Canada has a long history of taking care of its returning soldiers by settling them on parcels of land.  While this practice dates back to the 17th century in Britain, it was during WWI that Canada “came of age”.  In 1919 the Soldier Settlement Act provided soldiers wishing to farm with a loan to purchase acreage and equipment. This makes particular sense, since so many soldiers joined up as “boys” and returned as men without jobs. It’s one thing to remember the war dead, but another altogether to help jump-start lives of men who had given up a large portion their young lives  fighting for Canada.

In 1942 the Veterans Land Act sought to overcome the problems inherent in the 1919 plan, which saw cost overruns and many of the 25,000 ex-soldier participants lose their farms in the ensuing Depression. The difference was more choice was to be given to the ex-soldiers of WWII. Loans were available with very attractive repayment terms and additional monies were available for livestock and equipment, and they could build their own homes.

In Willowdale, quite a few of the original houses were built by and for veterans through the Veterans Land Act. I spoke with one of my neighbours, who with her late-veteran husband built her own home under the Act.

“My husband and I were not married, or even engaged yet, but his buddy told him about the Land Program and we went downtown to find out. They kept talking about farms and I said I was a city girl, I didn’t want to live on a farm. It was at that point that my then-boyfriend gave me a gentle kick under the table. If they were selling farms, that’s what we were going to get.”

The maximum amount to be borrowed was $6,000. This would help to purchase ½ acre or about 180 feet of lot frontage. Of the $6,000, about $500 was reserved for equipment and $250 for a kitchen stove. The remaining $5,250 would build a modest house to accommodate a growing family. Money was given out in three installments, 1/3 to excavate and build the basement, 1/3 to build the structure, and 1/3 to finish the interior.

“Families lived in a garage or in the unfinished basement, while building the house around or above them. Many of the girls were young mothers, and had to climb up out of the basements using a ladder, often carrying a child. Since it was a shared experience, everyone helped each other. The men would walk from Bayview to Yonge and catch the radial car to the city limits at Glengrove and change to the Yonge bus. A one-way trip to the office downtown was about two hours. If you got off at Church Street instead of Holmes, the fare was a nickel instead of a dime, so of, course, that is what we did. It was all farmland, of course, not a tree to be seen. The men would build at night and on weekends, when they weren’t working.”

The government held the title until the loan was paid and no one could sell before ten years had passed. Many of the new homeowners, split their ½ acre into three lots and sold off one or two. Another neighbour of mine had a veteran-neighbour who would eventually sell the lot next to his and he wanted to buy it, but he found he couldn’t afford the price on his modest salary, when the time came. The asking price for the 50 foot lot was $15,000!

This Remembrance Day I am wearing my poppy and thinking of the Willowdale veterans who were the pioneers of our neighbourhood.