ATAK: Tenant Action in the ’60s and ’70s

The only way to counteract federal-provincial apathy is to organize – to stick together and fight for rights. Housing is a right, not a privilege. Our aim is to make available a decent home at a price the tenant can afford to pay.”

Joan Kuyek (Newman), former President of ATAK. The Kingston Whig Standard. Apr. 1, 1969

In 1968, a group of tenants and activists came together in Kingston to form the Association of Tenants Action in Kingston (ATAK). They opposed high rents, argued that tenants should be able to bargain with landlords, and built a wider movement to defend working class and poor people in Ontario against unjust housing conditions. Led by tireless activists, ATAK used diverse tactics to challenge rising rent prices, low vacancy, and hostile landlords. ATAK provides us with an important historical lesson about the effectiveness of grassroots organizing and the dedication of intelligent, diligent leadership to hold governments accountable and advocate for tenants, workers, the poor, and the unhoused.

Ottawa Citizen. Feb. 26, 1969

Building the Movement

The groundwork for ATAK started in 1966 when a group of young activists and students came to Kingston with a desire to learn about struggles facing tenants, working people, and the poor. Some of these activists spent the summer of 1965 attending training courses across Canada sponsored by the Student Union for Peace Action and Union général des étudiants du Québec. These organizers met with people to learn about their concerns, and work with communities to build a response to the housing crisis together. Their approach favoured locally-driven activism, with organizers facilitating strategies with tenants and residents. Some of the activists initially formed the Kingston Community Project (KCP), designed to reach out to local tenants and the poor and help them access social services, health care, and funds to pay rent. In the summer of 1968 ATAK was officially born, including a diverse membership of tenants, low-income families, professionals, trade unionists, and students. ATAK included a “broad class base” with a peak membership of about 400 people in June 1969 (Harris 1984 773). ATAK’s first general meeting was held at the Calvary Hall, at the corner of Charles Street and Bagot Street, in September of 1968.

Major Issues

Tenants were frustrated with increasing rent prices paired with a housing shortage (a vacancy rate of less than 1% reported in February of 1969) and lack of enforcement of minimum housing standards. Media reports in 1969 stated that rents had increased anywhere from 12% to 40%, with one unit’s rent increasing by 120% per year because of “a heavy demand from Queen’s students.” In addition to rental increases, economic tensions grew when industry slowed down, dockyards closed in 1968, and unemployment increased. Tenants were struggling – there were only 3 public housing projects for 300 families that required them, while landlords refused to pay for basic repairs like plumbing, and some residents criticized the creation of subsidized housing located a significant distance from the city centre. These issues inspired many community members to support ATAK, spurring several strategies and actions aimed to improve living conditions for tenants.

Kingston Whig Standard. Apr. 16, 1969
Ottawa Journal. Mar. 22, 1969

Approach: Politics, Advocacy, Direct Action

ATAK took a multi-pronged approach to activism, using direct action and working within the municipal political system to put pressure on governments and landlords. They also created research projects and built networks across the province to link tenant movements. ATAK connected with politicians, which led to media coverage of tenant concerns. Members of ATAK met with New Democratic Party members of the Ontario legislature in 1968, and NDP leader Donald MacDonald noted the “soaring rents” and “tenants being victimized by landlords taking advantage of the housing shortage” in Kingston. Ontario Liberal leader Robert Nixon also acknowledged Kingston’s “severe housing problem” and criticized the Ontario Housing Corporation in 1968. In late 1969 ATAK wrote a brief to the Ontario government saying tenants should have the right to bargain collectively with landlords to protect them from economic exploitation. ATAK was connecting with the broader community through the media to build capacity.

In the fall of 1968, two members of ATAK ran in the Kingston municipal election. Joan Kuyek (Newman) ran “on a ticket of housing, traffic and unresponsive city hall.” She won the “alderman” position in St. Lawrence ward, serving as a Council member and President of ATAK. One of the major issues for ATAK and Kuyek was public housing and rent controls to alleviate the burden of the increasing rent prices. In January 1969, Kuyek said Kingston tenants were being subjected to “a stall from the city and the province…I think Kingston and the provincial government are fuzzing the issue of rent control…The tenants are not going to put up with this stall much longer.” Kuyek proposed a rent review board to the City Council, but believed her motion would be defeated because “the majority of council members are pro-landlord.” The review board would document housing facts in the City and investigate the need for a rent control board. Ultimately, ATAK’s pressure helped force the City to create a Mayor’s Committee on Housing to investigate complaints, make recommendations to Council, explore sites for rent-to-income housing, and find emergency housing for families displaced by fire and other disasters. ATAK’s actions also influenced the Kingston Housing Authority. On the heels of ATAK’s major campaigns, the Kingston Housing Authority allocated funds to hire a Tenant Relations Officer and an Assistant Housing Manager in 1970.

Ottawa Citizen. Oct. 5, 1968
Ottawa Journal. Apr. 7, 1969

Aiming to build capacity throughout the province, ATAK took initiative to form a new province-wide tenants’ association and hosted their inaugural meeting in Kingston in June of 1969. The group’s goals included lobbying for rent controls, housing standards, and changes in the Landlord-Tenant Act. The meeting saw 15 tenants’ associations take part, including delegates from Kingston, Toronto, Sudbury, Ottawa, Hamilton, Kitchener, Guelph, Brampton, and Peterborough. On June 30, 1969, 75 delegates voted the Ontario Tenants Association into existence and supporting the right of tenants to collectively bargain with landlords. ATAK’s commitment to collective bargaining for tenants and rent controls remained solid through 1969. Kuyek stated: “We intend to organize all high-rise buildings in the city into unions which can bargain collectively with their landlords. Tenants everywhere must have the right to negotiate with their landlords over rent and maintenance.” A brief from ATAK released in December of 1969 noted that “Without rent control the tenant is left unprotected […] for further rent increases unwarranted […]”

ATAK also used direct action to get the attention of local government and the media. In October of 1968, 25 members of ATAK picketed city hall, protesting landlords who had increased rent for tenants. They asked Mayor Robert Fray to “obtain use of vacant federal property to accommodate several families living in overcrowded conditions.” In September of 1970, thirty ATAK members spoke at city council as part of a rent control protest. The members provided comparative analysis of rent control in Québec, and since the Ontario government passed a bill leaving rent control up to the municipalities, ATAK argued that Kingston City Council should control rents, as they increased by an average of 10% that year. Ultimately, Council decided to take no action in a vote of 11-4. Thirty ATAK members gathered at the back of the Council chamber to vote on their next steps, but police officers entered the chamber, spoke with the mayor, and then cleared the room. ATAK’s approach to direct action was also about building a broader solidarity. ATAK members joined the striking Fairbanks Morse workers in April of 1969, supporting the pickets of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 522. This multifaceted approach is a testament to ATAK’s strategic thinking and commitment to collective action.

From 1965 to 1969, ATAK and its allies engaged in struggles against local landlords that included involved a lot of local media coverage. One landlord, John G. Hewitt, charged his tenants a minimum of $20 to hear their complaints about his properties. ATAK and its precursor, the Kingston Community Project, raised money for tenants to pay the fee so they could voice their concerns to the landlord. Tenants negotiated with Hewitt to pay for repairs on substandard units, and some of these negotiations were successful as the landlord agreed to pay for some repairs while still refusing other requests. Hewitt owned 50 properties in Kingston, Belleville, and Gananoque in 1965-1966, and 150 units by 1969. In September 1969, tenants staged pickets outside Hewitt’s house. ATAK said 16 families renting from him had backed a rent strike, as rent had increased by 12.6% for his units. Tenants put their rent into a trust fund until a resolution could be negotiated. The same month, ATAK also picketed CIBC, claiming the bank was aiding Hewitt in his activities. In November 1969, a tenant took Hewitt to provincial court. The tenant participated in a rent strike against the landlord in September, as he had raised the rent from $85 to $120/month (40% increase). The media reported that Hewitt seized $2000 of the tenant’s belongings. In the end, the court awarded the tenant for damages.

Ottawa Journal. Sept. 20, 1969

Strong Leadership

Strong leadership helped drive ATAK’s creative and effective tactics and strategies. The first President of ATAK, Joan Kuyek (Newman) was particularly driven, hard-working, and eloquent in her approach to the tenant issues in the area. Kuyek came to Kingston in 1965, and helped build a political base and advocating for the poor. She had experience in activism through the Company of Young Canadians and she was integral to building the Kingston Community Project. The KCP operated a 24-hour telephone service for lower-income families to obtain information and advice on how to access services and handle tenant issues. In the early stages of organizing, Joan Kuyek and her colleague Myrna Wood ran the project out of their apartment, and Kuyek expressed concern that “nobody talked about the housing crisis except those who suffered from it.”

In addition to the KCP, Kuyek helped set up Mothers United for Maximum Safety (MUMS), a group that felt traffic in the city should be planned with people in mind, not automobiles. They campaigned for more streetlights and more crossing guards, which were successfully implemented. Kuyek knocked on doors across the city to muster support from working-class and poor residents, and she ran strategy meetings and workshops on housing activism. When Kuyek was elected to Kingston City Council in St. Lawrence Ward, characterized by the media as “the poorest ward in the city where 74 percent of the residents are tenants,” she was committed to building “tenant power.” In her role on Council, Kuyek not only fought for rent controls, but also tried to persuade the city finance committee to equalize wage rates for workers at the city. She fought for lower-paid women to have wage parity with men.

Kuyek was obviously not alone, as she worked with dedicated activists Myrna Wood, Bobbie Spark, and Dennis Crossfield. This is how Spark described ATAK’s work:

“We’re a pressure group…we pressure City Hall and we pressure landlords. We made housing a real issue in the election, and not one candidate got out of speaking on it…We have a grievance chairman, and anyone with a complaint sees him. Then he will see the landlord and, if possible, negotiate with him. We backed tenants in a rent strike last fall against one landlord. In this case three houses were involved, with three to four families living in each one. They held back on the rent for two and a half weeks and were able to get the rents lowered slightly at first. After more talking he brought them down another few dollars…We forced the city to take responsibility for one family that was burned out. They found emergency accommodation for them in the municipal bath house. They say they won’t necessarily do it again, but we feel they’ve set a precedent and will have to continue…We have also achieved nomination of tenants to all municipal bodies dealing with housing…The people here are mad because the Ontario Housing Corporation lease takes away every right you should have under the law, and any future rights you might be granted.”

ATAK recognized that struggling against landlords only helped tenants so much, as organizer Dennis Crossfield noted: “We learned that going after individual landlords was not the solution. The landlords are not where it’s at. It’s the government that determines mortgages and capital gains…”

Kingston Whig-Standard. Feb. 13, 1969

What We Can Learn

As of the publication of this article in 2022, Kingston tenants continue to face high rents, low vacancy, and lack of maintenance and necessary repairs. The inflation rate in Canada is close to 7%, rents continue to rise by significant margins, and although the Ontario minimum wage has increased to $15.50/hr, the living wage for Kingston is at almost $20/hr. Tenants have been vocal about poor living conditions at rental units in the city over the last several years, with public housing units being some of the most under-serviced.

ATAK’s commitment to democratic activism, helping elevate the voices of tenants, challenging levels of government to respond to the struggles of tenants, and building networks of solidarity across the city and province provides a lesson for us on organizing toward equitable, affordable housing. Working-class people continue to bear a heavy burden in Kingston, with inflation far outpacing wages.

Even with the most dedicated activists, the history of ATAK also shows us the challenges to organizing against high rents and status quo governments. The Stories of the Swamp Ward podcast released interviews with some ATAK activists in 2017. The stories of those organizers remind us that there are serious difficulties and contradictions (personal, professional, political) that activists must contend with when challenging powerful figures like landlords and governments. Nonetheless, a commitment to solidarity amongst working people can, and does, alleviate the pressures of an inequitable housing market.


Newspaper Archives

The Kingston Whig-Standard, 1968-1970

The Ottawa Citizen, 1965-1980

The Ottawa Journal, 1965-1969

The Windsor Star, 1966-1969


Harris, Richard. (1984). A Political Chameleon: Class Segregation in Kingston, Ontario, 1961-1976. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. V.74 No.3. 454-476.


Stories of the Swamp Ward podcast includes excellent interviews with the leaders of ATAK. This episode includes some candid and frank conversations about activism and class divisions in Kingston in the 1960s.

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