Looking Back to See Forward: ATAK and the Future of Housing Activism in Katarokwi-Kingston
Updated: Sep 29, 2021
By John Rose
I love geography and history. I study places, how they change over time, and what causes those changes. I like to learn from events that happened in the past so we can build a more just future. Working with the Katarowki (Kingston) Union of Tenants (KUT) over the last year and a half, I have wondered about the history of tenant activism in Kingston and where KUT fits. History is important to me because I believe the “present” and “past” are not separate but are constantly connected. What we call “history” is not just ancient stories, but events that continue to affect us now and into the future.
I try to be considerate of what continues to reverberate in Katarokwi-Kingston. What events and people have laid the foundation for tenant advocacy in this area? I started doing some digging and was excited to find that Kingston, like many communities, has a long history of tenant activism. One particularly effective movement included the Association of Tenants Action in Kingston (ATAK) in the late 1960s. Led by tireless activists, ATAK responded to rising rent prices, low vacancy, and hostile landlords. ATAK provides us with an important historical lesson about the effectiveness of grassroots organizing and the dedication of intelligent, diligent leadership using multiple strategies to hold governments accountable and advocate for tenants, the poor, and the unhoused. ATAK’s actions remind us of the strategies and commitments required to support tenants. It also reminds us of the limitations of past movements, where we can improve, and how current tenant advocacy should commit to working toward decolonization.
Building the Movement
The groundwork for ATAK started in 1966 when a group of young activists and students came to Kingston with a desire to learn about struggles facing tenants, working people, and the poor. Some of these activists spent the summer of 1965 attending training courses across Canada sponsored by the Student Union for Peace Action and Union Général des Étudiants du Québec. These organizers met with people to find out their concerns, and work with communities to build a response together in solidarity. This was an approach that favoured locally-driven activism, with organizers facilitating strategies with tenants and residents. Some of the activists initially formed the Kingston Community Project (KCP), designed to reach out to local tenants and the poor, and help them access social services, health care, and funds to help with rent. In the summer of 1968 ATAK was officially born, including a diverse membership of tenants, low-income families, professionals, trade unionists, students, university professors, and single mothers. ATAK included a “broad class base” with a peak membership of about 400 people in June 1969 (Harris 1984 773).
Tenants were frustrated with increasing rent prices paired with a housing shortage (a vacancy rate of less than 1% reported in February of 1969) and lack of enforcement of minimum housing standards. Media reports in 1969 stated that rents had increased anywhere from 12% to 40%, with one unit’s rent increasing by 120% per year because of “a heavy demand from Queen’s students.” In addition to rental increases, economic tensions grew when industry slowed down, dockyards closed in 1968, and unemployment increased. Tenants were struggling – there were only 3 public housing projects for 300 families that required them, while landlords refused to pay for basic repairs like plumbing, and some residents criticized the creation of subsidized housing located a significant distance from the city-centre. These issues put the community in a position to support ATAK, spurring several strategies and actions aimed to improve living conditions for tenants.
Approach: Politics, Advocacy, Direct Action
ATAK took a multi-pronged approach to activism, using direct-action and working within the municipal political system to put pressure on governments and landlords to lower rents and increase standards of housing. They also took on research projects and built networks across the province to link tenant movements. ATAK connected with politicians, which led to media coverage of tenant concerns. Members of ATAK met with NDP members of the Ontario legislature in 1968, and NDP leader Donald MacDonald noted the “soaring rents” and “tenants being victimized by landlords taking advantage of the housing shortage” in Kingston that same year. Ontario Liberal leader Robert Nixon also acknowledged Kingston’s “severe housing problem” and criticized the Ontario Housing Corporation in 1968. In late 1969 ATAK wrote a brief to the Ontario government saying tenants should have the right to bargain collectively with landlords to protect them from economic exploitation. This was a creative and radical notion to build tenant power, connecting through the media to build capacity.
