Toronto Sun Columnists on the Wrong Side of History Through the Ages

Originally published on Torontoist on February 3, 2017.

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Toronto Sun, November 9, 1980.

In a response to a reader question on Twitter earlier this week provoked by Toronto Sun columnist Tarek Fatah’s comments on the Quebec City mosque shooting, Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale described the Sun as publishing, beyond a decent sports section and solid tabloid-style news coverage, “the country’s worst opinion writers.” While readers can debate Dale’s use of “worst,” the current crop of Sun columnists continues a long tradition of deliberately provocative writing that has shaped the paper since its inception in 1971.

It’s a tradition that hasn’t always landed on the right side of history. To be fair, flipping through the back pages of any newspaper exhumes opinions which would be questionable today. Skeletons among the Toronto press range from George Brown’s attacks on Irish immigrants during the early days of the Globe to unflattering descriptions of minorities in the Star which matched the prejudices of the day.

But the Sun has always stood out for its unapologetic view of the world, which grew from cockiness as the new kid on the block and its ability to connect with its conservative readership. It played upon fears of outsiders, and earned its stripes as a dedicated Cold Warrior by labeling opponents as evil Communists/Marxists/socialists/bleeding hearts/etc.

During the 1970s and 1980s the Sun’s biases regarding anyone who wasn’t white provoked consternation among minority groups, which nearly caused the City to pull its advertising from the paper. An extensive report by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations published in 1987 pulled few punches in its analysis of the paper’s stances: “The sheer volume of racial stereotypes, racism, scapegoating, and the presence of statements that may elicit fear and hatred against racial minorities can leave little doubt that there is considerable prejudice and racism directed toward non-whites and ethnic minorities within the pages of the paper.”

Reading back issues of the Sun, and certain columnists in particular, can be a depressing experience. Beyond the posturing and vitriol, it’s eye-opening to witness the level of contempt writers express for their fellow human beings.

Here are some historic topics where the Sun’s views didn’t stand the test of time, or remain offensive.

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A more enlightened view of Desmond Tutu than some Sun columnists had. Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, June 1, 1986.

South Africa

As the fight against the apartheid regime grew stronger during the 1980s, the Sun was lukewarm on the idea of handing power to the Black majority before they were “ready” to assume control. Given the African National Congress’s ties to Communist organizations, and the track record of post-colonial Africa, Sun editorials conveyed fears that South Africa would become another Marxist hellhole. In the Sun‘s view, all that stood in the way of total chaos were the white Afrikaners. “The hundreds of blacks dying in South Africa are victims of racism, but not by the dominating whites,” a July 1985 editorial observed. “It’s the racism that is the by-product of the class warfare demanded by Marxists and liberals blinded by Marxism.

Barbara Amiel went further, suggesting that progressives couldn’t wait to see a long, bloody war unfold. “The struggle closest to them,” she wrote in August 1985, “actually seems to be their own effort to restrain an unseemly relief that, at last, South Africa might be in for a really good spell of what the rest of the unfortunate people on the African continent have known and are suffering: murder, mayhem and economic disaster.”

Columnist McKenzie Porter all too frequently defended the apartheid regime, seeing it as both the last hope against the Commies and as a benevolent, paternalistic means of looking after the backward Blacks, who “still consult witch doctors and rely on donkey power.” Porter criticized condemnation from the West as springing from “the illusion that all men are equal.”

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Toronto Sun, December 22, 1977.

In his July 24, 1985 column, Porter predicted that “if South Africa gave the vote to every black today it would bring about the destruction of the agriculture, industry, and commerce that are essential to the eventual emancipation of the supposedly oppressed majority.” He also thought that South African Blacks were dumber than their North American counterparts, who’d had the benefit of being in white educational systems for generations. “For reasons palpable to every reader of history,” he observed, “the average South African black, clad though he may be in a collar and tie, still embodies some vestiges of a recent Stone Age past.” Finally, he stated that Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu was “not very bright.”

