Well, we've finally come to the end of a pretty terrible year for the city of Toronto. Ice storms, floods, crack cocaine. But 2013 was actually a pretty wonderful year for the Toronto Dreams Project. I launched ten brand new dreams, started the Toronto Historical Jukebox, teamed up with the AGO, and published a whole whack of blogposts — both here and over at Spacing. Now, as the year winds down, I've got the perfect opportunity to be completely self-indulgent and look back at some of the posts I had the most fun writing in 2013. And you've got the perfect opportunity to catch any of the best stuff you might have missed over the course of the last twelve months. I've picked my favourite dozen stories — some of them are also the most popular; some are just personal faves. But hopefully you'll enjoy them all. And have a wonderful New Year.Here we go:
Saturday, December 28, 2013
Thursday, December 19, 2013
The first post I ever wrote on this blog was about the Torontonian writer Morley Callaghan (and the time he punched Ernest Hemingway right in the face). I've come back to him from time to time. Earlier this week, I was listening to a CBC "Rewind" podcast about his life, which you can stream online here. It features an old interview he did with Michael Enright in November of 1974, which included a little snippet about Callaghan's love of Canadian winters. He was famous for it — and for his daily walks through Rosedale with his dog. (In fact, that's the subject of what I suspect is the most beautifully sad plaque in Toronto.)Since this year's winter has finally just arrived, I thought I'd share a snippet of his thoughts (complete, unfortunately, with his dated pronoun usage):
"The other thing about winter is... that on a winter night, if it's not too cold — now I'm not pretending to be a lover of those harsh winter winds — but on a lovely winter night when there is snow and when there is sort of unbroken snow, I love the cities. I love the cities when they're absolutely snow-covered and there's a kind of unearthly winter calm about them. And I feel a curious sense of peace and ease with myself and you can walk... and it's great, you know, when you yourself can break the snow. And somehow or other you get a sense of well-being in that kind of weather that you don't get in the hot summer...
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
In 1851, the year this painting was painted, Toronto was beginning to boom. It had been less than 60 years since the first British soldiers showed up to clear the ancient forest and make way for the new capital of Upper Canada, but the population was already skyrocketing. By the time of this painting, there were something like 30,000 people living in the city. The population had doubled over the last decade and would double again over the next. It was truly the dawning of a new age: in 1851 we started building our very first railroad. In fact, the City's own website uses this year as a defining line in the history of Toronto: between "A Provincial Centre" and "An Industrializing City."There were big new public buildings opening all over town. Some of them are still there today. Near King and Jarvis, the gorgeous St. Lawrence Hall had just opened, the city's main venue for concerts, political meetings and other public events. In 1851, it hosted an important anti-slavery gathering: the North American Convention of Colored Freemen, which included a speech by Frederick Douglass. Today, it's a National Historic Site. A block away, a new building had just been built at the St. Lawrence Market: it served as Toronto's City Hall for the next 50 years and can still be seen in the facade of the current Market. Far to the west on Queen Street, near Parkdale, the new Provincial "Lunatic Asylum" had recently begun taking its very first patients. It lasted all the way to the 1970s before we tore the beautiful old building down. It was in 1851 that the first in a series of brick walls was designed for the grounds. The patients were used as free labour to build them. A section of the walls survives to this day, on the eastern edge of what's now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Meanwhile, the Province of Canada had just become a real democracy. Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine had recently won an overwhelming majority on an election platform demanding the British government allow Canadians to make our own laws. They called it Responsible Government. Some of the Tories who opposed them were so pissed off they attacked the Parliament Buildings in Montreal, burned them to the ground, and threatened further violence. As a result, the capital was moved to Toronto. As 1851 began, Baldwin and LaFontaine were hard at work in our Parliament Buildings down on Front Street (where the CBC building is now). Their government would become known as "The Great Ministry." In a few short years, they brought in public education, a public postal service, an independent judiciary, our jury system, and our appeals system; they brought democratic reform to municipal governments and made sure anyone — not just the upper class — had access to the courts and could be appointed to the civil service. They also extended the right to vote — it wasn't just for property owners anymore — though, at the same time, they restricted that right to men only.
