Friday, December 2, 2011

Bloor & Spadina Was Pretty Beautiful Back in 1933 (Featuring Old-Timey Streetcars)

This is Bloor Street, just west of Spadina, in the summer of 1933. By then, it already been about 50 years since the Annex was annexed into the city of Toronto. But the growth hadn't stopped there, of course. By the time the 1920s rolled around, the city had begun to swallow up villages and neighbourhoods even further north, spreading up the escarpment into places like Moore Park and Forest Hill, and west too, through Parkdale. That's when we decided that our transportation system should be amalgamated as well: the TTC was officially born and a brand new fleet of streetcars hit the roads of Toronto.

You can see them here in the middle of the photo. They're called Peter Witt streetcars, named after the guy from Cleveland who designed them in the early 1900s. We had a few hundred of them, which apparently makes us one of their best-known homes, but they also appeared in cities all over North America and Europe: New York, Chicago, Detroit, Mexico City, Madrid, Naples, Milan... The TTC used them for about forty years, finally taking the last ones out of commission in the '60s, but in Milan, they are still about two hundred Peter Witt streetcars gliding through the streets, painted bright orange. A few of them have even made their way from Milan to the United States, where they grace the hills of San Francisco.

I found this photo on the Toronto Archives Flickr page (which rules). They've got an entire set dedicated to the Peter Witts. I'll post a few of my other favourites below and you can check out the full set here, read more about the streetcars on Transit Toronto here or in Agatha Barc's blogTO post here. You can also watch a little video of one of the streetcars in action here from the Halton County Radial Railway Museum, where they've got one you can ride.

The Peter Witts ran on different tracks from the ones we had before

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Day Canada Became A Democracy

Lord Elgin, looking like a badass
This is the eighth in a series of posts about William Lyon Mackenzie, Robert Baldwin and the birth of Canadian democracy. Part one here. Part two here. Part three here. Part four here. Part five here. Part six here. Part seven here.

Yup, here it is. A really really really really really big deal. People in Toronto had been living under authoritarian British rule since the day the city was founded — Canadians in older parts of the country even longer than that. Lieutenant Governors and Governors General had acted like puppet dictators with the power to ignore our elected legislatures. And they did. But now, Toronto's Robert Baldwin and Montreal's Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine had banded together to win an overwhelming majority on a platform demanding real democracy. They had a new idea: Responsible Government. The Prime Minister and his cabinet wouldn't answer to the Governor General, but to parliament itself. To the Canadian people.

Meanwhile, in England, the liberal Whig Party was back in power yet again. And this time, it looked like they might finally be ready to give in. They sent a new, liberal Governor General to the Canadian capital in Montreal: Lord Elgin. He was the son-in-law of Lord Durham — author of the super-important Durham Report, which had famously recommended that the British embrace Baldwin and LaFontaine's idea. Even better: Elgin realized just how much support Responsible Government had with ordinary Canadians. "I am presiding over one of the most democratic communities that ever existed," he wrote in a letter back home to his bosses in London, "[Canada's] constitution is most popular in character". Momentum was building. Over in Nova Scotia, liberals had just won their own battle for Responsible Government. And as Baldwin and LaFontaine's Reform Party began to pass bills dismantling our British-style class system in favour of diversity and inclusion, Elgin signed them all into law.

But the real test was still to come. Would Elgin sign a bill that conservatives vehemently disagreed with? Would he turn his back on the Protestant, monarchy-loving, democracy-hating Tories, who had always had British support? Did the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique still run the country? Or was Canada now a true democracy?

We wouldn't have to wait long to find out. In February, Baldwin and LaFontaine introduced the Rebellion Losses Bill. This was it.

Really, the bill shouldn't have been controversial at all. It was just going to help pay people in Lower Canada whose property had been damaged during the Rebellions of 1837. That seemed fair. When the Tories were in power, they'd already done the same thing for Upper Canadians. Thing is, in Upper Canada, most people were anglophones; in Lower Canada, they spoke French. And since French-Canadians weren't loyal to the British Crown or to the Church of England, as far as the racist Tory Party was concerned, French-Canadians weren't really Canadians at all. Paying them for damages was as good as paying the rebels themselves.

And so, the Tories were outraged. As the bill was debated in parliament, things got vicious. The payments would be "an open encouragement to rebellion," the conservatives claimed. The Reform Party was "under the dominion of French masters". They were "dangerous, criminal and subversive of order". If Baldwin and LaFontaine had their way, Canada would be "ruled by foreigners". (By which, of course, they meant: the wrong kind of foreigners.)

Inside parliament in old Montreal
And if hurling insults wasn't going to do the trick, the Tories were more than willing to hurl fists. When one important Reformer, William Hume Blake, got up in parliament and denounced the conservatives by calling them the true rebels, the Tory leader, Allan McNab, lost it. He'd fought in 1837, marched up Yonge Street against William Lyon Mackenzie and then, after the rebel leader escaped to the States, took a couple thousand men down across the border to continue the fight. Once he got back, he put down another small rebellion outside London. He'd been knighted for it. And he did not bloody well appreciate being called a rebel himself. He and Blake had to be restrained from attacking each other on the floor of parliament. Fighting broke out in the galleries. Women had to be lifted down out of the balconies to safety. And when the debate resumed the next day, Blake was in thick of things again. This time he faced off against John A. Macdonald. Our future Prime Minister was a Tory backbencher back then, so insulted by Blake's arguments that he challenged the man to a duel. He'd already headed outside, ready to fight,  by the time others managed to calm him down.

