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.
Employment numbers from the City of Toronto tell the story: between 2003 and 2013, the city shed 46,000 manufacturing jobs, a 26-per-cent decline, while the number of service-sector and office jobs rose by 155,000.
Quality Meat was one of the holdouts, employing hundreds of butchers and meat packers in what might be the bloodiest of businesses.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea has killed millions of pigs in the United States and thousands more in Ontario, driving up prices for the animals by 36 per cent this year on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Farmers whose barns haven’t been infected by it are having a very good year; slaughterhouses and processors are not. Given the porous border, the prices Canadian pig farmers command are set in Chicago. (The virus, which has no cure, does not affect human health of food safety.)
Meat companies such as Maple Leaf Foods and Quality Meat are forced to pay more for pigs at a time when they face low-price competition from makers of cheaper, imported food. So while the price of a market-ready pig in Ontario has soared by about 75 per cent to about $280 in the past 12 months, the price of a pork chop at the grocery store has risen by just 16 per cent.
In April court filings, Quality Meat said it had been losing money for a few years because of soaring pig prices and the decline of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. currency. The company blamed pig prices when it sought court protection in April from the farmers and others to which it owed $70-million. Quality Meat did not respond to requests for comment.
An slaughterhouse in an area whose warehouses are being replaced by condominiums might be an anachronism, but the stench of pig manure and the din of squealing pigs about to meet their end have not stopped people from buying houses in the area.
David Nicholson knew the plant was there, but it didn’t stop him from buying a condo a few blocks away. He’s not bothered by the smells. But he was put off by the sights and sounds of the transport trucks, the squeals and the snouts and ears poking through the vents. “I’d love to see it go,” Mr. Nicholson says after a recent game of tennis at the courts around the corner from the plant.
Brad Lamb, a realtor who works in the area and lives in a condo overlooking nearby Stanley Park, says houses within sight of the slaughterhouse sell on the day they are listed. At the same time, he says the slaughterhouse and the changing neighbourhood outgrew each other long ago.
“It’s inconceivable to any sane person to imagine a pig slaughterhouse in the downtown core,” Mr. Lamb says. “The pigs come in on trucks and they have to go along the Gardiner expressway in gridlock, they have to drive up Strachan in gridlock, and they have to turn down Wellington Street, which is a busy city street, and they have to pull into this archaic facility. It should’ve happened a long time ago.”
Mike Layton, city councillor for the area, says Quality Meat’s efforts to keep trucks moving quickly in and out of the plant were increasingly frustrated by the rise of residential traffic in the area. “As condos have marched their way west … it has put additional congestion in the area. And so we get complaints about the amount of traffic in the area from the folks at Quality Meat, because this is an industrial operation,” he says.
Mr. Otto, the historian, says Quality Meat led the fight to ensure the recently built Strachan Avenue bridge over top the railway did not bypass Wellington Avenue, onto which its trucks turn right into the plant. The change required the Metrolinx rail corridor be lowered by an additional 10 feet. “One of Quality Meat’s legacies is a better bridge on Strachan Avenue.” Mr. Otto says.
If you ask activist and area resident Sylvia Fraser, she’ll tell you it was the pigs themselves that closed the plant.
“They did it by dying off. And the reason they died off starts with the factory farms. They live in such crowded conditions that disease is bound to break out,” says Ms. Fraser, a journalist and author who has lived at Bathurst and King since 1990.
Ms. Fraser says crediting the pigs for the plant’s demise is whimsical. But she takes seriously the animals’ plight. She says she became alarmed at the increasing numbers of pig trucks rolling through her neighbourhood, and two years ago joined Toronto Pig Save, a group that says the meat industry raises and kills animals cruelly, makes food that is bad for people’s health and pollutes the environment. The group wants all slaughterhouses closed, and says no one should eat meat.
For four years, the group would stand on the median at Lake Shore Boulevard and Strachan – they call it Pig Island – holding signs against animal slaughter, and pouring bottled water into the mouths of the animals that poke their snouts through the trailers’ sides.
Weekly protests – or vigils, as the activists call them – still happen at Toronto’s two remaining cattle slaughterhouses, St. Helen’s Meat Packers and Ryding-Regency Meat Packers, and the Maple Leaf Foods chicken processing plant. The three are all that remain near St. Clair and Keele Streets, an area was once home to most of the major slaughterhouses and stockyards but now is dominated by big-box retailers and townhouses.
Ms. Fraser says the end of the downtown slaughterhouse means “one less death camp,” but acknowledges the animals will be sent to Southwestern Ontario or Quebec, where processors have picked up the slack left by Quality Meat’s departure. One of these, Great Lakes Specialty Meats in Mitchell, Ont., is owned by the Schwartz family.
The amount of tenderloin, bacon and ribs Canadians eat each year has fallen by 13 per cent over the past decade and a half to about 27 kilograms per capita. Bacon may no longer be the standard – if heart-clogging – Canadian breakfast accompaniment for eggs and toast, but it has become loved by the foodie set as a sinful and salty way to jazz up a plate. And the charcuterie craze endures – local chefs tarting up what used to be called cold cuts for restaurantgoers who might eat less fatty, cured meat, but don’t mind paying dearly when they do.
At the same time, Canadian exports of pork have nearly tripled in value since 1998, as consumers in emerging markets begin eating more meat.
It’s against this backdrop that Quality Meat outgrew its plant, as it exported its pork and sausages to more than 30 countries.
The plant is hemmed in by the train tracks to the south, Tecumseth Street to the east, and a patchwork of city-owned works yards and parking lots. A year ago the company signalled it was planning to quit the site when it asked the city to rezone its land to allow retail and residential uses. One source said a developer has offered the company $70-million for the property. The land is part of a broader study by city staff, one that should remake the area, with a mix of condos, shops, parks and even a pedestrian bridge that crosses the tracks.
It’s a rebirth that is inevitable in a once heavily industrialized area where buildings are known by their former uses – the Coffin Factory, the incinerator known as the Wellington Destructor, and now, the site of the slaughterhouse. They are places in name only, known for what they used to be. Just like Hogtown.