Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Monday, February 25, 2013
Thursday, February 21, 2013
|One of the drawbacks of democracy|
Norm Kelly has been in the news recently. And for some pretty dumbass reasons. The Scarborough Councillor and Ford ally is the chair of Toronto's Parks and Environment Committee. Which, by the obscene and twisted logic of Ford Nation, means that he is pro climate change.
"I was talking to one climatologist who said we could end up having the climate of Tennessee," he said in this piece in The Toronto Star. "That ain’t bad." And Torontoist published another one of his absurd quotes yesterday: "In fact, they're saying life is going to be a little more comfortable in this city."
To be fair though, the future isn't really supposed to be Kelly's area of expertise. He's much more of an "interpret the past" kind of guy. Before he got into politics, he was an historian. In fact, he won a Governor General's Award for his work in helping Pierre Berton to research his book, The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871-1881. He's got a post-graduate history degree from Queen's and used to teach history at Upper Canada College.
But judging from some of his recent comments, I'm no fan of his ideas about history, either.
Back in November, City Council voted in favour of proclaiming the 75th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre. It was a horrifying chapter in the war between Japan and China in the 1930s. After the fall of the city, hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were raped and murdered by the Imperial Japanese Army. It is, of course, an event with special significance for Toronto's sizable Chinese community. And since the City is in the regular habit of proclaiming such things — we've had Hiroshima Day, Bob Marley Day, Red Tape Awareness Week, even Foursquare Day — you wouldn't think that Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam's motion to officially recognize the anniversary would be controversial at all.
But it was. According to this article by Torontoist (which is where I first learned about all of this), City staff suggested that the proclamation would be a bad idea (citing the Nanking Massacre's Wikipedia page, which mentions that some Japanese people deny the widespread interpretation of the event). The Mayor initially decided to follow the staff's advice, and the motion had a hard time even getting to Council in the first place. But in the end, all of the Councillors decided to support it. Even Kelly, apparently.
But that didn't stop him from making some ridiculous comments about it.
For one thing, he seems to have privately told Wong-Tam, who was born in Hong Kong, that "it's time for you guys to move on." And he followed that up with public pronouncements. The massacre, he declared, is "something that happened purely in an Asian context between two Asian societies... I’m not sure Canadian society is at a point where it has to be instructed about these things, because I think we have values that preclude being attracted to behaviour like that."
This from a guy who used to teach a course in Chinese history at UCC. And who won his Governor General's Award for researching a book that included the story of the Chinese immigrants who built our national railroad.
His words have prompted a few excellent responses. David Wencer, one of Torontoist's own historical contributors, took to the comments section of their post. He wonders whether Kelly would like us to do more to remember the dark chapters in Canadian history: "the Canadian internment of Ukrainians in WWI, the Canadian internment of Japanese in WWII, the 1933 riot at Christie Pits..." (Something that seems unlikely — conservative Canadian historians tend to vehemently argue that we do way too much of that already.)
Meanwhile, Valerie Deacon, a Torontonian military historian teaching at NYU, argues on her blog that understanding the Nanking Massacre is an important part of understanding the story of the Second World War — an Asian chapter we've been too quick to overlook in North America. Canadians, she also points out, do still have something to learn about militarism and race and gender. And that remembering the historical lessons we have learned is a never-ending process.
It seems silly to suggest that we've finishing learning — or that we have nothing to learn from others. In fact, the success of our city owes a lot to our multicultural heritage. Diversity in Toronto isn't just about great restaurants and a summer full of festivals. It's also about having neighbours and co-workers and teachers and artists and in-laws who expose us to lessons learned all over the world. Torontonians have a collective memory that doesn't just include events like D-Day and the fur trade, but also the Irish Troubles and the napalming of Vietnam, the Parisian protests of 1968 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Battle of Stalingrad and the bloodbath in Tiananmen Square. It's one of our greatest strengths. It helps us to remember the importance of peace and mutual respect. We are damned lucky to live in this place where we have the opportunity to learn so much from so many different people. And I sure as hell plan on making use of that opportunity for the rest of my life.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Friday, February 15, 2013
“I’ve been making trips down there for years!” The man was shouting over the stiff wind, as he pulled a pair of scissors out of his suit pocket. “I’ve collected them all: books, letters, pamphlets, poems, even shopping lists and love notes. These clouds are stuffed full of them!”
And with one quick, dizzying motion, the man leaned out over the side and drew his scissors across the cotton, slicing it open. Flurries of paper spilled out of the wound, were caught up by the wind and swept down toward the sleeping city.