It was that same month, as tempers flared, that William Lyon Mackenzie was allowed to come home for the first time in more than ten years. Baldwin and LaFontaine's government had granted amnesty to the exiled rebel, who had continued his work as a newspaperman in the United States. He showed up in old Montreal, in parliament, watching the debates from the gallery. He was so loathed by the conservatives that when a Tory ran into him in the library, it nearly caused a riot. When he travelled to Upper Canada, there was a riot in Belleville. They burned him in effigy in Kingston. In Toronto, they burned him in effigy again and attacked the house where he was staying, pelting it with rocks. Fearing for his safety, Mackenzie asked city council for protection. They answered by passing a motion in support of the rioters. One councilor said that the law against murder was the only reason he didn't kill Mackenzie himself.

After nine days in Toronto, it was clear to our city's first mayor that things weren't safe for him here. Mackenzie abandoned his plan to move his family home to Canada and headed back south. He would wait for things to calm down — for a time when he could live in Toronto without fearing for his life.

Meanwhile, back in Montreal, the debate over the Rebellion Losses Bill raged on for the rest of the month and into March. The Tories filibustered their asses off. Every hour of every day, they were on the floor of the legislature, denouncing the bill, killing time while right-wing newspapers printed inflammatory headlines. Anger among Tory supporters grew. They called on Lord Elgin to do what the appointed Governors had always done when they were backed into a corner: step in on the side of the conservatives and dissolve parliament, snuffing out the bill — and with it, our democracy. "The Tory party," Elgin wrote in another letter home to England, "are doing what they can by menace, intimidation and appeals of passions to drive me to a coup d'etat."

But Elgin did nothing. On March 9th, the Rebellion Losses Bill passed. Now all it needed was his signature.

For nearly two whole months after that, it wasn't clear what Elgin would do next. He literally just stayed home, at the Governor General's residence outside Montreal. While Baldwin and LaFontaine waited for his signature, Tories and their supporters begged and pleaded and threatened, demanding that Elgin not sign the bill. It would doom the country, they claimed. But in the meantime, dozens of other laws had been passed by parliament. They needed signatures, too. One way or another, the Governor General was going to have to decide.

Elgin gets into his carriage
It was on a Wednesday – on April 25th – that Lord Elgin stepped outside his home, climbed into his carriage and headed into the capital. He pulled up to the parliament buildings around four o'clock in the afternoon. He was escorted upstairs, where he signed every single one of the bills that was waiting for him. Including the Rebellion Losses Bill.

The fight had taken nearly fifty years. Canadians had died for democracy. They had been hanged for it, rotted in jail for it, been banished from the country they loved. But now, Baldwin and LaFontaine and the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of English- and French-speaking Canadians united behind them had won. The head of the British government in Canada had just acknowledged the people of Canada as the true rulers of our country.

Canada was a democracy.

The exact timing came as a bit of a surprise; it seems Elgin hadn't told anyone he was coming. But news travelled fast. By the time the Governor General got back outside, an angry mob of conservatives was already waiting for him. He climbed into his carriage under a rain of insults, boos, eggs and tomatoes. He was drenched. But that was just a faint hint of things to come. Tories were pissed the fuck off. They weren't ready to give up – they were ready to get violent. The fight wasn't quite over yet, and the next stage of the struggle would begin that very night, as the parliament buildings burned.

I'll tell that part of the story in my next post in this series. 


A whole heck of a lot of this comes from John Raulston Saul's amazing Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin book, which, if you're at interested in this stuff, you should absolutely totally definitely check out. You can buy it here, or get it from the library here. I also got some of the info about Mackenzie's brief trip home from here

Kind of an interesting footnote on the Rebellion Losses Bill: the Reformers did compromise with the Tories a bit. Originally, the bill paid damages to any Lower Canadians, regardless of their involvement in the Rebellions. But eventually, the Reformers agreed to deny funds to anyone who was convicted in the wake of the violence. That was controversial since the courts that convicted them weren't impartial – they were headed by John Colborne, the very same Governor General who had laid the government troops against the rebels. Not exactly the most unbiased jurist. So guys like the amnestied Lower Canadian rebel, Louis-Joesph Papineau were outraged by the compromise and caused real trouble for Baldwin and LaFontaine as they tried to the pass the bill.

And, finally, as I mention briefly in the body of the post, Responsible Government, actually came to Nova Scotia before it came to the Province of Canada. There, the fight was led by a reformer by the name of Joseph Howe. There, the British government began to relent by the end of 1847. The Colonial Secretary, John Grey (sort of the liaison between the English government and the colonies – who also happened to be Lord Elgin's uncle-in-law (is that a thing?)) wrote to the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia in November of that year: "It is neither possible nor desirable, to govern any of the British provinces of North America in opposition to the opinion of its inhabitants."

This post is related to dream
10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The QEW Looked A Whole Lot Different in 1939

The QEW started out as a much smaller highway called the Middle Road. It was built as a government works project during the Great Depression, connecting Toronto to Hamilton as an alternative between Lake Shore and Dundas, which were getting clogged with traffic. Not long after it was built, it was expanded and extended all the way to Niagara Falls, becoming Queen Elizabeth Way. It was modeled on the autobahns in Germany, the first of its kind in North America, with the longest uninterrupted stretch of streetlamps in the world. The stuttering King George VI was here to officially open it with his wife, Elizabeth, who it was named after. (You might know her better as the Queen Mum, or Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech.)

This photo was taken in Etobicoke around the time the highway officially opened. It shows the interchange with what's now Highway 427. Today, this spot is a tangle of concrete ramps in the midst of a big box wasteland just west of Kipling, not far from Sherway Gardens.

Here some more old photos of the highway, mostly found here and here.

The rural road in the days before the QEW
The royal opening ceremonies in St. Catherines, 1939
King George VI and Elizabeth on the QEW, 1939
The entrance to the QEW in Toronto, 1940
East of Oakville, 1938
Fruit trees in spring, Grimsby, 1949

Monday, November 14, 2011

An Especially Neat-Looking TTC Transit Map from 1955

Click to enlarge

One of the most beautiful books written about the history of our city is Derek Hayes' Historical Atlas of Toronto. It's filled with gorgeous maps of the city, stretching all the way back to the time of the earliest European settlers. One of my favourite discoveries is this map of our fledgling downtown transit system from 1955, ringed with images of some of our most iconic attractions.