In the fall of 1968, two members of ATAK ran in the Kingston municipal election. Joan Kuyek (then Joan Newman) ran “on a ticket of housing, traffic and unresponsive city hall.” She won the “alderman” position in St. Lawrence ward. One of the major issues for ATAK and Kuyek was public housing and rent controls to alleviate the burden of the increasing rent prices. In January 1969, Kuyek said Kingston tenants were being subjected to “a stall from the city and the province…I think Kingston and the provincial government are fuzzing the issue of rent control…The tenants are not going to put up with this stall much longer.” Kuyek proposed a rent review board to the city council, but believed her motion would be defeated because “the majority of council members are pro-landlord.” However, ATAK’s pressure helped force the City to create a Mayor’s Committee on Housing to investigate complaints, make recommendations to council, explore sites for rent-to-income housing, and find emergency housing for families displaced through fire or other disasters. ATAK’s actions also influenced the Kingston Housing Authority, as they allocated funds to hire a Tenant Relations Officer and an Assistant Housing Manager in 1970, right on the heels of ATAK’s major campaigns.
Aiming to build capacity throughout the province, ATAK took initiative to form a new provincewide tenants’ association and hosted their inaugural meeting in Kingston in June of 1969. The group’s goal was to lobby for rent controls, housing standards, and changes in the Landlord-Tenant Act. The meeting saw 15 tenants’ associations take part, including delegates from Kingston, Toronto, Sudbury, Ottawa, Hamilton, Kitchener, Guelph, Brampton, and Peterborough. On June 30, 1969, 75 delegates voted the Ontario Tenants Association into existence, supporting the right of tenants to collectively bargain with landlords.
ATAK also used direct action to get the attention of local government and the media. In October of 1968, 25 members of ATAK picketed city hall, protesting landlords who had increased rent for tenants. They asked Mayor Robert Fray to “obtain use of vacant federal property to accommodate several families living in overcrowded conditions.” In September of 1970, 30 ATAK members spoke at city council as part of a rent control protest. The members provided comparative analysis of rent control in Québec, and since the Ontario government passed a bill leaving rent control up to the municipalities, ATAK argued that Kingston council should control rents, as they increased by an average of 10% that year. Ultimately, council decided to take no action in a vote of 11-4. 30 ATAK members gathered at the back of the chamber to vote on their next steps, but police officers entered the chamber, spoke with the mayor, then cleared the room. ATAK’s approach to direct-action was also committed to building solidarity, as members joined the striking Fairbanks Morse workers in April of 1969, supporting the pickets of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 522. This multifaceted approach is a testament to ATAK’s strategic thinking and commitment to collective action.
From 1965-1969, ATAK and its allies engaged in struggles against local landlords that included much media coverage. One landlord, John G. Hewitt, charged his tenants a minimum of $20 ($160 in 2021 currency) to hear their complaints about his properties. ATAK and its precursor the KCP raised money for tenants to pay the fee so they could voice their concerns to the landlord. Tenants negotiated with Hewitt to pay for repairs on substandard units, and some of these negotiations were successful as the landlord agreed to pay for some repairs but refused others. Hewett owned 50 properties in Kingston, Belleville, and Gananoque in 1965-1966, and 150 units by 1969. In September 1969, tenants staged pickets outside Hewitt’s house. ATAK said 16 families renting from him had backed a rent strike, as rent had increased by 12.6% for his units. Tenants put their rent into a trust fund until a resolution could be negotiated. The same month, ATAK and Tenants also picketed at CIBC, claiming the bank was aiding Hewitt in his unfair activities. In November 1969, a tenant took Hewitt to provincial court. The tenant participated in a rent strike against the landlord in September, as he had raised the rent from $85 to $120/month (40% increase). The media reported that Hewitt seized $2000 of the tenant’s belongings. In the end, the court awarded the tenant damages.