In the morning, tiny people would come out of their homes armed with shovels and snow-blowers and brooms, eager to dig themselves out from beneath the fresh snow.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Friday, February 8, 2013
Thursday, February 7, 2013
|The Mast Trail, Rouge Park|
Freaking Napoleon. Nobody could beat him. Ever since the beginning of the French Revolution, France had been fighting wars with pretty much every single other big country in Europe. And while Robespierre and his gang of paranoid mass murderers were busy guillotining everybody in Paris, Napoleon was leading the French army to one victory after another. Before long, he had taken over the country, crowned himself Emperor, and built a network of conquests and alliances that stretched from one end of Europe to the other. The only country left to fight was England. So an invasion of England was next on Napoleon's list.
But the Emperor did have another way of screwing with the Royal Navy: he could take away their wood.
The same Baltic shores that Napoleon now controlled.
|The Mast Trail, Rouge Park|
Napoleon could keep the Baltics from trading with England, but his navy couldn't keep England from shipping wood across the ocean from Canada. All over the Canadian colonies, lumberjacks started cutting down trees. Timber exports went up by something like 1000% in just three years. Tens of thousands of masts headed across the Atlantic.
Some of them came from the forests of Toronto. The woods of the Rouge Valley — now the verrry eastern edge of Scarborough — were very tall and very old. They were home to wolves and bears and cougars and elk, wild beasts roaming beneath enormous white pines — the perfect tree for making masts. Some of them rose twelve storeys above the forest floor.
By then, the mouth of the Rouge River had already seen plenty of history. The very first people to walk along the valley's forest trails had been prehistoric nomadic hunters. They arrived thousands and thousands of years ago, leaving behind traces of their campsites and the rock they chipped into tools. More recently, it had been the First Nations. By the middle of the 1600s, the Seneca had built a village — Ganatsekwyagon — on a high hill overlooking the valley. It was a hub for the fur trade. Famous French explorers Jolliet and Marquette stopped by on their way deeper into the continent. Coureurs de bois came to trade, or to travel up the Rouge in canoes toward Lake Simcoe. One missionary spent a famously harsh winter there, starving and desperate, living off squirrels and chipmunks and eating moss off the base of the trees. Even the Governor of New France once paid a visit to Ganatsekwyagon during his war with the Seneca. His allies, the Mississauga, took it over.
Now, the Rouge Valley was part of the British Empire. And with the Empire at war with Napoleon, it was ax-wielding lumberjacks making trails through those woods. The great old pines came crashing to the ground, were floated down the Rouge to Lake Ontario and then shipped out the St. Lawrence to make the long journey across the Atlantic. They rose again as masts from the decks of British ships fighting the French half a world away.
|The mouth of the Rouge River|
There are no more lumberjacks in the Rouge Valley, though. The forests growing there today are protected — Rouge Park is slated to become a national park. There are still enormous white pines towering above the forest floor. Some of them have been growing there since those Napoleonic days — the trees that were, at the time, too small for masts. The old logging trail is still there too. It's called the Mast Trail now. Twenty-first century Torontonians and tourists can walk in the same place those lumberjacks did 200 years ago. And where missionaries and explorers, coureurs de bois and First Nations, prehistoric hunters and wild beasts were walking long before that.
P.S. — Those pine trees weren't just used to build ships in England. Before the Napoleonic Wars were over, we'd be building our own warships over here.
That's because Napoleon wasn't the only one with an embargo: the British had one against him too. This meant that neutral countries like the United States were caught in the middle — they were at risk of having their goods seized no matter which side they traded with. Even worse: the English were using the embargo as an excuse to board American ships and arrest any man who was British — or sort of British, or maybe kind of seemed like he might be British and couldn't prove he wasn't — so they could force him to join the Royal Navy and fight the French. Impressment, they called it. And it pissed the Americans off. It was one of the main reasons they declared war in 1812. While the British were still fighting Napoleon in Europe, the Americans invaded Canada.
Suddenly, the Great Lakes were a battlefield too. Control of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario became vitally important — it meant that you could supply your troops on the ground, support them in battle, and move them around. And so, a naval arms race broke out, with both sides rushing to build the biggest and most powerful fleet they could. Canadian lumber was now being used to build warships in Canada.
Toronto played an important role. The main reason the Americans invaded and occupied our city in 1813 was because we were building one of the biggest ships on the Great Lakes — the HMS Isaac Brock — which would have shifted the balance of power in our favour. The Americans were hoping to seize it, but we burned it first. They retaliated by burning down our parliament and other public buildings. A few months later, one of the war's most pivotal naval battles happened just outside our harbour.
But I'll save those stories for a future post.
Oh and photos by me.