Monday, January 30, 2017

Toronto's Founding Purpose: A Haven For Refugees

More than two hundred years ago, the city of Toronto was founded to serve as the new capital of Upper Canada — a province created to be a home for Loyalist refugees forced to flee from the chaos and persecution they faced in the United States after the American Revolution. Today, as our neighbours south of the border turn their backs on the world, it seems especially important to remember Toronto's founding purpose. Many of our city's greatest moments have come when we've opened our arms to welcome those in need of shelter: from the victims of the Irish Famine, to those fleeing the Soviet crackdown after the Hungarian Revolution, to the Syrian refugees of today. And many of our darkest times have come when we've shut our doors on those who needed our help.

I shared some thoughts about refugees and the history of Toronto on Twitter recently, and have turned them into a Storify post here:


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Tragic Final Days of Lucy Maud Montgomery


This is where Lucy Maud Montgomery died: the house she called Journey's End. It's on Riverside Drive in Swansea: the west end of Toronto. Montgomery spent her last decade living here, perched high above the Humber Valley as she grew old and wrote the last few sequels to Anne of Green Gables.

Those were dark years for the beloved Canadian writer. "There has never been any happiness in this house — there never will be,” she confessed in her journal. "The present is unbearable. The past is spoiled. There is no future."

She had been suffering from depression for years — and it deepened near the end of her life. She was plagued by mood swings and waves of crippling anxiety, haunted by nightmares and painful memories, beset by headaches, vomiting, shooting pains, and trembling hands. She had difficulty sleeping. At times, she couldn’t concentrate well enough to write. The pills the doctors prescribed only made things worse, and before long she was hooked on them.

Meanwhile, her literary legacy was under attack. Once upon a time, Montgomery's stories had been enjoyed by men, women, boys and girls of all ages — even the Prime Minister of Great Britain sang her praises. But now her work was being dismissed by a new generation of male, modernist critics who claimed her books were too "sugary" to be enjoyed by anyone but little girls, and that her stories were too regional — too Canadian — to have any appeal for a worldwide audience. "Canadian fiction," according to one of Montgomery's harshest and most influential critics, "was to go no lower."

And yet she still kept fighting. Even as her depression deepened, her family life crumbled, and the Second World War broke out, Montgomery acted as a passionate advocate for Canadian authors: giving speeches and readings, imparting advice to young writers, insisting that Canadian stories were worth telling and that Canadian voices were worth hearing. 

It was on a spring day in 1942 that it all finally caught up with her. On the very same day the manuscript of her final sequel to Anne of Green Gables was dropped off at her publisher's office, her maid found Montgomery dead in bed. There were pill bottles on the table next to her along with a sheet of paper that read:

"I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best."

Her family kept Montgomery's depression and her apparent suicide a secret for more than sixty years, until her granddaughter finally revealed the truth in 2008, hoping to contribute to a more honest conversation about mental illness.

“I have come to feel very strongly,” she wrote in the Globe, “that the stigma surrounding mental illness will be forever upon us as a society until we sweep away the misconception that depression happens to other people, not us — and most certainly not to our heroes and icons.”

Depression — far being from being a sign of weakness or of failure — plagued even one of the most celebrated Canadian authors of all-time.

-----

The Globe and Mail has more about Lucy Maud Montgomery's depression in articles by Irene Gammel here and James Adams here. There's also lots more in Mary Henley Rubio's biography of the author, "Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings," which you can borrow from the Toronto Public Library here



A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead

Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Come To The Ex! Watch Us Slice Open A Pet!

The Ex had never been more popular than it was in 1962 and ’63. More than three million people walked through the gates during those years. The crowds set new attendance records for Canada’s biggest fair — less than half as many visit these days. Many of those flocking to the Exhibition Grounds were about to see one of the most bizarre exhibits the CNE has ever displayed.

It was called Vetescope. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association organized it. They wanted to show Canadians that vets were more than just “horse doctors” – that they were a vital part of modern society, using cutting edge technology to keep our animals healthy. They billed it as “the biggest public relations venture that organized veterinary medicine has undertaken on this continent.”

It was huge. The full exhibit sprawled over 9,000 square feet in the gorgeous Hydro Building (they call it the Music Building now) and cost $1 million to prepare. There were more than 250 vets on hand to answer questions from the public, manning 18 displays about their profession. There was information about “radiology, anatomy, embryology, histology, pathology, bacteriology and parsitology”. But that’s not all. They also featured some attention-grabbing displays about the modern innovations in veterinary science.

You could, for instance, learn about the role of animal medicine in space exploration. And as part of the Large Animal display, members of the public could meet “Maggie the magnetized cow”. It seems she was equipped with one of the latest breakthroughs in bovine science: a cow magnet. It rested in her gut, collecting all of the metallic odds and ends a cow accidentally consumes over the course of her lifetime, thus preventing troublesome “hardware disease”. It was a brand new development back in the early 1960s; today the use of cow magnets is commonplace.

But it wasn’t the space age exhibit or the magnetized cow that grabbed the biggest headlines. The organizers of Vetescope had put together an even more dramatic demonstration of their profession. They had veterinarians perform live surgeries in front of crowds of curious onlookers.

People loved it. Thousands upon thousands of Torontonians and tourists showed up to witness the surgeries. So many, in fact, they couldn’t all get close enough to see through the windows into the operating room. Those who were too far away to see inside watched on a closed circuit television system.

For some of them, it was all a bit too much. As the doctors made their incisions into the tiny, furry patients on the operating table, many of those who were watching grew dizzy and weak in the knees. In one day alone, at least a dozen people fainted. One man passed out twice. Another recovered only to walk straight into a tree. One American newspaper called the operations “too realistic,” reporting that an average of three audience members were fainting during every surgery. “More than 50 visitors have been carried or helped out, and a few have required hospital treatment.” The organizers, fearing for public safety, made sure there were “fainting assistants” on hand to help those who did keel over.

Despite the queasy combination of cotton candy, corn dogs, roller coasters and live surgery, Vetescope was, by all accounts, a smashing success. Nearly 400,000 people came to see it in the first year alone. “[T]he general reaction could almost be described as one of astonishment,” a supporter later recalled. “It became apparent even to a child that medical care of animals is on par with that of humans.” The veterinary masterminds behind the exhibit were lauded for their public relations success.

In fact, it was such a big hit they made sure to capture it on film:



A version of this post was originally published on August 23, 2010.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Coming Soon: The Toronto Book of the Dead

Things have been a bit quiet on the Dreams Project blog this year — but there's a pretty good reason for that: I've been spending most of 2016 working on my first book.

The Toronto Book of the Dead will explore the history of the city through the stories of some of its most fascinating and illuminating deaths. There will be morbid tales of war and plague, of duels and executions, of suicides and séances. It will cover everything from ancient First Nations burial mounds to the grisly murder of Toronto’s first lighthouse keeper; from the rise and fall of the city’s greatest Victorian baseball star to the final days of the world’s most notorious anarchist.

Countless lives have been lived and lost as Toronto has grown from a muddy little frontier town into a booming metropolis of concrete and glass. The Toronto Book of the Dead will tell the story of our ever-changing city through the final moments of those who have called this place home.

The book will be published by Dundurn Press, who I'm super-excited to be working with. You might know them as the same publishing house behind Daniel Rotsztain's All The Libraries colouring book, or Mark Osbaldeston's Unbuilt Toronto, or Charles Sauriol's books about the Don Valley. Their authors include Austin Clarke and Andrew Coyne and Steven Paikin. And it's also the place where you can find old works by Lucy Maude Montgomery, Robertson Davies and Mazo de la Roche, plus some hugely important historical tomes written by some of the old-timey Torontonians who will pop up in my own book, like Elizabeth Simcoe and Henry Scadding.

