When Mel Freezes Over

As I no longer have a copy of this story as it originally appeared on The Grid’s website in early February 2013, this post is based on the draft I submitted for publication.

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Toronto Sun, January 15, 1999.

“It might have people across this country shaking their heads, even rolling their eyes,” Peter Mansbridge observed while introducing the January 13, 1999 edition of The National. To some Canadians, Mel Lastman’s plea for military assistance to help Toronto cope with a record-breaking month of snowfall confirmed their view of the country’s largest city as a magnet for spoiled, whiny wimps.

By the time Lastman requested help, Toronto had endured 84 cm of snowfall over the first two weeks of 1999, with 21 cm alone coming down on January 13. The deepening accumulation, combined with gusty winds and cold temperatures led to chaos. Clogged switches delayed GO service, drifting snow covered the third rail of exposed subway lines, and the Scarborough RT proved its uselessness in inclement weather. TTC chief general manager David Gunn recommended people stay home, as chances were “poor to nil” that closed subway sections would operate for several days. Snowplows barely made a dent on roads as the white stuff continued to fall.

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Toronto Star, January 14, 1999.

“I’m petrified of what could happen,” Lastman told the press. “You come to a point where you can’t push it back any more. Then no cars move. I want to have (the army) ready in case there’s 25 cm of snow.” Lastman had recent precedents: troops were called in for assistance during the Red River flood in Manitoba in 1997 and the ice storm that paralyzed eastern Ontario and Quebec in 1998.

The next morning, four Bison armoured personnel carriers arrived at the former Downsview military base from CFB Petawawa to await use as emergency ambulances. While reservists shoveled out bus shelters and fire hydrants, 420 regular troops were placed on standby. They spent most of their time relaxing around the old base by rehabbing an old gym basement bowling alley, playing cards, and practising snowmobile manoeuvres for a future Arctic posting. One officer who had assisted with the ice storm cleanup told the Star that “it’s kind of hard just sitting here when you want to help.” Lastman told the troops that “it’s better to be safe than sorry…I don’t believe you want to wait until people are possibly gonna die.”

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Cartoon by Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star, January 15, 1999.

Torontonians coped with the situation in varying ways. Commuters stuck downtown booked hotel rooms and made Eaton Centre merchants smile. Cotton Ginny reported a run on nightgowns, while Shoppers Drug Mart was packed with people stocking up on bathroom essentials. Rentals at the Yonge-Wellesley Rogers Video more than doubled. Meals on Wheels provided extra food to clients in case they were forced to close. Municipal and transit employees racked up overtime, with some snow removal employees sleeping in temporary trailer camps. There were the expected idiots: one man was charged after being caught drunk snowmobiling along the Don Valley Parkway.

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Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

As the city dug itself out, several city councillors questioned Lastman’s actions and lamented that he didn’t consult them. Lastman didn’t call an emergency council meeting out of fear of the speeches his colleagues might make. “The press would have been there, and what they would have been saying I don’t know. Some of them would have been absolutely out of it.” The mayor believed he was the only person who cared about the welfare of the entire city instead of specific wards, He never regretted his actions. “We arranged it so that senior citizens could go around the corner to get milk,” he boasted to the Star a decade later.

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Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

By the time the month was over, Toronto endured a record-breaking 118 cm of snowfall. Councillor Jack Layton found the storm “a teaching lesson in municipal arrogance” due to the city’s complacency. Eye Weekly noted that the previous fall, council’s urban environment committee voted against budgeting an extra $28 million to clear windrows. Up to $70 million was spent on clean-up, more than double the annual $32 million snow clearing budget.

Eye columnist Donna Lypchuk had fun with the charges that Torontonians were wusses when it came to snow. “Torontonians get a little touchy the minute they see a snowflake,” she observed. “Like little robots, they go outside, see their cars covered with snow, make a phone call and then drop back into bed with complete resignation.” She felt the exhaustion of those battling the storm could have been avoided by just letting the snow melt on its own.

Lypchuk’s conclusion? “I think it’s time Torontonians familiarized themselves with important Canadian concepts, such as snow. During the winter, snow is going to fall from the sky. This is not a scary, unusual thing. It is normal. Respect the snow and be prepared.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, January 14, 1999.

