City unveils plaque honouring Black Toronto labour leader

A newly unveiled plaque set for installation in the east end is immortalizing one of Toronto's labour leaders and drawing attention to one of the city's most storied union disputes.

The plaque, which honours union activist Jack White, will be installed near Castle Frank Station, not far from the site of a labour protest stemming from subway construction on the Prince Edward Viaduct on Bloor Street back in 1964.

"My dad fought for the under-served and the people he thought were being taken advantage of," Alan White, Jack's son, said on CBC Radio's Metro Morning earlier this week.

"He was always a very strong union man."

White, who was born in Nova Scotia and died in 2002, worked at the Canadian National Railway where he became the company's first Black union steward in 1944. After moving to Toronto, he joined the subway construction crew working on the viaduct, and similarly became the first elected Black representative for the Ironworkers Local 721.

Alan White, Jack White's son, says his father was always a 'very strong union man.'
Alan White, Jack White's son, says his father was always a 'very strong union man.' (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Alan White told host David Common that his father was a union steward at the time, and his job was to make sure everything happening at the site was going smoothly.

A new foreman then started having labourers do jobs meant for the iron workers, so it was White's job to say to his employer "Hey, you have to stop this," his son said.

"As soon as he said that he was fired," he said.

White's firing sparked a major labour disruption. For over two weeks, his crew stopped working in solidarity, asserting White had been fired because of his race. The dispute was only resolved once he was eventually rehired.

LISTEN | Alan White recalls his father's legacy:

"They all walked off the job, and they stopped the Bloor Viaduct cold for two-and-a-half weeks," Alan White said. "My dad was incredibly impressed that in the mid-60s, in the middle of segregation and everything else, that the union would stand behind him and would walk off the job — and would stay off the job.

"They backed my dad because he backed them, and they stayed off the job until he got rehired."

In the years following the dispute, White was also the first Black representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ontario, and later became the director of social services for the Ontario Federation of Labour.

The city says the plaque honouring White will be installed near Castle Frank Station by the fall.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.