The Toronto Book of the Dead will be available to pre-order in October of 2016. And it's scheduled to hit shelves in September 2017.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

John Graves Simcoe's Weird & Complicated Relationship With Slavery

August 1 was both Simcoe Day and Emancipation Day in the City of Toronto. One is meant to remember the British soldier who founded our city; the other marks the day slavery was abolished across the entire British Empire. It's an interesting overlap: Simcoe was responsible for abolishing slavery in Toronto; he passed the first law to end the practice ever passed anywhere in the Empire. But his relationship to slavery wasn't anywhere near as clear-cut and simple as that might make it sound. And so, to mark this year's Simcoe and Emancipation Days, I thought I'd do some tweeting.

You'll find the Twitter essay embedded below. And if you can't see it for any reason, you can read it all on Storify here.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Brexit, Eton College & The History of Toronto

The most famous boarding school in the world has just gotten a little bit more famous. Thanks to the shocking result of the Brexit referendum, Eton College has been popping up in the news. The posh boarding school is where two of the architects of the mess spent their teenage years. Prime Minster David Cameron and Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London, both graduated from Eton in the early 1980s.

So if you want to understand the breathtaking, aristocratic entitlement that led the United Kingdom into self-inflicted disaster, it helps to understand Eton. And in understanding Eton, you can also better understand the history of our own city — because it's not just where Boris and Dave went, it's where the man who founded Toronto went, too.

Eton sits on the banks of the Thames, not far outside London, just across the river from Windsor Castle. It was founded all the way back in the 1400s; King Henry VI started the school as a charity meant to provide free education to the poor.

But oh how things have changed since then. In recent centuries, Eton has made its reputation by catering to the children of the rich and powerful, helping to perpetuate the strict British class system. Yearly tuition can cost as much as the equivalent of $60,000 in Canadian currency. For a long time, the school's official uniform was literally a top hat and tails. (They finally ditched the top hat in the 1960s, but they've kept the tails.) The school is synonymous with the idea of British entitlement: that the children of the country's ruling class should naturally become its next generation of rulers.

Nineteen British Prime Ministers have been students at Eton. Both Prince Harry and Prince William went there, too. So did George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Percy Shelley and John Maynard Keynes. And if you're counting fictional characters, then so did James Bond and Captain Hook and Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey

Eton College
And so, it's not surprising to find that two of today's most powerful Conservative politicians both went to Eton, too. The outgoing Prime Minster, David Cameron (inept champion of Remain), and the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (Leave-supporting buffoon), both graduated from Eton in the early 1980s. They say you can trace the roots of their rivalry all the way back there — and with it, some of the very beginnings of the Brexit disaster.

As a student, Boris was older, more popular and more successful than Cameron — things that mattered even more than usual at such an aristocratic school. And since Johnson did better at Eton — and then again when both young men attended Oxford University — they say it drives him nuts that Cameron has risen to greater heights since then. Boris might be the former Mayor of London, a current Member of Parliament, and a newspaper columnist who got paid more than £250,000 last year (or "chicken feed" as he calls it) for writing one article every week — but that, apparently, isn't enough.

"Yes," Sonia Purnell writes in The Independent, "the fact that Cameron was two years below him at Eton – a terrifically hierarchical school – rankles deeply. As does the fact that it was Boris who shone there, not Cameron. Masters recall Johnson as a remarkable teenager. They do not recall Cameron at all."

According to countless media reports, Boris made it his mission to topple his old friend Dave and take his place as Prime Minster. If that meant joining the Leave campaign... well, that's what he was willing to do — whether or not he actually believed that leaving the European Union was a good idea for Britain.

Meanwhile, some suggest that Cameron's lifelong sense of entitlement — reinforced by his time at Eton — gave him a false sense of his own superiority. Slate describes him as "an establishment man through and through... the sort of person who gets away with too many things and comes to mistake his privilege for innate luck." When given the chance to gamble the future of his country in return for his own personal political gain, he did so. After all, he's been getting his way his entire life. Why would this time be any different? In order to appease the lunatic far-right fringe of his party, Cameron agreed to hold the Brexit referendum, confident that a Leave vote would never actually happen.

Boris and Dave
But when Boris — who is thought to have personally reassured Cameron that he would never support the Leave campaign — betrayed his old friend the Prime Minister, things suddenly became much more complicated. Johnson's support gave legitimacy to the Leave faction, even while it descended into absurd lies and bigoted violence. The racists behind Brexit never would have won, according to The Daily Beast, "without the fig leaf of Boris's charm."

The result: a stunning victory for the Leave campaign, an economy in disarray, bigotry and xenophobia on the rise, the murder of an MP, the end of Cameron's career, and scenes of Boris Johnson being booed the moment he pokes his head outside his front door. The Old Etonians have suddenly become two of the most hated men in the country they were raised to rule.

And in the end, Johnson's plan didn't even work: betrayed, in turn, by one of his own supporters (die-hard-Brexiter Michael Gove), Johnson has been forced out of the race for PM.

But the power of Eton College hasn't just been limited to British politics. Thanks to the Empire, the school's reach has historically extended far beyond England's own borders. In Toronto, you can trace Eton's influence all the way back to the founding of our modern city. More than two hundred years before Boris and Dave, there was John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe went to Eton in the 1760s. And he too bought into its aristocratic vision for Britain. Years later, when he became the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, he was determined to make that aristocratic heritage an important part of his new province.

Before he sailed for Canada, Simcoe got in touch with another Eton graduate: the famous scientist Sir Joseph Banks. In his letter, Simcoe asked for any advice Banks might be able to offer, and laid out his vision for his new Upper Canadian capital: the city that would eventually become Toronto.

A strict class system, he insisted, would play a vital role. Simcoe didn't trust the general public; they couldn't be allowed to have real power. As a solider, he'd seen the bloody results of the American Revolution with his own eyes — and more recently, he'd heard the terrifying reports coming out of Paris during the French Revolution. In fact, the Reign of Terror began the very same summer Simcoe founded Toronto. In his experience, when the people gained power, they had a nasty habit of beheading the elites. And so Simcoe was determined that his new city would be free from what he called "tyrannical democracy."

"There are inherent defects in the congressional form of Government," he wrote in his letter to Banks, "the absolute prohibition of any order of nobility is a glaring one. I hope to have a hereditary council with some mark of nobility."

John Graves Simcoe
He would never quite get his wish: Toronto never developed an officially aristocratic system like the one they had back home in England. But Simcoe did make sure that power rested in the hands of a few loyal Tory families. For the first few decades of our city's history, families like the slave-owning Jarvis clan kept all of the best government jobs and appointments for themselves and their friends. The habit would eventually earn Toronto's ruling class a derisive nickname: The Family Compact.

With the backing of their British overlords, the Family Compact dominated the Legislative Assembly, blocked all democratic reform, and cracked down on dissent. Anyone who disagreed with the Tory elite or demanded change quickly found themselves subject to threats and intimidation — sometimes even violence or imprisonment.

The Family Compact had no doubt they were meant to be the natural rulers of the province — a sense of entitlement that would look familiar to anyone who has been following Boris and Dave during the Brexit fiasco.

To help ensure that the power of the Family Compact would continue long into the future, they even founded a Torontonian version of Eton. It's still around today: Upper Canada College. The school's own website describes it as being "modeled after the great public schools of Britain [what we call private schools in Canada], most notably Eton College." UCC's job would much be the same as Eton's job on the other side of the Atlantic: training the sons of the rich and powerful to become the new generation of elites.

And it worked. As Wikipedia points out, "The school has produced six lieutenant governors, four premiers, seven chief justices, and four Mayors of Toronto." There have been plenty of other rich and powerful graduates, too, like Michael Ignatieff and Norm Kelly. In Toronto, the Old Boys of Upper Canada College have played something of a similar role to that of the Old Etonians in England.