Confession time: I’m drawing a blank as to what I did during the Snowmageddon of January 1999.

I definitely experienced it. I was living in Guelph, working at the campus paper. Given the regular dumpings Guelph received, the storm likely didn’t seem unusual. It was probably just another snowy day, albeit one with greater accumulation. My guess is that either I curled up with a pile of library books or headed over to the Ontarion office to work, surf the net, or play endless games of Civilization II. It was around this time that staff relations within the office settled into a permanent deep-freeze, sparked by deep disagreements about the cover of that week’s issue. The only story about the storm in the following week’s edition noted there were no plans to shut down the U of G campus, and that students were encouraged to take advantage of increased Guelph Transit service as parking lots turned into mountains of cleared snow.

As for Lastman’s call for the army—it was Mel. Given his bombastic style, it would have been hard not to expect anything else.

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Toronto Sun, January 16, 1999.

After hearing all the jokes made about the situation over the years, reading about the circumstances at the time makes it clear action was needed. The factor that seems to be forgotten is that Toronto was already buried under an unusually large amount of snow. The forecasts for the storm that prompted Lastman to call in the troops didn’t look promising, and city services were already strained. And he did have the examples of military involvement in other natural disaster over the previous two years. The laughs at Toronto’s expense seem partly a natural reaction against the centre of the universe, and partly out of little comprehension of how badly the city’s infrastructure, especially for commuters, was affected. I was really struck by CBC archival clip’s depiction of a Meals on Wheels run, where deliverers provided extra food to clients in case the service had to be suspended.

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Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

I also checked out the Sun’s coverage. The front page on January 14, 1999 bluntly echoed TTC chief general manager David Gunn’s advice: “STAY HOME.” It also introduced the paper’s method of measuring the snowfall: the “Mel freezes over” infographic, which used Lastman’s height as a yardstick for how much snow fell that month.

On the editorial page, a list of snow-related mottos was devised to replace the new official motto the paper loathed, “Diversity our strength.”

Toronto—The city under North York
Toronto—Home of the squeegee kid, until you need one.
Toronto—Our mayor shovels it better than your mayor.
Toronto—Beware of drive-by plowings.
Toronto—Don’t even think about parking here.
Toronto—Where snow melters go to die.
Toronto—Where snowballs have a chance.
Toronto—Apocalypse Snow.
Toronto—Home of the two-hour cab wait.
Toronto—It’s not as bad as Buffalo, but we’re working on it.
Toronto—Where “The Better Way” is walking.
Toronto—We’d rather be in Florida.
Toronto—The flake by the lake.
Toronto—As pure as the driven slush.
Toronto—Home of Pearson Airport—you can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Toronto—Plow me.

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Cartoon by Dusan Petricic, Toronto Star, January 17, 1999.

Meanwhile, back over in the Star, it was interesting to read how angry councillors were over the lack of consultation from Lastman. Among the miffed was Frances Nunziata. “I sent a letter to the Mayor January 6 with a number of recommendations,” she told the paper. “I didn’t get any response, or even an acknowledgement.” According to Michael Prue, who represented East York, councillors were “taking all the crap because Mel Lastman tells (the public) that everything’s wonderful and everything’s being fixed and I get phone call after phone call that it’s not that way.”

Sources: the January 21, 1999 edition of Eye Weekly, January 19, 1999 edition of the Ontarion, the January 14, 1999, January 15, 1999, January 16, 1999, January 17, 1999, and January 11, 2009 editions of the Toronto Star, and the January 14, 1999, January 15, 1999, and January 16, 1999 editions of the Toronto Sun.

Bonus Features: “Stop the Slaughter of Innocents”

This post offers bonus material for a piece I wrote for TVO – you may want to check that out first

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Toronto World, November 12, 1919.

Toronto medical officer of health Dr. Charles Hastings understood his actions in implementing a mandatory vaccination program might not be popular, especially among those who objected on grounds of personal liberty. “Why all this interference with personal liberty and individual rights?” he asked in his November 1919 monthly report. “Because British justice, properly interpreted, means that when the liberty and rights of the individual are not in the interests of the welfare of the masses, the rights of the individual must yield.”

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The Globe, November 13, 1919.

More from The Globe on the City Hall clinic: “It was positively sustaining, that odour of disinfectants, and as one of the City Hall staff remarked, one whiff of it was almost enough to safeguard a whole family against the threatened scourge.”

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Cartoon by George Shields, the Telegram, November 14, 1919.

Toronto should realize that Dr. Hastings is not a vaccinationist for the sake of vaccination. The question of compulsory vaccination will not arise if the citizens who are not anti-vaccinationists on principle give themselves, their families and their neighbours the benefit of the doubt and GET VACCINATED. – editorial, the Telegram, November 15, 1919

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The Globe, November 19, 1919. Dr. Hastings did not show up.

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The Telegram, November 20, 1919.

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Cartoon by George Shields, the Telegram, December 16, 1919.

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Toronto Star, January 22, 1920.

Ah, the irony. I admit it – I couldn’t stop laughing when I read this story. The Globe‘s headline was even more blunt: “Anti-vaccination Champion Ald. Ryding, Has Smallpox.” Ryding, who had represented the Junction on city council since 1912, survived and continued to serve as an alderman into the early 1930s.

The Story of Mr. Croft

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 31, 2008.

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One of the most eyecatching murals on display in Toronto is the colourful piece that acts as a gateway to Croft Street near College and Bathurst. The Monty Pythonesque design may provoke chuckles but the story it relates is a serious one, as the work honours the street’s namesake, the only recorded fatality associated with the Great Toronto Fire of 1904.

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On the evening of April 19, 1904, a nightwatchman noticed flames in an elevator shaft of the E&S Currie Building at 58-60 Wellington Street West. Unfortunately, most of its neighbouring buildings were made of highly flammable wood and designed in ways that fueled fires. The blaze quickly spread and cut a 12-hour path of destruction roughly bounded by Simcoe, Melinda, Yonge and the rail lines. Firefighters from as far as Buffalo assisted Toronto firefighters, with teams from London and Peterborough arriving too late to battle the flames. By 4:30 a.m., the fire was declared to be under control.

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Front Street looking east from Bay Street, April 1904. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1408, Item 2.

Insurance companies and city inspectors quickly assessed the condition of the damaged buildings and prepared a list of properties deemed too unsafe to remain standing. Property owners received notices asking them to bring down their walls immediately or allow the city to demolish the structures. No objections were received.

Over the next few weeks, safecrackers were hired to rescue important documents from the ruins, followed by demolition teams equipped with dynamite. Among the men hired for the demolition was Parliament Street resident John Croft, a recent immigrant from England who had occasionally assisted dynamiters in coal mines in his native land. He was assigned to the W.J. Gage Building at 54-58 Front Street West. His team was not given a storage battery to set off the dynamite and had to resort to lighting long fuses then running for cover (an image associated with modern cartoon gags—a possible inspiration for the mural design?). This worked for the first two explosions that were set on May 4th. The third try proved unlucky for Croft.

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The following morning, The Globe reported on the incident and Croft’s condition:

Croft, with two assistants, William Goudge and A. Ramsden, had set off 30 blasts yesterday morning and at 1 o’clock placed three charges under of portion of the W.J. Gage & Co. wall. Two were exploded safely, but the third fuse, set for a minute and a half, was slow. After waiting for some time, Croft went up the wall to investigate, and as he did the blast went off. The flesh on his right arm was torn to shreds, and he sustained a severe scalp wound and a broken rib. The sight of the left eye was destroyed.

Later that morning Croft died from the shock, leaving behind a wife and three children. He was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Four years later, the former Ulster Avenue was renamed in his honour. The mural was created a century later, followed by a plaque from Heritage Toronto.

Photos of Croft Street by Jamie Bradburn. Additional material from the May 5, 1904 edition of The Globe.

UPDATE

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Croft Street mural and Heritage Toronto plaque, January 12, 2020. 

The mural honouring John Croft on the street named after him was one of my favourites in the city. It was well illustrated, told its story well, and had a funny, bordering on Monty Python-esque sensibility to it. It deserved to be well taken care of.

Over the years, people have had other ideas.

It’s a problem which has also affected street art on the garages further north along Croft Street. Lovely artwork and creative grafitti are ruined by amateurs or those who don’t care about the work of others. One can argue its the cycle and nature of such things, but it feels like an insult to those who invested time in these projects.

Would it be worth commissioning artists to create a new spin on Croft’s story on this wall (as has happened with other murals in the city, such as the depiction of Leslieville at Queen and Jones), or would that fall into ruin quickly?

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The Heritage Toronto plaque has also been poorly treated. Beyond the defacing of the photo, whoever recently sprayed over the plaque may have thought it was part of the wall. Perhaps they left their sunglasses at the scene of the crime.

The sad part?

The plaque was cleaned up a few weeks ago.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

The Globe, May 5, 1904 (left) and May 6, 1904 (right).

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Photoplay Palace Turns Ninety

Originally published on Torontoist on August 18, 2009.

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1919 (upper left); Toronto Star, August 18, 1919 (the rest).

It was ninety years ago today that east-enders were first able to enjoy fine entertainment at the theatre that underwent numerous name changes between its opening as Allen’s Danforth and its current incarnation as the Music Hall. Growth in what was considered suburbia in 1919, along with the ease of reaching Danforth Avenue via the recently opened Prince Edward Viaduct, persuaded the Allen’s cinema chain to build a high-quality theatre in the neighbourhood.

The Mail and Empire provided a preview in its August 16, 1919 edition:

After having traced them half-way across the United States and a large portion of Canada, Messrs. Jule and Jay J. Allen received with great relief yesterday the news of the arrival of the 1,800 seats for their new Danforth theatre, which will be opened on Monday evening. The handsome structure is entirely complete and it is promised that it will show the people of Toronto something new in the way of cinema house construction. Although this house has been built largely for the convenience of the residents of the Danforth and Rosedale sections of the city, it is one of the largest motion picture houses in Toronto and among the most modern. There will be no formalities for the Monday evening performance, but the theatre will be open to the general public.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Music Hall, March 30, 2010. My notes indicate Toxie hadn’t been on the premises for awhile. The poster slots are currently filled with upcoming listings deep into 2020. Click on image for larger version.

The theatre marked its 90th with a plaque presentation by Heritage Toronto, followed by a silent feature with live piano accompaniment. As the opening night film exists in fragments, viewers saw another Madge Kennedy vehicle, 1920’s Dollars and Sense. The admission price was sensible—only one thin dollar. It was a fun evening, despite a few technical hiccups.

The Music Hall is still a busy concert venue, marking its 100th anniversary in 2019.

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Photoplay, May 1920.

From the Toronto Star‘s August 7, 1919 description of Through the Wrong Door:

Through the Wrong Door is playing to capacity houses at the Allen this week, and the exvellent feature which is offered more than justifies the large crowds. Light, gay, and amusing, Through the Wrong Door is frankly composed to chase dull care away, and it is so well interpreted by Madge Kennedy and the cast in general that the effect is a very pleasant one. She softens and beautifies by some very fine acting the role of a bright young girl who throws over her fiance abd elopes with a man she scarcely knows. In the new dignity of one who sympathizes with the man her own father has deliberately tried to ruin, who she is assisting to achieve natural justice, she plays the part so convincingly that the sudden change of mind and heart is not only excused, but approved most cordially.

Motion Picture World, June 5, 1920.

Let’s Visit the Harry Horne Booth at the CNE (and eat some Nanaimo bars along the way)

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Nanaimo bars. Yum.

One of my favourite desserts is Nanaimo bars. The mix of chocolatey and coconutty goodness with creamy vanilla filling is irresistible to my tastebuds. Every Christmas, my mom sends me home with batch that my wife and I ration throughout January. For years, a key ingredient for the delectable yellow filling was Harry Horne’s Custard Powder.

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Canadian Grocer, May 7, 1920.

Its advertising claims may be debatable, but it made mighty fine desserts. Besides custard powder, the brand (later reduced to Horne’s)  lingered on for decades on products ranging from barbecue sauce to seafood sauce. Its last owner, Select Food Products, appears to have stopped making the custard powder the mid-2010s, but a sales sheet listed on its website indicated a Horne’s branded gravy was still available as of 2020.

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While researching the early days of Loblaws last year, I found a section in the September 9, 1932 edition of Canadian Grocer highlighting the exhibits in the Pure Food Building at that year’s Canadian National Exhibition. Located on the same site as the current Food Building, it served as the focal point of the fair’s food displays and samples from 1922 to 1953.

The company with the most displays in this section? Harry Horne.

 

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Canadian Grocer, July 3, 1914.

Flipping through back issues of Canadian Grocer, it appears Horne started as a food distributor. The location listed in this ad is, as of January 2020, a Gabby’s restaurant. Foster Clark’s custard powder is still available in Australia (what would an Aussie version of the Nanaimo bar be like?).

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The Globe, May 8, 1926.

Some of Horne’s advertising reflected the prejudices and stereotypes of the day.

By 1932, the company had a storefront operation at 1297-1301 Queen Street West, a site currently occupied by the Parkdale library branch.

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Other displays featured in this section included Borden, Kellogg’s, Kuntz Brewery, Libby’s, Lipton’s Tea, Ovaltine, Peek Frean, Procter and Gamble, Tea-Bisk, Welch’s Grape Juice, and Weston’s.

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The Liberal (Richmond Hill), August 14, 1952.

Horne survived the accident, and passed away six years later.

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Weston-York Times, September 27, 1973

A pair of Nanaimo bar recipes from a community cookbook section. Note varying amounts of custard powder used. The Canadian Encyclopedia gives a detailed history, placing the first published recipe in a 1952 Nanaimo hospital cookbook, but notes there are plenty of other claimants.

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Toronto Star, September 24, 1978.

Harwood’s recipe for Nanaimo bars first appeared in the Star four years earlier, in a feature on ballerina diets. According to the February 20, 1974 article, Harwood’s dessert “established her culinary reputation in the ballet field.” By contrast, Veronica Tennant was known for “sole baked in white wine, then bathed in a cream sauce with green grapes and broiled until delicately golden.”

Across This City With Stompin’ Tom

Originally published on Torontoist on March 7, 2013.

“People say Stompin’ Tom’s sound ain’t culture, and I say it’s real,” Toronto Mayor David Crombie declared when he handed the Canadian music icon the Best Male Vocalist award at the 1973 Juno Awards. While some critics found Stompin’ Tom Connors corny, devoted fans like Crombie were drawn by his colourful, good-humoured songs and relatable lyrics. For Connors, who passed away yesterday, 1973 was a banner year, with many of its highlights occurring in Toronto.

“If you can’t identify with one of Connors’s work songs because you’ve never picked potatoes or crewed on a coal boat,” Robert Martin observed in the Globe and Mail following a January 20, 1973 Massey Hall concert, “he’ll get you with one about that small town you grew up in or lived in for awhile.” Connors’s work could also evoke big-city life, as in songs like “To It and at It” (later used for SCTV’s classic parody of Goin’ Down the Road) or “TTC Skidaddler.”

Connors spent the early part of 1973 waiting for confirmation of a proposed Labour Day headlining show at the CNE Grandstand. One problem: the CNE board of directors had to approve performers, and half of them had never heard of Connors. As he waited, Connors turned down other potentially conflicting gigs, including a telethon. Depending on the source, in April he was offered either a “Maritime Day” show on August 17 at the CNE Bandshell or the opening-act slot for American country star Charley Pride on August 29. Either way, he would receive $3,500, nearly 10 times less than Pride was getting.

“I must decline this offer as a protest of the way the Canadian entertainers are treated by the CNE and other exhibitions in Canada,” Connors told the press on April 24. “It means something to every Canadian performer to appear at the CNE, but there are a lot of fogeys around who listen to one kind of music. They should make it their business to know what’s going on.” His action signified his ongoing support for Canadian musicians, another aspect of which was his Boot record label, which existed in an office above Gryfe’s Bakery on Bathurst Street.

Two weeks later, Metro council’s executive committee asked the CNE to present 60 per cent Canadian headliners. CNE management claimed that its entertainment was as much as 95 per cent CanCon, but that total encompassed all forms of live performance. The political pressure and Connors’s stance worked. That fall, CNE officials agreed to place more emphasis on domestic headliners.

