The Ward: Our Living History builds on the work and the relationships formed during the creation of the Picturing the Ward exhibition that was commissioned by Infrastructure Ontario (IO) in 2016 on behalf of the Province of Ontario. As with the exhibition, this event brings together former Ward residents and their descendants to share, exchange and discuss what it was like to live in St. John’s Ward, which was once one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in downtown Toronto. Through storytelling and family photographs uncover aspects of Ward life – experiences that, although rooted in the past, still resonate today. The legacy of this neighbourhood lies not in the buildings that once stood, but lives on in the lives of those who remain to tell their stories.
Bound by College Street to the north, Queen Street to the south, University Avenue to the west and Yonge Street to the east, the Ward was where many newcomers to Toronto from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century first settled. It was a densely populated neighbourhood and at various points home to African-Canadians, refugees from the Irish Potato Famine, African-Americans who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, Russian and Eastern European Jews, Italian and Chinese immigrants, and many more. Prior to this, the area was a site of human activity for at least 15,000 years, with the land most recently being the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit River (Ontario First Nations Maps, 2016).
Amid protest, residents of the Ward were eventually pushed out of the neighbourhood. Businesses, churches, synagogues, theatres, and shops closed as residents were moved out of the area. Buildings were demolished to make way for hospitals, government buildings, department stores, a bus terminal, new City Hall and Nathan Phillip Square.