When Jews helped win Sunday streetcars for Toronto

Vintage TTC streetcar. TREKEARTH PHOTO

Jewish voters in Toronto were instrumental in overturning the local ban on Sunday streetcars in the spring of 1897. It was the first time that Canadian Jews united to influence a popular vote, and it marked their earliest ballot victory.

Voters in the Jewish residential areas of Ward 3 provided an essential majority in favour of Sunday streetcars. More than 32,000 votes were cast in all six wards, resulting in a plurality of 499 votes in favour of Sunday streetcars. After recounts, that number was reduced to 321. Plurality in the Jewish areas totalled 524, a respectable showing considering that the vote was held on a Saturday.

Horse-drawn streetcars were introduced to Toronto in 1861 with a prohibition against Sunday service. In 1897, the traditionalist conservative old guard still controlled the city. Graft and corruption were rampant, but the progressive elements desired changes and the shareholders of the Toronto Railway Company sought greater profits. Two previous plebiscites were held in 1892 and 1893, and both were won by anti-Sunday streetcar proponents.

In preparation for the 1893 plebiscite, the anti-Sunday streetcar forces named their organization the Sabbath Observance Society. Hoping to create confusion within their ranks, the pro-Sunday adherents accused them of wanting to revert to the strict Jewish Sabbath. The tactic was successful. Theological disputes erupted in various churches attempting to prove that the Christian Sunday was being worshipped rather than the Jewish Sabbath. The name was changed to Lord’s Day Observance Association, which offended Jews, atheists and agnostics. Finally, it was changed to a cumbersome non-sectarian Citizen’s Central Anti-Sunday Car Committee. The Sabbatarians won that plebiscite by a margin of 973 votes out of 27,000 votes cast.

In 1897, a sacred silence penetrated only by church bells fell upon Toronto on Sundays. Bars, theatres and concert halls were closed. Commerce and manufacturing ceased. Supporters of Sunday streetcars argued that cheap transportation on the Sabbath would bring worshippers to churches in greater numbers and would also allow the aged and infirm to worship. On the only free day available to them, the poorer labouring classes would use the street railway to escape from their unhealthy and unattractive surroundings to the open spaces of the suburbs and breathe the fresh air of the fields.

Anti-Sunday streetcar supporters countered that Toronto was a city of churches and there were houses of worship within walking distance of every home. As well, they claimed that spiritual health was more beneficial than a few hours in the countryside. Imprisoned miscreants were quoted as stating that their criminal careers began with the desecration of the Sabbath. Support of Protestant churches was mobilized to deliver the message of eternal damnation upon all who conspired to destroy Toronto’s peaceful day of rest and worship.

Pro-Sunday streetcar proponents also played the economic card. “Vote for Sunday cars and make Toronto safe for investors” urged the Evening Star newspaper. A wealthy American capitalist was quoted as saying that a city without Sunday cars was not up to the standard of American enterprise. But even supporters of Sunday streetcars feared that this breach of the Lord’s Day could eventually lead to general Sunday labour.

Appeals were directed specifically at Jewish voters, inciting them to uphold the ban on Sunday streetcars. One example was Samuel Hume Blake, a leading lawyer, who appealed to the “Hebrews” of Toronto to help defeat Sunday streetcars.

Polling day was Saturday, May 15. Voting was restricted to Canadian property owners and adult males. Anti-Sunday streetcar scrutineers at polling stations challenged Jewish voters to prove that they were naturalized Canadians.

When victory for Sunday streetcars was confirmed, opponents attributed their defeat to money in the form of bribes and the ethnic vote.

On May 23, 1897, Sunday service commenced. Adult tickets were seven for 25¢, compared with six for 25¢ during the week. Receipts for the first Sunday were donated to the city’s hospitals. During that year, the privately owned electrified street railway carried more than 25 million passengers.

Eiran Harris is archivist emeritus at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal.