Toronto Community Union Project (T-CUP) in Trefann Court

The Toronto Community Union Project (T-CUP) was a small group of community organizers who came together in 1966 to help working-class residents facing “urban redevelopment” in a neighbourhood called Trefann Court. The City of Toronto had decided – without consulting the people who lived there – that the area (just south of Regent Park, and bounded by Queen, Parliament, Shuter and River Streets) should be demolished.

Residents fought back, and their struggle, and the involvement of the T-CUP organizers, changed the nature of city politics in Toronto, and the whole concept of “urban renewal.” One of the organizers, a young lawyer named John Sewell, was lifted into political prominence, becoming first a city alderman, and later mayor of Toronto.

In 1956, the City of Toronto had published a booklet that identified 27 areas of Toronto (including Trefann Court) as so-called “urban blight” areas in need of urban renewal. This urban-renewal designation hindered any improvements to the area over subsequent years because demolition was likely on the horizon.

In 1963, City planners published the Don Planning District Appraisal, which coincided with the development plan being advanced by a significant land-owner in Trefann Court – Revenue Properties Investment Ltd., a subsidiary of Rubin Corp. The booklet revealed that most of the Trefann Court area – designated as the “Trefann Court Redevelopment Area” – was to be demolished. In February 1966 City Council unanimously approved the project after less than ten minutes of discussion. The residents of Trefann Court were increasingly alarmed and angry or confused, despondent and hopeless as they faced expropriation of their homes (as property owners) and eviction (as tenants).

The City’s Development Department then proceeded to hire a "relocation officer" whose job it was to help people move out of Trefann Court, the sooner the better. Central Neighbourhood House recommended Marjaleena Repo for the job. Repo had been trained as a sociologist, had previously been a social-worker, and she began working for the City in midsummer 1966. But as Ms. Repo-Davis began talking with the people, she realized that they were going to be hurt by the urban renewal scheme, and that they had had no say in the plans.

Accordingly, she urged them to unite and form an organization and asked one home-owner from each street in the area to attend a meeting. The resulting executive body (five home-owners and one store-owner) of the new Trefann Court Residents Association (TCRA) then called a second meeting where it was decided to hire legal counsel and prepare strategy for a public meeting called by the City. TCRA also started producing a mimeographed newsletter (the Trefann Court News) to involve more residents.

Meanwhile, during the summer of 1966 Marjaleena Repo had met some young community organizers, including Sarah Spinks and Wolfe Erlichman, and she encouraged them to get involved with the TCRA. Erlichman, in turn, encouraged John Sewell, then just finishing his legal training, to also become involved.

Sarah Spinks was a member of the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA) and had been involved in community organizing in Kingston, Ontario, (the Kingston Community Project), in which young leftists lived in poor neighbourhoods, helping residents know their rights and organize for improvements. Spinks had then moved to Toronto, spent a year as a student at University of Toronto, and then dropped out at age 19 to continue with community organizing.

John Sewell had finished a year of articling for a large Toronto law firm when he met Erlichman, who encourage him to get involved in Trefann Court. Sewell finished his law degree and in March 1967 began working full-time with T-CUP.

Wolfe Erlichman was also a member of SUPA. He had graduated from the University of Toronto School of Social Work, but decided to do grassroots community organizing. Erlichman preferred a non-directive approach to working with a community – a position not fully shared by Repo, Spinks, and Sewell.

At a September 1966 public meeting, TCRA voiced opposition to what the City Planning Board was proposing and demanded answers to many questions. Margaret Campbell, the controller in charge of housing and urban renewal admitted at the meeting that the plan was “a mistake,” but nonetheless dismissed the TCRA as having been “led down the garden path in the belief that they can come into the City Hall any time and demand changes.” Days later, T-CUP was formed by Spinks, Erlichman, and Sewell, who continued working closely with Repo (who was still working for the City at that point). T-CUP did some fundraising from and with the United Church in order to pay their three modest salaries.

While Repo, Spinks and Erlichman continued organizing the residents, Sewell put his legal talents to work. As he wrote in his book Up Against City Hall, “My duties were simple. I researched the Expropriation Procedure Act, the Planning Act, and Council minutes, and then co-ordinated this information and made it available to both [TCRA] and the lawyer. The lawyer they had hired was admittedly an expert on municipal development issues – none other than James McCallum, now a director of the massive development company the Meridian Group. I outlined the procedure for expropriation and how compensation would be determined; I perused the National Housing Act to determine what support could be gained from federal legislation.”

At that point, the TCRA strategy was to avoid questioning the overall merits of the redevelopment plan and instead insist that the City negotiate fairly on expropriation. They knew that previous expropriations in the area had resulted in displaced homeowners getting substantially less than their houses were worth, meaning that they were unable to buy a new house to replace the one that had been taken from them.

Sewell acknowledges in his book that during his time with T-CUP his views were significantly changed, especially with regard to listening to TCRA members rather than telling them what to do. That became especially obvious when TCRA changed its strategy regarding expropriation. The law firm (Cameron, Breen, McCallum and Scott) had advised residents that they should ask the City to delay expropriation, to allow the City to negotiate individually with homeowners about prices and compensation before demolition. But TCRA members changed their mind and decided that they wanted to have urban renewal called off: no expropriation, no demolition, no bargaining about house prices.

Sewell argued that TCRA should listen to the law firm, who probably knew best. But Wolfe Erlichman sided with the residents and argued that the people knew what they were doing, that they likely understood the situation better than outsiders, and had the right to make the decisions. After several days of discussion, Sewell reluctantly agreed to go along with the residents’ position. Only later did he come to realize that “it would have been a mistake for the people of Trefann to take their lawyer's advice, and that their decision about strategy was the right one, and the only one that made it possible for them to carry on and win their fight.”

Sewell says he then “chose the role of someone who regards people as the best interpreters of their own interests and who assists them in whatever way is possible to implement their decisions and achieve the things they want. This is quite different from saying that you will work for people and assist them only when you and they agree completely not just on goals but on the means, or from insisting they do things your way in return for getting your resources and assistance.”

Graham Fraser, in his book Fighting Back, noted that the organizers involved in T-CUP had “a commitment to do what the Residents Association wanted them to do, rather than tell the Residents Association what they should be doing."”

In fact, on a number of key occasions, it was the residents, and notably Edna Dixon, who came up with crucial information and analysis. Doing research for the newsletter, Edna Dixon made an important discovery. As Fraser writes, “It was she who discovered, for instance, by checking the figures in the Trefann Court Data Abstract, that the City was proposing to buy and clear [i.e., expropriate] the residential properties for $1,830,000,000: an average of $9,800 per house, or $6.62 per square foot. In the same document, they estimated that market value of the houses to be an average of $13,400, or $8.96 a square foot. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘when the market value is $8.96 [per] square ft. would the planned purchase price be $6.62 per sq. ft.? Some of the older residents,’ she continued, ‘who bought their properties years ago do not know the present value of their property. Could it be that our city and other representatives of government plan to capitalize on their lack of knowledge?’”

Sewell noted that Dixon “further turned up the interesting fact that industry would be subsidized to the tune of $350,000 for buying into the cleared area. Needless to say, I was astounded that a government would propose such inequities.”

In 1968, a split occurred among residents with the formation of Trefann Neighbours and Tenants (TNT), which argued that TCRA was only representing home-owners and was not adequately supporting tenants. June Rowlands, a member of the City’s Social Planning Council, and not a resident, became secretary of TNT. Rowlands believed it was her duty to tell the tenants what they needed: demolition of Trefann Court and the building of some public housing in the area.

TNT (which included some slum-landlords who wanted to be expropriated at for-profit prices) became a bitterly divisive force. T-CUP members Sewell, Erlichman and Spinks tried to listen to both groups and attempted to bridge differences, but that led to tensions with Repo, no longer working for the city but still organizing, who sided with the TCRA home-owners in rejecting demolition and instead demanding improved housing standards. (The formation of TNT may well have been a “divide-and-conquer” tactic, with the promise of public housing thrown in as a red herring.)

While 1968 was a difficult year, the November 1969 civic election changed the dynamics at City Hall, and consequently the relationship between the City and Trefann Court. A group of reformers were elected, including two new aldermen – John Sewell and Karl Jaffary – for Ward 7 (which includes Trefann Court). The City had to include them in any decision-making around Trefann.

The City proposed setting up a working group comprised of five TCRA members, five TNT members, two local businesspeople, the two Ward aldermen, and three other City Council members. Despite their differences, during the meetings the TCRA and TNT firmly agreed that no official plan be adopted without the agreement of Trefann residents. T-CUP member Erlichman (along with Repo) continued to work with the Trefann residents, while Spinks had moved on edit This Magazine Is About Schools.

By working together, Trefann Court residents were ultimately able to save the area from demolition – a turning point in neighbourhood resistance and City politics. No longer could slum-clearance and urban renewal simply bulldoze people out of the way.

Graham Fraser: Fighting Back: Urban Renewal in Trefann Court
Rick Bebout: Master builders meet citizen activists
John Sewell: Up Against City Hall
John Sewell: How We Changed Toronto The inside story of twelve creative, tumultuous years in civic life, 1969-1980
Seven News
Kevin Brushett, “Blots on the Face of the City: The Politics of Slum Housing and Urban Renewal in Toronto 1940-1970” (PhD diss., Queen's University, 2001)
Trefann Court (Connexipedia article)
Trefann Court (Wikipedia article)
Trefann Court Residents Associations

Subject headings

Toronto/Trefann CourtToronto/HistoricalCommunity Organizing