At least, our most iconic attractions at the time. Some of them (coughthebusterminalcough) might have trouble making that list today. Most obviously, the CN Tower and the SkyDome have gone up since. The ROM and the AGO look a bit different these days. The CBC has moved from Cabbagetown to Front Street. And the Armouries on University Avenue, which are included here, aren't there anymore. In 1955, they stood just north of Queen, behind Osgoode Hall, having been built in the late-1800s. Soldiers were trained there to fight in the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Boer War before that. But it was demolished in the '60s to make way for the new courthouse.

You can click to enlarge the map. And you'll find the Historical Atlas of Toronto for sale here among other places.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Toppy Topham Crosses The Rhine

Operation Varsity above the Rhine River

The war was nearly over. It had already been nine months since the Allies landed in Normandy. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had been there, students and shopkeepers and dentists from places like Calgary and Saskatoon and Toronto leaping out of planes into the air above France, dropping behind German lines to secure bridges and roads. Hundreds of them had died doing it. Then, the following winter, the battalion had patrolled the freezing snows of the Ardennes Forest, resisting the brutal German counter-attack at the Battle of the Bulge. Now it was March, and the Allies had pushed all the way across Western Europe into Germany itself. But hundreds of thousands of people were still dying. And the Allies still had one more mammoth task ahead them before they could fan out across the country and overrun it: they needed to cross the Rhine River. What was left of Hitler's army was waiting for them on the other side.

The morning of March 24, 1945 saw the biggest airborne operation in the history of anything ever. Thousands upon thousands of planes and gliders took off in England and soared across the skies of Europe toward the river. They stretched out for more than 300 kilometers — the distance from London to Paris — and took two and half hours to pass by. When they got to the Rhine, tens of thousands of men leapt out of the planes, white parachutes bursting open in the morning light. They were easy targets for the bullets and anti-aircraft shells that rose to meet them. Many men died before they'd even hit the ground. Hundreds of planes fell burning from the sky.

One of the lucky men who did survive the drop was Frederick George Topham. He'd been born in Toronto during the First World War, had gone to school at Runnymede Collegiate on Jane Street, and spent some time working as a miner at Kirkland Lake. His friends called him Toppy. He was in Europe as a medic with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, stitching up men on the front lines. That morning on the banks of the Rhine, they needed it. Many of the men had been shot on their way down. Their commanding officer, a guy from Winnipeg who'd won the Grey Cup with the Blue Bombers in the '30s, had already been killed. So Topham got to work, rushing from one injured paratrooper to the next: performing first aid, tending to wounds, saving lives.

It was about 11 o'clock — an hour after his jump — when Topham heard a cry for help. An injured solider was lying out in the open, bullets whizzing around him. A medical orderly ran over to help, knelt down at the man's side, and was shot dead. A second medic died the same way. Topham saw it all happen — and then rushed out to help. 

Canadian paratroopers in the drop zone
They say the air was laced with machine gun and sniper fire, but he made it all the way through to the wounded soldier, and began tending to his patient among the dead bodies. That's how Topham got shot, too. In the face. Fighting the pain, blood pouring from his mangled nose and cheek, he stood his ground, gave the solider first aid and then picked him up and carried him through the hail of bullets into the woods to safety. Then he turned around and headed right back out again, to help more of the wounded men. For the next two hours, he refused to stop working, refused to let anyone take care of his bloodied face until the entire area had been cleared of casualties.

And his day wasn't over yet. On his way back to join his company, he came across an armoured machine gun carrier that had been hit by a shell. Mortars were still landing all around it. Flames leapt from it; there were explosions. An officer warned everyone to stand back.

Topham rushed in. He found three men inside and carried each of them to safety. One died of his wounds, but the other two made it. They wouldn't be the last lives he saved that day. The medic kept working for hours.

It would take the Allies a day and a half to win the battle. Then they pressed on deeper into Germany, until they ran into the Soviet army coming the other way. The war in Europe was over. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was the very first unit sent home to Canada. They arrived in Halifax on June 21st, having completed every mission they'd ever been given, and having never given up an objective they'd won.

Back in Toronto, the city had been waiting to celebrate their new hero. They threw Toppy Topham a parade down Bay Street to Old City Hall, with a hundred members of his battalion serving as an honour guard. He was asked to lay the cornerstone for the new Sunnybrook Memorial Hospital for veterans of the war. Soon, an entire post-war neighbourhood on St. Clair East would bear his name: Topham Park. And King George V would award him the Victoria Cross — the highest military honour you can get in the Commonwealth. Nearly 60 years later, when the medal went up for auction in 2004, the members of his old battalion raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it in Canada. They gave it to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa; you can see it on display.

As for Topham himself, he went to work for Toronto Hydro when he got back. That, absurdly, is how he died: in an electrical accident in 1974. Today, you'll find him buried in Sanctuary Park Cemetery at Lawrence and Royal York Road.


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller
You can read more about Toppy Topham and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion here and here and here and here. There's a plaque to his memory outside the old Etobicoke City Hall. I went to his old high school, Runnymede, for a couple of years and don't remember ever having heard about him while I was there, which seems like more than a shame.

Here are some more posts for Remembrance Day:

The story of Toronto's John McCrae writing "In Flanders Fields" amidst the muck and death of Western Belgium here.
What William Faulkner was doing drunk in the cockpit on a biplane in Toronto on the day the Great War ended in 1918 here
The story of bloodshirtsy fighter pilot hero Billy Bishop here
How Canadian troops held occupy Iceland during WWII here.
What it looked like in Toronto on the day the Great War ended here.
A great photo of a women working in a Toronto munitions factory during WWII here.
The story behind on the most famous photos of all-time, "Getting Napalmed As A Child In South Vietnam" here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What A $1 Bill Looked Like in 1859

During the 1800s — and even into the early 1900s — there wasn't just one national bank in Canada with the power to print money. Instead, there were dozens of "chartered" banks who had permission from the government to roll out their own bills. This is one of those, a $1 bill issued by Toronto's very own Colonial Bank of Canada. It was printed in 1859, during Queen Victoria's reign. That's her over there on the left-hand side of the money, while a woodsman / lumberjack / boy toy from a 19th century romance novel hangs out in the middle.

Finally, in 1935, we established the Bank of Canada and it began to print a centralized national currency with standardized denominations. (Which soon also meant the end of strange numbers showing up on our money, like this $4 bill from 1882.)

The Battles at St. James

This is a photo of St. James Cathedral on King Street East, which towers above the park where the Occupy Toronto protesters are camped today, more than 100 years after this image (by old Toronto photographer guy Frank Micklethwaite) was captured. Since it's not actually in the financial district, St. James Park seems like an odd choice as the home of the protests. But historically speaking, there's some justification for it: that block of the city — from Church to Jarvis and Adelaide to King — has been at the centre of the battles over Canadian democracy for about 200 years. Last week, I wrote a piece about it for Torontoist, complete with war, riots, rebellion and plague. You can read it here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Photo: What Miss Toronto Looked Like in 1926

You might be familiar with this photo already, since it apparently inspired a mural on the side of the Rhino in Parkdale. It was taken at the very first Miss Toronto pageant ever, which was held in 1926, back when people made their bathing suits out of wool. The event was held at the Sunnyside Bathing Pavillion (which is still there) down by the lake. The organization of the event was eventually taken over by the Toronto Police about a decade later and moved to the CNE grounds.

They picked a Miss Toronto every year until 1991, when, it seems, we finally woke up to the whole tasteless objectification of women thing and decided maybe it was time to stop doing it. UrbanToronto has more photos of the pageants from over the years here. It's well worth a click-through and a scroll-down to get a quick and vague impression of how our city's idea of a superficial feminine ideal changed over the course of the century.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Like Washington And Jefferson Only Better

The Durham Report
This is the seventh in a series of posts about William Lyon Mackenzie, Robert Baldwin and the birth of Canadian democracy. Part one here. Part two here. Part three here. Part four here. Part five here. Part six here.

So where was I? Right, the Durham Report! After the rebellions, sick of all the turmoil in Canada, the British had sent Radical Jack Durham here as Governor General to see what could be done. By the time he returned to England a few months later, he'd been convinced by Canadian liberals like Robert Baldwin and his father William Warren Baldwin that we should have Responsible Government. Democracy. Power over own own affairs. But the British Prime Minister thought it was a crazy idea. "A logical absurdity," he called it. 

There was, however, one thing about the Durham Report that the British government did like: the racism.

Durham thought French people sucked — French Canadians included. In his report, he famously claimed that Canada was really "two nations warring within the bosom of a single state". So in addition to the whole Responsible Government thing, Radical Jack suggested that the British should try to stamp out the French influence in Canada. He recommended an overwhelming flood of English-speaking immigrants. That Francophone rights should be limited. That some of them should be taken away entirely. And that Lower Canada (Québec) should be forced to join with Upper Canada (Ontario) so that anglophones could out-vote francophones on everything. 

The British might have thought the democracy part of the Durham Report was ridiculous, but they were all over this anti-French stuff. In 1840, they passed the Act Of Union. This was a big deal. Upper and Lower Canada were combined as the Province Of Canada and renamed Canada West and Canada East. Both new provinces were given the exact same number of seats in the legislature — even though there were waaaay more people in Québec. The French were getting screwed. And it didn't stop there.

New provinces meant new elections. And the British weren't about to let French Canadians just go ahead and vote. Not without making it as difficult as humanly possible. Polls were set up in English neighbourhoods instead of French ones. Sometimes they were in completely different towns. And when francophone voters travelled those long distances in order to cast their vote, they found organized mobs of violent Tory anglophones waiting for them. If violence broke out, the army was ready to step in to protect the people who spoke English and voted conservative. A lot of people would get beaten up during this election. Eight people would die.

One of those screwed-over francophones was Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine. LaFontaine was born just outside Montreal and grew up to become one of the leading voices in the Parti Patriote, the left-leaning, democracy-loving party in Lower Canada. (He was also a dead ringer for Napoleon — they say even Napoleon's own guardsmen once mistook him for a taller reincarnation of the diminutive dictator.) But he wasn't as radical as some of the other big name Québecois reformers. He hadn't supported the violence of the rebellions — arguing instead in favour of passive resistance and the boycotting of British goods. And while that didn't stop the Tories from driving him into exile and then throwing him in jail for a while — without a warrant or any proper charges — he was eventually released. Since the more radical Patriotes were still in prison or in exile or hanged, the job of leading the party in the new elections was left to him.

Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine
But not even LaFontaine was going to be allowed to vote. His poll was on the far side of his riding, in a town called New Glasgow — not exactly the most francophone place in the province. When LaFontaine and hundreds of his supporters marched the ten kilometers across his riding to record their votes, one of those angry mobs of Tory anglophones was there to block the way. Some of the reformers carried clubs for protection. Some of the Tories had rifles. On the walk over, there were skirmishes. Blood in the snow. And at New Glasgow it became obvious: if LaFontaine and his supporters wanted to vote, they were going to have to fight their way through.

This, they say, was one of the defining moments in the history of our country. Electoral violence was the norm back in those days. People used to hire gangs of thugs to clear the way through the mobs in order to record their votes. And LaFontaine had hundreds of men at his side ready to do just that. But he hadn't supported violence before the rebellions and he sure as hell didn't believe in it now. He chose not to fight. Instead, he calmed his supporters down and they left without any further bloodshed, avoiding what would have been, in his words, "a massacre". Unwilling to kill for it, LaFontaine lost his seat. One of the most important supporters of Responsible Government had no voice in the new legislature.

