Friday, April 29, 2011

Stephen Harper's High School Reunion

Stephen Harper's 1978 yearbook photo
Stephen Harper is from Toronto. Yup. The world's most famous Alberta-loving Toronto basher grew up in Etobicoke. Not only that, he used to be a Liberal.

The teenaged Stephen Harper was first inspired to get involved in politics by his love for one Pierre Elliott Trudeau. And, like any good young Liberal  would, he started out by joining the Young Liberals Club at  his high school, Richview Collegiate.

Now, that just so happens to be where I went to high school, too. And having wandered its halls about twenty years after our current Prime Minster did, I  can't say I'm all that surprised. Richview, in my day at least, was about as close to being a private school as you could get while still being a public school. Not much diversity; lots of money. (To fundraise for our graduation trip, we sold cellphone contracts.) Harper graduated in the class of 1978. His yearbook photo, as you can see, was hilarious. His pet peeve was then, just as it is now, "Reality".

They say, it was Trudeau's National Energy Program that eventually turned Harper conservative. He was in Alberta at the time, just about to start studying economics at the University of Calgary. And the NEP, which raised taxes on oil, was loathed in Western Canada. Like super-loathed. (Apparently, a popular bumper-sticker at the time read "Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark".) Harper volunteered for Mulroney's 1984 campaign and never looked back.

Until, of course, that special day when we're all forced to look back on the embarrassing shit we did in high school: the day of our high school reunion.

Harper's reunion (and mine, though thankfully I decided to skip it) came in 2008. It was Richview's 50th anniversary. And it fell right smack dab in the middle of our last federal election campaign. Instead of missing out, our Prime Minister decided to seize the opportunity to turn the event into something of a campaign stop. The Star covered it all: he hit up the Crooked Cue pool hall at Royal York and Bloor for an exclusive alumni party the night before and then delivered a glowing speech at the reunion about how amazing Canada is. The same dude who has been known to call us "second rate" and a "socialist backwater" called us "a country with peace, prosperity and potential unlike anything humanity has ever known". He praised public schools for getting him where he is today. And he lauded Canadian democracy, which one election later he'd be dismissing as "bickering", as "a rare and precious thing."

Somehow, only one person in the entire crowd couldn't take it. According to the Star, they shouted "What about the environment? What about global warming?"

Luckily, two of our fellow alumni were there to defend the Prime Minster. One responded by shouting, "It's a hoax!" And another was quick to point out that a speech by a Prime Minister in the middle of an election campaign isn't really an appropriate place to make political comments. They were kind enough to yell back, "This isn't the place for that, asshole!"

Remind me to the skip our 75th reunion, too.


I learned pretty much all of the details of the reunion from the Toronto Star who published one article about his speech here and one about the party at the Cue the night before here.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Crushing Mr. Communism

Tim Buck celebrated by a crowd
Things weren't going so great for R.B. Bennett. He'd become Prime Minister, but at the worst possible time: in 1930, just as the Great Depression was hitting its stride. And his policies were not working. He was crazy-rich, a die-hard Conservative, pro-big business and pro-big banks. He hated social programs, welfare and the whole idea of government intervention, so he stubbornly refused to implement the kind of massive government works projects that were going to save President Roosevelt south of the border. People were getting angry. They were looking for new alternatives. And for a growing number of people, that meant the Communist Party of Canada.

They were led by Tim Buck. "Mr. Communism" was an Englishman-turned-Torontonian, who lived a few blocks from Dundas and Dufferin, for decades the most famous and powerful Communist in the country. He'd become General Secretary of the party just a couple of years earlier thanks to his staunch support for the mass-murdering crazed lunatic of a Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But Buck wasn't exactly the imposing dictatorial type himself. He was a short, unassuming man. People tend to compare him to a shoe salesman. And the policies he proposed weren't the kind of revolutionary call to arms you might expect. He wanted a minimum wage. Unemployment insurance. A 7 hour work day.

But that was still too much as far as Prime Minster Bennett was concerned. When the Communists organized protests, he had the police break them up with beatings and arrests. In a speech in Toronto, he called on every Canadian to "put the iron heel of ruthlessness" to them. And in 1931, he went further still: a raid of Communist Party offices intended to "strike a death blow" to the organization. Eight party members, Buck included, were arrested under the Orwellian, anti-union "Section 98" of the Canadian Criminal Code. They were charged with sedition. Convicted. And sentenced to hard labour. Years before the McCarthy trials and blacklisting in the States, Canada was pioneering a new level of anti-democratic, Red Scare bullshit.

Tim Buck's mugshot, 1931
And the Conservatives still weren't done. A couple of years into Buck's sentence, a riot broke out at the prison in Kingston. In the confusion, Buck's guards seized their opportunity: they fired shots into his cell. One bullet whizzed past his neck. Another grazed his hair. Later, Bennett's Minister of Justice would admit the attack was deliberate and defend it, claiming the whole thing was just meant "to frighten him".

People were outraged. There were massive protests. A petition demanding Buck's release gathered nearly half a million signatures. There was even a play written about it — the police (surprise!) shut it down before it opened. Eventually, the pressure was too much. Bennett was forced to back down. And Buck was suddenly released.

Just a few hours later, when he arrived at Union Station, there was already a huge, cheering crowd waiting to meet him. They lifted him up onto their shoulders and paraded down Front Street chanting his name. Women fainted. Children cried. A few days later, when he spoke at Maple Leaf Gardens, twenty five thousand people showed up. Thousands were turned away at the door.

The battle wasn't over. There would be more protests, more beatings and arrests. When workers marched across Canada, from B.C. to Ottawa, they were met by the mounties in Regina; two protesters were killed. But Bennett was on his last legs. Another election loomed. And this time, he would be absolutely destroyed at the polls. The Conservatives lost nearly 100 seats and 20% of the popular vote. There wouldn't be another Conservative government in Canada for the next 25 years. And once Mackenzie King's Liberals were back in power, they repealed "Section 98", brought in a minimum wage, introduced unemployment insurance, and guaranteed a shorter workday. Bennett, meanwhile, gave up on Canada entirely. He left for England, where he would be appointed to the House of Lords and made a Viscount. He is the only Prime Minister in the history of our country to be buried on foreign soil.

For his part, Tim Buck would lead the Communist Party for another 30 years, but his popularity would come and go. Canadians were willing to stand up for his rights, but not so much to vote for him. The closest he came to getting elected was just a few years after his arrest — in an election for Toronto City Council. With the start of the Second World War, his party would find itself outlawed all over again. And then, when Stalin came in on our side, they were heroes again. And then, during the Cold War, they were hated again. Some years, party members were being arrested as spies. Others, Buck was appearing on stage with the Prime Minister and even Eaton's was preparing window displays in tribute to the glory of Joseph Stalin. But gradually, as Soviet crimes were made clear and the superpower eventually disintegrated, most of the party's support ebbed away. In the last couple of elections, it's been lower than ever, just over three thousand votes.


During the last election, I interviewed both the Communist Party of Canada and the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) for a series of profiles on our federal fringe parties over at the Little Red Umbrella. You can check them all out here.

You can learn more about Buck's triumphant return to Toronto after his imprisonment in this post from Kevin Plummer over at Torontoist. There are more articles about him here and here and here. And the CBC archives have a video about a speaking tour of Canada Buck did in the '60s here.

Eaton's window display during WWII

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Introducing My New Historical Photo Blog Thingy

With all the time I spend digging around looking for historical images to dismember and use for my Dreams Project postcards (which, ahem, I think I'm finally going to start leaving around the city sometime verrry soon), I see way more cool old photos of Toronto than I'll ever be able write whole posts about. And so, I've started a new little blog thingy that will just be a stream of photos. The plan is to have a new image going up every day, and hopefully it'll also be a good way for me to link to some of the kickassinglyawesome Toronto history stuff being posted elsewhere on the web.

I'm hosting the blog over at The Little Red Umbrella, the magazine I help run. You can check it out right here. And soon as I have some time, I'll add a link to it near the top of my sidebar, so you can get back to it easily whenever you like.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Photo: The View From Bathurst and Davenport in 1907

The Toronto Archives have been good enough to post a bunch of their best photos on Flickr, all of which you can check out here. I came across this one (which I especially like since it's from my 'hood), while browsing their old images of the Annex. It's looking south down Bathurst from the hill just about Davenport. (These days, there's a TTC yard on the southwest corner, and a big medical supply shop on the southwest.) 

The hill, as I've mentioned before, is the ancient shoreline of Lake Iroquois, a bigger version of Lake Ontario  which used to come all the way up to Davenport in the wake of the last ice age. You can read a little bit about it here in an old post I wrote about some 11,000 year-old footprints discovered on the bottom of our lake .

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Toronto Streetcar Sessions

The Grim Preachers (photo: me)
I've spend a bunch of time over the last few weeks writing about the Toronto Streetcar Sessions. They happened a few months ago, so I'm going to go ahead and cheat and say that this counts as Toronto history.

The Streetcar Sessions were a series of concerts organized by a friend of mine, Milan Schramek, which took place on chartered streetcars traveling around downtown. Six bands played on three Sunday afternoons late last year and each set was recorded, with videos and free MP3s of each session later released online.

It is awesome, inspiring stuff. I've written about the Toronto music scene for years, and this was easily one of the most interesting events I've covered. The free EPs by Ivy Mairi and Parks & Rec in particular are probably among my favourite live Canadian albums ever; anyone with a bit of a TTC fetish will get a kick out listening to them if only for the way the streetcar ambiance — clanging bells, the screech of the wheels, automated stop announcements — mix with the songs.