That particular column was the final straw for Mayor Art Eggleton and his committee on community and race relations, which had noticed the Sun’s less than admirable stands on race in general. The committee threatened to pull city advertising from the paper, which provoked a heated response from Sun publisher Paul Godfrey. He defended the Sun’s writers on the grounds of freedom of the press, and taunted both the mayor and the committee in print. He also noted Porter had visited South Africa, though it was unclear if the trip had been paid for by the regime. Both sides soon cooled the conversation, with Eggleton suddenly declaring the Sun wasn’t so racist after all (a shift Godfrey, a former Metro Chairman, praised as a sign of the mayor’s conciliatory nature).

When Nelson Mandela toured North America in 1990, the Sun was not wowed by the praise showered upon the recently released icon. There was still suspicion of Communist links, along with the behaviour of Winnie Mandela and her bodyguards while he was imprisoned. As David Frum put it, “myth-making has transformed a man who might otherwise be just another African opposition leader into an international celebrity.”

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Comment on John Sewell’s support of Toronto’s gay community during the 1980 municipal election. Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, September 28, 1980.

Homophobia

Let’s be blunt: the Sun was intolerant toward homosexuals during the 1970s and 1980s. From cartoonist Andy Donato’s frequent limp-wristed depictions of gays to editor Peter Worthington’s threat following the 1981 Bathhouse Raids to expose names of anyone rounded up in subsequent police scoops, there was no sympathy to anyone who wasn’t heterosexual.

Perhaps the most homophobic of the lot was Queen’s Park columnist Claire Hoy. In piece after piece, Hoy depicted homosexuals as sad, pathetic creatures. He was convinced that there was an agenda by homosexuals to gain access to classrooms to convert innocent children to their perverted lifestyle. “It is not true that homosexuals want simply to be left alone to do whatever it is they do to each other,” he wrote in January 1978. When a “Gaydays” celebration was held later that year, he wondered why “more Torontonians don’t let them know they’re not welcome here” and when people would “wake up and realize the danger of keeping silent in the face of this creeping, crawling sickness in our society?”

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Typical Claire Hoy column headline. Toronto Sun, October 30, 1979.

Hoy used his QP perch to step into the 1980 municipal election, a campaign the Sunhad no shortage of homophobic commentary on in the wake of mayor John Sewell’s support of the community and George Hislop’s council run. Following the Toronto Board of Education’s decision to allow a homosexual liaison committee to talk with students struggling with their own sexual identity, he listed all of the trustees who “voted to give homosexuals a beachhead.” He urged readers to register their indignation at the ballot box lest the radicals (who he referred to as “dingles”) win.

Hoy went on to serve as the paper’s Ottawa columnist and was forced out after writing one too many columns attacking Brian Mulroney for Godfrey’s taste. A subsequent stint at the Ottawa Citizen ended after he continued to attack the queer community.

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McKenzie Porter on the crapper, a reference to one of his most infamous columns. Globe and Mail, November 2, 1986.

Eugenics

One of the darkest corners of the Sun’s back pages is McKenzie Porter’s ongoing support of eugenics as a solution to society’s ills. While peers commented that his snobbish persona may have been a put-on, his repeated references to sterilization make one wonder how serious he was about other outrageously written columns.

The following excerpt from Porter’s October 25, 1982 column is as chilling an opinion piece as you’ll ever find in a Toronto newspaper. It’s absurd and frightening at the same time.

The only way to rid ourselves of poverty and its related diseases of insanity and crime is by embracing the science of eugenics. This science was held back 100 years because Hitler distorted and pursued its principles in a hideously cruel way. We must remember that Hitler was crazy. We must believe that eugenics may be practiced in a sane and civilized way.

It should not be difficult to persuade genetically unsound indigents to submit them to sterilization if it is pointed out to them that their new condition will permit them unlimited sexual pleasure without bringing upon them the burden of handicapped children. A properly mounted government publicity campaign would result in the submission of the vast majority of unfit people to voluntary sterilization. Some element of compulsion will have to be accepted once the practice of eugenics is adopted. Boards of control manned by doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, clergymen and others should be empowered to order certain people be sterilized.

Porter further suggests that anyone sent to prison for the second time be sterilized, and that all patients admitted to hospital “should be examined for severe hereditary handicaps.”

