Thursday, March 21, 2013

Toronto ♥s Stalingrad

It was the summer of 1942 and things were looking good for Hitler. The Nazis had already swept across Europe; now they were pushing on into Russia, marching toward Stalingrad. The Russians were in trouble. In just the first year of fighting, the Red Army had lost half of their men. And Stalin — a bloodthirsty lunatic of a dictator on his good days — was starting to get a little bit desperate.

The city that had been renamed in his honour was teeming with people. Stalingrad had been a major metropolis before the war; since then, refugees had doubled the population. But as the Germans prepared to attack, Stalin refused to organize an evacuation. While food and supplies were shipped away to safety, the people were left behind. His soldiers, he figured, would fight more passionately to defend a city full of innocent civilians. And in case that wasn't enough, he ordered that any officer found retreating should be tried or shot on the spot — "Not one step back!" — and that anyone who could carry a rifle should fight. And so, men, women and children would all be part of one of the bloodiest battles in history.

People in Toronto and all over the world watched as Stalingrad was turned into a living hell. The planes of the German Luftwaffe began by dropping more than 1000 tons of bombs, reducing most of the city to a burning pile of rubble. The fighting on the ground that followed was brutal, even by the horrifying standards of the Second World War. "The entire city became an inferno," the Toronto Daily Star reported, "but it put up the fiercest fight in modern warfare. The fight for each building lasted for days, even weeks, at a time. Each room, each floor, constituted a separate front within a front. Every structure became a fortress."

As two of the most powerful empires on earth brought their military fury down upon the city, corpses piled up in the streets. Civilians who tried to flee by foot or by ferry were bombed, massacred by the hundreds. Thousands of orphaned children were left on their own in the middle of the destruction; they lived in the rubble for months on end, starving and freezing to death, terrified, and easy targets for snipers. "Under constant bombardment, life went on;" the Star wrote, "the people clung to the ruins of the city, children were fed in the shadows of broken buildings, put to bed in dugouts, nursed in cellars when sick. Children were born in dugouts."

Children in Stalingrad, 1942
The bloodbath raged on for five straight months, through the autumn and on into the harsh Russian winter. At times, it seemed as if the Nazis were on the verge of winning, but they could never quite kill the last few Soviet soldiers. By February, the tide had turned. The Red Army retook the city and shifted the momentum of the entire war. Hitler's army was deeply wounded. The Nazis would never again win an important battle on the Eastern Front. And the following year, the Allies would land at Normandy.

But victory at Stalingrad took a terrible toll. Nearly two million people had been killed or wounded. Two million. And the suffering wasn't over yet. The city was a smouldering ruin. It would take years to rebuild. "Stalingrad, city of heroes, still shivers in the icy Russian winter," the Star told its readers in Toronto, half a world away. And there were orphans who needed help, the newspaper reported. "Many of them had been living for months during the siege in holes in the ground, and when they were found they were swollen with hunger and their limbs were frozen." They say 15 million Russian children lost their parents during the war. 

So Toronto decided to help.

Later that same year, Toronto City Council declared "Friendship With Russia Week" and then "Stalingrad Day". They followed that up by officially "adopting" Stalingrad. The next two winters in Toronto would see a massive outpouring of support for the Russians living in that ruined city more than 8,000 kilometers away.

The City of Toronto Stalingrad Committee was created. And a Stalingrad Fund, too. The Mayor, Robert Hood Saunders (the same guy who brought us Elmer the Safety Elephant), was made honourary chairman. "Citizens of Toronto could not support a more worthy cause than the noble people of Stalingrad," he declared. "These people have shown us the way to be real heroes. We must give thanks to the Soviet armies and the brave Russian people who gave us those armies. I sincerely hope that all Toronto will get behind this great cause in the name of humanity."

And they did. Millions of dollars were raised in donations. More than 150 different organizations came together to an organize an ambitious clothing drive, going door-to-door to collect whatever spare clothing and knitted goods they could find. They ended up collecting 30 tons of it, which was stored at a depot on Yonge Street and then shipped off to the Soviet Union.

Many of the most powerful people in Canada worked hard to improve our relationship with "our gallant allies" in Russia. A National Council for Canadian-Soviet Friendship was founded, with the active support of wealthy businessmen and Premiers and Lieutenant Governors and justices of the Supreme Court. The Prime Minster, William Lyon Mackenzie King, served as Chair.

