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By Mike Sauve

On Friday nights they stand in circles, bullshitting, spitting on the sidewalk.

You might not realize these kids have led such hard lives. They are outside Covenant House Toronto, the country’s largest youth shelter. Some of them are homeless; some are just socializing with friends. Some take drugs; some prostitute themselves.

It’s a far cry crom from 84 years ago, when this was the home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a group that believed in “total abstinence from all things harmful.”

The building across the street from Jorgenson Hall was built in 1921 by the WCTU, an influential, but unheralded, group in the fight for prohibition in Canada. It is now the home of Covenant House Toronto. More than 5,000 homeless young people seek comfort here every year.

Counselling, health care, and educational and employment assistance give tenants the opportunity for “independent lives and a better future.” The shelter on Gerrard Street was purchased in 1994 when Covenant House raised more than $11 million to renovate the historic building.

“Prior to that, the building had been empty and used as a homeless squat,” said Rose Cino, a spokesperson with Covenant House Toronto. Cino said the place was in “pretty bad shape” when they moved in. But with a little hard work, the hard-wood floors and stained glass windows were rejuvenated and now make Covenant House welcoming for its visitors, she said.

The inhabitants of Covenant House have Letitia Youmans to thank for their comfortable surroundings. Youmans, a stepmother of eight from Picton, Ont., organized the first Canadian local union of the WCTU in her hometown in 1974.

A year later, she started the Toronto local and 13 years later Youmans organized the Canadian National Union of the WCTU. It was an organization that advocated for woman’s rights.It fought to protect the rights of children and worked to reform society by promoting Christian moral values.

The WCTU helped found the Parent Teacher Association, promoted stiffer penalties for sexual crimes against women, fought for federal aid for education and demonstrated for world peace. Toronto’s local union was responsible for local issues such as preventing streetcars from running on Sundays.

The Toronto WCTU also ran Willard Hall, an on-campus residence used by many female Ryerson students in the ’70s. Canadian WCTU membership swelled in 1914, when the fight for prohibition was in full swing. Then the club boasted 16,000 members across the nation and 9000 in Ontario. Prohibition became the defining issue for the WCTU. The WCTU believed that most social evils were rooted in intemperate behaviour.

Drinking alcohol was a “visible expression of this failing and a causal force in the acquisition of other social vices,” writes Sharon Anne Cook, a professor of Women’s History at the University of Ottawa in Through Sunshine and Shadow: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Evangelicalism, and Reform in Ontario, 1874-1930. This “temperance hymn” was taught to children at Young Women’s Christian Temperance Union band meetings:

Touch not the foaming, tempting glass, Nor look upon the wine! A serpent vile is hid within The liquid of the vine. Its ruddy gleam invites you all To taste the sparkling bowl, And hides beneath the poison fangs Which smite into your soul. Touch not nor taste the seething ill, Flee from the tempting foe; Let not its hue profane your lips, ‘Twill bring you bitter woe.

Government legislation such as the the Crooks Act (1876) and the Canadian Temperance Act (1878) made prohibition issues subject to popular approval.

The Crooks Act restricted the number of liquor licences to be distributed and allowed interest groups like the WCTU to petition the distribution of licences, and even have licences rejected.The Canadian Temperance Act made the retail sale of liquor subject to a local popular vote.

The mobilization and organization of middle class Canadian women to achieve the common goals of the WCTU “became the nucleus for the development of a women’s middle class culture which transcended but also included temperance,” writes Cook. In 1916 the Ontario Temperance Act was passed. It closed bars and permitted the sale of alcohol for only “medicinal, mechanical, scientific and sacramental purposes.”

The WCTU contributed a third of the expenses to the prohibition campaign and many of the 850,000 signatures that pushed the act into law. Between the passage of the act and the end of Ontario’s experimentation with prohibition 11 years later, the political power of the WCTU deteriorated. A member of the Toronto District wrote this poem describing the declining esteem of the white ribbon worn by all WCTU members.

I seek it, the white, white ribbon, In parlor and street and cars, I watch for its flashing message As those who watch for the stars. For though it be frayed and dingy And worn on a shabby dress, It lends to its faithful wearer A charm you can never guess. So wear it with pride, dear women, Morning and noon and night, Glad to show, wherever you go, You’re standing for God and Right.

“The Toronto WCTU, one of the most progressive and powerful unions in Ontario, felt exhausted by the long, and apparently futile, war against evil in its many forms,” writes Cook.

As prohibition dwindled, the WCTU was beginning to be seen as a spent force. “The WCTU effectively passed from the scene in the 1920s and their many accomplishments soon faded into the mist of the forgotten past, replacing this important historical record was the stereotypical view of the WCTU as a group of aging women rather irrelevantly railing against mainstream society and its mores,” writes Cook.

The WCTU is still around. They donate to Covenant House Toronto, appreciative that their old headquarters provide a safe alternative to the streets. A modern variety of temperance is practiced at 20 Gerrard St. E. today, and the WCTU continues to stand for its interpretation of God and Right.

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