He continued to write for the Sun until 1990, by which time a column suggesting that no Canadian citizen born outside of the country should be allowed to vote because of a tendency to indulge in ethnic partisanship prompted city council to pull its ads from the paper.

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This Andy Donato cartoon, about the situation in southeast Asia, typifies the paper’s view of Communism, and ran next to a pro-Pinochet editorial. Toronto Sun, January 8, 1978.

Augusto Pinochet

The Sun’s hatred of any government with the faintest left-wing tinge had few bounds. The paper’s mad hate-on for Pierre Trudeau became something of a joke. Columnists like Lubor Zink forever warned about the dangers of Communism. While Zink exposed true atrocities committed by such regimes, his zealous fervour also became a joke.

One fight against the left the Sun really misfired on was its support of Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile. In a 1978 editorial, Chile’s status as a “whipping boy” nation alongside nations like Rhodesia and South Africa was criticized. “Chile’s great sin is to have violently ousted a Marxist government—a rare occurrence,” the paper noted. The piece went on to note how poor Chile was trying to earn a spot among respectable nations while it undid damage blamed on former president Salvador Allende, and how it was ironic China helped them when Canada didn’t. “It is an obscenity to concentrate on the sins of a minor offender while ignoring sins of a major offender.” To which we say it’s also ultimately a sin to brush aside the thousands who disappeared or were tortured during Pinochet’s regime.

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Toronto Sun, September 4, 1977.

After spending years sifting through these opinions, it’s disturbing how there’s been a steady market for this strain of journalism. What really grates, as a study done of depictions of immigration and racism in the Toronto press of the 1970s showed, was that unlike its competitors, the Sun often presented a single worldview, lacking diversity or nuances. Instead of promoting healthy debate around the above issues, or ongoing problems such as community-police relations and where immigrants fit into Canadian society, the Sun frequently promotes divisiveness at the expense of better understanding between people. It’s the easier, more sensational way to go, but it ignores the human cost of such thinking.

Ultimately, future historians will judge whether today’s Sun columnists and editorial writers reflect the beliefs of their readership, have a sense of where the world is heading, or live up to Dale’s criticism of their worth.

Additional material from Power Without Responsibility: The Press We Don’t Deserve by Effie Ginzberg (Toronto: Urban Alliance on Race Relations, 1987); The Little Paper That Grew by Jean Sonmor (Toronto: Toronto Sun, 1993); the October 31, 1985 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the February 4, 1977, January 6, 1978, January 8, 1978, August 25, 1978, September 3, 1980, September 25, 1981, October 25, 1982, July 24, 1985, August 4, 1985, and June 22, 1990 editions of the Toronto Sun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, October 31, 1985.

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Globe and Mail, December 13, 1985.

The report referred to, Power Without Responsibility: The Press We Don’t Deserve, is worth seeking out. Be prepared to be nauseated by some of the excerpted columns (unless your views align with those of the late 1970s/early 1980s Sun).

Godfrey spent the next two months listening to deputations, then wrote a conciliatory letter to the Urban Alliance. In March 1986, the Ontario Press Council dismissed complaints about Porter’s take on South Africa. “Those meetings went on for four, five, sometimes six hours,” Godfrey later recalled. “But I valued them. I always remember that wars are started by a failure to communicate. So I’d take them into the boardroom, give them muffins and coffee and invite them to tell me why they were unhappy with the Sun.”

I suspect present-day Sun management would throw the muffins and coffee at complainants.

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Toronto Sun, February 6, 1989.

While this story didn’t make the final cut, it’s worth bringing it up within the context of the other issues discussed in my piece. This column proved the final straw when it came to McKenzie Porter writing provocatively outrageous things: suggesting that anyone born outside of Canada should be prevented from voting or running for office.

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Toronto Star, February 26, 1989. Note that the wrong date was provided for the offending column.

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Toronto Star, March 3, 1989.

The city’s ad ban lasted two months, before reconsidering after being accused of censorship. Porter was criticized in the Ontario Legislature for the column, and retired from the Sun the following year.

