Monday, November 26, 2012

Dream 13 "The Fall of Rob Ford" (Rob Ford, 2012)

Rob Ford dreamed that he walked straight off a cliff.

He was late for a press conference, lost in a park somewhere out by the bluffs. He rushed down one path and then another, frantic, exhausted. It was a sticky summer afternoon. Too hot. Too bright. Suffocating. Below him, the lake flashed dizzying blues and silvers.

He was still a few meters from the edge of the cliff when he realized he was headed towards it. He could see it clearly. But he couldn’t stop himself. He couldn’t quite gather the thought together in his mind: that he needed to veer away. So instead he walked straight at it and then out over the edge, a mayor falling limply through open space.

He landed on the beach with a heavy, sandy thud. It shocked him awake.

He found himself on the floor, beside his bed, safe in Etobicoke. He lay there for a moment catching his breath, his chest heaving, his pajamas soaked with sweat. Then he hauled himself back up under the covers and drifted off to sleep, blessed with happier dreams of football and open roads and spending time with his family at the cottage in July.


Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Photos of the Humber Arboretum

The Humber Arboretum is way up in the top left-hand corner of the city, along the banks of the Humber River near Finch & Highway 427, just behind the Humber College campus. It's pretty beautiful — and I hadn't been there since I went to nature camp there when I was little kid — so I made a couple of visit earlier this year: one at the end of the summer, one once the leaves had started to change. I took a bunch of photos, which you can check out on Facebook (whether or not you have an account) here.

The Star's Star Editor

Here's Joseph E. Atkinson, the old editor of the Star. He took it over in 1899, a few years after it had been founded by striking printers, and helped it grow into the most popular newspaper in Toronto — despite being a liberal voice in a very conservative city. In fact, it was so liberal that Wikipedia claims it was the first newspaper to be banned in Germany when the Nazis came to power.

The Star has an article all about the paper's early years here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

J. Cooper Mason & The Great Boer War

I should maybe put a disclaimer on this one: this post contains some disturbing photos and descriptions.

Okay, so this is apparently probably maybe the very first photograph ever taken under fire on the front lines of a war. It's from the year 1900. These men are Canadians, volunteers who have left their day jobs back home to travel halfway around the world to fight for the glory of the British Empire. Now, they're pinned down in a dusty field of dirt and grass on the banks of a river in South Africa. Bullets are whizzing by overhead. The two guys in the foreground are staring at the enemy trenches, just a few hundred meters away. Behind them, you can see the helmet of a third guy (who might actually be Scottish). He's already dead. "The fire at this point was very hot," the photographer later wrote in a letter back home — he was a King Street banker-turned-soldier by the name of J. Cooper Mason — and as he lifted his head to take this photo, a bullet pierced his helmet and knocked the maple leaf badge right off the front of it. Amazingly, he was unhurt. But the day was young.

By the time the Great Boer War started, Europeans had been waging war in South Africa for more than 200 years. The Dutch started it — their settlers arrived in the 1600s, driving the local Khoikhoi people off the land where they had been living since the days when Jesus was a toddler. Then the British Empire showed up in the early 1800s, seizing control of the Dutch colony and waging their own wars — some with neighbouring indigenous nations like the Zulus, some with the descendents of those first Dutch settlers.

You see, a lot of those descendents weren't exactly thrilled with life under British rule. They were called Boers — the word for "farmer" not only in Dutch, but also in their own new language: Afrikaans — and the Boers were pretty pissed. The British had freed all their slaves, weren't helping the Boers fight the Black Africans on their borders, and would. not. shut. up. about Anglicanism. So in the 1830s and '40s a lot of the Boers just got up and left. They called it the Great Trek. They moved north, found land for new farms, and declared their independence. They created two new Boer Republics with kickass names: Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

The British were not amused. They claimed the Boers were an inferior people: there was the whole support for slavery thing... the complete and unapologetic lack of being even a little bit British... or even slightly Anglican... and they weren't giving British immigrants the right to vote. Plus, there were shitloads of diamonds and gold in the Boer Republics. Shitloads. Transvaal was producing a third of all the gold on Earth — it was quickly becoming one of the richest countries in the world.

Lots of the most powerful men in England happened to own mining companies. And weapons factories. And they were used to getting their way.

The first time the British tried to annex Transvaal, the Boers rose up in rebellion and kicked them out. That was the First Boer War. A few thousand soldiers fought in it. A few hundred people were killed.

Boer farmer-soldiers
The second time the British tried to annex Transvaal, it went much much worse. 