Eaton's window display during WWII
In 1943, thanks in part to the Eaton family and the heir to the Maple Leaf Foods fortune, there was a three-day Congress of Canadian-Soviet Friendship at the swanky Royal York Hotel. In 1944, there was another one. The event ended with a rally at Maple Leaf Gardens and 17,000 people showed up. The Congress was billed as an exchange of information. Torontonians had the chance to learn all about Soviet advances in agriculture and science and education and art. Delegates urged that every university in Canada should start its own Russian Department. The free-flow and exchange of ideas with the Communists was hailed as a vital part of Canada's future. 

At Maple Leaf Gardens, a representative from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa thanked Torontonians for their support of Stalingrad: "your gifts are cementing the post-war relations of Canada and Russia," she said.

Of course, that's not exactly how things turned out.

In fact, some of the seeds of the Cold War could already be found at that rally. For one thing, there was still plenty of anti-Communist suspicion in Canada. Being a member of the Canadian Communist Party was still illegal. It had been for most of the 20th century — they had to run candidates as "Labour-Progressives" instead. Back in the 1920s, R.B. Bennett's Conservative government had arrested the party leader and then apparently tried to assassinate him while he was in jail. (I told that story here.) And even now, while Mackenzie King was heading up the Friendship Committee, his government was keeping tabs. The RCMP kept a close eye on the Friendship Congress and the rally at Maple Leaf Gardens, including a detailed assessment in their Monthly Intelligence Report, and taking care to note that 80% of the audience was "of foreign extraction."

But they did have some good reasons to be suspicious. Like, say, Colonel Nikolai Zabotin. He was one of the Soviet representatives who attended the Congress. He worked at the embassy in Ottawa. And he was a spy. He had been sent to Canada to collect secrets about the Allied attempts to build a nuclear bomb. And he was getting them. He used his position at the embassy to gain access to the Canadian government, charming officials into spilling the beans. One naive army officer even took him in a canoe down the Ottawa River, where Zabotin snapped photos of the construction of the Chalk River nuclear facility. Most importantly, he had an operative inside the British scientific team trying to build a bomb in Canada — who also slipped him secrets about the Manhattan Project in the United States.

It was only a month after the Americans dropped their bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Zabotin's spy ring was uncovered. Once the information became public, people were shocked. Those old anti-Communist feelings were stirred up once again. Some call the Zabotin episode "the spark that ignited the Cold War."

That spark caught fire quickly. Soon, the Communists were testing their own bomb and with Hitler defeated, people were remembering the true brutality of Stalin's regime: The Purges, The Gulag, The Great Famine. At Stalingrad, the Russians took 110,000 German prisoners. Only 6,000 survived Stalin's camps.

In North America, the attitude toward Russia swung hard the other way. And the hatred wasn't reserved just for Stalin and the Soviet leadership, but for every Communist or Communist sympathizer or supposed Communist sympathizer anywhere in the world. Some of the very same experts who had been asked to speak at the Friendship Congress were denounced as radicals and investigated as traitors after the war. At least one of them would be dragged in front of Joseph McCarthy's infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities. Just a few years earlier, the people of Stalingrad were being hailed by Canadian leaders as the saviours of democracy and the free world. Now they and their countrymen were being demonized by those very same leaders as the gravest threat to democracy the world had ever known.

And in Toronto, the city that had once adopted Stalingrad, where the people came together to help the Russians who had suffered at the hands of Hitler and of Stalin, the fact that it had ever happened was quickly and conveniently forgotten.

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I first learned about Toronto having adopted Stalingrad as a fleeting mention in a book I'm reading at the moment: Warrior Nation. It's about Stephen Harper's attempts to remodel Canada as an aggressive military power. You can buy it here or borrow it here.

You can read about Toronto adopting Stalingrad in old archived newspaper articles from the Star here, here and here. And from the Ottawa Citizen here and here. The Hiroshima Day Coalition has a timeline of the history of "Making Peace in Toronto" in a PDF here.