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Toronto Sun, November 13, 1977.

For contextual purposes, here is a typical example of a Claire Hoy column dripping with homophobia. The vitriol in his pieces, which ostensibly were supposed to cover goings-on at Queen’s Park but often degenerated into rants against people Hoy hated, is thick. The language is dehumanizing, referring to his opponents not as people but “creatures.” And yet it is not difficult to imagine these words being used in 2018 in discussions over Ontario’s sex education curriculum.

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Toronto Sun, January 8, 1978.

The pro-Pinochet editorial I referred to. Not unusual during the Cold War era but, given what we now know about the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup in 1973, an editorial that has not aged well.

BEHIND THE SCENES

This was my last non-Historicist piece published by Torontoist, though it could have easily fit within that column. It was a parting gift to outgoing EIC David Hains, who had suggested for some time that I write a piece on the past transgression of the “Little Paper that Grew.” Two more Historicist columns, and a look back at my time writing that particular column, would mark the end of my decade-long run at Torontoist.

I was first exposed to the Sun when my father picked up copies of the paper during m childhood trips to Toronto. It was the first tabloid-sized paper I was exposed to, and I loved the comic book format of the weekend funnies. Those papers made it into my father’s giant clipping collection–I recall photocopies of Douglas Fisher columns explaining the mechanics of parliament being passed around in the grade 9 history class Dad taught.

In university during the mid-1990s, I occasionally bought the Sunday Sun, partly as a joke, partly as a chance to see what the right side of the spectrum was saying, and partly for the Sunday funnies to hang on my dorm room. Two things brought this to an end: the incessant attacks against teachers and other public professionals, and a landlord who cheered on the paper’s taunts. While I have flipped through copies of the paper lying around, I have not paid for one since the end of the 20th century.

Its current incarnation is little more than a vehicle for populist outrage, reconfirming the biases of its readers instead of trying to broaden them, stoking divisions that aren’t necessary and do more harm than good. I ignore it and its writers as much as possible, since I can probably predict from a headline whatever the copy will read.

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Exhibiting Lawren Harris

Originally published on Torontoist on June 29, 2016.

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Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926. Oil on canvas. 102.2 x 127.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 1930. © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Lawren Harris has long drawn attention to the Art Gallery of Ontario. While The Idea of North exhibition that opens this weekend may claim as much interest for Steve Martin’s curatorial role as the works themselves, back in 1948 the gallery (then known as the Art Gallery of Toronto) deemed Harris worthy of being the first living artist to be honoured with a career-spanning retrospective.

The gallery looked for a recognized artist whose work influenced the development of Canadian fine art. The exhibition program described how Harris fit these criteria:

“In shaping the course of Canadian art by his goodwill and enthusiasm he has encouraged and given practical assistance to many other artists. He does not believe that artists should lead obscure and humble lives, but rather it is a reproach to a country to show no concern for its artists. With Dr. [Frederick] Banting, he believed ‘that no country can afford to neglect its creative minds.’

“He made a valiant effort to impress on the government the need of cultural centres in Canada. He paints, he plans, writes, broadcasts, and lectures. He is always the happy warrior who strives in a worthy cause.”

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Cover of the guide to the 1948 exhibition of Lawren Harris’s work.

The works presented covered Harris’s entire career to that point, including key works displayed in The Idea of North like North Shore, Lake Superior. Unlike the current show (apart from samples such as one that almost foreshadows the design of Toronto City Hall), the 1948 exhibition included the abstract style he favoured from the mid-1930s onward. Harris’s reason for painting abstractions was that they offered “more imaginative scope in this way of seeing and painting and a more exacting discipline,” and as a vehicle for expressing ideas which wouldn’t work in representative forms.” Harris refused to title his abstract works, as names were “likely to interfere with the onlooker’s direct response.”

The exhibition’s opening on October 15, 1948 was preceded by an honorary dinner at the Arts and Letters Club for Harris, who came to Toronto from his then-base in Vancouver. Surviving members of the Group of Seven, including A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and Frederick Varley, attended. “There was a comradely gaiety,” observed Globe and Mail fine arts correspondent Pearl McCarthy, “and we were all such good-natured human beings in that bond of art!” Jackson toasted Harris, followed by reminiscences from Lismer.

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Globe and Mail, October 16, 1948.

After dinner, the dignitaries headed to the gallery to view the five rooms dedicated to Harris’s work. The exhibit began with sketches Harris did for Harper’s magazine in 1909, which the artist insisted were among the world’s worst illustrations. It then moved into his depictions of The Ward neighbourhood, in which the Telegram saw “authentic charm and dignity, a secret sort of beauty in the literal early canvasses of old Toronto street scenes.”

Following through the rest of the exhibition, McCarthy noticed that Harris “always had a kind of spiritual resplendency which has transcended little questions of good taste and theoretic niceties.” The Telegram compared his 1920s landscapes to Chinese painters who sought “to distill the essence of landscape rather than to record it literally.” Literary critic Northrop Frye felt that Harris was “the type of painter who grows through states of metamorphosis, breaking his life into periods of experiment: the type represented by Turner and Picasso. This is the revolutionary type, and Harris is Canada’s only revolutionary artist.”

Harris rejected claims that contemporary Canadian art was experiencing a slump, feeling that the overall work had grown better, especially among Les Automatistes in Montreal. He believed the experience of the Group of Seven could not be duplicated, “for nothing originates in terms of the time, the place, and the people, in conjunction with values in art from the world generally.”

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 The Telegram, October 16, 1948.

The exhibition ran for a month. The gallery has presented several major Harris shows since then, including a focus his pre-1930 work in 1978 and a retrospective of his later pieces in 1985. For The Idea of North, the AGO is expanding the exhibition shown in Boston and Los Angeles by adding archival photos and contextual content related to Harris’s depictions of The Ward, as well as a series of contemporary commissions based on themes related to the show.

Additional material from Lawren Harris Paintings 1910-1948 (Toronto: Art Gallery of Toronto, 1948); the October 16, 1948 and January 1, 1949 editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 14, 1978 edition of the Toronto Star; and the October 16, 1948 edition of the Telegram.

Gordie Howe and Dave Keon’s Halloween Return to Maple Leaf Gardens

Originally published on Torontoist on June 10, 2016.

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1979-80 O-Pee-Chee hockey cards of Gordie Howe and Dave Keon.

While costumed ghouls and goblins wandered the streets of Toronto Halloween night 1979, hockey fans enjoyed tricks and treats of their own at Maple Leaf Gardens. Two hockey legends returned to the building for the first time in years, making the Leafs’ 4-2 loss to the Hartford Whalers palatable. For 51-year-old Gordie Howe, who passed away this morning, it was an early stop in his year-long farewell tour around the NHL. For 39-year-old Dave Keon, it was a return to venue he’d left under bitter circumstances.

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Globe and Mail, July 6, 1970.

While “Mr. Hockey” never played for the Leafs during his 32-year career, Howe served as a sporting goods adviser for Eaton’s, prompting plenty of personal appearances at the department store’s local outlets during the 1960s and 1970s. This apparently bothered Detroit Red Wings management after Howe ended a brief retirement to join his sons Mark and Marty on the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros in 1973. When Howe cited one of his reasons for returning to the ice as boredom with his desk job with the Red Wings—he felt like a mushroom patch, kept in a dark room until it was time to throw more manure on him—Detroit exec Jimmy Skinner complained that Howe spent too much time working for Eaton’s.

When the Whalers were added to the NHL in 1979, Howe maintained a hectic pace as the public and media fixated on the ageless wonder during his final season. “Overall, all the attention I’m getting isn’t getting to me,” he told the Globe and Mail. “It’s easier to stickhandle your way through an interview than a young, eager hockey player…I’m playing this season because it’s enjoyable going through the circuit again.”