That's when Robert Baldwin came up with a plan.

See, in those days, you were weirdly allowed to run in two ridings at the same time. It was apparently supposed to be an insurance policy for party leaders, just in case they happened to lose one. If you won both of the ridings, you could pick the one you wanted to represent; there was a by-election in the other one. And in that election, Robert Baldwin had ended up with two seats in Upper Canada. The plan was for his father, William Warren Baldwin, to run in the by-election in the extra riding, which was just north of Toronto. It had a strong base of Reform supporters — having been held by William Lyon Mackenzie back before the Baldwins ran there. But Robert Baldwin had an idea. He wrote to his father and asked him to stand aside so that LaFontaine could run there instead. His father agreed. A francophone was going to try to win an election in rural, Protestant, anglophone Ontario.

To prepare, LaFontaine moved to Toronto, into the Baldwins' house on Front Street (on the north-east corner of Bay, diagonally across from where Union Station is now). Before long, he was like a member of the family. Together, he and William Warren travelled the riding giving speeches. They argued for Responsible Government. For democracy. Against the old European idea that loyalty should mean loyalty to your race, your religion, and your Crown. The Tories and our British overlords were still fighting for that belief, but Baldwin and LaFontaine argued that our ultimate loyalty should be to be to the greater good — to our fellow human beings regardless of what language they spoke or what god they worshiped. They believed that whether you spoke English or French, you were first and foremost Canadian. And that we were all going to have to work together in order to win our freedom, our democracy and our nation away from one of the most powerful empires the world had ever seen

The voters agreed. LaFontaine won in a landslide. And Baldwin insisted that his new BFF become the leader of the new government. LaFontaine's official title would be Premier of Canada. But people called him Prime Minister.

Together, the two men set to work. The march toward democracy would be a slow one. They spent much of the next eight years building the trust between English- and French-speaking Canadians. The government was made bilingual. Baldwin sent his children to school in Québec City. Later, when the Tories pulled the same election mob bullshit with him that they had pulled with LaFontaine, Baldwin would run for election in Rimouski, in eastern Québec — and win.

Still, it wouldn't be easy. Canadian conservatives hated them — even burned Baldwin in effigy outside his home on Front Street. And in England, the liberal Whig party had just lost their election to the conservative British Tories, who hated the idea of Canadian democracy even more. When they sent a new Governor General to Canada, he had clear orders to ignore any demands for Responsible Government.

Robert Baldwin
Even worse, Robert Baldwin had begun a slow spiral into a severe, crippling depression.

He had always seemed a strange politician. He was quiet and reserved. An introvert. He mumbled his way through speeches. His skin was pale. His eyes were described as dull and expressionless. He was tall and stooped over.  They say he had "a funereal bearing". When he was young, he had fallen head over heels in love with his fifteen year-old cousin, Eliza, and their families — or, um, family — had been appalled. They sent her away for two years, but the young lovers waited and were married when she got back. For nine years, they lived a happy, love-filled life. But then Eliza died, slowwwly and painnnfully after childbirth. Baldwin was devastated. He became obsessed with her death. For the rest of his life, he carried her letters with him wherever he went. Every day, he would spend time alone in her room, which no one else was allowed to enter. Every year, around the anniversaries of their wedding and of her death, he could barely function, sorrowfully wandering the streets of Toronto, visiting the places they had shared special moments together, from their home on Front Street up to their estate, Spadina House, where she lay waiting for him in the family tomb. And now, just as Baldwin and LaFontaine were beginning to make progress, his father William Warren died too. Baldwin got worse. There were headaches. He was known to burst into tears in public. Soon, he was thinking about quitting politics altogether.

At the same time, LaFontaine was going through his own personal misery. William Warren's death had hit him hard too, but that was only the beginning. For years, he and his wife had longed for a child of their own but had never been able to conceive. They had been overjoyed when they finally adopted a daughter. But not long after William Warren died, she did too. So did LaFontaine's niece. The inflammatory rheumatism he had long been suffering from began acting up again. It kept him in bed with fevers and chest pains and excruciatingly swollen joints for weeks at a time. Sometimes months. At times, he said, he was surprised to still be alive.

But the two men carried on the fight. Even after they lost the next election. They dragged their tired bodies across the two provinces, meeting people, giving speeches, hand-writing letter after letter after letter. Baldwin outran an angry mob of club-wielding Orangemen one day; spent another being carried triumphantly through the streets of Rimouski. And it paid off. The election after that, in 1848, Baldwin and LaFontaine won a massive majority. The Tories were crushed. The time had finally come.

History remembers their government as The Great Ministry. In just a few short years, Baldwin and LaFontaine laid the groundwork for the Canada we know today. They brought in public education. An independent judiciary. Our jury system. A system for appeals. The made sure that everyone — not just the rich — had access to the courts. And that anyone — not just the rich friends of Tory politicians — could be appointed to  the civil service. They brought democracy to municipal governments. Opened our ports to ships from all over the world, instead of just British ones. They helped build our railways. Won amnesties for many of the rebels of 1837, including leaders like Wolfred Nelson and Louis-Joseph Papineau, who were finally allowed to come back home. And they took the religious King's College away from Bishop John Strachan and turned it into the secular University of Toronto.(Though they did, sadly, totally fuck up when it came to a woman's right to vote.) The impact these few years had on the history of Canada is hard to even imagine.

But none of that was as important as what they would pull off in the spring of 1849. That's when democracy finally came to Canada.

And I'll finally tell that part of the story in my next post.


