An Historical Perspective on Toronto’s New “Superjail”

In January 2011, as part of its tough-on-crime plan, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government announced its commitment to spend 150-million dollars on the construction or expansion of prisons throughout Canada. This announcement came at a crucial time for the Ontario government, which, by July 2008, had agreed to build a new maximum-security prison in Mimico to reduce overcrowding at the dilapidated Don Jail.

This summer the “superjail,” known as the Toronto South Detention Centre, became fully operational, and will house 1,650 inmates by the end of the year. During its construction over the past several years, local residents of Mimico and New Toronto have voiced their opposition to the existence of a maximum-security prison in the neighbourhood.

In 2011, John Scheiffer, chairman of the Lakeshore Village Business Improvement Area, argued that most residents didn’t know how big the facility was going to be and how many inmates the prison would hold. While the facility may provide a considerable number of jobs, Scheiffer claimed that local businesses would be affected. Others have said they won’t feel safe when the maximum-security prison is operational.

Regardless of which side people take on the issue, no one seems to realize that this is not the first time both governments and the residents of Mimico have voiced their concern over the future utility of the correctional site.

During the 1940s, the Ontario government willingly placed Mimico’s then-reformatory at the disposal of the federal government for the internment of German prisoners of war (POWs) and civilian internees. The internment operation in Mimico, known as either Number 22 Internment Camp or Camp M, was primarily intended for pro-Nazi German enemy merchant seamen (EMS) who were captured by Allied troops, and it remained open from 1940 to 1944, when the facility became so decrepit it needed to be closed down.

Having so many alleged Nazis close to residential homes was not an ideal situation, especially for those living in Mimico and New Toronto. Most camps housing POWs were situated far away from urban centres, making any escape futile. For this reason, most camps in Ontario were established in rural areas, such as Bowmanville, Gravenhurst, Neys, Angler, Espanola, or Monteith.

When word spread in spring 1943 that POWs were going to be allowed to work in a local tannery called Donnell and Mudge Limited (on Eight Street), residents petitioned the New Toronto Council to prohibit POWs from working in the area. They ardently opposed the plan to use POWs on work projects, even though the Dominion Department of Defence and Department of Labour claimed that many jobs in the area were listed as “unfilled.”

The New Toronto Council was “unalterably opposed” to the plan, as “it would create a hazard to war industries now operating in the town as well as danger to citizens from escapes.” The Council also warned, “vital war industries near the leather plant and also a large railway centre would be placed in danger.” The local paper, The Advertiser, cited Councillor R.T. Greer who stated that “we felt that [the plan] would not be in the interests of the war effort, labor or our citizens.”

Despite such protests from the local population, on 26 August 1943 Donnell and Mudge received authorization from the Department of National Defence (not the New Toronto Council) to use thirty POWs at the tannery. Even after the internees arrived shortly after the decision was made, the town continued to lodge complaints against the project. By December 1943, 50 POWs worked in the facility. In the end, the government proceeded with plans that better suited their agenda, regardless of how much opposition there was against it. The situation today might not be much different.

Like many other sites of Canadian interment operations, the original facility that housed German POWs during the Second World War is long gone, and so is the memory of this period of history. But the most defining and applicable element of this piece of history is that the impassioned protests of Mimico citizens in the 1940s resonate with today’s debates about community safety and the future of the neighbourhood. These debates are continuing to rage at a local level just as the Toronto South Detention Centre begins to operate.

History, as we’ve implied many times before, can be as comforting as it is useful. When it comes to the construction and operation of Toronto’s new “superjail,” it’s worthwhile to ask whether discussions about safety (or perceptions of communal safety) have taken place before. Thinking historically serves to inform debate and future discussion regarding the prison, rather than allowing historical myopia to dominate discourse about the site’s utility.