Right from the very beginning, in 1899, it was a pretty big deal. Even 13,000 kilometers away in Canada, people were passionately divided over it. Most Irish Catholics and Québecois (led by Henri Bourassa) didn't want their country to be involved in a British war for the British Empire. But most English-speaking Canadians did. Back then, Canada's military was really just a bunch of militias; they'd only fought in one foreign battle ever. To a lot of people, the Great Boer War seemed like the perfect opportunity to prove Canada could do more. (Not to mention that we still might need Britain's help against the Americans some day, so it paid to keep the British happy.) Supporters of the war wanted the Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, to send in troops. He resisted, but in the end there was a compromise: Canadians could volunteer if they wanted to and the British would pick up most of the tab.

That's how J. Cooper Mason ended up in South Africa. He was from one of the most distinguished families in Toronto: his dad was the future Conservative Senator who co-founded the Royal Canadian Military Institute, the Empire Club, and Toronto's first library. They both worked at one of the country's most powerful banks and were members of one of the city's most prestigious militias: the Queen's Own Rifles. When the war started, Mason was one of the loudest voices calling for Laurier to send in troops. And as soon as he could, he headed off to war. He wasn't alone: an entire company of Torontonians joined him on the ship to Africa. There were more than a thousand Canadians in total.

Meanwhile, the war was off to a rocky start. Everywhere the British went, the Boer farmers formed spontaneous volunteer forces they called "commandos". Their rifles were better than the British ones. And so was their artillery. They had better riflemen and better cavalry; they could shoot from the back of a moving horse while the British had to get down off theirs. The Boers blended into the landscape, struck quickly, and then disappeared. They even used smokeless gunpowder so they'd be harder to see. By the end of 1899, they were holding off British forces three times their size. In the middle of December, they won three major victories in one week. The British called it Black Week. They were stunned.

Only a few of the Canadians had seen action by then. For the most part, they'd been kept off the front lines. They had no experience, after all. Instead, they performed drills, practiced their shooting, and helped out as much they could: building defenses, laying down railroads, helping to care for the wounded. When they got bored, they made a game of chasing ostriches. Some soldiers tried to pluck a feather without getting kicked. Others stole giant ostrich eggs to take home as souvenirs.

J. Cooper Mason passed some of his time by playing with a new gadget he'd brought with him from Toronto: a Kodak camera. It was a small little thing that folded up into a pocket-sized leather pouch — one of the very earliest portable cameras. He used it to take photos of troops marching by. Of soldiers returning from their drills or working on the railroad. Of men resting or having a bath. There's even a shot of the ostriches.

When the Canadians finally got their orders to join the fight, Mason took a photo of them breaking camp. And then another as they marched off toward their first battle.

click to enlarge, launch gallery

By then, the British were hoping the war was about to turn around. In the first few weeks of the 1900s, they fired their general, started to rethink their tactics, and sent in a ton of reinforcements. There were now 180,000 British soldiers in South Africa. Some from Australia, some from New Zealand, some from South Africa itself. By the end of the war, there would be half a million of them. It was the biggest army the British had ever sent overseas.

Now the new British commanders — Field Marshal Roberts and Lord Kitchener, both with glorious old-timey moustaches — finally saw their opportunity. Five thousand Boers were stuck out in the open and Kitchener had 15,000 men to chase them with. All he had to do was catch up with them before they got back to their capital. Then he could crush them.

Mason and the rest of the Canadians were called in to join the chase. Kitchener was driving his troops on a forced march across the baking African scrubland — called the "veld" — steadily making up ground. Ahead of them, the Boers were moving much more slowly. Many of them had their wives and children with them now — and in the dry summer heat, there wasn't enough grass for the pack animals to eat. Kitchener's men caught up with them about a week into the chase, at a spot called the Paardeberg Drift, along the steep banks of the Modder River.

The Canadians met the rest of the army there, racing more than 40 kilometers overnight without stopping for sleep. When they reached Paardeberg just before dawn, they each downed a biscuit, some coffee and a shot of rum. Then they crossed the river, pulling themselves along a rope through the strong current, water up to their chests. On the other side, they climbed the steep bank and headed toward the bend in the river where the Boers had set up camp, their wagons circled and trenches dug.

It was a Sunday morning. February 18, 1900. It would become one of the first days to ever be christened "Bloody Sunday."