The strong leadership of ATAK deserves acknowledgement. The first President of ATAK, Joan Kuyek (Newman) was particularly driven, hard-working, and eloquent in her approach to the tenant issues in the area. Kuyek came to Kingston in 1965, helping build a political base and advocating for the poor. She had experience in activism through the Company of Young Canadians and she was integral to building the Kingston Community Project (KCP, a division of the Student Union for Peace Action), which operated a 24hr telephone service for lower-income families to obtain information and advice on how to access services and handle tenant issues. In the early stages of organizing, Joan Kuyek and her colleague Myrna Wood ran the project out of their apartment, and Kuyek expressed concern that “nobody talked about the housing crisis except those who suffered from it.” In addition to the KCP, Kyuek helped set up Mothers United for Maximum Safety (MUMS), a group that felt traffic in the city should be planned with people in mind, not automobiles, as they campaigned for more streetlights and more crossing guards, which were successfully implemented. Kuyek knocked on doors across the city to muster support from working class and poor residents. She ran strategy meetings and workshops on writing letters to the city council. When Kuyek was elected to Kingston city council in St. Lawrence Ward, characterized by the media as “the poorest ward in the city where 74 percent of the residents are tenants,” she was committed to building “tenant power.” In her role on council, Kuyek not only fought for rent controls, but also tried to persuade the city finance committee to equalize wage rates for workers at the city. She fought for lower-paid women to have wage parity with men.
Kuyek was obviously not alone, as she worked with dedicated activists Myrna Wood, Bobbie Spark, and Dennis Crossfield. Spark, a local tenant activist, described ATAK’s work: “We’re a pressure group…we pressure City Hall and we pressure landlords. We made housing a real issue in the election, and not one candidate got out of speaking on it…We have a grievance chairman, and anyone with a complaint sees him. Then he will see the landlord and, if possible, negotiate with him. We backed tenants in a rent strike last fall against one landlord. In this case three houses were involved, with three to four families living in each one. They held back on the rent for two and a half weeks and were able to get the rents lowered slightly at first. After more talking he brought them down another few dollars…We forced the city to take responsibility for one family that was burned out. They found emergency accommodation for them in the municipal bath house. They say they won’t necessarily do it again, but we feel they’ve set a precedent and will have to continue…We have also achieved nomination of tenants to all municipal bodies dealing with housing…The people here are mad because the Ontario Housing Corporation lease takes away every right you should have under the law, and any future rights you might be granted.”
ATAK recognized that struggling against landlords only helped tenants so much, as organizer Dennis Crossfield noted: “We learned that going after individual landlords was not the solution. The landlords are not where it’s at. It’s the government that determines mortgages and capital gains…”
What We Can Learn: The Limits of Colonial History and the Future of Tenant Rights
I have spent the last 15 years studying what scholars often call “Indigenous-settler relations.” I research Canadian institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries to understand how they affect land, people, and the economy. In that research, as a scholar of settler ancestry, I have worked with Indigenous nations, learning from Elders, scholars, and philosophers. Of the many things I have learned over the years, one of the most important to me is our understanding of time and place. I have learned that, in many cases, Indigenous languages express time not as compartmentalized (past-present-future), but as more fluid and ongoing, where events are constantly moving and affecting us (see Leroy Little Bear and Ryan Heavy Head’s discussion of Blackfoot language, 2004). For many peoples, events and culture are embedded in places. What happens in a place, whether in the “past” or in recent times, has an impact on the people. Events from the past continue to teach us in the present.