There is an excellent video about the children who lived through the Battle of Stalingrad 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

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ice Boats on Toronto Bay in 1920



I'm not entirely sure exactly where this is, since the caption just says Toronto Bay. But it looks like one of the wharfs at the lakefront. Ice boating seems to have been a pretty big thing back in the day, sailing across the frozen harbour. And sledding across the lake was too. In Anna Jameson's book about her travels here in the 1830s, she writes about a trip to Niagara in which she had to cross Burlington Bay on the ice:

"The road was the same as before, with one deviation however—it was found expedient to cross Burlington Bay on the ice, about seven miles over, the lake beneath being twenty, and five-and-twenty fathoms in depth. It was ten o'clock at night, and the only light was that reflected from the snow. The beaten track, from which it is not safe to deviate, was very narrow, and a man, in the worst, if not the last stage of intoxication, noisy and brutally reckless, was driving before us in a sleigh. All this, with the novelty of the situation, the tremendous cracking of the ice at every instant, gave me a sense of apprehension just sufficient to be exciting, rather than very unpleasant, though I will confess to a feeling of relief when we were once more on the solid earth." 

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I've written a bit about her book before: her description of seeing the Northern Lights in Toronto here and the story of Canada's first race riot here. Plus, I've done a dreams postcard for her, too.

I found this photo thanks to Derek Flack's post of old Toronto winter photos here.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The House of Lords Back in the Days of Glam Rock


I'm reading a drop fucking dead awesome book at the moment: Treat Me Like Dirt by Liz Worth, an oral history of Toronto's punk scene in the late '70s. And near the beginning there's a tiny little bit about the House of Lords — the hair salon on Yonge Street south of Bloor — as told by Margaret Barnes-DelColle (who ran New Rose, Toronto's first punk store):

"I worked at these stores on Yonge Street... at the time it was the whole glam rock thing happening with David Bowie. Everybody was wearing satin pants and bright colours and lots of makeup; the guys were wearing lots of makeup and shag haircuts.

"There was that hair salon on Yonge Street called House of Lords. On a Saturday — nowadays you can't even imagine it — but imagine a hair salon having a lineup outside of people wanting to get a shag haircut. I lived thirty minutes outside the city and yet I took a bus into town to go stand in line at House of Lords to get a shag haircut. So there was that whole glam rock thing that everybody was really into."

And there was some pretty famous hair coming out of that building, too. The House of Lords website boasts that they've trimmed the locks of The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Rod Stewart and David Lee Roth.

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Photos via the House of Lords website.

You can buy Treat Me Like Dirt here or borrow it here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Yonge Street Wharf in 1920



My friend Laurie and I have a game where we try to find words that start with "wh", because that's an awesome way to start a word. Thus, I am pretty giddy having found this photo, which reminds me that wharf is a word. (I mean, how much better can you get? "Wh" and "arf" in five letters!)

Also, it's a pretty picture. I don't have much too say about the Yonge Street Wharf, expect, of course, that it sits at the bottom of what may very well be the longest street in the world. And that after William Lyon Mackenzie's failed Rebellion of 1837, some of the captured rebels where shipped off into exile from this spot. (Or, at least, they were going to be sent into exile — they made a stop at Fort Henry in Kingston first, and a bunch of them escaped. The Star has the full story here.)

Wharf!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Dream 08 "The Still-Beating Heart of Dr. Emily Stowe" (Emily Stowe, 1883)

She dreamed they had cornered her in the basement at the university, dragged her into an operating theatre and forced her up onto the table. Three medical students, young and strong, held her arms and legs while the doctor drew his scalpel straight down the centre of her chest. She couldn’t feel a thing, but watched, helpless, as the blade cut clean through skin and muscle and bone. She fell open. There was a pop; her ribs came apart like a pair of storm cellar doors.

And from between them came her heart, angry, like a chained dog. It thundered and roared. Leapt halfway out of her chest with every beat. Spit blood like venom. Splattered boiling crimson across the walls and four surprised faces.

The men, they fell back, stunned, and were gone.

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Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Song for the Exiled Rebels: "Un Canadien errant"


So I've been watching Canada: A People's History (which some valiant hero has posted on YouTube here). And it led me to this neat discovery: a song called "Un Canadien errant", which was written after the Rebellions of 1837.