I've written six posts about the sessions over at The Little Red Umbrella (the new arts & culture site of which I am the Editor-in-Chief), where I talk about it all in more detail and muse on the implications and possibilities for the TTC and our relationship to the city and other downtown leftist pinko elite crap like that. I, of course, think it's well-worth a read. Not to mention the free downloads and video streams.

So, yeah, you should head on over here and check it out.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Map: When Toronto Was Still Just A Wee Little Town, 1818

01 Okay, so, let's start with the town itself. When this map was surveyed in 1818, it had only been 25 years since British soldiers started cutting down trees to clear space for Fort York and the very first ten blocks of our city. From Front up to Adelaide; from George over to Berkeley. Today those ten blocks are just east of the Flatiron Building and the St. Lawrence Market.

Here, they make up the eastern half of the town (that grid of more tightly packed streets on the right). Their eastern border is along Taddle Creek, which used to run all the way across the city: from near Bathurst and St. Clair, down through U of T (right along where Philosopher's Walk is now) and eventually into the lake at the Distillery District. Now it's buried underground.

The whole western half of the town was newer. As you can see in this map, they expanded along the lake to around Peter Street and the banks of Russell Creek (which met the lake near where the CN Tower is  now before we buried it too). By 1818, they'd also carved Yonge Street out of the wilderness; you can see it there heading straight north out of the town.

At this point, there were still only about a thousand people living in York. But the town was growing fast. Fifteen year later, when it was officially incorporated as the city of Toronto, it was already home to ten thousand.

02  The islands weren't always islands. Back in the day, they were connected to the mainland by a sand spit. It wasn't until 1858 that a bigass storm blew a channel through the sand and created the eastern gap. Over time, the islands continued to grow as dirt washed off the Scarborough Bluffs and floated over. Eventually, we'd also add some land ourselves, almost completely closing the western gap.

All that green area around where the "islands" met the mainland was marsh. It's where the Don River (which, as you can see, was curvier back then—we straightened it out artificially later) opened up into the lake and it was a mucky, rank, mosquito-ridden mess. People dumped their garbage in it for decades—including some nasty shit from the nearby Gooderham and Worts Distillery. Occasionally, evil fumes would waft into town. Everybody hated the marsh. Eventually, we just paved it the fuck over, added some concrete and called it the port lands.

So, believe it or not, the Sound Academy is actually a step up.

03 Oh sure, York was the tiny wee little capital of Upper Canada, but the town's real reason for existing was military. Our city was founded by people who had just fought against the Americans during the Revolution. They were deeply worried that the United States would march north and invade. Toronto is here because our harbour was easily defensible—as you can see there was only one way in before that storm opened up the eastern gap. And their fears were well-founded. Five years before this map, the Americans did invade and occupied the town for a few days. (I'll be giving that story it's own post before too long. I think it's probably my favourite Toronto history story.)

So that's why this whole area on the left-hand side of the map was a huge military reserve. (You can see its boundaries drawn with a faint red line.) It was split pretty much in half by Garrison Creek (also buried now). And at the mouth of the creek you can see Fort York, where our soldiers had made their last stand against the Americans during the invasion. It would be another fifteen years or so before we starting selling off parts of the reserve and it was gradually transformed into what we know as Parkdale and the Ex and Trinity Bellwoods and Liberty Village.

Other Stuff: If you look along the lakeshore, alllllll the way to left, you can see a little cleared area tucked right into the corner of the military reserve. That's actually the old French Fort Rouillé. They were here trading with the Native population long before the English. They built this fort, which was their third in these parts, in the mid-1700s. And they spent about a decade in it before the British started beating the French in battles around Lake Ontario and they figure it was time to get the hell of here, so they burned it to the ground. These days there's a monument to it where it once stood. On the Exhibition grounds, behind the bandstand.

 I'll also mention briefly that much of the cleared area outside of town were "park lots". Those are the tracts of free land which were given to the Protestant ruling elite (the dudes who our first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, who hated them, would nickname the Family Compact). That's people like Peter Russell and the Jarvis family, who I've already written posts about. They just had to agree to clear some of the land and help build the roads around them.

And finally, what they were clearing was the ancient forest which use to cover this entire area. In this map, you can still see plenty of it. It was full of giant, old oaks and pines hundreds of feet tall. And chock-full of wildlife: wolves and deer and foxes and moose and bear and salmon and bald eagles and flocks of passengers pigeons so thick they blocked out the sun. Amazingly, some of those trees survived the next two hundred years and are sit standing in the city today. I wrote a post about the oldest of them, with some more information about the forest, here.

I found the map here. They've also got high-res downloads 'n' shit. You can open a larger, zoomable version of this map, without my numbering, by clicking here.