A little after 10am, the first Canadians grabbed their bayonets and marched across open ground toward the Boer trenches. They had very good aim, the Boers. The first Canadian died with a bullet through his heart. The others rushed for cover behind whatever shrubs and anthills they could find. From there, they tried to work their way forward, making occasional dashes toward the Boer trenches, then diving back under cover if they hadn't been shot. An hour and a half later, they'd managed to get within a few hundred meters of the Boers. But they couldn't get any closer than that. Moving even just a little bit was risky. One captain peered up through his binoculars and got shot through the head. Two stretcher bearers came out to get him — and they were both shot too. For the next few hours, as the scorching hot sun slipped down from the top of the sky, the men were stuck there: lying in the dirt, without food or water or sleep, waiting for their next orders while the Boers gradually picked them off.

J. Cooper Mason was out there on the front lines and he had his camera with him. At about 4 o'clock, he managed to move over to a spot where a few other Canadians and a Scottish Highlander were pressed against the ground. That's where he snapped his photo, had the maple leaf shot off the front of his helmet, and then settled back in to wait.

British troops at Paardeberg
About an hour later, Kitchener's order arrived: Charge!

This was not a great order. "It is not my place to criticize," Mason later wrote in his letters home, "but for any sane person to think a body of men could dash across 700 yards of open ground in face of a concealed enemy, is to me a mystery... At the word charge, away all went with a cheer and then the bullets whistled like the buzzing of thousands of bees... it was a hopeless undertaking... When we started to move the bullets [were] like a perfect hailstorm, and the men fell by dozens all around me."

As the British bugles called out the charge, Mason sprinted forward with his bayonet fixed. He got within about 100 meters of the Boers before they hit him. A bullet struck him in the chest, sliced clean through his lungs and his shoulder blade and came out the other side. He fell to the ground. "I was almost powerless to move," he remembered later, "the blow being quite severe." Around him, dozens of men were wounded and dying. Many were shot a second time, killed where they had fallen. It would go down in history as one of the greatest disasters of the Great Boer War — the bloodiest day for the British and the Canadians. Hundreds were killed. Thousands more wounded. And few got any closer to the Boers than Mason did.

The banker from Toronto lay there bleeding in the dirt for the next two hours, waiting for the sun to set. Once it was dark enough, he crawled back to a spot behind some shrubbery where a few of the other survivors were waiting. They tended to his wound, gave him a swig of whisky and a cigarette. He would spend the next few weeks recovering in a hospital in Cape Town.

But that was only the first day of the Battle of Paardeberg. Much more blood would flow.

The next morning, the Boer commander asked for a ceasefire so he could bury his dead. The British refused. "If you are so uncharitable as to refuse me a truce as requested," he replied, "then you may do as you please. I shall not surrender alive. Bombard as you will."

So they did. For the next week, as the skies opened up and rain poured down on the Boer camp, so did British artillery shells. The farmer-soldiers and their wives and children tried to shield themselves in their muddy trenches, but it was of little use. Hundreds of them died.

Soon, all their animals were dead too. The stench was overwhelming. When they could, the Boers dumped the carcasses in the river to get them out of the way. The bloated corpses were swept downstream toward the British and Canadians, where they got stuck and dammed the river. They eventually had to be blown up with dynamite. Thousands of British and Canadian soldiers who drank the water fell ill with typhoid. Scores of them died too.

Finally, nearly ten days after the Battle of Paardeberg had begun, the Canadians were sent in again. Under cover of night, they snuck forward to dig their own new trenches just a few dozen meters from the Boers. After one last bloody clash, the farmers surrendered. Four thousand of them — a tenth of the entire Boer army  — were captured, including the commander and his wife. They were sent into exile on the black volcanic slopes of Saint Helena — the very same island where Napoleon had been condemned to live out his final years in isolation.

Canadians loot the Boer camp after the battle
One British soldier described the scene in the Boer camp after the battle had been won. "The stench down there," he remembered, "dead mules, dead oxen, dead people. Everything scattered all over the place. The stench was fantastic."

It was the first big victory for the British. And they kept coming after that. Within a few weeks, they had seized the Orange Free State. A few weeks after that, they had Transvaal too. It seemed as if the war was finally over.

All across the British Empire, people took to the streets in celebration. In Toronto, Yonge Street was thronged with crowds. In England, the Conservatives were re-elected in a landslide — their victory had so much to do with the good news from South Africa that they call it "the Khaki Election."

But the war wasn't over. The most bone-chilling horrors were still to come. To fight the occupation, the Boers switched to guerrilla tactics. The British responded with cruelty. They devastated the countryside with a scorched earth campaign: they burned crops, killed livestock, set fire to houses, poisoned wells and salted the earth to make sure that nothing could grow there again. When that wasn't enough to grind the Boers into submission, Roberts and Kitchener came up with a new plan. They would build more than 100 camps all across South Africa: 45 for the Boers, 64 for Black Africans. While the men were rounded up and sent into exile, the women and children would be forced into these makeshift prisons.