Torontonians remember the rebellions because William Lyon Mackenzie marched an army down Yonge Street. But the rebellion in Québec (Lower Canada back then) was an even bigger deal. The rebels there managed to win a couple of big victories over the British in the early going — making it seem for a brief while as if the idea of overthrowing our colonial overlords in favour of a new, independent, democratic republic wasn't that far-fetched an idea. Their success helped to inspire Mackenzie: he was in contact with the French-Canadian rebel leader, Louis-Joseph Papineau, and it was when every solider in Toronto was sent to fight in Québec that Mackenzie saw his opportunity.

Neither of the rebellions ended well. Here in T.O., Mackenzie and his rebels were overwhelmed at Montgomery's Tavern. In Québec, the biggest blow came at the Battle of St. Eustache. I've posted a painting of it above. That church in the background is particularly famous — the British trapped the rebels inside and then set fire to it. You can see the desperate men jumping from the windows to their deaths.

At the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa (which I visited back in December), they've actually got part of the door handle from the church on display (just below a reproduction of that very same painting):


And they've got some handcuffs from the 1830s, too:


Many of the rebels were arrested — both in Toronto and in Québec — and would have worn handcuffs like those. Some were hanged. Many more were sent into exile without trial. They were forced to leave their friends and family behind and live in the United States. Or Bermuda. Or Australia. And that's where the song comes in.

"Un Canadien errant" was written by a student at the Séminaire de Nicolet on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in 1842. It's a lament for those exiled rebels. The lyrics tell the story of a Canadian far from home, in a strange land, who sits beside a stream one sad day. He talks to the water, asking that if it should ever find itself flowing through Canada to tell his friends back home that he still remembers them. Some people even say that's where the Québecois motto "Je me souviens" comes from — it's in the lyrics of the song.

"Un Canadian errant" became an anthem, not just for the Lower Canadian rebels, but for Mackenzie's exiled rebels as well. (In English, it's called "The Wandering Canadian".) There's an Acadian version, too — the British forced them off their lands in the Maritimes during the Great Upheaval in the 1700s. And more recently, it has become a song for any Canadian who finds themselves homesick in some faraway land.

The song has been recorded many many times. There's a version from 1917 here. Nana Mouskouri does it here. Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland have a version here. It was even used as the Canadian theme music for the legendary geographic video game Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

But I'll post three versions below. The first is by Ian & Sylvia. They were a famous folk duo in the '60s who got their start in Toronto as part of the Yorkville scene and helped launch a revival of the song. The second is maybe my favourite version of the tune, recorded by Laurena Segura, a teenager in Montreal who just signed her first record contract. (I just interviewed her for The Little Red Umbrella over here.) And finally, there's Leonard Cohen, listening to the song on his balcony in Montreal in the 1980 documentary, The Song of Leonard Cohen.

You can also find the lyrics and chords to "Un Canadien errant" here, so you can learn to play it yourself.

And I've got a much more detailed series of posts about Mackenzie, Papineau and the battle for Canadian democracy here.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

You Should Go See Lost Rivers At The Bloor Cinema

Still from Lost Rivers
There's a neat new documentary playing at the Bloor Cinema right now, which if you're reading this site, I imagine you might be interested in. It's all about urban waterways that have been buried underground. Toronto — and the Garrison Creek — play a big role. And there are also fascinating examples from London to Yonkers to Seoul to Brescia. The filmmakers venture down into the sewers with illicit underground explorers known as "drainers" (the group in Brescia have even been officially supported by the municipal government, giving tours beneath subterranean Roman arches or searching for long-lost medieval ponds). And the documentary raises all sorts of interesting questions about the strains placed on Toronto's sewer system — which was originally built back in the days when Queen Victoria was still on the throne, and hasn't been updated much since. (It's an especially pressing question as our population booms and as climate change threatens to bring us ever-more frequent bursts of intensive precipitation. We already dump raw sewage into the lake every time Toronto gets a particularly heavy rain.) There's also some very interesting discussion about daylighting buried streams — which is what you call it when you uncover a buried waterway and bring it back to the surface. They've done it in Yonkers and in Soeul and Lost Rivers takes an honest look at both the positive and negative effects those projects have had on their communities.

The film is playing at the Bloor until Thursday, March 7, and there's a Q&A session after some of them. You can find all the rest of the deets here.