Union Station, Toronto, Circa 1935. Image by Arthur Lane Studios.
Canadian Pacific Railway poster targeting British immigrants, Circa 1925. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
Arrival of immigrants at Union Station, Toronto, Circa 1910. Image by Pringle & Booth. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
Monument to Multiculturalism, Union Station, November 16, 2007. Image by Peter Mintz. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.
Toronto's third Union Station
Construction began on Toronto’s current Union Station in 1913 but took 14 years to complete. One of the station’s most striking features is its great hall, which has a 26-metre arched ceiling. Interestingly, the exterior of the building features the name of the Grand Trunk Railway; however, because the company declared bankruptcy before the station’s completion, no Grand Trunk trains ever stopped at this Union Station.
On August 6th, 1927, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) formally opened the station, ceremoniously purchasing a ticket to Alberta for $71.20. However, the building was not accessible to trains until August 11th. During this period, passengers had to buy tickets at the new Union Station and then walk to the old one to board their trains. Although eventually resolved, the disagreements forced workers to create oddly curved tracks near the station’s train shed. These tracks still exist to this day. In 1975, Parks Canada put Union Station on its list of heritage buildings.
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Immigration by rail
Before the popularity of plane travel, Union Station was the main entry point for many newcomers to Toronto. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Toronto’s population rapidly climbed due to increased immigration. Ships from Europe often arrived at ports in Halifax and Quebec City, where passengers would disembark and continue their travel to Toronto via train. In some cases, railways, including CPR, owned transatlantic ships and offered discounts on train fares for those who came to Canada using railway-owned ships.
As the need for labour increased in the 1920s, the Canadian Government created a deal with the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways to increase the number of people immigrating to Canada’s west. The government specifically allowed the railways to target immigration from countries in central Europe, which had previously been seen as less “desirable” for immigration. Although the scheme was short lived, an estimated 185,000 immigrants came to Canada as a result of this program.
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The rise of traveller's aid
At the turn of the century, many immigrants arriving in Toronto had few supplies and little knowledge of the city. Unfortunately, this meant that Union Station was an excellent place for conmen to rip off new arrivals. To combat this and to provide additional supplies and aid to new arrivals, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union formed the Traveller’s Aid Society.
As diverse populations of immigrants arrived in the early 20th century, cultural-based community groups formed to give new immigrants a sense of community. Many of these organizations, including the Italian Immigrant Aid Society, met immigrants directly at Union Station and provided them with housing and job support. During times of crisis, humanitarian groups also set up at Union Station. In 1957, during the Hungarian Revolution, the city created the Metropolitan Immigration Committee. The group, composed of members of 27 community groups, helped the 200-300 Hungarian refugees that arrived at Union Station daily.
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From immigration to tourism
As air travel became the popular mode of international transportation in the mid-20th century, Union Station transitioned from a hub of immigration to a commuter hub and tourist destination. Today, over 65 million people travel through Union Station every year. Located in Union Station, Toronto’s Tourist Information Centre helps unfamiliar travellers plan their time in the city.
The Toronto Traveller’s Association, which formed out of the Traveller’s Aid Society, also continues to work out of the station. In 1985, the city erected the Monument to Multiculturalism outside of Union Station and stands as a reminder of the building’s importance to Toronto’s immigrant history.