Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Corner Store in 1921ish

I don't have much to say about this one. But I like it. A corner store at Dundas and Parliament in 1921 or so.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Very First Steam Locomotive Ever Built in Canada

This is the "Toronto", the very first steam locomotive ever built in Canada. It was made in 1853, in a foundry near Queen Street & Victoria, and ran from here to Aurora and back. It was massive by 1853 standards, 25 tons, specifically built to withstand the punishing Canadian climate. (This is another photo I'd posted on Facebook a while ago, but hadn't gotten around to sharing here.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Norm Kelly Is Wrong About History, Too

One of the drawbacks of democracy

Norm Kelly has been in the news recently. And for some pretty dumbass reasons. The Scarborough Councillor and Ford ally is the chair of Toronto's Parks and Environment Committee. Which, by the obscene and twisted logic of Ford Nation, means that he is pro climate change.

As in, he's not just a skeptic, he actually thinks it'll be awesome.

"I was talking to one climatologist who said we could end up having the climate of Tennessee," he said in this piece in The Toronto Star. "That ain’t bad." And Torontoist published another one of his absurd quotes yesterday: "In fact, they're saying life is going to be a little more comfortable in this city."

(That, of course, is not what they're saying at all. Extreme changes in Toronto's climate — the climate our infrastructure has been specifically developed for over the course of the last 200 years — could have dire consequences for our city. Just, y'know, maybe not the millions of deaths and refugees predicted for some parts of the world.)

But that's even if climate change is a real thing. Which Kelly doubts. Forget the fact, pointed out in committee, that only 24 of 13,950 peer-reviewed scientific articles related to the subject rejected the notion of climate change caused by human beings. Our Councillor Kelly has an answer for that: “We interpret the past. We imagine the future,” he says, pretty much dismissing the entire notion of predictive science in one fell swoop.

To be fair though, the future isn't really supposed to be Kelly's area of expertise. He's much more of an "interpret the past" kind of guy. Before he got into politics, he was an historian. In fact, he won a Governor General's Award for his work in helping Pierre Berton to research his book, The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871-1881. He's got a post-graduate history degree from Queen's and used to teach history at Upper Canada College.

But judging from some of his recent comments, I'm no fan of his ideas about history, either.

Back in November, City Council voted in favour of proclaiming the 75th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre. It was a horrifying chapter in the war between Japan and China in the 1930s. After the fall of the city, hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were raped and murdered by the Imperial Japanese Army. It is, of course, an event with special significance for Toronto's sizable Chinese community. And since the City is in the regular habit of proclaiming such things — we've had Hiroshima Day, Bob Marley DayRed Tape Awareness Week, even Foursquare Day  — you wouldn't think that Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam's motion to officially recognize the anniversary would be controversial at all.

But it was. According to this article by Torontoist (which is where I first learned about all of this), City staff suggested that the proclamation would be a bad idea (citing the Nanking Massacre's Wikipedia page, which mentions that some Japanese people deny the widespread interpretation of the event). The Mayor initially decided to follow the staff's advice, and the motion had a hard time even getting to Council in the first place. But in the end, all of the Councillors decided to support it. Even Kelly, apparently.

But that didn't stop him from making some ridiculous comments about it.

For one thing, he seems to have privately told Wong-Tam, who was born in Hong Kong, that "it's time for you guys to move on." And he followed that up with public pronouncements. The massacre, he declared, is "something that happened purely in an Asian context between two Asian societies... I’m not sure Canadian society is at a point where it has to be instructed about these things, because I think we have values that preclude being attracted to behaviour like that."

This from a guy who used to teach a course in Chinese history at UCC. And who won his Governor General's Award for researching a book that included the story of the Chinese immigrants who built our national railroad.

His words have prompted a few excellent responses. David Wencer, one of Torontoist's own historical contributors, took to the comments section of their post. He wonders whether Kelly would like us to do more to remember the dark chapters in Canadian history: "the Canadian internment of Ukrainians in WWI, the Canadian internment of Japanese in WWII, the 1933 riot at Christie Pits..." (Something that seems unlikely — conservative Canadian historians tend to vehemently argue that we do way too much of that already.)

Meanwhile, Valerie Deacon, a Torontonian military historian teaching at NYU, argues on her blog that understanding the Nanking Massacre is an important part of understanding the story of the Second World War — an Asian chapter we've been too quick to overlook in North America. Canadians, she also points out, do still have something to learn about militarism and race and gender. And that remembering the historical lessons we have learned is a never-ending process.

