About facer street

Introduction from A Walk Down Facer Street: 1870-1939 by Stan Skrzeszewski

The Facer Street district, an area loosely bounded by Vine Street, Carlton Street, Grantham Ave and the QEW, is not well documented in the history of the City of St. Catharines. In the early 1600s it was simply an area along the Niagara Indian trail. Settlement in the area dates back to the mid-Victorian period, from the 1870s and 1880s when forests were disappearing and the area was covered by orchards and farmland. It was a time of industrialization and urbanization. Facer was once on the outskirts of the city. The Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Counties of Lincoln and Welland, Ontario by H.R. Page (Toronto, 1876) shows the 3rd Welland Canal located where the QEW is now with Facer Street heading off from Niagara St., to the farm of Lewis Facer. Facer Street is cut across by Samuel St which may be located where Grantham Ave is now. Facer Street at the time was in St. James Ward, St. Catharines

From the late 1800’s to 1914 there was a major surge of immigration from Europe to Canada brought about partially by an aggressive Canadian immigration policy which encouraged Europeans to come to Canada. Under Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, Canada campaigned to bring more Europeans, including Eastern Europeans to Canada. The campaign ended in 1914. From around 1890-1928 Eastern Europe went through a major ‘economic migration’ consisting of mainly poor landless peasants and labourers who left their homelands in order to escape a grinding poverty. Many came to Canada. In 1900 Canada’s population stood at about six million, but by 1920 the population had nearly doubled. There was great concern and even fear of the impact of all these foreigners on Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Ontario, including in cities like St. Catharines. Earlier concern had also been expressed during the earlier immigration of Irish settlers to the area and their potential impact on society. Many groups from Eastern Europe, such as Poles, Ruthenians and Galicians, and southern Italians were labelled by many as “undesirable.” Many of these people were very poor and had very limited education. In 1909, the “ordinary Canadian thought of foreigners as the men who dig the sewers and get into trouble at the police court…dress in outlandish garb, speak a barbarian tongue, and smell abominably.”  

Construction of the 3rd Welland Canal and late-nineteenth century immigration more or less coincided.  The route of the Canal bypassed the established settlement of St. Catharines and resulted in the development of the Facer street district which was isolated from the established town by the canal and which could only be crossed by the narrow Niagara Street swing bridge. As a result, the neighborhood developed with its own identity and became a self-sufficient community in which immigrants from Europe were in the majority, but which also included some of the other marginalized, such as the Black community and the poorer white, Anglo working class.   Because the area was largely working class it was also the centre of many labour disputes and labour activity, which for many of the Anglo-establishment was seen as radical, foreign intervention in Canadian affairs.  

In the 1920’s it was dubbed the ‘foreign corner’. Foreigner in this context general refers to anyone who was non-British, or non-Canadian, although the latter term is harder to define. At that time, ‘foreigners’ were very poor immigrants who often did not have enough to eat. Working class immigrants were generally ostracized and excluded by Anglo-Saxon Canadian society, were sometimes feared and certainly engendered suspicion and hostility.

When the 3rd canal was still in place the good citizens of St. Catharines could live with the comfortable belief that Facer Street was not really part of the city. It was, well, over there on the other side of the canal.

It didn’t help that most of the ‘foreigners’ were predominantly Catholic or Orthodox in a city which prided itself in its Protestant traditions. From 1911 to 1945 St. Catharines was approximately 80% or more British and 10% non-British. Many Anglo-Canadians wanted to see Canada develop into an Anglo-Saxon nation. Within this British majority some small ethnic groups tended to be heavily concentrated in small areas, either known by names such as “foreign quarters” or “Little Italy.” However, it was often assumed that the dominant and superior Anglo-Saxon race would assimilate these foreign groups and turn them into Anglo-Saxon Canadians. Ralph Connor wrote in his novel The Foreigner – “The blood strains of great races will mingle in the blood of a race greater than the greatest of them all,” which of course, refers to the British race. Many at the time felt that the Anglo-Saxon race was superior and that it had a destiny and mission to bring this superiority to the aid of lesser races and to essentially dominate them for their own good – for them being Canadian, meant being British. How to ‘Canadianize’ the foreigners was a major question of the times. Churches and schools were to play a major role in this process of dominant assistance and assimilation. There is no doubt that the early appearance of an Anglican Mission on Facer Street in 1914 and the Baptist Mission in 1922 was intended to Protestantize and Canadianize the foreigners. And although these mission churches did a lot of good work, they were intended to see that Protestant values prevailed, while limiting the spread of Roman Catholicism which they saw as a menace to Western civilization.   

The Facer Street neighborhood is a transitional place where the displaced persons, the People without Papers, the foreigners, ethnics, and generally poorer people lived. As a transitional place, it was a place of hope and dreams and many did leave to pursue and achieve success. Although it was known as the ‘foreign corner’ there were also a lot of British people in the neighborhood, but they belonged the poorer, impoverished working class. In current parlance Facer Street is where diversity resides, a place where you can witness immigrant culture. It has a deserved reputation as a tough neighborhood, somewhat dangerous, and to this day some people prefer not to venture there. It was also once a vibrant street with many small shops and an active ethnic, primarily Polish, Italian and Ukrainian life. The days of that vibrant, multicultural life have passed, although there is a very alive sense of nostalgia and rootedness around Facer Street.

On the historical cartography of St. Catharines, Facer Street was marked as a blank space, the blank continent, on the borderlands, terra incognita, a space of uncertain existence. Even some of the people who lived there in the early days, didn’t feel they belonged there, such as the Facer Street Ratepayers Association, who felt it could be made part of St. Catharines, but only if the name Facer Street was changed to something more becoming, and of course, the foreigners had to be at least controlled, if not removed.

Although rarely mentioned in literature, Facer Street did get a mention in Howard Engel’s A Victim Must Be Found:

“Facer Street, on the northern side of the old canal, never had class. Not even when steamships were running up and down carrying the produce of the western provinces out to the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic did Facer Street reap any joy from what was going on under its nose. And now that the canal has moved to another setting altogether, and even the scar left by the old canal cut is more or less buried under suburban streets, Facer Street has lost even the promise of happier days.”


~Stan Skrzeszewski, 2018



Stan Skrzeszewski is a philosopher, writer, consultant and librarian (retired). His focus now is on curating creative projects, such as writing poetry, history, displays and performance pieces. A frequent speaker in Canada and internationally on topics ranging from Canadian history, library trends, philosophical analysis, entrepreneurship, ethics, cosmopolitanism, nomadism to the animate nature of information. He has organized and facilitated "Philosopher Cafes"​ and open conversations as programs in public libraries, art galleries, museums and other locations as well as at conferences, workshops and other special events on a wide range of topics. Recent topics include: the War of 1812, success, euthanasia, altruism, democracy, family and aging. He has developed a post-secondary course in entrepreneurship, a non-credit course in ethics for seniors, an introduction to art, and an introduction to wine. Facer Street Poems (2016) and A Walk Down Facer Street: 1870-1939 (2018) are published with Grey Borders Books.