The British came up with a new name for them: concentration camps.

They were hell holes. There wasn't enough food or clean water. No fuel for fires or soap to clean with. People were crammed together in tents without beds or mattresses, forced to sleep on the soggy ground. There weren't enough toilets. Or medicine. Or doctors and nurses. Typhoid and measles and pneumonia and dysentery ran rampant. People starved. Photos of what happened in the camps are shockingly and devastatingly familiar to a modern eye. Children turned into skeletons. Seven year olds who look like frail old men. Some, purposely starved in order to punish their parents. Innocents left to die by the most powerful Empire on Earth. 

The British authorities, of course, tried to keep it secret from the public back home. But when an English feminist managed to talk her way into the camps — and then returned home with horrifying stories of what she'd seen — the government was embarrassed into launching an investigation. The future Prime Minister, Lloyd-George, denounced it as "a policy of extermination".

Lizzie van Zyl in the Bloemfontein concentration camp
By the time they finally improved the conditions, it was way too late for way too many people. More than a quarter of the Boers who were sent to the camps died there. A sixth of all the Boers in the world. Nearly 28,000 of them. Almost all of the dead were children under the age of 16. In the camps for Black South Africans, at least another 23,000 people died. Probably more, they say.

The Boers were finally forced to surrender. The Union of South Africa became one of the jewels in the crown of the British Empire. It was a fucked up mess, though, ravaged by war and racism. The British had claimed the moral high ground because of Boer bigotry, but after the British victory the Black South Africans were still horribly oppressed: they weren't allowed to vote, they weren't allowed to run for office, they weren't allowed to own land outside tiny reserves, they weren't even allowed to leave those reserves without a special pass. The foundations for apartheid were laid.

Between all the soldiers and civilians and concentration camp victims, the Great Boer War — which scholars call the South African War these days, with very good reason, since it engulfed so many Black South Africans too — had killed more than 100,000 people. About 270 of them were Canadian.

It was very literally the end of an era: Queen Victoria died during the war, the 1800s turned into the 1900s, and Britain's "imperial century" entered its final days. The next big war, ten years later, would be the First World War, announcing a new century of even more absurd horrors.

J. Cooper Mason and the rest of the Canadian soldiers had left South Africa back before the guerrilla war really got started. They came home to a hero's welcome. There was a parade down King Street with crowds of joyous people and a canyon of buildings draped in bunting and the Union Jack. People waved the British flag above their heads, lifted their bowler hats in celebration, and leaned out their windows cheering through bullhorns. Mason's dad got them to build a brand new monument in honour of those who had fought in the war: it's still there today in the middle of University Avenue at Queen, a towering obelisk topped by a winged angel holding up a golden crowd.

South African War Memorial
At first things went well for Mason after the Great Boer War. He rowed for the Argonauts rowing club, won championships, even got invited to compete at a prestigious rowing regatta in England. And he went back to banking, working at the main branch of the Home Bank on King Street. He kept climbing the corporate ladder and even added another heroic story to his legend: when three armed bank robbers burst into the branch, he fought them off and foiled it, even after they smashed him in the head with the butt of a revolver.

By the time the First World War started, Mason was nearly 40 — he didn't fight, but his family was still involved: his dad was Chief Organizer of the Reserve Militia. There were some other familiar faces, too: Wilfred Laurier and Henri Bourassa led the resistance to conscription in Canada, while over in England, Lord Kitchener was now Secretary of State for War. (He became an icon thanks to the "Lord Kitchener Wants You" recruitment posters that inspired the even-more-famous Uncle Sam version. We named the city of Kitchener after him.) Even Winston Churchill — now Lord of the Admiralty — had been in South Africa as a newspaper reporter: he became famous for making a daring escape from a Boer prison. A lot of the soldiers were the same guys too. Men who survived Paardeberg and Sunnyside and Spion Kop died in places like Ypres and Passchendaele and the Somme.

After the war, Mason's luck finally ran out. The bank that he and his dad had been running was totally corrupt. There were cooked books and fudged numbers and sketchy loans to their some of their best friends from the Queen's Own Rifles — including millions of dollars to Sir Henry Pellatt, the super-rich businessman who built Casa Loma. He was committing allllll kinds of fraud. And he was never going to be able to pay them back. In the end, they had no choice but close the bank. The life savings of tens of thousands of Canadians went up in smoke.

There would be a Royal Commission and a bunch of arrests and new banking regulations to make sure it never happened again. But J. Cooper Mason wouldn't live to see any of it. He died the day before the corruption was uncovered: a Monday afternoon in the summer of 1923. People disagree on the cause: some say it was cancer — that's what his obituary reported the next day. But others say that the man who had survived a bullet through his lungs, another through his helmet, and an armed bank robbery picked up his revolver in his home on St. George and brought his own story to a tragic end.


J. Cooper Mason
It was actually research for a big Casa Loma post that I'm working on that first tipped me off to J. Cooper Mason. There's a bit of info in the book "Sir Henry Pellatt, the King of Casa Loma". Much of the info about Mason's time in the war comes from the retro-'90s-looking website of a documentary filmmaker, John Goldi: the Canadian Anglo-Boer War Museum. It has lots of photos and excerpts from Mason's letters and his diary here. The speculation about Mason's suicide comes from Wikipedia and Suite101 — his obituary (here) and a couple of other sources say it was cancer.

Interestingish fact: The same sculptor who designed the South African War Memorial on University also designed the Vimy Ridge Memorial after the First World War — the one that Harper just put on the new $20 bill.

There's another modern connection to the Harper government, too: James Buchan, one of the leading British administrators of the South African concentration camps would later go on to become Governor General of Canada. The Harper government's new citizenship guide for new Canadians sings his praises and includes a photo of him in an indigenous headdress. You can learn more in the book Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift.

There's a detailed description of the Battle of Paardeberg on the Royal Canadian Regiment website here. And a bit more from the Canadian War Museum here. And a map of it here. There are excerpts from a book about the Canadian role in the wars here. Between the wars, Mason's dad gave a speech to Empire Club calling for a bigger military and rifle practice in schools, among other militia-related things. They've posted it online here. And there's kind of an interesting article here about the celebrations around the Empire after one big victory: the end of the siege of Mafeking. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was there during the siege of Mafeking — he even wrote a non-fiction book called The Great Boer War. So was Winston Churchill's aunt, who smuggled out articles for the newspapers in England. The town was commanded by Robert Baden-Powell, the guy who would go on to start the Boy Scouts. (His wife would run the Girl Guides and get Sir Henry Pellatt's wife to run the Canadian chapter.)

Also, it strikes me as kind of crazy that when Churchill started his first war, the newest killing technology was the Gatling gun — by the time he was done with his last, it was nuclear weapons. He seems to have looked back on the Boer War as a more innocent time: "This kind of war was full of fascinating thrills. It was not like the Great War. Nobody expected to be killed. Here and there in every regiment or battalion half a dozen, a score, at the worst 30 or 40 would pay the forfeit, but to the great mass of those who took part in the little wars of Britain in those vanished light-hearted days, this was only a sporting element in a splendid game."

Canadian troops near Belmont, South Africa — taken by J. Cooper Mason
British troops (I think) marching near Belmont, South Africa — taken by J. Cooper Mason
Canadians sleep before Paardeberg — taken by J. Cooper Mason

Canadian troops cross the Modder River at the Battle of Paardeberg
The Royal Horse Artillery heads into battle at Paardeberg — taken by J. Cooper Mason
Canadian troops return to Toronto — parade at King & Yonge

I've put together a post taking a closer look at this last photo of the parade, with a legend exploring many of the details in it, here.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Toronto Street in 1908

Toronto Street was once one of Toronto's most beautiful streets. Here it is in 1908. We're looking north from King, just a couple of blocks east of Yonge. A few of the buildings are still there: the columned building on the very left, which was the city's seventh post office; the old Consumer's Gas Building down near the far end on the right-hand side. Sadly, that gorgeous building facing us at the end of the road isn't one of them. It was Toronto's eighth post office. I wrote a bit more about it a while ago, which you can read here.

Long before this photo was taken, the street had already seen some pretty important history. It was at the corner of Toronto & Court (the side street you can see on the right) that Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews were famously hanged for the role they played in William Lyon Mackenzie's Rebellion in 1837. I wrote lots more about that here.

Some New & Old Photos of Riverdale Farm

At the end of the summer, I finally checked out Riverdale Farm for the first time since I was a wee little kid. And it's pretty neat. Beauuuuutiful and full of history. It started out as a zoo back in the late-1800s, and you can still see signs of it at the farm today. On Facebook, I've posted a full gallery of old-timey photos mixed with new photos I took on my walk around. You can check it out here.

The farm's been on Rob Ford's chopping block recently, but his Executive Committee voted against him this summer, accepting the farm's new business plan and fundraising ideas. Torontoist's got an article about how that went down over here.

And you can check out the farm's website here. Admission is free and it's open 9-5.