Howe was particularly pleased about stopping in Toronto because the return of Keon to the Gardens allowed him to share the spotlight. Keon was less excited, having left Toronto unceremoniously four years earlier after a 15-year run with the Leafs. During the 1974-75 season, owner Harold Ballard consistently dumped on his team captain, accusing him of being uncooperative with the media and failing to provide leadership to younger players. When that season ended, Keon became a free agent. Ballard showed little interest in bringing him back. “Keon is free to make a deal for himself anywhere,” Ballard told the Globe and Mail’s Dick Beddoes. “You hate to see players like Keon go, but I don’t need to be hit on the head with a sledgehammer to understand reality. We need big young legs. It’s nuts to fall in love with a racehorse because sometime he has to die.”

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Globe and Mail, October 31, 1979.

Because rules at the time required other NHL teams to provide compensation to the Leafs for signing Keon, and suspicions Ballard was asking for too much, Keon had few options but to jump over to the WHA. After stints with the Minnesota Fighting Saints and the Indianapolis Racers, Keon joined the Whalers midway through the 1976-77 season. Keon’s bitterness over his departure from Toronto was apparent whenever the subject arose in interviews—soon after joining the Whalers, he vowed never to set foot in Maple Leaf Gardens ever again.

But his bitterness wasn’t enough to prevent Keon from playing on Halloween 1979. “I have no bad feelings towards the players,” he noted. “I’m looking forward to it, but playing against the Leafs will be different.”

The game was sweet for both veterans. “Sure somebody, somewhere, scripted the hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens last night to embarrass Harold Ballard,” the Star’s Jim Kernaghan noted the next day. Besides Ballard’s treatment of Keon, the obnoxious owner refused to acknowledge Howe’s 1,000th professional goal on the Gardens’ message board in 1977 because he utterly loathed the WHA. Keon received three standing ovations from Toronto fans, while several fan banners welcomed him back. He responded by providing a goal and an assist in the Whalers 4-2 victory over the Leafs. “The response from fans was great,” he noted after the game, “This ranks up there with some of the biggest thrills of my life. It’s the kind of thing you hope for, but doesn’t always happen.”

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“Howe blast. Mark Howe (5) of Hartford Whalers watches puck just shot by his father, Gordie (behind Mark) on its way into the Toronto net in National Hockey League action at Maple Leaf Gardens last night. Goal came in third period and was the 789th regular-season NHL marker for Gordie and his third for Whalers this season. Maple Leafs’ defenceman Borje Salming lies on ice after making futile attempt to stop the whistling drive. Whalers shocked Leafs by winning: 4-2.” Photo by Doug Griffin, originally published in the November 1, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0055784f.

Howe, assisted by his son Mark, sent a 30-foot wrist shot past goalie Mike Palmateer to give the Whalers their final goal of the evening. Howe claimed getting back at Ballard had nothing to do with his goal. ‘It’s just great to score one and it was particularly nice that it was Mark who tipped the puck to me,” he told the Star. “Hell, Harold’s good for the game. He yelps a lot and pays good salaries.”

Both teams moved on to the Whalers’ temporary home in Springfield, Massachusetts two nights later, where two goals from Howe helped the Whalers deliver the Leafs their fifth defeat in a row. The Star’s punny headline screamed “Those Howe-itzers again blast Leafs.”

Howe’s final game at the Gardens occurred on February 16, 1980, which the Leafs won 5-3. Howe failed to score on four shots, including one barely stopped by Toronto defenceman Borje Salming. When goalie Jiri Crha learned that in his debut game he had temporarily stopped Howe’s pursuit of his 800th NHL goal, the Leafs netminder said “this win means even more now.” In Howe’s final game against the Leafs in Hartford on April Fools’ Day 1980, he showed his eternal toughness by earning a 10-minute misconduct penalty with 37 seconds left to go in the match after knocking over a linesman while pursuing the puck.

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Toronto Star, February 16, 1980.

Keon continued playing until 1982. His bitterness towards the Leafs remained in retirement, as he refused official overtures from the team for decades. “It was clear Keon had great pride in his Leafs career,” broadcasting and former Fighting Saints coach Harry Neale told writer Dave Bidini several years ago. Neale summarized, after a pause, Keon’s feelings as “heartbroken.” But Keon has appeared at Leafs events in recent years, and will be honoured alongside other team greats with a statue to be unveiled in Legends Row this October.

Additional material from Keon and Me by Dave Bidini (Toronto: Penguin, 2013); the February 7, 1974, July 10, 1975, December 3, 1977, October 31, 1979, November 1, 1979, and April 2, 1980 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 15, 1975, November 1, 1979, November 3, 1979, and February 17, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Photo by Doug Griffin, 1975. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0055785f.

While browsing the Toronto Public Library’s archive of Toronto Star photos, found this gem from Howe’s WHA days. The caption’s prediction of Howe’s retirement was premature: “Hero worship: Mayor David Crombie (centre) and Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey appear properly awe-inspired at pre-game ceremony honoring Gordie Howe at Maple Leaf Gardens last night. Howe played what was probably his last regular season game in Toronto and was in top form as his Houston Aeros beat Toros: 5-2. The two civic dignitaries received autographed sticks and Toros’ sweaters.”

That Time Christie Blatchford Ate Only Bananas for a Week—for Journalism

Originally published on Torontoist on April 20, 2016.

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Toronto Star, July 25, 1978.

While most reporters aspire to focus on hard-hitting stories that strike a deep nerve with their readers, sometimes, especially early in their careers, they wind up with the fluffy stuff. Some days, you cover crime and corruption, and some days, as National Post employees found yesterday, you discover how many processed cheese slices will slide down your esophagus.

And sometimes, as veteran columnist Christie Blatchford discovered in the late 1970s, you’ll have a lengthy assignment which drives you bananas with bananas.

Blatchford began her career as a part-time copy editor at the Globe and Mail while attending Ryerson. After winning the Joe Perlove Scholarship for leading her class in 1973, the paper hired her as a full-time sports reporter. “When I worked at the Globe,” she recalled in her collection Spectator Sports, “I was perfect for it—young, earnest, and horrifically self-important.” Within a few years she gained national attention for being a female sports columnist.

Then she jumped ship.

“After three years, I went into a snit when a copy editor dared to mess with my pearls of wisdom, and quit in a huff,” she observed. “I was also, I think now, a little lonely; being one of a handful of women writers was interesting, but after a few years it was also isolating and unnerving.”

Moving over to the Star in October 1977, she became one of the paper’s busiest reporters. “For the next four years I was the Princess of Death, everywhere people were dying in numbers greater than three, there I was, ghoul with a pen.”

But sometimes a reporter needs a change of pace. In mid-July 1978, Star fitness columnist Allan Scott discussed a diet employed by French women’s gymnastics and ski teams. Three weeks prior to a major competition, the athletes undertook a week-long dietary regimen composed primarily of bananas, with low consumption of fluids. Over seven days, they lost between seven and 15 pounds each. Scott ran a test group of 16 people divided evenly between males and females. Similar results prevailed. Having undertaken the diet several times, Scott recommended a week-long regimen for those already in good health, accompanied by nightly half-hour strolls.

We imagine that, in an era of fad diets ranging from gorging on grapefruits to restricting calories, somebody at 1 Yonge decided to have a reporter try the banana method.

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The earliest visual we could find of Christie Blatchford in a Toronto newspaper, posing for an article on travel planning. Globe and Mail, July 22, 1972.

On the front page of the July 25, 1978 family section, a puffy-cheeked Blatchford posed with two bananas. She had quit smoking three weeks earlier, replacing cigarettes with a weight-gaining toffee habit. For the next week, Blatchford provided daily progress reports.

Day One: Blatchford devised several recipes to break the monotony of eating so many bananas, such as microwaving them with a dash of paprika. She suggested that, psychologically, they were the ideal fruit to diet with because they were as slender as fashion models.

There’s only one problem with the Banana Diet. Banana breath. I’ve been on the diet for a mere day, have eaten just six of the 24 yellow devils I’ll consume this week, and already I reek of banana. The inside of my mouth is dry, chalk-like, and, well, banana-y. Even friends who don’t know about the diet recoil when I get too close to them. They leave, urging me to start smoking again so at least they’ll be able to identify the source of the foulness.

Day Two: While shopping at a Bloor Street fruit market, Blatchford was nearly overcome by temptation.