Despite all this change, we still remained an overwhelmingly British city: in 1851, 97% of Torontonians had been born in the British Isles or traced their ancestry there. It would be a long time before that changed: fifty years later, in 1901, the figure was still 92%.
But now, more than ever before, we were a particularly Irish city. Ireland had just been devastated by the Great Famine. More than a million people died in just a few years; many others fled. Tens of thousands of Irish refugees flooded Toronto in the years leading up to 1851 — at one point during the terrible summer of 1847, there were more refugees in the city than non-refugees. Hundreds died of typhoid at the old General Hospital on the corner of King & John (where the TIFF Lightbox is now) and in the temporary fever sheds built out back. It was the beginning of a great wave of Irish immigration that changed the face of our city. Soon, we'd earn the nickname of the "Belfast of North America."
Toronto had always been a very Protestant town. In fact, for the first four decades of the city's history, Anglican ministers were the only ones allowed to perform marriage ceremonies. The Protestant Orange Order was immensely powerful — just like in Belfast — and they didn't hesitate to use that power against Catholics. Prejudice was rampant. In the few decades after 1851, as the city became home to ever-more Irish-Catholics, Toronto found itself dealing with some of the same sectarian violence that plagued Ireland. There would be dozens of riots between Protestants and Catholics before the end of the century.
By the end of 1851, however, the era of Baldwin and LaFontaine was suddenly over. They had granted an amnesty to the rebels of 1837, allowing them to return from exile. For the first time in more than a decade, the old trouble-making former mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, was back at home living in Toronto. He was joined by other returning rebels — unsurprisingly, they were more radical than the moderate liberals (like Baldwin and LaFontaine) who had refused to take up arms. It didn't take long for Mackenzie to get elected to parliament and to cause problems for the Great Ministry. Baldwin and LaFontaine were relatively young — in their 40s — but they were already exhausted from years of political struggle and plagued by a variety of illnesses. (Most famously, Baldwin had been suffering from severe depression since the death of his wife 15 years earlier.) When one of Mackenzie's bills to overturn one of Baldwin's new laws got unexpectedly strong support, Baldwin resigned. LaFontaine wasn't far behind.
And so, as 1851 turned into 1852, the Province of Canada was in the hands of a new generation of political leaders. In the wake of the Great Ministry, people like George Brown and John A. Macdonald would rise to prominence. The fight for Responsible Government was over. Now, it was time to start down the road to Confederation.
Image: it was an artist born in Germany who painted this painting. Augustus Köller had been raised in Düsseldorf and now lived in Philadelphia. He made his living off watercolours and lithographs. His work took him to cities all over North America. For this painting, he seems to have taken a vantage point looking out over the city from the ancient shore of the prehistoric Lake Iroquois, just north of Davenport Road now. The land up on top of the hill had long belonged to the city's elite — it's where many had their country estates. In fact, up on that hill right next to where Casa Loma is now, Robert Baldwin's family built the first Spadina House.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
|Cartier's cross, 1534|
I. JACQUES CARTIER
So there's this story about Jacques Cartier. He was a French explorer, of course, one of the very first Europeans to ever come to Canada. At the end of his first trip here, he erected a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula, as a way of claiming the land for France. They say that's how he met Donnacona.