We should learn from those who have roots here that long outdate colonization. Anishinaabe writer and educator Hayden King discusses how Indigenous-settler relationships are structured around land, and how colonial laws and policies are designed to obtain control of land, dispossessing Indigenous peoples in the process. King highlights the history of “shared sovereignty” in Anishinaabe tradition, which challenges exclusive sovereignty of the state. King, much like Anishinaabe legal scholar John Borrows, points to the diverse legal orders of the land and encourages us to imagine what different types of governance and diplomacy could look like (Borrows 2007; King 2015). King references the “Dish with One Spoon” agreement that allows for sharing territory and mutual obligations toward the land. Anishinaabe scholar and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson also highlights Gdoo-naaganinaa or “our dish” teaching, where Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee people have been “eating from the same dish” in their shared territory. This agreement acknowledges, as Simpson says, taking only what is needed, and redistributing resources to ensure they are available for the next 7 generations. (Simpson 2008). As the past is continually influencing the present, and the places we reside are of utmost importance, we should be listening to the lessons taught by those whose ancestors have been here since time immemorial. How do we currently treat the land? How can we re-imagine treating the land? What do “property” and “ownership” mean for us in 2021? How do our decisions about land, property, and ownership affect people? What are our mutual obligations to each other when people are homeless, unhoused, or poor? How do we redistribute and share resources?
In the current moment, we find ourselves in an economic environment where rents are high and vacancy is low, and we face a political climate where politicians refuse to take concrete action on lack of housing, substandard housing, and the struggles of the precariously housed and unhoused. The dedicated, forward-thinking leaders of ATAK paved the way for contemporary activists to learn how to band together and hold the city and the province accountable for equitable, democratic, and affordable housing. At KUT, we aim to continue this work, dedicated to grassroots, democratic action for the tenants and unhoused of Kingston. In the 21st century, we continue to struggle for equitable living standards, where housing ought to be a right not a privilege, and where housing ought to be for use-value (for shelter, community, family) rather than the exchange-value of a commodity traded between wealthy owners. I challenge us to learn from ATAK – its commitment to democratic organizing and helping elevate the voices of tenants, challenging levels of government to respond to the struggles of tenants, and building networks across the province. I challenge us to simultaneously learn from the Indigenous traditions of this area – to continually reflect on our understandings of land, housing, and what a tenants’ rights organization could accomplish in the community with a commitment to decolonization.
The Kingston Whig Standard
• Tuesday September 1, 1970
The Ottawa Citizen
• Tuesday August 3, 1965 • Saturday December 4, 1965 • Saturday May 21, 1966 • Friday, May 20, 1966 • Saturday September 7, 1968 • Saturday October 5, 1968 • Tuesday December 3, 1968 • Wednesday February 26, 1969 • Wednesday March 5, 1969 • Friday September 19, 1969 • Thursday November 27, 1969 • Wednesday December 10, 1969 • Monday February 2, 1970 • Friday July 31, 1970 • Wednesday January 30, 1980
The Ottawa Journal
• Wednesday July 28, 1965 • Tuesday August 3, 1965 • Saturday December 4, 1965 • Monday August 12, 1968 • Wednesday October 23, 1968 • Thursday November 7, 1968 • Monday January 13, 1969 • Thursday March 20, 1969 • Saturday March 22, 1969 • Monday April 7, 1969 • Friday April 11, 1969 • Monday April 21, 1969 • Wednesday June 18, 1969 • Monday June 30, 1969 • Saturday September 6, 1969 • Saturday September 20, 1969 • Wednesday December 10, 1969
The Windsor Star
• Friday May 20, 1966 • September 4, 1968 • Monday June 30, 1969
• Borrows, John. (2007). Recovering Canada: The Resurgence of Indigenous Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
• Harris, Richard. (1984). A Political Chameleon: Class Segregation in Kingston, Ontario, 1961-1976. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. V.74 No.3. 454-476.
• King, Hayden. (2015). "First Nations crisis is about land. We need a new settlement." Globe and Mail. February 10, 2015.
• Little Bear, Leroy and Heavy Head, Ryan. (2004). A Conceptual Anatomy of the Blackfoot Word. Re/Vision. 26(3). 31-38.
• Simpson, Leanne. (2008). “Looking After Gdoonaaganiaa: Precolonial Nishnaabeg Diplomatic and Treaty Relationships.” Wicaso Sa Review. 23(2). pp. 29-42.
• Stories of the Swamp Ward podcast includes excellent interviews with the leaders of ATAK. I highly encourage folks to listen to this episode as it includes some valuable stories about activism and class divisions in Kingston in the 1960s: