Walking tour puts theatrical twist on history of one of Toronto's first immigrant neighbourhoods

The 'Women of The Ward' walking tour sheds light on the history of Toronto's first immigrant neighbourhood.

'The Ward helps explain why Toronto has become the city it has become today,' says tour leader

The 'Women of The Ward' walking tour featured four local actors playing women with connections to Toronto's first immigrant neighbourhood. From left to right: Coleen MacPherson as Elizabeth Neufeld, Meghan Swaby as Cecelia Reynolds, Ali Joy Richardson as Anne Whelan, and Marjorie Chan as Jean Lumb. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

When archaeologists from Infrastructure Ontario undertook a year-long excavation at Dundas Street and University Avenue starting in 2015, they uncovered thousands of artifacts that shed light on the history of one of Toronto's first major immigrant enclaves.

This weekend, some of that history was brought to life in the form of a walking tour — with a theatrical twist.

Dubbed "Women of The Ward," the tour featured four local actors dressed in period costumes playing women who lived or worked in St. John's Ward, colloquially known at The Ward, a historical neighbourhood in central Toronto bounded by College Street to the north, Yonge Street to the east, Queen Street to the south and University Avenue to the west.

Today, it's known simply as Downtown, but throughout the 1800s and into the mid-20th century, it's where thousands of Chinese, Irish, Jewish, African and other immigrants to Toronto settled because it offered affordable housing, community and economic opportunities.

The Ward as seen from the roof of one of the T. Eaton Co. Ltd. factories, looking southwest. Osgoode Hall is visible at the top right. Most of the houses and other buildings in this photograph were demolished to allow for the construction of Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. (City of Toronto Archives)

"The Ward helps explain why Toronto has become the city it has become today," said John Lorinc, an urban affairs journalist who led the tour.

"It was the first area where people of different races and ethnicities that were very alien to the United Kingdom had to live together and they sort of had to figure it out."

Lorinc co-edited two books based on the excavation, which formed the basis for the tour's content.

Coleen MacPherson leads the 'Women of The Ward' walking tour along Bay Street towards Nathan Phillips Square. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

The actors performed monologues in character as four women with connections to the area: Jean Lumb, the first Chinese-Canadian to be awarded the Order of Canada; Cecelia Reynolds, an African-American slave who escaped from her captors on a trip to Niagara Falls and settled in Toronto; Anne Whelan, an Irish immigrant who became a bootlegger to support her family; and Elizabeth Neufeld, a Jewish American social worker who established Toronto's first settlement agency, Central Neighbourhood House.

Lorinc said the stories show a different side of the neighbourhood, which was maligned as a slum at the time.

"The depiction of the ward in the media and political discourse was about filth and crime and moral degeneration," said Lorinc, who tried to uncover some of the more positive stories when writing the book.

"The Ward was not just a place of abject misery, it was a place with a lot of cultural texture to it and entrepreneurial activity ... It was a really vibrant area."

Ali Joy Richardson delivers a monologue in character as Annie Whelan, an Irish immigrant and bootlegger who lived in The Ward. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

The tour stopped at five places with historical significance, including where Reynolds's house stood at Centre Avenue and Armoury Street; the original site of Central Neighbourhood House, where a coffee shop now stands; and Nathan Phillips Square, which was the heart of the city's original Chinatown neighbourhood.

Virtually no trace of the original neighbourhood exists. Most of it was razed to make way for office towers, hospitals and commercial buildings such as Sick Kids Hospital, Toronto General and the New City Hall.

'It was really touching'

Several dozen people attended Sunday's walk, eager to learn more about the lesser-known history of Toronto's downtown core.

One of those in attendance was Janet Lumb, the daughter of Jean Lumb, who was featured in the performance. Lumb was brought to tears by the performance.

"It provoked a lot of emotion for me," said Lumb. "It was really touching."

Lumb's mother owned a Chinese restaurant named Kwong Chow with her husband, Doyle, and was active in helping to change immigration laws that discriminated against Chinese-Canadians.

Marjorie Chan, in character as Jean Lumb, hands out plums to members of the audience. "Mom was always generous in giving things out," said Janet Lumb, Jean's daughter, who was in the crowd for the performance. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

Another was Pat Barnett, the president of the East York Historical Society, who said the tour was important because it highlighted the contributions of the black community to Toronto.

"Blacks played a very important role in this area and all throughout Canada, which a lot of people aren't really aware of," said Barnett. "These walks really bring to life what really happened and how people have progressed."

Ali Joy Richardson, a local playwright and actor who played Anne Whelan, said the most exciting part was the focus on the women in the community.

"These were women who were very resourceful in their work and in their community-building," said Richardson. "That was very refreshing to me because they are people who are often on the margins of society."

Karen Carter is the executive director of Myseum, the non-profit that organized the walking tour. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

The production was put on by Myseum, a local non-profit that takes a "programming-first" approach to museum-making. Instead of having a physical space where people come to view artifacts and learn about history, they organize pop-up events across the city in collaboration with various organizations and community groups.

"For us, it's nice to step into the walking tour space and not to do it the usual way, to do it our way," said Karen Carter, executive director of Myseum. "Which is collaborative, unique and more engaging."

Carter hopes the production helps people think about the current debate surrounding immigration in Canada, and that  learning about these immigrant stories will influence current attitudes toward newcomers in a positive way.

"The past is relevant to the present and this micro-history of The Ward as a new immigrant settlement in Toronto really speaks to a lot of the struggles that are happening globally and in this country," she said.