There are, I think, two more posts to go in this story of the birth of Canadian democracy, so I'll save some of my sources and added little tidbits for then. But a quick spoiler: though I hadn't read it until I'd written most of this post, John Ralston Saul's book on Baldwin and LaFontaine is absolutely freaking amazing and will have a deep influence on the rest of what I write about these guys. There are lots of copies of that book in the Toronto Public Library system and you can buy it right here. The fact that we don't all know this story by heart is absolutely dumbfounding. There's not even so much as a plaque at the site of Robert Baldwin's grave in St. James Cemetery. Or on the site of the house at Front & Bay. Yeesh.

I believe I shared this at the bottom of my last post, too, but you can read the full text of the Durham Report here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Photo: The Old Old Mill in 1907

Here's a photo I like so much, it's on my wall at home. It's a photo of what the Old Mill looked like in 1907. It was originally built way back around 1793 as a sawmill on the banks of the Humber River, about the same time that the tiny town of York was first being carved out of the forest a good number of kilometers to the east. It was more than a century later, in 1914, that it was re-opened in its current incarnation as a hotel and tea room.

I came across the photo on Torontoist as part of an article by Kevin Plummer about Robert Home-Smith. He was a Conservative businessman/developer type person who opened the new Old Mill, and was also responsible for developing a lot of the neighbourhoods along the Humber River — as well as helping to ensure that it, unlike most of the rest of our waterways, would be lined with parkland. You can read that whole article here.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

William Faulkner Drunk In The Cockpit Of A Biplane

William Faulkner

William Faulkner liked to drink. A lot. There's an interview he did with the Paris Review — one of the few interviews he ever gave — where they asked him what he needed in order to be able to write. He answered paper, food, tobacco and whiskey. Emphasis on the whiskey. When big-deal director guy Howard Hawks asked him to write the screenplay for a movie called Road To Glory, Faulkner showed up to the script meeting with a brown paper bag under his arm. As they got down to work, he pulled a bottle of bourbon out of the bag and sliced his finger open trying to unscrew the cap. And as he bled all over the place, instead of, oh say, taking a break, he just dragged a wastepaper basket over to his chair so that he could bleed into it while he kept drinking. Yup. Dude was one badass alcoholic.

The reason Faulkner was into that kind of macho shit seems to have something to do with the fact that he grew up during the First World War. He was in high school in the States when the U.S. got involved, and his brother went off to fight in the trenches in France. Faulkner wanted to fight too, so he dropped out of school and tried to enlist in the army. But he wasn't a tall man, only about 5'5", so he was rejected. For a while, he kicked around, not quite sure what he'd do.

But then he ended up at a party where he met a Canadian officer who had an idea. He figured that Faulkner could sneak into the Royal Air Force by pretending to be British.

Now, it's probably safe to assume that Faulkner was pretty drunk at that party, but this kind of scheme was right up his alley anyway. He loved pranks. He and a friend used to get a kick out of sending famous poems into magazines and collecting the rejection slips. Notes from editors who were unimpressed with, say, "Kubla Khan", writing stuff like, "We like your poem, Mr. Coleridge, but we don't think it gets anywhere much." So Faulkner threw himself full-throttle into trying to learn how to pretend to be British. He worked with a tutor for weeks, turning his iconic Mississippi drawl into an English accent. He grew a moustache because he figured moustaches looked English. He changed the spelling of "Falkner" to "Faulkner" because he figured the letter "u" made his name look English. And he even invented a fictional English vicar he called Mr. Edward Twimberly-Thorndyke who, somehow, sent letters of recommendation from England to the British Consulate in New York City. So when Faulkner showed up in there with his English accent and his English moustache and his English letter "u", they signed him up right away. (Although, to be fair, the British had been fighting the war for three or four years at that point and they were pretty much taking anyone who wasn't already dead yet.)

U of T during WWI
And that's how William Faulkner ended up in Toronto. Our city had been taken over by the war. And by the Royal Air Force in particular. We'd already had the first airfield in Canada (in Etobicoke at Long Branch, down by the lake) and there were others all over the place: Leaside, Wilson and Avenue Road, the Exhibition... A big chunk of the University of Toronto was turned into an aeronautics school. Colleges were turned into the sleeping quarters for recruits. Tents were pitched on the lawns. Biplanes flew around all over the place. It was a pretty freaking great time for flying in Toronto. Our own Billy Bishop was the greatest fighter pilot in the world, facing off against the Red Baron and shooting down more Germans than anyone else. Amelia Earhart worked here as a nurse (at the military hospital at 1 Spadina Crescent, in the roundabout-y thing on Spadina just north of College) and was so inspired by all the flying she saw here that she decided to become a pilot herself.

It all must have seemed pretty badass to a guy like Faulkner, who soon arrived for training. This was only about 15 years after the Wright Brothers' first flight; you had to be pretty brave to get into one of those rickety biplanes on a good day, never mind when Germans were trying to shoot you out of the sky. The average lifespan for a pilot during the war was something like 11 days. Faulkner studied hard, became popular with the other recruits (he regaled them with limericks so dirty that even on the Internet every source I find says they're "unprintable"), and looked forward to the day he'd get to fight in Europe.

But that day never came. On November 11, 1918, while Faulkner was still in training, the war ended. Or as he put it: "The war quit on us before we could do anything about it." Toronto erupted into celebration. People poured into the streets. The mayor declared a spontaneous tickertape parade. Floats marched down King Street; people threw paper and (for some reason) talcum powder into the air. They parked a car on the lawn outside Queen's Park and drove over it with a tank in celebration. And at the Military Aeronautics School at U of T, they gave all the recruits the rest of the day off to go have fun.

Which for William Faulkner, of course, meant drinking.

University College, U of T, during WWI
...and flying. He packed the cockpit of a biplane full of bourbon, climbed in and took off. A lot of historians seem to think that it was the first time he had ever flown alone in his entire life. He started doing tricks. Sweeping 180 degree turns. The difficult Immelmann turn, so dangerous that the German ace it was named after, Max Immelmann, died while doing an Immelmann turn. And then, finally, a huge upside down loop which, according to Faulkner, would have been perfect. Except that right at the bottom a hanger got in the way.

Faulkner's plane smashed through the roof and got lodged in the rafters. For years afterward, the writer would walk with a limp. He'd have a crook in his nose for the rest of the life. But as he hung there upside down in the cockpit, Faulkner was unfazed. He just pulled out some more bourbon and kept drinking.


I originally told this story at the Little Red Umbrella's Variety Spectacular at the Holy Oak Cafe. You can read the Paris Review interview here. And more about Faulkner's time in Toronto here and here and here. Years later, he would team up with Ernest Hemingway to work on the film adaptation of To Have And Have Not, which was the only time two Nobel Prize winners have worked on a movie together. Hemingway also lived here for a while. You can read the story about him that I told at the Little Red Umbrella Variety Spectacular hereAnd there are photos of the event here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Bloody Aftermath Of The Bloody Rebellion

Mackenzie's ship, Caroline, burns at Niagara Falls
This is the sixth in a series of posts about William Lyon Mackenzie and the birth of Canadian democracy. Part one here. Part two here. Part three here. Part four here. Part five here.

Okay so, as I was saying at the end of my last post, Mackenzie's rebellion was a complete disaster. And so was the one in Quebec. The rebels in both provinces were completely routed by the Tories. The entire left-wing in Canada was in disarray. Rebel leaders across the country had been arrested, a few hanged, others exiled to Australia. Many of the rest had fled to the United States.

That's where Mackenzie was. After the rebellion was crushed, he escaped to Buffalo with a price on his head. There, he gave a rousing speech to the biggest public meeting that city had ever seen, convincing hundreds of volunteers to follow him to Navy Island in the Niagara River. He declared it the Republic of Canada, with a new flag and everything. An American ship, the SS Caroline, started ferrying them weapons and ammunition. They were going to invade Upper Canada and take another shot at the revolution.

The U.S. President, Martin Van Buren, threatened them with arrest but didn't really take any action. So the Tories in Canada took things into their own hands. Thousands of them — including Samuel Jarvis and a big famous loyalist guy from Hamilton, Allan McNab — headed south with British troops. They crossed the border into the States, bombarded Navy Island, set the Caroline on fire and left the pieces to drift over Niagara Falls. An American on board was shot and killed. The U.S. government was outraged.

The British claimed the attack was made in self-defense but the Americans were hardly convinced. Van Buren's Secretary of State wrote a famous letter to the Brits: a preemptive strike, he argued, was only okay when the threat was immediate and overwhelming, when there was no other choice and no time left to decide. In the end, the British agreed. They apologized for the attack. And the set of guidelines that would laid out in that letter, the "Caroline test", became the internationally-recognized standard for the use of preemptive force. It still is — at least, for people who aren't George W. Bush or Tony Blair. When the Nazis went on trial at Nuremberg, the court used the exact same words.

After the burning of the Caroline, Mackenzie's Navy Island scheme fell apart. He ended up being arrested by the Americans and spent months in prison. After his release, with his health failing, he resigned himself to life in the United States. He even got his American citizenship. During the next decade, as the battle over Canadian democracy raged towards a climax, he'd be on the sidelines, living in New York State, publishing newspapers that attacked President Van Buren for being too close to the British.

Mackenzie's failed invasion wasn't the only one. In the months after the botched revolution, there were clashes along both sides of the border all the way into Quebec. And they weren't going well for the surviving rebels. In the wake of the rebellions, it kind of looked like Canadian democracy was screwed.

But here's the thing: the British were getting sick of dealing with this shit. It had been nearly 400 years since Queen Elizabeth sent the first English colonists to the New World. They had spent centuries invading the First Nations, nearly bankrupted themselves fighting the Spanish, and waged another massive war to conquer the French in Quebec. Tiny British outposts had grown into thriving metropolises, major economies funneling money back to England. But times had changed. Democracy was getting more and more popular. First, their own American colonists had gotten all pissy about taxation and risen up against them, driven them and their supporters out of the country. Then, it struck closer to home: right across the channel, French liberals who had been inspired by the Americans went batshit bloodthristy and beheaded their king.

Now, there was even unrest in Canada. Canada! Canada was supposed to be run by staunch loyalists, guys who had personally fought wars against the Americans in the name of the British Crown. Oh sure, Reformers like William Lyon Mackenzie had been demanding democracy for decades, delivering fiery speeches, writing scathing articles and even winning elections. But now it seemed they were willing to fight in the streets for it if they had to. 

And in England, the liberals were in power. As far as the Whig Party was concerned, the rebellions were the last straw. They already believed in democracy a hell of a lot more than the conservatives did — and trouble in the colonies wasn't going to win them any votes in the next election. It was time for things to change.

So they did. The Lieutenant Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, was fired. The Whigs knew that hiring him had been a giant mistake. They thought he was a liberal reformer, but he turned out to be a super-conservative prick. He left Toronto a hated man. The surviving rebels put a $500 price on his head; he was forced to cancel his plans for a grand departure through Halifax and snuck out through the States instead. He went back to his life writing travel books in England. And when the Whigs named a new Governor General for the Canadas, they were going to be sure they didn't make the same mistake again. This time, they chose the most in-your-face liberal they could find: Lord Durham.

Lord Durham
Durham, they knew they could trust. Not only was he the son-in-law of the last Whig Prime Minister (Earl Grey, the guy the tea is named after), but just five years earlier he had helped lead the fight against the Tories during one of the most important political battles in British history — getting the Reform Act passed. He'd fought for public education. For better working conditions for miners. For the right of every man to vote, no matter his wealth. He was so left-leaning they called him "Radical Jack".  The Whigs were convinced he'd be perfect for the job.