Donnacona was the Chief of Stadacona, a village around where Québec City is now. When the French erected their cross, they noticed that the Chief seemed kind of annoyed by it. So Cartier decided to trick him. The French made signs as if they wanted to trade with the Chief — and when Donnacona got close enough to their ship, they trapped him, forcing him and his two sons on board. Eventually, they came to an arrangement: the sons would sail with Cartier for France. They would learn French. And then, after the winter was over, they would return to the New World with Cartier — where they would be his guides
|Cartier & Chief Donnacona|
|Stephen Harper & Chief Fontaine (via)|
But maybe not as much as we settlers would like to think. After all, as absurd as it seems, it was the official policy of the Canadian government to forcibly remove First Nations children from their homes until very recently. The last residential school didn't close until 1996. The entire system was founded on the idea that the First Nations should be taken far away from their ancestral homes and forced to assimilate. They, like Donnacona and his sons, would be forced to learn French, or English, and to leave their own cultures behind. The aim, as one government official put it, was to "kill the Indian in the child." Frequently, the child was killed too. In the 1900s, children at residential schools died much like the villagers Cartier took to France in the 1500s did. Many were also physically and sexually abused, sterilized, and experimented on. To be fair, there was some progress over those 400 years: the mortality rate in residential schools wasn't 100%; it was more like 50% according to some estimates.
Or, to be more precise, he said: "this policy of assimilation was wrong". Those are my italics, because it seems like a particularly important qualification given that many people, even some of those who believe in the sincerity of Harper's apology, still believe that his ultimate goal is the forced assimilation of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis.
Many people trace their concerns about Harper back to a man by the name of Tom Flanagan. He's one of Harper's former chiefs of staff, campaign managers, and writing partners. The Walrus once called him "The Man Behind Stephen Harper"; one former Reform Party colleague calls the two men intellectual and philosophical "soulmates". In many circles, Flanagan is best known for his book First Nations? Second Thoughts, which lays out old colonial arguments in favour of assimilation. "Call it assimilation, call it integration, call it adaptation, call it whatever you want: it has to happen," he wrote in that book. And he followed it up by claiming that assimilation is "historically inevitable," "now largely accomplished, and will remain the basis of Canadian society." (He is also known for his suggestion that Julian Assange "should be assassinated" and, according to The Walrus, once had a book removed from an approved list of high school textbooks because of "'racial, religious, and sex bias' against women and Jews." More recently, he made national headlines after controversial comments questioning the idea of jail-time for people who view child pornography.)
|Residential school students in the 1950s|
Meanwhile, the echoes of the forced assimilation that began with Cartier in 1534 are still being felt in First Nations communities today, in cycles of poverty, violence, suicide, and substance abuse. As a result, more First Nations children are "in care" now than ever before — more even than at the height of the residential school system.
Still, the Harper government seems to blame those problems on some kind of inherent cultural flaw rather than seeing them as the result of hundreds of years of brutal systemic discrimination. That attitude was evident in the federal government's reaction to the crisis in Attawapiskat. The Conservatives blamed the state of emergency on the reserve's leadership and tried to impose outside management. Never mind that Attawapiskat, like many reserves, was already co-managed by a federal bureaucrat — or that their audits are continually monitored by the government. A Federal Court declared the government's response to be "unreasonable". In fact, Canada's former Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, reported that there is too much oversight of spending on reserves. A study of First Nations audits found less evidence of fiscal wrongdoing on reserves than in the governments of the average Canadian province or municipality.
And yet, Harper's paternalistic, colonial ideas aren't limited to his own government and allies. The problem is much bigger than one Prime Minster or one political party. In fact, assimilationist arguments are considered to be remarkably mainstream. Both Conservative and Liberal federal governments — as well as some provincial ones — have used Tom Flanagan as an expert witness in order to oppose First Nations land claims in court. Before his child pornography comments, Flanagan was a frequent "expert" guest on news programs and wrote editorials for newspapers. His ideas are echoed not just by the rants of racist online commenters, but in the columns of some of Canada's most respected journalists.
Chelsea Vowel, the Métis writer and lawyer, recently compiled some examples of anti-Indigenous racism in the mainstream media, while pointing to a study that found the same arguments being made today as in 1869. "[W]e literally see the same arguments being made year after year after year," she writes. Distortions, half-truths and outright lies are repeated over and over again. And they've been successful in their attempts to sway public opinion. A recent poll found that 60% of Canadians believe, despite the evidence to the contrary, that "most of the problems of native peoples are brought on by themselves." That's up from 35% in 1989.
