The UJPO was established in August 1945 following a national conference in 1944 of similar autonomous secular left-wing Jewish-Canadian organizations. As a national organization it was and is the public voice for and representative of its constituent members. True to its origins, over the years the UJPO became and remains notable for its prominent cultural institutions to preserve progressive Yiddish culture, its steadfast support of unions and workers’ rights, its activism against anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, its campaigning for world peace, and its opposition to all manifestations of oppression and exploitation, sexism and homophobia.
The head office of UJPO (currently UJPO Canada) was established in Toronto. UJPO‘s Branches, lodges and institutions in each centre served specific members’ interests (trades, culture, politics, theatre, music, etc.), each programming its own social and cultural events in addition to centrally planned events. At its peak membership, the UJPO boasted more than 2,500 members nation-wide; additional branches were established in Hamilton and Niagara Falls (Ontario), Calgary (Alberta) and Vancouver (British Columbia), among others. As newer members joined from the ranks of “white-collar” professions rather than the “blue-collar” trades, all branches were merged.
Because Toronto’s predecessor organization had grown during WWII, UJPO Toronto purchased a building at 83-85 Christie Street to better meet its members’ needs. In Montreal UJPO‘s home was in the Morris Winchevsky School’s edifice and in Winnipeg, in the Sholem Aleichem School building. In 1960 the Toronto UJPO moved into the Morris Winchevsky School’s newly built Winchevsky Centre which also houses UJPOCanada’s office.
The precursor organizations to the UJPO (United Jewish People’s Order) evolved from the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, a socialist umbrella organization which included Bundists, socialists, free thinkers, secularists and Yiddishists. In 1926 the Workmen’s Circle disenfranchised and/or expelled those members it considered radicals (supporters of the 1917 Russian revolution). These ‘radical’ individuals formed the Labour League Mutual Benefit Society (LLMBS) in Toronto, and the Canadian Workers’ Circle (in Montreal and in Winnipeg), and other names in various Canadian cities. These organizations met the needs for a progressive social community and schooling for children, providing benefits for its members such as medical (decades before Medicare was instituted), unemployment and mortuary coverage, and a credit union, all quite revolutionary at the time.
The cultural and educational activities were mainly conducted in Yiddish, catering to the influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Each centre maintained its cultural activities under the name of the Yiddisher Arbeter Kultur Tsenter (Jewish Workers’ Cultural Centre). The vast majority of members were poor and working class people labouring in sweatshops and often living in substandard conditions. Many were in the forefront of the movement to create workers’ unions. They were socialists who were committed to equality and bringing about a “nayer, frayer velt” – a newer, freer world.
The major emphasis of these organizations’ programming was to preserve the rich history and values of Yiddish culture or Yiddishkayt, (Jewishness), through the creation of choirs, orchestras, children’s schools (Folk Shules), activity clubs, camps, dance and theatre groups.
In Toronto the Frayhayt Gesangs Fareyn (Freedom Singing Society) which subsequently became the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir (TFJC) was part of the similarly-named left-wing choral movement in North America, and was autonomously formed in 1925. The same was true with Camp Kindervelt (Children’s World), which evolved into Camp Naivelt. Within a few years both groups requested to become institutions of the Labour League. With the purchase of a house at 414 Markham Street, Toronto’s Morris Winchevsky School (MWS) was founded in 1928 by the LLBMS. Subsequently other school locations were opened to meet growing demands. In 1959 MWS became an autonomous charitable organization as UJPO-Toronto withdrew its financial support, and in 1978 the TJFC also acquired autonomy and charitable status for similar reasons.