Canada: The Story of Us

How shocking photos transformed Toronto's poorest neighbourhood

'The Ward' was filled with poverty and disease. How a doctor and a photographer worked together to ignite change.

'The Ward' was filled with poverty and disease. How a doctor and a photographer worked together for change.

Slum Exterior. (Arthur Goss. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 315.)

In the early 1900s, immigrants from China, Italy and Eastern Europe arrive in Toronto en masse. 

They're looking for a better life in Canada and they need an affordable place to live. St. John's Ward (nicknamed "the Ward"), a 0.5 km² slum in the middle of the city, becomes a popular spot where many immigrants settle. 

The Ward is packed with thousands of people. Deadly diseases like diphtheria and typhoid are rampant — they spread through close contact, tainted water and unpasteurized milk.

Fanny Kombloom, 6 Baldwin Street, March 1916. (Arthur Goss. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 434.)
Price's Lane, August 27th, 1914. (Arthur Goss. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 320.)

Most of the Ward's residents have no indoor plumbing and no toilets. Sanitation standards and public health regulations don't exist.

18 William Street, August 28, 1914. (Arthur Goss. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 326.)

Dr. Charles Hastings, the city's Medical Officer of Health, sees the need for standardized health regulations. He knows Toronto requires safe running water and a proper sewage system to keep its citizens healthy.

142 Agnes Street, November 26, 1913. (Arthur Goss. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 259. )

The problem? Toronto's changemakers, the middle and upper classes, turn a blind eye to the Ward's abysmal living conditions.

Slum Interior. (Arthur Goss. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 253.)

Hastings needs to make the problem stand out — so it can no longer be ignored. He tasks the city's official photographer, Arthur Goss, with gathering photographic evidence of the suffering in the Ward.

Slum Interior Occupied, August 27, 1914. (Arthur Goss. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 254.)

Hastings shows the photos at exhibitions across Toronto, shocking the middle and upper classes. They can't look away any longer. Living conditions in the Ward become one of City Hall's top concerns.

Thanks to Hastings' and Goss' work, diphtheria infections and typhoid fever rates plummet, Toronto becomes the first Canadian city to require pasteurization of milk and the city sets the standard for nation-wide public health regulations.

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