It seems that far too many 21st century Canadians see the First Nations, Inuit and Métis in much the same way Cartier saw the Iroquoians of Stadacona back in the early 1500s: as people who must be assimilated for their own good; as primitive curiosities stuck in the past; as an obstacle to progress; as people with a culture colourful enough to parade before the King of France or at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, but with nothing more important than that to offer the modern, European world.
|Idle No More|
Jacques Cartier wasn't the only European who came to Canada. He was, of course, followed by hundreds and then thousands and then millions more. And while there have always been plenty of settlers who saw Indigenous people in much the same way Cartier did — as "heathens" to be "civilized" — others saw things differently. In a new world they didn't entirely understand, some realized how much they could learn from the people who already lived here. The curative powers of cedar tea were just one contribution to a period of immense learning.
As John Ralston Saul points out in his book, A Fair Nation, some new Canadians didn't just see the First Nations and Inuit as peoples to be conquered; they saw them as civilizations worth engaging in a partnership. For 200 years, the fur trade was the foundation of the Canadian economy and the driving force behind European settlement in the northern half of the continent. Many newly arrived Canadians lived far from the growing cities of the east, in close quarters with the First Nations and the Inuit. From them, they learned how to live in this land: how to survive, how to travel, what crops to grow; they discovered shared values and new ideas. They were allies in business and allies in war. Some would form strong and lasting partnerships. Many even got married. In fact, it was the French government who first pushed the idea of intermarriage as a means of assimilation, but it backfired: many of the fur trappers who did get married chose to embrace Indigenous lifestyles and ideas. An entire new people came out of that period: the Métis.
So did an entirely new country. Canada would not be the nation it is today if it weren't for the contributions of Indigenous peoples — despite the myth of our having only two founding peoples: the English and the French. In fact, Saul goes as far as to say that many of the values we think of as modern, Canadian values — environmentalism, diversity, respect for the other — can be traced back to those centuries spent living with and learning from Indigenous peoples. He argues that Canada is, in a sense, a Métis nation. And that as progressive Canadians look for ways to embrace and support those values in the 21st century, it's important to be conscious of the debt those ideas owe to what Saul calls the "third pillar" of Canadian civilization.
Of course, there have always been Canadians who don't agree, who don't share those values, and who see multiculturalism as a failure: an unnecessary and dangerous compromise by whatever the dominant "Canadian" culture happens to be at the time. Instead, they look to the example of those old monolithic European empires: one nation; one people; one culture. And so, they said we could never form a country with the Québecois, that Catholics could never be trusted, that the Acadians needed to be expelled, that we needed a head tax on Chinese immigrants, that we needed to jail and deport all Canadians of Japanese descent and Canadians of Ukrainian descent, too. The day Canada became a democracy, they claimed we were betraying our superior British heritage and handing the country over to minorities. They were so angry, they burned the parliament buildings down. Many of our darkest days as a nation have come when too many of us agreed with those voices; our greatest days, when we've seen those voices for what they are — rooted in ignorance and fear — and we chose to stand up against them.
For centuries now, when it comes to the question of our relationship with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis, far too many of us have been listening to those voices. They are still there today, saying that the "Indian problem" is too complicated to be solved, that it's a cultural issue and a foregone conclusion — that there's nothing to be done but admit defeat and force Indigenous peoples to assimilate.
|The Royal Proclamation of 1763|
And so, last winter, his government's actions were met by Idle No More. It was the giant omnibus budget bill, C-45, that sparked it. Chief Spence went on hunger strike. There were protests at shopping malls, marches in the streets, railroads shut down, and construction sites occupied. The movement's website calls it "a peaceful revolution to honour Indigenous sovereignty." That alone would make it a worthwhile movement — the Canadian government has already gone far too long without living up to its legal, constitutional and moral obligations in its dealings with the Indigenous nations. But the website adds, "And to protect the land & water," which hints at the implications Idle No More has for all Canadians. Even the most selfish settler stands to benefit.
