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How the press turned 250,000 into 50,000

NOVEMBER 27, 1996 – The numbers game has loomed large in the wake of the days of action in Toronto.

Toronto cops came up with the ludicrous figure of 40,000 for the demonstration on October 26, a figure so unbelievable that they had to increase it to 75,000.[1]

The Toronto Star contributed to the nonsense by having “experts” count heads of an aerial photograph of the demo at Queen’s Park.

They arrived at a figure of 52,800 for the crowd size.[2]

But the problem is that the crowd took hours to march to Queen’s Park. At any one time, only a fraction of the demo was at Queen’s Park itself.

Walter Podilchak who teaches collective behaviour at the University of Toronto applied his skills to the crowd size. He came up with a minimum figure of 150,000 for the portion of the crowd that he said took two hours to leave Coronation Park and 30,000 for the group marching from City Hall, for a minimum total of 180,000.[3]

In fact, this figure is an underestimation. The crowd took at least three hours to empty from Coronation Park, as anyone who had to stand there and wait to get out will attest. The demonstration was easily 250,000 strong.

But you don’t have to be a professor to know that the crowd was in six figures. Vicky Hargreaves was waiting for her section of the march to arrive.

“We waited at a restaurant, half a block from the convention centre. We sat there for 90 minutes until our group passed. In that time, we figured 150 to 200 passed in front of the window every five seconds, which means that over the first hour we saw about 72,000.” That makes 90,000 a conservative estimate for the number who passed in the 90 minutes Vicky and her friends were waiting, and they joined the march half way through, again coming up with a minimum figure of 180,000.[4] Add in the 30,000 from City Hall, and the figure goes above 200,000.

How the Tories turned 100,000 into 25,000

There is a war going on over more than just the size of the Toronto demonstration. The Tories are trying to make picketers, as well as demonstrators disappear.

A publication from Ottawa called Collective Bargaining Review, collects strike statistics from the provinces, and compiles national statistics every month.

The process is simple. Once a week, every provincial ministry of labour is phoned, a list is made of major disputes going on, and a preliminary estimation is made of the size of those disputes. Once a month, a written report from the provinces is sent to Ottawa.

That process means that there has to be some adjustments between the preliminary figures and the final figures. During the first eleven months of 1995 those adjustments were made nine times. The biggest adjustment was in May, when the number of strikers was revised downwards by 2,450.

But the Days of Action have caused problems.

The first one, in London, was initially completely ignored. But one month later, the Tories concluded that 23,000 people had struck that day, revising the figure upwards.[5]

Then came Hamilton.

The provisional figure arrived at verbally, first reported in April, was 100,000 participating in the Hamilton strike. That figure stayed on the books until the summer. But in the July-August edition, the Hamilton strike was downgraded – to 25,000![6]

An official with Collective Bargaining Review was asked about the discrepancy.

“Our hands are tied” he said. “We have to go with what the province’s decide. In some cases, what matters is not the number itself, but what is politically correct.”

What an absurdity. The Tories are trying to pretend that 75,000 strikers on February 23 just weren’t there. They are trying to pretend that the Hamilton strike was only marginally bigger than the London strike December 11.

On this basis, apparently, the Toronto strike is being estimated at 75,000, a figure that is far too low.

But perhaps it is, in Tory-land, “politically correct”.

© 1996 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Phinjo Gombu and Nicolaas van Rijn, “Thousands March to Protest Harris But Premier Remains Committed to Cutbacks,” Toronto Star, October 27, 1996.

[2] Nicolaas van Rijn, “Down for the Count over Rally Numbers Our Experts Average Big Protest at 52,800,” Toronto Star, October 29, 1996.

[3] Walter Podilchak, “Counting Real People, Not Images, Puts Rally Total at about 180,000,” Toronto Star, November 2, 1996.

[4] Vicki Hargreaves, “Here’s Another Estimate That Says 180,000,” Toronto Star, November 2, 1996.

[5] Canada. Department of Labour, “Table VI,” Collective bargaining review, March 1996; Canada. Department of Labour, “Table VII,” Collective bargaining review, January 1996.

[6] Canada. Department of Labour, “Table VI,” Collective bargaining review, July_August 1996; Canada. Department of Labour, “Table IX,” Collective bargaining review, March 1996.

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