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Sampling The World In Toronto

The City of Toronto has been described as Canada’s crown jewel of multiculturalism, a sparkling, rich, colourful and precious treasure. Toronto has many well-known neighbourhoods like Portugal Village, Greektown, Little India, Little Italy, and spread across the city are large communities with Chinese, Jewish, Filipino, Sri Lankan and West Indian residents. 

In this multi-part series, we will be featuring some of Toronto’s vibrant cultures.

Kensington Market & Beyond

Jewish market, Kensington Avenue, women at fruit store (Toronto Archives)

In 1920, Jewish residents in the Beaches purchased the old Baptist Church at the corner of Queen St. E. and Kenilworth Ave. The building was moved to its present location and re-oriented to face east. Today, the synagogue is an integral part of the ‘Beach’ community. The synagogue joins local churches and offers a mid-week lunchtime drop-in program.

Toronto’s first Jewish community was in the Ward where from 1890 to the early 1920s, was the dominant cultural group. But as the Ward became increasingly crowded, Jewish merchants looked for another place to set up businesses. At the time, they were excluded from the main business community, so merchants set up an outdoor market in what we now know as Kensington Market, west of Spadina to Augusta and north of Dundas to Nassau.

At first, merchants sold goods from handcarts pushed through the working-class streets, then set up stalls on lawns in front of their homes. This attracted other merchants, and eventually, merchants converted the ground floor of their houses to stores, as well as continuing to display goods on the sidewalks, as is done today.

By the 1920s, about 80 percent of the city’s Jewish population of 35,000 lived in and around Kensington, worshipping at over 30 local synagogues. 

At the same time, the numerous textile and fabric factories and warehouses in the area needed factory workers. Because most of the city’s Jewish community lived in the immediate area, many found employment in the garment industry. To this day, when you walk along Queen Street West past Spadina Avenue you see the signs “Fashion District”, whose name is derived from the area’s role in the garment industry.

Work conditions in the industry, however, were harsh. It was Jewish community leaders who led the way advocating for improved conditions through fair labour laws.

It began with two Jewish businessmen in the area who first formed a cooperative. Their work lead to the establishment of the Labor Lyceum Association, a labour union, which for many years was located on Spadina Avenue. Long after labour laws had been reformed, the Association remained an important cultural centre for the Jewish community in Toronto, and a welcoming place for new arrivals to the city.

By mid century, the Jewish presence in Kensington Market gradually diminished, but the influence of the Jewish Canadian culture remains woven into the entire, diverse culture of the city. For example, many recognize the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre at the corner of Bloor and Spadina.