For one thing, Harper's attacks on the rights of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis are part of a larger attempt to remove any and all obstacles to "resource development" — including large-scale extraction projects like the tar sands, fracking and open-pit mines. Bill C-45 was one more skirmish in that fight, a fight progressive Canadians have been losing. The Conservatives have gutted environmental regulations, denounced environmental advocates as radicals and terrorists, muzzled government scientists, slashed funding for environmental projects and sidestepped parliamentary oversight. That leaves the unique constitutional land rights of Indigenous peoples as one of the strongest and most effective checks on the Harper government's unprecedented power. Last year, the Financial Post reported that the First Nations were on "the biggest winning streak in Canadian legal history": 170 victories in the courts. At a time when climate change is becoming an ever-greater challenge, the importance of those land rights is a truly global concern.
"It is our responsibility to protect Mother Earth, to protect the land for non-natives too," one former Mi'kmaq Chief, Susan Levi-Peters, said just a few weeks ago. "My people are speaking up for everyone... People care about the water. People care about the environment. This isn't just a native issue." And it's true. A recent poll found that 62% of Canadians support a moratorium on fracking — 66% of people in Atlantic Canada. But it was Levi-Peters' Nation, Elsipogtog, who organized a peaceful, weeks-long protest against fracking on their ancestral lands in New Brunswick. They were the ones who drew attention to the issue, they were the ones at risk when the RCMP's camouflaged snipers moved in, and they are the ones who now, in the wake of the violence that followed, find themselves the subject of one racist media commentary after another.
Meanwhile, Indigenous people make up the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population and are younger than the rest of Canada, too: nearly half are under the age of 25. Ensuring those young people have access to the same opportunities and educational advantages as other young Canadians isn't just the moral thing to do (although it is) or the fiscally responsible thing to do (although it is), it will also unleash a vast source of human potential: new doctors and nurses, new artists and teachers, new ideas and new advances. Then there's the economic argument: one study [PDF] found those young people could be adding $400 billion to Canada's GDP before the end of the next decade.
|The Charter of Rights and Freedoms|
Idle No More cuts to the core questions about what kind of Canada we want to live in. A Canada where all citizens are treated fairly? Where everyone has a voice? Where we seize the opportunity to learn from each other? Most Canadians are fiercely proud of our history of immigration and see our diversity as a strength. But this country is also home to scores of unique Indigenous cultures — cultures found nowhere else on earth — and for far too long, we've essentially ignored them, seeing their extinction as an inevitable side effect of progress. Or as a tragedy already complete.
But it's not too late. We still have a unique opportunity in Canada. And a unique history to guide us. While Idle No More has lots to offer politically, it's also a reminder of that cultural opportunity. If we, settler Canadians, want to take advantage of it, it will require our active effort. The true story of our nation's history — and of the current relationship between our federal and provincial leaders and the First Nations, Inuit and Métis — is not one the government has ever been anxious to tell. They won't do the work for us. We must also be idle no more.
Luckily, it's 2013; it will be easier for us to take advantage of that opportunity than it has ever been before. We can read Chelsea Vowel's blog with the click of a mouse. We can listen to Thomas King's Massey Lectures online for free. We can order his book, The Inconvenient Indian, in just a few seconds. Or have it shipped for free to our neighbourhood library. We can follow Vowel and Pamela Palmater and Hayden King and Wab Kinew and countless other Indigenous leaders on Twitter. We can stream panel discussions from The Agenda, or a free NFB documentary about the Oka crisis, or the entire CBC series 8th Fire. We can listen. We can learn. It's just the first, very small step, but the effort to take that step is barely any effort at all.
"Canada will not crumble and fall apart," Vowel writes, "if we become more honest and aware of the history of these lands and the incredible diversity of contributions by peoples from all over the world." She's right. In fact, Canada is at much greater risk if we don't.
In 1535, Jacques Cartier was too arrogant to realize how much the European world stood to benefit from Indigenous peoples. Nearly 500 years later, Stephen Harper and far too many other Canadians are making the very same mistake. We can — and we must — actively make the decision to see our country in a different light. To turn our backs on the worldview of Cartier and of Harper. To learn the unique lessons of our own history — and to make sure we never repeat the same mistakes again.