“Larger spaces and better houses”: the first calls for public housing in Winnipeg

Trade unionist William Cooper called for public housing in 1908. Manitoba Historical Society.

One of the first calls for the creation of public housing in Winnipeg came from William Cooper, a trade union activist and carpenter employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1908, Cooper told a public meeting that he believed, “we have arrived at a critical stage in the growth of Winnipeg with the growing congestion in the north end.” According to the Tribune, Cooper went on to call upon the city to “break up the congested districts and take measures to erect dwellings of their own with larger spaces and better houses to accommodate those now living in the congested districts.” Cooper had been a Social Democratic Federation member of the Aberdeen City council in Scotland for eleven years before coming to Canada in 1907. While on the Aberdeen council he chaired the city’s public-health commission. According to his great-grandson, in that capacity, he made “great strides in improving the living conditions of many Aberdeen labourers.”[1]

Cooper’s call for public housing drew upon his experience in Aberdeen: since the 1850s that city’s medical officers of health had been drawing attention to the link between slum housing and the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox, and typhus. Initially, the council’s response focused on slum clearance, but with the appointment of Matthew Hay as the city’s chief health officer in 1888, the council began to implement initiatives intended to improve housing. Having concluded that private builders were not prepared to provide adequate shelter for low-income families, Hay became a staunch public-housing advocate. His prodding led to the construction of the city’s first housing project in 1897. The plan was only narrowly approved by the Aberdeen council: Cooper would have been one of the people who supported the measure.[2]

By 1908, there was a clear need for public housing in Winnipeg. In that year, the Free Press ran a photo feature on slum housing in the North End. Written by an “F.H.R.”, the story noted that initial appearances could be deceiving. One newly painted building gave “absolutely no indication of the throng of people housed in this ‘double-decker’ of twelve homes.” Another tenement teemed “with people, each back door opening into a room where a family dwells.” Upon entering the backyard of one building that he thought looked pleasant, F.H.R. discovered “two shacks had been built on, in each of which a household was living. The high rentals had been driving people into this mode of existence.” A widow with two children was living in one room along with five boarders. The general atmosphere of a two-room household where two parents, three children, and ten boarders were living was, he wrote, “better imagined than described.”[3]

The need for low-cost housing was a frequent topic of discussion at Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council meetings. In 1912, Richard Rigg, the secretary of the trades and labour council, told a public meeting on housing that “little attention had been paid to the successive annual epidemics of typhoid fever until these had spread to the residential district in South Winnipeg. He considered that an injustice had been done in this regard to North Winnipeg and remarked that ‘the slum district would hitch itself to Crescentwood sooner or later.’” He pointed out that “Tenement blocks were being built wholesale in the northern part of the city, forerunners of the poorest type of tenement slum, and people were being forced into crowded and unwholesome quarters, often at such an expense that the larger part of their salaries were swallowed up in rent.”[4] In 1912 nother labour council member, A.A. Heaps, moved that the labour council call on the city to go into the municipal housing business.[5] The following month the council directed its municipal committee to look into the benefit of “municipally owned working class houses.”[6]

Rigg and Heaps would in the coming year seek and win election to city council, and in Heaps’s case to parliament. Their personal experiences of poor housing in the United Kingdom, where they had been born, and in Winnipeg where they and their fellow union members lived, taught them that housing was a highly political issue. They had commenced a campaign for public housing that would not reach fruition for a half-century.

Back to The Struggle for Public Housing in Winnipeg.

[1] “Music and drama,” Winnipeg Tribune, June 4, 1908. For Cooper’s career, see: David Edward Hall, Times of Trouble: Labour Quiescence in Winnipeg 1920-1929, MA thesis, University of Manitoba, 1983, 44; Bruce Owen, “Angry voice faded away,” Winnipeg Free Press, May 15, 1994.

[2] Nicholas J. Williams, “Housing,” in Aberdeen: 1800–2000, A New History, W. Hamish Fraser and Clive H. Lee, editors, East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2000, 303–307.

[3] F.H.R., “Social settlement work in Winnipeg,” Manitoba Free Press, July 11, 1908.

[4] “Rent question serious problem,” Manitoba Free Press, October 14, 1912.

[5] “House rents are abnormally high,” Winnipeg Free Press, September 20, 1912; “Winnipeg trades council,” The Voice, September 20, 1912.

[6] “Municipally owned houses favored,” Manitoba Free Press, October 18, 1912.