The break-in at Praxis Corporation

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The corner of Russell and St. George streets in Toronto, near the former location of Praxis's office. Image: City of Toronto Archives/Flickr

Founded in Toronto in 1968, the Praxis Corporation was a progressive research institute aimed at organizing the poor and eradicating income inequality in Canada. Praxis's activities and its surveillance by the RCMP Security Service are recounted in Paul Weinberg's recent book When Poverty Mattered: Then and Now, from which this essay is adapted.

In late 1970, a semi-detached house at 373 Huron St. owned by the University of Toronto was a hub of progressive activity in the city. The folks fighting to stop the Spadina Expressway rented two large rooms at the front of the house. The Just Society Movement members usually gathered to plan and talk in the back room on the ground floor. And on the second floor were the offices of Praxis Corporation. Researcher Howard Buchbinder worked in the front office while another room was dedicated to the planning of the upcoming January 1971 Poor People's Conference.

All of this came to an abrupt end of December 18, when wet snow was already covering the ground. Praxis staffer Lynn Lang spent the entire day working on a huge mailing to delegates from participating organizations for the planned Toronto conference, scheduled for January 7-19, 1971. By the end of the day, files were spread on a table on the second floor alongside the windows overlooking the street.

"I was in the middle of my task when I had to go home to pick something up. I asked people in the office to assure me they would be there until I got back," Lang recalls. "Unexpectedly, a friend who had been travelling in Europe for a couple of years showed up on my doorstep as I arrived at home. It took me longer than I expected to get back to the office. On returning, I followed a fire truck as it turned up Huron and was devastated to discover it had stopped at Praxis, which was all ablaze."

According to an RCMP internal memo, at approximately 9:30 p.m. a fire was set by unknown individuals in the basement of the house, just below the kitchen. The possibility that the cause was "an incendiary device" was raised by the Toronto fire chief, who requested an investigation by the fire marshall's office. Apparently, registration file cards pertaining to the Poor People's Conference were missing. The memo also noted that when Bell disconnected the telephone inside the house after they fire, they uncovered a wire tap.

On December 22, the same day the RCMP Security Service issued its internal report on the fire and theft, Praxis representatives held a press conference. They revealed that, in the days preceding the burglary, office staff had received harassing telephone calls following a series of columns by The Toronto Evening Telegram journalist Peter Worthington, who had been critical of Praxis's work. The press release stated: "We do not know who took the files or the money. We do not know how the fire started. We do not know if they are connected. We do know that these events occur in a sequence which is closely related in time to a series of irresponsible newspaper articles."

A few weeks following the break-in, Worthington received a mysterious telephone call that some of the stolen research institute documents were being delivered to him at the newspaper, and that they weighed between 20 and 30 pounds. He says he never discovered the identities of the two or three men in heavy coats who "unceremoniously" shoved the files into his arms. One of the visitors had a Ukrainian accent. "They drove onto the parking area on the roof [and came to] the back door and did not enter the building … The meeting was just a delivery -- no discussion."

Afterward, Worthington embarked upon reading the delivered material, which related to Praxis, the Just Society Movement, Stop Spadina, Metro Tenants and the Poor People's conference. More than file cards relating to the conference had been taken. Worthington made note of the internal documents and position papers, finding material relating to how to handle the media, schools targeted for "radical politics" and priorities for political action, as well as workers' control papers and lists of people with specific assignments.

I managed to obtain a copy of the list of the specific items, including Praxis documents delivered to Worthington, via access-to-information requests through Library and Archives Canada and CSIS. The journalist had indeed come into possession of a bundle of internal and confidential correspondence pertaining to a range of potential contracts inside and outside government and even outside the country -- in the U.S. -- that would be typical fare in any organization that relies on research for its financial survival. Names galore on various lists of activists, supporters and potential clients were also in the package.

Eventually, Worthington telephoned the Metro Toronto Police, who directed him to the RCMP. He did not reveal publicly in his columns that he had received the files or what happened to them until 1977, when the McDonald Commission was called to investigate the RCMP Security Service.

What Worthington did not realize at the time was that a second batch of stolen Praxis documents was delivered around the same time to RCMP headquarters in Toronto by an informant for the Security Service inside the Edmund Burke Society, an extreme right-wing and anti-communist organization.

The plot was just beginning to thicken.

Meanwhile, in the weeks following the Praxis break-in, the University of Toronto arranged to have the house at 373 Huron torn down. A spokesperson for the campus administration explained in an interview with The Varsity that the decision was made "in view of the extensive damage and costs of repairing." Support for the demolishment also came from the president of the local residents' group, the Huron-Sussex Association.

These assertions that the property where Praxis was based was so damaged that it had to be torn down were disputed by Peter Holland, a graduate student in placement at the time at Praxis and for many years afterward involved in housing for the Department of National Defence. He speculates that the burglars probably entered the house through the door at the back from the laneway to avoid being heard or seen by neighbours on this leafy residential street. Praxis board member Peter Russell agrees that 373 Huron, despite the fire, was in reasonable shape and could have been restored and used again by the university.

In February 2011, I contacted the Toronto police for any records they might have kept on the unsolved Praxis burglary and fire. I knew that the chances were small because of the immense number of break-ins that occur in this major city. A spokesperson wrote back saying that nothing could be found on the matter.

Paul Weinberg is a veteran freelance journalist based in Hamilton whose work has appeared at rabble.ca, The Monitor, NOW Magazine and The Globe and Mail's business section. When Poverty Mattered: Then and Now is published by Fernwood Publishing and can be purchased directly from the publisher, at Brunswick Books or at your local independent bookstore.

Image: City of Toronto Archives/Flickr

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