"If Canadians have values that 'preclude being attracted to behaviour like that,'" she writes, "it is only because we have spent decades trying to teach our young people to 'never forget'. It is because Holocaust survivors mustered the courage to speak about their experiences; because historians followed leads to expose crimes of the past; because legal experts worked to get the machinery of justice moving; because curriculum, public programming, and private groups all sought to remind us that history can repeat itself."

It seems silly to suggest that we've finishing learning — or that we have nothing to learn from others. In fact, the success of our city owes a lot to our multicultural heritage. Diversity in Toronto isn't just about great restaurants and a summer full of festivals. It's also about having neighbours and co-workers and teachers and artists and in-laws who expose us to lessons learned all over the world. Torontonians have a collective memory that doesn't just include events like D-Day and the fur trade, but also the Irish Troubles and the napalming of Vietnam, the Parisian protests of 1968 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Battle of Stalingrad and the bloodbath in Tiananmen Square. It's one of our greatest strengths. It helps us to remember the importance of peace and mutual respect. We are damned lucky to live in this place where we have the opportunity to learn so much from so many different people. And I sure as hell plan on making use of that opportunity for the rest of my life.

Even if some Governor General's Award-winning historians would rather we just moved on.


Photo of Norm Kelly via Open File, RIP.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Firefighting Street Style from 1910

A few months ago, while I was working on my post about the Circus Riot — which was clowns vs. firefighters — I found a bunch of neat old photos of firemen. This is maybe my favourite of them, which I posted to Facebook at the time, but not here... so now I'm posting it here. They're walking down the hill on Lansdowne just above Davenport in 1910.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dream 05 "The Man in the Clouds" (Nino Ricci, 2003)

Nino Ricci dreamed that there was a strange man living in the clouds above Toronto. He was short, with thin-rimmed spectacles and an elaborately curled moustache. It was cold up there and windy at night; his only shelter was a small tent pitched near the fluffy white edge. Standing just outside it, you could see all the way to the horizon, past the miniature twinkling of skyscrapers, highways and roads.

“I’ve been making trips down there for years!” The man was shouting over the stiff wind, as he pulled a pair of scissors out of his suit pocket. “I’ve collected them all: books, letters, pamphlets, poems, even shopping lists and love notes. These clouds are stuffed full of them!”

And with one quick, dizzying motion, the man leaned out over the side and drew his scissors across the cotton, slicing it open. Flurries of paper spilled out of the wound, were caught up by the wind and swept down toward the sleeping city.

In the morning, tiny people would come out of their homes armed with shovels and snow-blowers and brooms, eager to dig themselves out from beneath the fresh snow.


Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Frozen Eastern Gap in 1912

Fuck that looks cold. It's 1912 and we're looking down the pier of the Eastern Gap — the opening from the harbour into the lake between the eastern side of the islands and Cherry Beach. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, the gap didn't always exist. When Toronto was founded back in the late 1700s, the islands weren't islands at all — they were just a sandy peninsula still attached to the mainland. It wasn't until a couple of big storms in the 1850s that the gap was created and widened and the islands became the islands. We've artificially enlarged and shaped them since then.

The photo comes via a great blogTO post by Derek Flack, all about Toronto in winter. You can check it out here.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Great & Deadly Snowstorm of 1944

One of the biggest snowstorms in the history of our city came on December 11, 1944. The forecast called for just a few inches, but instead Toronto got two straight days of wintery fury. The storm killed 21 people. One died when the Queen streetcar was blown over by strong winds. More than a dozen met that most Canadian of ends: death by the shoveling of snow.

The Toronto Star headline the next day declared, "Whole City Stopped as if by Giant Hand." People were trapped inside their homes behind snow drifts. Even the ammunition factory was forced to close — a pretty big disaster in its own right during those final days of the Second World War.

blogTO has more photos and information thanks to a post by Agatha Barc here. And as for this particular picture, I can tell you that we're looking north up Yonge Street toward Richmond just after the storm. That building on the left is gone now, but that other one just up the street is still there. It was the Simpson's Department Store once upon a time. Now, it's home to another one of our oldest companies: The Bay.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

How Napoleon Bonaparte Is Indirectly Responsible For One Of The Best Walking Trails In Toronto

The Mast Trail, Rouge Park

Freaking Napoleon. Nobody could beat him. Ever since the beginning of the French Revolution, France had been fighting wars with pretty much every single other big country in Europe. And while Robespierre and his gang of paranoid mass murderers were busy guillotining everybody in Paris, Napoleon was leading the French army to one victory after another. Before long, he had taken over the country, crowned himself Emperor, and built a network of conquests and alliances that stretched from one end of Europe to the other. The only country left to fight was England. So an invasion of England was next on Napoleon's list.

There was just one big, floating, wooden problem: the Royal Navy. The British fleet had ruled the waves for the last 100 years. And they could beat Napoleon. People still talk about how badly Lord Nelson's fleet pwned the French at the Battle of Trafalgar. It left Napoleon's navy in tatters.

But the Emperor did have another way of screwing with the Royal Navy: he could take away their wood.

People in England had been chopping down their forests since the Stone Age. They barely had any left. And it took thousands of oak trees just to build one ship. The masts were especially hard to find — they had to come from big, strong, old-growth pines. The British were having to ship them in from the far north-east corner of the continent, from the towering forests on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

The same Baltic shores that Napoleon now controlled.

In fact, Napoleon now controlled just about all of the shores in Europe — which meant he could seriously mess with the British economy. He declared an embargo. No one was allowed to trade with England. Not France, not Napoleon's allies, not the nations he had conquered, not even neutral countries. If he found anyone trading with the British, he would arrest the Britons and burn all the goods. He even threatened to invade Russia if they didn't agree. And just like that, Napoleon had robbed the Royal Navy of their Baltic masts.

The Mast Trail, Rouge Park
That's where Toronto comes in. While all of this was happening in the early 1800s, our city was still a brand new little frontier town. It was surrounded by ancient forests that had been growing here for thousands of years. They'd occasionally been cut down too — the First Nations cleared land for villages and corn fields — but they'd never suffered anything like the permanent, wholesale deforestation English forests had. There were still woods all over eastern Canada. And they were full of masts.

Napoleon could keep the Baltics from trading with England, but his navy couldn't keep England from shipping wood across the ocean from Canada. All over the Canadian colonies, lumberjacks started cutting down trees. Timber exports went up by something like 1000% in just three years. Tens of thousands of masts headed across the Atlantic.

Some of them came from the forests of Toronto. The woods of the Rouge Valley — now the verrry eastern edge of Scarborough — were very tall and very old. They were home to wolves and bears and cougars and elk, wild beasts roaming beneath enormous white pines — the perfect tree for making masts. Some of them rose twelve storeys above the forest floor.

By then, the mouth of the Rouge River had already seen plenty of history. The very first people to walk along the valley's forest trails had been prehistoric nomadic hunters. They arrived thousands and thousands of years ago, leaving behind traces of their campsites and the rock they chipped into tools. More recently, it had been the First Nations. By the middle of the 1600s, the Seneca had built a village — Ganatsekwyagon — on a high hill overlooking the valley. It was a hub for the fur trade. Famous French explorers Jolliet and Marquette stopped by on their way deeper into the continent. Coureurs de bois came to trade, or to travel up the Rouge in canoes toward Lake Simcoe. One missionary spent a famously harsh winter there, starving and desperate, living off squirrels and chipmunks and eating moss off the base of the trees. Even the Governor of New France once paid a visit to Ganatsekwyagon during his war with the Seneca. His allies, the Mississauga, took it over.

Now, the Rouge Valley was part of the British Empire. And with the Empire at war with Napoleon, it was ax-wielding lumberjacks making trails through those woods. The great old pines came crashing to the ground, were floated down the Rouge to Lake Ontario and then shipped out the St. Lawrence to make the long journey across the Atlantic. They rose again as masts from the decks of British ships fighting the French half a world away.

The mouth of the Rouge River
Napoleon never was able to invade England. Eventually, his embargo broke down. The Russians finally got sick of it and started trading with the British again. Napoleon responded by invading Russia — which was a terrible idea. His army was devastated by the Tsar's scorched earth campaign and the bitter cold of the Russian winter. It was a turning point. Within a couple of years, his empire had crumbled. He was defeated and then exiled... and then escaped, raised another army, and was defeated and then exiled again. This time for good.

But even with Napoleon gone and the embargo lifted, the British still wanted Canadian lumber. The trees kept coming down and the exports kept going up. They doubled and doubled and then doubled again. Soon forestry had taken over from the fur trade as the engine of the Canadian economy. Today, it's still one of our biggest industries.

There are no more lumberjacks in the Rouge Valley, though. The forests growing there today are protected — Rouge Park is slated to become a national park. There are still enormous white pines towering above the forest floor. Some of them have been growing there since those Napoleonic days — the trees that were, at the time, too small for masts. The old logging trail is still there too. It's called the Mast Trail now. Twenty-first century Torontonians and tourists can walk in the same place those lumberjacks did 200 years ago. And where missionaries and explorers, coureurs de bois and First Nations, prehistoric hunters and wild beasts were walking long before that.


P.S. — Those pine trees weren't just used to build ships in England. Before the Napoleonic Wars were over, we'd be building our own warships over here.

That's because Napoleon wasn't the only one with an embargo: the British had one against him too. This meant that neutral countries like the United States were caught in the middle — they were at risk of having their goods seized no matter which side they traded with. Even worse: the English were using the embargo as an excuse to board American ships and arrest any man who was British — or sort of British, or maybe kind of seemed like he might be British and couldn't prove he wasn't — so they could force him to join the Royal Navy and fight the French. Impressment, they called it. And it pissed the Americans off. It was one of the main reasons they declared war in 1812. While the British were still fighting Napoleon in Europe, the Americans invaded Canada.

Suddenly, the Great Lakes were a battlefield too. Control of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario became vitally important — it meant that you could supply your troops on the ground, support them in battle, and move them around. And so, a naval arms race broke out, with both sides rushing to build the biggest and most powerful fleet they could. Canadian lumber was now being used to build warships in Canada.

Toronto played an important role. The main reason the Americans invaded and occupied our city in 1813 was because we were building one of the biggest ships on the Great Lakes — the HMS Isaac Brock — which would have shifted the balance of power in our favour. The Americans were hoping to seize it, but we burned it first. They retaliated by burning down our parliament and other public buildings. A few months later, one of the war's most pivotal naval battles happened just outside our harbour.

But I'll save those stories for a future post.


P.P.S. — Another kind of interesting note: Lord Nelson. He died fighting Napoleon's fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, and became a national hero in England. They named the public square in the heart of London "Trafalgar Square" and built a giant column to honour Nelson's memory. It's one of the most iconic landmarks in Britain. But he was also a hero over here. Defeating Napoleon's navy meant the trade route between Canada and England stayed open. People in Montreal were so happy about that they built their own column to honour Nelson in their own public square more than 30 years BEFORE the Londoners built theirs. It's still there in Old Montreal at the top of Place Jacques-Cartier.

Nelson had also played an important earlier role when it came to those Baltic masts. Long before Napoleon's embargo, some of the other most powerful countries in Europe wanted to keep England from being able to trade with the Baltics. So they shut down the narrow channel between Sweden and Denmark — the only way into the Baltic Sea. Nelson was the hero of that episode too. He led the British fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen. When his commander gave him permission to retreat, Nelson famously lifted his telescope to his blind eye so that he couldn't see the signal. He kept fighting and won. It meant that the British got to keep trading with the Baltics right up until Napoleon's embargo.

Oh and Nelson was famous for other stuff too: for having lost an arm in addition to that eye, and for openly living in a sinful threesome with the young Lady Emma Hamilton and her elderly husband William. 


You can learn more about the Mast Trail here and in a PDF here. The Toronto Star has more about the plans to turn Rouge Park into a national park here. There's a whole report on the state of the Rouge watershed, with lots of heritage info, in a PDF here. And there's another one with some info about Rouge Valley heritage and wildlife here. You can learn more about Napoleon's embargo here and here. Or the entire Napoleonic Wars here. The Canadian Encyclopedia has some more information about the Canadian timber trade here. And the federal government has a military heritage website with more information about it here. Meanwhile, Wikipedia's got you covered here if you want to learn about the British timber trade instead. If you'd like to know more about warships on the Great Lakes, head on over here. And Wikipedia also has a little page about the Naval Shipyard, just west of the foot of Bay Street, where the HMS Isaac Brock was being built. You can check that out here.

Oh and photos by me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

History & Graffiti on Croft Street

On Facebook, I've got some photos of Croft Street I took this fall. It's really not much more than a laneway, running between Harbord and College just east of Bathurst. It's one of the best places to go graffiti watching in Toronto, has a neat modernist laneway house, and was named after one Mr. Croft, who accidentally blew himself up while dynamiting rubble after the Great Fire of 1904. You can check out the photos and more info on Facebook (whether or not you have an account) here. And you can read my old post about the Great Fire here.