But not everyone in Toronto was happy with the Family Compact. There was plenty of resentment against the ruling class in those early years. The opposition gained momentum over the city's first few decades, building into a reform movement led by the radical newspaper publisher and first Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie. He was becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of democracy in Upper Canada. He made appeal after appeal to the British government, but his complaints fell on deaf ears — which was maybe not entirely surprising: nearly all of the British Prime Ministers during that period were Old Etonians themselves.

William Lyon Mackenzie
In the end, Mackenzie finally gave up on trying to find a peaceful solution; after a disappointing trip to London, he became convinced that revolution was the only way to break the Family Compact's grip on power. In 1837, he gathered an army north of Toronto and marched down toward the city with the aim of overthrowing the government.

Even the street the rebels marched down was a reminder of Eton's influence. Simcoe named the biggest road in Toronto after another one of his Old Etonian friends: Sir George Yonge.

In the end, of course, Mackenzie's rebellion failed. Democratic reform came peacefully a decade later under the name of Responsible Government. The leading champion of the cause was the moderate Robert Baldwin, who had been educated by the leader of the Family Compact. And Baldwin was able to convince the British of its value thanks in part to the support of Lord Durham, yet another Eton graduate. Change didn't come to Canada until the people advocating for it were members of the old boys club themselves.

More than a hundred and fifty years later, you can still see some echoes of that seminal divide in the Toronto politics of today. We saw it on stunning display recently, when Rob Ford was able to frame his mayoral campaign as a campaign against the "elites" by positioning himself as an outsider and purposefully distancing himself from the traditional, Upper Canada College-style Tories. Those who felt ignored by the establishment voted for Ford in droves. Casting a ballot for an apparent outsider seemed like a rare opportunity to give voice to their anger.

Last week, we saw similar emotions lead to similar results in the United Kingdom. The Leave side denounced the experts and vilified the establishment even though the leaders of the Leave campaign were establishment figures themselves. Boris Johnson has made a career out of playing the blond buffoon, trying to seem like a man of the people instead of a millionaire raised in privilege. The Brexiters, much like Ford, managed to convince vast numbers of people that the real cause of their problems was a dastardly combination of expert opinion and immigration. Not, say, the damaging policies those very same Conservative politicians have been hawking for decades: like tax cuts for the rich paid for by service cuts for everyone else. 

Both campaigns were illusions. Rob Ford was a millionaire born into a political family. His policies were the same old Conservative policies that have been hurting the working class for years. His successor, the aptly-named John Tory, is the most establishment-friendly politician you could possibly imagine — and in general his policies are pretty much in line with those Ford was pushing. Even a vote against the establishment led to establishment-friendly policies; they were just served with a side of crack cocaine.
 
And now, six thousand kilometers and an entire ocean away, angry Britons have voted in protest against their own elites, unleashing a wave of bigotry and decimating their nation's economy in the process. They have managed to drive their establishment-friendly leader out of power; Cameron, forced to resign in disgrace, will be remembered as one of the worst Prime Ministers in modern British history. But if all goes to plan, even with Johnson out of the race, there will be yet another establishment-friendly Tory leader moving into 10 Downing Street in just a few months time, ready to pick up right where the last one left off.  

The Old Etonian is dead. Long live the Old Etonian.

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Via Viv Lynch on Flickr





You can learn more about the connection between the histories of Toronto and England with A Torontonian Historical Map of London here. Read more about Simcoe's vision for Toronto here. And more about Mackenzie's failed mission to London here.


There's a whole dramatized documentary about Johnson and Cameron's early years, "When Boris Met Dave," which you can watch on Vimeo here.

The main image of "Toffs and Toughs" via Rare Historical Photos here.  Photo of Boris and Dave via The Sun. Photo of Eton College by me as part of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, which explored the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Some Stuff You Should See At Doors Open 2016

This weekend is Doors Open weekend in Toronto. More than a hundred and thirty buildings across the city will be opening their doors to the public over the next two days — including some of the most interesting, beautiful and historic buildings that Toronto has to offer. And since there's no way one person can manage to catch all of the cool stuff without a TARDIS or a DeLorean or a Time-Turner, I thought I'd share some of my own picks for this year's event.

