Toronto’s Hogtown nickname was slapped on the city long ago by people who loved to hate the place.
Torontonians happily adopted the handle. They knew where their pork – and the slaughterhouse smells – came from.
An 1898 story in The Globe put it this way: “The remark originally had no relation at all to our friend the hog, but was merely intended to convey an impression that the citizens of Toronto were porcine in their tendencies and had their fore feet in anything that was worth having. … This is Hogtown and growing more hoggy all the time. Toronto bacon is chasing Chicago pork and short ribs all around the ring. In a few more rounds we shall reach its solar plexus.”
With the closing of Quality Meat Packers Ltd., a chapter of Toronto’s hoggy history has come to an end.
The slaughterhouse at 2 Tecumseth St., which swam against a tide of gentrification for years and resisted the hollowing out of Toronto’s industrial roots for even longer, killed its last pig some time in April.
The factory that made meals of 6,000 pigs each day, encroached upon by glass condos and beset by pesky protesters, has fallen silent just four months shy of its 100th birthday. The daily procession of some 30 pig trucks creeping though downtown traffic toward Strachan Avenue and Wellington Street West has ended. The squeals and the stink are finished. So are 750 jobs and the killing floor that handled one quarter of Ontario’s pork production.
There has been a slaughterhouse on the site since 1914, when the rail yards around Fort York were the centre of Toronto’s meat industry, home to a handful of slaughterhouses, feedlots and meat markets.
In the end, it was a piglet-killing virus that closed Quality Meat, succeeding where aggrieved condo dwellers, a determined band of animal lovers and a century of change failed. The slaughterhouse was a throwback to Toronto’s industrial past, stubbornly sticking to its business while neighbouring factories and warehouses left. The trucks idling in gridlock, pig snouts and ears poking through the vents, were a smelly reminder of the city’s history, and a sign that the place that processes a quarter of Ontario’s pork had outgrown its downtown address.
Pigs are a big deal in Toronto. Or at least they used to be. The city was once among the largest meat producers in North America, home to sprawling feedlots, stockyards and slaughterhouses where animals were butchered, pickled or packed in salt.
The arrival of the railways in Toronto in the 1850s and 1860s allowed pigs and cattle to be quickly brought to the city by the hundreds. Rail yards and interchanges became surrounded by livestock markets, first near the mouth of the Don River, later moving near Fort York, and finally the Junction in what was then the northwest part of the city, says Wayne Reeves, chief curator for the City of Toronto’s museums.
“In the same way that smoke was an emblem of industrial progress, the stench that comes from slaughterhouses and pork-packing plants was also an emblem of a really prosperous city,” Mr. Reeves says.
Even the municipality itself was in on the action. The city owned a cattle-staging and feed lot near Fort York in the late 1800s, and in 1914 opened the Toronto Municipal slaughterhouse to serve smaller butchers the larger meat packers did not. The venture was a money loser, says historian Stephen Otto of the Friends of Fort York. But it wasn’t until 1960 that the city finally got out of the pork business and sold its civic slaughterhouse.
The buyer was Nathan Schwartz, a man who owned a string of meat shops that went by the name Quality Meat Packers.
The meat-packing industry, like much of Toronto’s manufacturing base, has since migrated to 905 and beyond, where property taxes and real estate are cheaper. Burlington, Woolwich and Mitchell – these are the southwestern Ontario towns that bear the Hogtown mantle now, located close to the farms that supply the pigs and not far from Highway 401 and the U.S. market.