Meanwhile, a series of concerts Connors played at the Horseshoe Tavern in mid-May were filmed for the documentary Across This Land With Stompin’ Tom. The film captured the strong rapport he’d developed with his audience, and was sprinkled with guest acts, animation, and vintage footage of TTC streetcars. Ontario Place audiences caught Connors in IMAX during a segment of Catch the Sun at the Cinesphere, or in person during an August performance at the Forum.

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The televised wedding of Lena Welsh (being interviewed by Elwood Glover) and Stompin’ Tom Connors, November 2, 1973. Photo by Frank Lennon. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0039988f.

In early September, Connors announced that he was getting hitched to long-time girlfriend Lena Welsh. The ceremony aired live on CBC television during the November 2 edition of Elwood Glover’s Luncheon Date. Around two million viewers watched the wedding, which was broadcast from the basement of the Four Seasons Motor Hotel on Jarvis Street. Connors wrote a song for the occasion, “We Traded Hearts Today.” Guests included Polaroid-snapping New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield and Gaet Lepine, the Timmins bartender who launched Connors’s career in 1964 when he asked the performer to sing to pay off a nickel beer debt. Following a lobster buffet, the wedding party went to the Imperial Six cinema on Yonge Street (now the Ed Mirvish Theatre) for the premiere of Across This Land With Stompin’ Tom. The party moved to the Holiday Inn on Chestnut Street (now a University of Toronto residence) before the newlyweds departed for a 10-week honeymoon. The marriage endured until Connors’s passing.

Sources: the January 22, 1973 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the January 20, 1973; March 14, 1973; April 18, 1973; May 9, 1973; May 16, 1973; September 3, 1973; and November 3, 1973 editions of the Toronto Star.

It’s a New Year. Let’s Take a Look.

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Toronto Star, December 31, 1969. Full-size version.

As the action-packed year that was 1969 drew to a close, many drew on the moon landing and its images of Earth to reflect on the state of the world and its future. Eaton’s chose its final ad of its centennial year to contemplate the issues of the day.

Fifty years on, many of the concerns discussed in this ad remain. Elders still belittle idealistic youth. Holdouts still refuse to clean up our world. War is still with us, with the lessons of earlier global conflicts being rapidly forgotten in some quarters. Feeding and housing people at affordable levels remains problematic, and grows worse in “developed” nations. Great strides have been made against discrimination, but old attitudes die hard and are, in some cases, slow to change or stumbling backwards. And responsibility, especially in the political realm?

(cue maniacal laughter)

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Cartoon by Yardley Jones, the Telegram, December 31, 1969.

As for the comment that “if the sixties taught us anything, they taught us once and for all that we are a community,” a lot of people took that to heart and have done their best to work toward the common good. But a loud segment has gone the other way, preferring to promote divisiveness for personal and political gain. Excessive partisanship seems to be leading us down a dead-end road or worse. The media trades on despair and misery, driving people deeper into those states, making it hard some days to focus on those working towards a hopeful, survivable future.

Maybe we need to channel our anger better, ignoring rage for the sake of rage. Anger requires meaning, not a Tweeted outburst or hanging on every outrageous comment somebody makes because they require attention 24/7. Or, to paraphrase this ad, our future will be full enough of rational problems without having to expend energy on irrational ones.

Except that we will.

Such is life.

My resolution for 2020 is seeking the positive and productive wherever I can in an environment dominated by doom, gloom, and more doom. I will strive to write material and share historical knowledge and research that enlightens and entertains, reconnect with my surroundings and community, temper cynicism with hope and compassion, and generally help others whenever I can without my misanthropic impulses getting in the way (except when cursing at people in this city who don’t care to know how to drive, bike, or walk).

***

What this site will look like in 2020? While there’s still plenty of material waiting to be updated, I will add more new content as time permits. There will be more pieces based on present-day wanderings around the city. I’d like to write some general posts about history and its processes, but may either start a separate site for those, or include them on my still-in-progress professional page. Depending on interest, I may try to launch some tie-in activities, such as walks or talks. I feel like this is the year I need to break through a few barriers, and hope you’ll join me as I smash through them.