I might be out and about myself this weekend and, if so, I'll be sharing my adventures on Twitter and on Instagram (@TODreamsProject). So you can follow me there!

 
THE CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF ST. JAMES

Not only is the Cathedral Church of St. James one of the most spectacular buildings in Toronto, it's also one of the most important buildings in the entire history of Canada. The story of St. James stretches all the way back to a small wooden church built at what's now the corner of Church & King in the very early 1800s — and over the course of that century, it played a central role in the battle for democracy in Canada. This was the church most our city's leaders attended. The first preacher, John Strachan, was also our city's first Anglican bishop, arch-nemesis of William Lyon Mackenzie and a figurehead of the infamously anti-democratic Family Compact. He's still there today, buried under the chancel. (I wrote the full story for Torontoist a while back; you can check it out here.) To this day, it's still the heart of the Anglican faith in Canada. Even the Queen prays here when she's in town.

The doors to the church will be open from 10 to 5 on Saturday and 12:30 to 4 on Sunday afternoon.


FORT YORK

Fort York is one of the jewels of Toronto. A National Historic Site hidden between the highways and the skyscrapers. The fort has been standing on this spot — the place where the modern city of Toronto started — for more than 200 years. Its story stretches back through one war after another, back through the bloody battle that raged here during the War of 1812, back all the way to the very first day the city of Toronto was founded. It was here, at what was then the mouth of the Garrison Creek, that the first British soldiers showed up to start chopping down trees and building the military base that would guard the mouth of our harbour. Meanwhile, Governor Simcoe and his wife Elizabeth lived in an elaborate tent overlooking the construction from the other side of the creek, exploring the beaches and the forests with their young children, their pet cat and a dog they called Jack Sharp.

The site will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday, with tours pretty much every hour.


THE HIGH LEVEL WATER PUMPING STATION

Just like the much more famous R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant out in the east end (which will also be open this weekend), the High Level Water Pumping Station takes Toronto's water infrastructure and transforms it into something beautiful. And the old building also played a central role in one of the most delightful episodes in the history of our city. Back in the 1960s, the residents of the surrounding neighbourhood — Rathnelly — declared independence from the rest of Canada. As the story goes, they wrote a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, elected a Queen, issued their own passports, and sent an "air farce" of children holding a thousand helium balloons to surround the Pumping Station until their demands were met. To this day, the neighbourhood is known as the Republic of Rathnelly. They've even got their own custom street signs featuring a national crest.

The doors will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday.


OLD CITY HALL
 
Old City Hall has been keeping time above the intersection of Queen & Bay since the very end of the 1900s. It was built by one of Toronto's most important architects, E.J. Lennox, the same guy who did Casa Loma, the King Edward Hotel, and the west wing of Queen's Park. It's Old City Hall that he gets the most attention for, though. In large part because of his battles with city council. He went waaaaaaaaaaaay overbudget, spending six times as much as he was supposed to. They retaliated by saying he wasn't allowed to carve his name into the building, like he usually did, but he did anyway. And hid his face among the grotesques adorning the entrance. Inside, you'll also find one of the most wonderful stained-glass windows in Toronto.

The site will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday


OSGOODE HALL

Osgoode Hall has been on the corner of Queen & University, nearly as long as there has been a Queen & University. It was originally built in the 1830s, with lots of additions and subtractions since then (including that iconic, black, wrought-iron fence). The architect was William Warren Baldwin, a doctor and lawyer who was one of the most important pro-democracy figures in Toronto's early history. He's also the same guy who built the original Spadina House, and had Spadina Avenue carved out of the forest. Today, it's still home to the Law Society of Upper Canada and some of Ontario's highest courts.
 
Osgoode Hall is also where an escaped slave, Thornton Blackburn, got a job working as a waiter when he first came to Toronto. He used the money he earned there to launch the city's first horse-drawn cab company, which in turn gave him enough money to help other former slaves get on their feet after coming to Toronto through the Underground Railroad. (I wrote more about him here.)

The site will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday.