Housing and Social Services.
Dr. William Canniff was disturbed by the state of some of the city’s housing stock when he became the medical officer of health in 1883. Toronto’s population had grown very rapidly in the latter part of the 19th century, and most of the city’s poor lived in terrible conditions.



When he took office, Dr. Canniff had no staff, but soon he lobbied successfully for some help.

His first assistants were policemen, borrowed temporarily from the Police Department, and sent on house-to-house inspections to search for “insanitary evils,” that is, unsatisfactory disposal of human waste, dirty water, and garbage.

A mattress lies on the floor in an unfinished brick basement.
Basement lodgings, Berkeley Street
March 20, 1916
Photographer: Arthur S. Goss
Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 430


A dark, cluttered room with a wood-burning stove and a table against one wall and beds against the other.
Home interior
October 30, 1913
Photographer: Arthur S. Goss
Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 247
The inspectors had the authority to order landlords to empty privies, fix plumbing, connect to city water mains, remove garbage from yards, and make other improvements.


However, these efforts did not solve the larger problem of poor and expensive housing in the growing city. In 1911, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Charles Hastings studied the city’s housing conditions for himself, and published a report on what he bluntly called “slum conditions.”


Page of a book with a photograph of a three-storey brick building and shed.
Report of the Medical Officer of Health: Dealing With the Recent Investigation
of Slum Conditions in Toronto, Embodying Recommendations for the Amelioration of the Same, page 5
Department of Public Health, Toronto
Series 365, File 14

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He found “poor, unsanitary houses, overcrowded, insufficiently lighted, badly ventilated, with unsanitary, and in many cases, filthy yards,” and called these conditions “a menace to public health…and, in fact, an offence against public decency.”
Quote: We can scarcely hope for people to rise above their environments, MOH Dr. Charles Hastings, 1911.


As a result of Dr. Hastings’ report, the City demolished 1,600 substandard houses between 1913 and 1918.


Book page that includes photograph of pipes and garbage in a basement.
142 Agnes Street
Report on Survey of the Treasury, Assessment, Works, Fire and Property Departments Civic Survey Committee
Fonds 1002, File 3

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While the house below had both a flush toilet and running water, neither would have functioned during a hard winter freeze.


Courtyard surrounded by small wooden houses, with water running from an outdoor tap into a square wooden box.
Rear, 31 Camden Street
February 21, 1938
Photographer: Arthur S. Goss
Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 309


Quote: Is it homes we must give our people and not merely shelter, MOH Dr. Charles Hastings, 1918.
When health inspectors visited rooming houses, they often found them occupied by large numbers of recent immigrants. These young men lacked the civilizing influence of wives and family.


Page of book with photograph showing six men sitting on beds in small, low-ceilinged bedroom.
50 Terauley Street
Report on Survey of the Treasury, Assessment, Works, Fire and Property Departments
Civic Survey Committee
Fonds 1002, File 3

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Dr. Hastings complained about a houseful of European workers in 1914, “They live cheap, work out all day, crowd into the houses at night, bring the mud of the streets into their homes, drink beer, play cards, and sleep, in the clothing worn during the day, in closed rooms. No cleaning ever attempted until brought to court.”


Early reports of the Department of Public Health acknowledge the need to provide assistance to the poor, but this charitable impulse was combined with a moral rectitude typical of the time.

In 1921, during a time of vast post-war unemployment, Dr. Hastings wrote that the department would give people coal, bread, and clothing, but not rent money, because “the family should bear some share of the burden of unemployment if their self-reliance was to be conserved.”

Elderly woman in black lace hat holds up misspelled sign that reads: My old man is paralyzed, no children, we live in Toronto for five year, God bless you.
Woman panhandling
August 18, 1918
Photographer: William James
Fonds 1244, Item 676


Dr. Hastings’ report signalled a growing understanding that “anything…which makes for poverty or destitution is a problem of public health.” At first, the Department of Public Health connected needy people with private social agencies such as churches and charities. By the time of the Depression, the City recognized the need for more government social services and created the Department of Public Welfare in 1931.


Children play on a narrow street lined with old brick houses, while a highrise takes up the background.
Row housing with Regent Park South social housing
highrise in background
ca. 1955
Photographer: Michael Burns
Series 35, File 23, Item 13