wants to do things differently.

Laundry Drama

The Wah Chong Laundry, Vancouver, 1884. Courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives and Civilization.ca

The Wah Chong Laundry, Vancouver, 1884. Courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives and Civilization.ca

The oldest example of these bylaws is the most straight-up racist.

In a 1984 issue of Polyphony, Lee Wai-Man looks into the history of Toronto laundries, which he calls “one of the pioneering businesses for the early Chinese immigrants in Canada.” After the completion of the Canada Pacific Railway, Chinese-run laundries proliferated across Canada, and in Toronto: in 1893 there were 24 Chinese-run laundries in the city; by 1901, there were 96. Wai-Man credits two people as Toronto’s first Chinese entrepreneurs: Sam Ching and Wo Kee, who opened up laundry shops on Adelaide and Yonge in the late 1870s.

Workers at these places made far less money than their white counterparts and the establishments were considered gritty, property-value bombs. In 1907, at the goading of the local Laundry Association, the City of Toronto passed a licensing and regulation bylaw for laundries as a financial barrier to new Chinese entrepreneurs. According to the Toronto Archives, the licence fee began at $50 but was eventually haggled down. Other cities across Canada also adopted similar laundry bylaws.

In 1914, anti-Chinese-racism-disguised-as-business-practice got bizarre, when Ontario made it illegal for a Chinese person (at the time, that meant a man) to employ a white female in a factory, restaurant or laundry. This wasn’t repealed until 1947.

“Remarkably,” writes Wai-Man, “the Chinese laundry business in Toronto kept growing apace between 1900 and 1925 in the face of restrictions and bigotry.” By 1921, shortly before the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act 1923, the number of Chinese laundries in the city had almost quadrupled. Take that, Toronto.

Lawn Drama

Mariana Valverde, a professor of Criminology at the University of Toronto, studies the effect of city government on diverse communities. The problem, she says, is that municipalities try to morph cultural norms into criminal laws.

Her favourite example is front yards, or at least what the City of Toronto says a properfront yard is: neat, and comprised of any combination of grass, trees, shrubs or flowers, with the odd paved path or architectural feature. They closely follow the model of an over 300-year-old standard that was born in Britain.

Toronto has long tried to uses bylaws to make lawn-scapers adhere to that British standard, but often loses. A longtime immigrant practice, front-yard vegetable gardens have been legal since 2011. “The criminal law just can’t do that,” says Valverde. “It can ban certain things, but it can’t force anybody to follow a particular set of cultural norms.”

Mosque Drama

Muslims don’t need mosques, write Engin F. Isin and Myer Siemiatycki in Race, Space and the Law. “For Muslims, the mosque is any place where Muslims pray—a restaurant, a gathering place, or a home can become a place of worship.” The concept of the mosque is moveable; an action, rather than a legally defined space.

But, as Isin and Siemiatycki point out, large, street-visible places of worship are a way of creating community identity in an environment that’s often befuddled by (and sometimes outright hostile to) their presence. So Toronto’s Muslims still ask for zoning variances to convert industrial spaces bought on the cheap. They seek permission for mosque-specific features, like entrances that face Mecca, or minarets.

The Committee of Adjustment is a good place for cultural norms to come up racist. So, for example, “preserving the character of the residential neighbourhood” seemed like a legitimate reason for Mississauga residents to oppose a new mosque in 1996, when the Canadian Islamic Trust Foundation made a zoning application to do so on an QEW site.  The City of Mississauga rejected the application because the area was deemed a “prestige industrial site” in the city, despite the fact that a school, church and retail outlets already existed in the area.

Around the same time, East York Council was in the midst of 18 months of hand-wringing over the number of parking spots at a new mosque converted from a factory by the Islamic Society of Toronto.  The year before, North York Council had rejected a grandfathering application by the two-year-old Talim-Ul-Islam Mosque, partially because of parking concerns, partially because of resident complaints, and partially because three other churches and a Sikh temple were already in the area.

All three mosques were eventually approved (CITF and Talim-Ul-Islam had to take their cases to the OMB). “In the case of building a mosque, there’s good reason to think that it’s not such a great idea to be put in a position to consistently have to ask your neighbours if you can do something,” says Mariana Valverde. It’s not so much that the law is rooted in prejudice—the resistance is an unintended consequence.

Chicken Drama

Until 1983, keeping chickens was totally fine in Toronto (also OK: goats, pigs and rabbits). As Simon Wallace recounted for the Toronto Standard  the city was something of an agricultural utopia until chicken cooping became a practice identifiable with “ethnic” communities in the ’70s and ’80s—the word “ethnic” being “code,” Wallace writes, “for Kensington Market and, in particular, its new Portuguese residents:"

Where else could you buy a live chicken and have it killed and butchered right in front of you? Stacks of poultry cages, packed with live birds, lined the streets; vendors bartered and families went home with chickens strung over their shoulders. The smell was ghastly, the sidewalks were coated in chicken shit, but it had its own nostalgic old world charm and honesty (no sanitized food here).

The Kensington BIA came out in favour of chicken farmers, but lost the ensuing municipal battle. Despite a tireless and much-covered resurgence in urban chicken activism in the past few years, renegade coopers haven’t been able to get it re-legalized since.