Radical Jack was not so convinced. He didn't want to go to Canada. The new Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (of having Melbourne named after him fame), couldn't talk him into it. But as luck would have it, there was somebody else who could: the brand new queen. Victoria was young and inexperienced, just 18 years old. She'd only been on the throne for a few months. But she had already made it perfectly clear: even if she was supposed to be neutral when it came to politics, she liked the Whig Party best. She was so close to Melbourne that Tories heckled her as "Mrs. Melbourne". And when Durham refused the post to Canada, she stepped in. Soon, Radical Jack was on a ship sailing for the Great White North. His Prime Minister told him he would have "free reign".

As it turned out, that was kind of bullshit. Melbourne screwed Durham on one of the very first things he tried to do. There were some jailed rebels who he knew would be sentenced to death if they ever went on trial — the judges tended to be the very same guys who had fought against them during the rebellions. So he ordered the prisoners exiled to Bermuda instead. The Canadian Tories were pissed. They denounced Durham as anti-democratic and nicknamed him "The Dictator". In the end, Lord Melbourne sided with them; he reversed Durham's decision from England. Canadian liberals burned Melbourne in effigy. Durham resigned in protest and sailed home, never to return. He'd gotten here in May and by the end of the fall, he was already gone.

But those few months were more than enough time for Radical Jack. His summer in Canada changed the course of our nation's history forever. The most radical Reformers — the ones who had supported the rebellions — might be dead, arrested or gone, but the more moderate liberals were still around. And Durham spent much of his time here talking to them, listening to their ideas about democracy and government and what they should mean for Canada.

There was one conversation in particular that people say was incredibly freaking important. It was with two of the most super insanely gigantically important Torontonians ever: William Warren Baldwin and his son Robert. Canadian historical figures do not get much bigger than this.

The Baldwins were among the very first people to ever to move to Toronto. William Warren Baldwin came here with his father all the way back around 1800, when the town of York was still just a few muddy blocks and a forbidding wilderness. He did well for himself: became a doctor and a lawyer; owned a bunch of land; got married. His son Robert was born in their house on Front Street, at Frederick, a couple of block east of the St. Lawrence Market. (Crazily, that very same house would later become William Lyon Mackenzie's print shop — the scene of the oh-so-important Types Riot.)

As York grew, the Baldwins took their place among the city's rich elite. On the hill above Davenport, right beside where Casa Loma is now, William built a grand house he called Spadina (from a native word for "sudden rise of land"). To be able to see the lake more clearly from his window, he had a road cut through the forest all the way down to the water. He called that road Spadina too. Baldwin Street, he named after himself. Phoebe Street, he named after his wife. He even helped to design the new law school: Osgoode Hall.

William Warren Baldwin
The Baldwin family was friends with some of the most powerful conservatives in the city. They were BFFs with Peter Russell, a corrupt, incompetent, racist, slave-owning asshole who ran Upper Canada for a while in York's earliest days. When he died, the Baldwins  inherited his crazy-rich estate and even moved into his old house, Russell Abbey, to take of his sister, who was losing her mind. And Peter Russell was far from the only conservative they had close ties to. When young Robert went to school, he was taught by John Strachan, the figurehead of the Family Compact. Just like all those Family Compact guys, William Warren Baldwin was a firm Protestant. And he was all about old school gentlemanly honour: when some dude mouthed off about him once, Baldwin challenged the guy to a duel. They met on the sandy strip of peninsula that is now the island. The other guy took it all back before Baldwin could shoot him.

But when it came to politics, the Baldwins and their Tory friends had pretty much nothing in common. By the time of the rebellion, both William Warren and Robert Baldwin had been leading figures in the Reform movement for years. They fought for minority rights. And for public education. And while they didn't support Mackenzie's violent revolution, they still firmly believed in the idea of Canadian democracy. When Durham asked them about it that fateful summer, they were very clear: the ultimate power in Canada should rest with the Canadian people, not with the British Governor General. Ministers in our government shouldn't be responsible to the British, but to our very own elected representatives in the legislature. To parliament. This is what they call Responsible Government.

Durham was convinced. When he got back home to England, he wrote one of the most important documents in all of Canadian history. It was officially titled "The Report on the Affairs of British North America", but we know it as the Durham Report. In it, he made his opinions pretty freaking clear. The current system, he said, was "defective... irresponsible government, an evil which no civilized community could bear. It was a question between a petty, corrupt, insolent Tory clique and the mass of the people." He openly called for Canadian democracy — for Responsible Government. The ideas the Baldwins had been fighting for were now being recommended to the British government by a British official specifically hired by the British government to give them recommendations. This was HUGE.

But the fight was far from over. When the Durham Report was released, Lord Melbourne screwed Radical Jack over yet again. He dismissed the idea of Responsible Government as "a logical absurdity". As far as he was concerned, Canada wasn't going to be getting real democracy any time soon.

The very next summer, Lord Durham died of tuberculosis. Fifty thousand people attended his funeral. His last words were saved for the country he hadn't even wanted to come to. "Canada," he said, "will one day do justice to my memory."

He was right. But it was going to take another ten years before we won the battle for control over our own affairs. And with Mackenzie exiled in the States, it was up to Robert Baldwin to lead the charge.

The next post in this series about William Lyon Mackenzie (and Robert Baldwin) and the birth of Canadian democracy is coming soon. I now have no idea how many there will be... they just keep going... and going... but we're getting there. Promise. And you're going to want to keep reading; Robert Baldwin is probably my favourite figure in the history of the city.


Some interesting tidbits related to all of this. William Warren Baldwin, Robert Baldwin and Peter Russell all share the same headstone at the Baldwin family tomb in St. James Cemetery. Lord Durham had one of the first recording cases of synesthesia on his trip, a condition some people have where some sense get mixed up with other ones (like seeing letters and numbers as particular colours, which I have). And when Baldwin laid out Spadina Avenue, he included the roundabout island thingy that is still there, just north of College.

There's a chronology of the aftermath of the rebellions here. You can read the full text of the Durham Report here. You can read a bit about Tories rioting against Durham here.

This post is related to dream
10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837