Immediately, I sought out the day’s supply of bananas. I found them, right beside some of the wettest green grapes I have ever seen…I felt an overwhelming urge to seize the grapes and run—or at least mash them so no one else could taste them. Later, in the privacy of my own home, I cried. I also drank both tears.

Two important tips regarding the evening walk: do it in the country (to avoid the temptations of bakeries and pubs); and don’t do it in the rain (“The urge to lie down on the sidewalk with your mouth wide open to catch the drops as they fall is irresistible”).

Day Three: At her first weigh-in, Blatchford discovered she had lost seven and a half pounds. She lamented how the diet wrecked her social life, from skipping parties to receiving glares for chomping an apple at a movie theatre.

Worst of all was her sense of self-pity.

I felt so sorry for myself, so deprived, that I took up the weed again. I also sneaked two extra glasses of water into my parched body. I felt so guilty about all that I went on a punishing two-hour walk in my highest-heeled shoes. I was so weary I felt even sorrier for myself. You cannot win. You will, it’s true, be able to fit into dresses you could not do up last week. You will, however, have nowhere to wear it. No one will invite you anywhere.

Day Four: The series prompted more than 100 calls a day to the Star’s switchboard. One reader wrote a song about the Banana Diet, while others offered more facts about the fruit than anyone in the pre-internet age cared to know. “In four short days of writing about the Banana Diet,” she observed, “I have learned one thing—no Banana-face is an island unto herself. There are hundreds of you out there, Banana-faces all.”

Grocers across the city reported a spike in banana sales.

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Left: a summary of the Banana Diet, Toronto Star, July 20, 1978. Right: the photo which accompanied day five’s account. Toronto Star, July 29, 1978.

Day Five: “I cannot look another banana in the face.”

While she was supposed to down six bananas that day, Blatchford ate only three. The rest lurked in her fridge. “Bananas do not make graceful or magnanimous winners. In truth, bananas gloat.” As much as she wanted to quit, she had to respect the promise made to readers. While grocery shopping with her husband, the cashier recognized her and, looking at the pile of non-diet items, snarled, “None of that’s for you, I hope.”

Due to this and other public admonishing, she warned readers, “if you embark on the Banana Diet, keep it to yourself.”

Day Six: The headline read, “At last, I have a waist.” This proved the major revelation of the diet for Blatchford, who claimed she had “no personal experience with waistlines.” She spent most of the day posing in front of the full-length mirror in her front hallway. She vowed to buy more mirrors to perpetually glimpse her new figure, embracing her new self-appreciation. “I suspect that by tomorrow, when the Banana Diet ends, and I weigh myself for the final time, I will be completely unbearable,” she noted. “Smug. Vain. Self-righteous. And gloriously gaunt.”

Day Seven: Through the diet, Blatchford shed a total of nine and a half pounds. She hoped this would reduce her natural clumsiness. “Now, at a svelte 149.5 pounds, if I trip while crossing the street I am no longer in serious danger of rolling into traffic.” Despite the banana breath, she was pleased with the results and vowed to continue staying in better shape by following the advice of a nutritionist on how to maintain her new shape.

She imagined her new wardrobe, ditching black in favour of bright colours and tasteless patterns: “I fully expect I will be a horrible dresser. I will wear all the wrong colours all the wrong ways. I may even dig out my old white go-go boots and wear them, the better to show off my lean calves.”

And so ended the Banana Diet saga, which combined her talents of catchy writing and revealing personal vulnerabilities. If Blatchford ever writes a final column or reflection on her career, perhaps she’ll be prodded to discuss any long-term impact that week had on her, via health or personal vanity.

Additional material from Spectator Sports by Christie Blatchford (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1986); the April 23, 1973 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the July 19, 1978 and July 25, 1978 through July 31, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.

Shaping Toronto: Queen West

Originally published on Torontoist on March 16, 2016.

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“The road to the heart of Toronto runs along Queen Street. It may not be the most imposing thoroughfare in town, nor the longest, but it is the liveliest, the most vibrant, successful, and popular. More than any other, it is the street that defines Toronto, and that has led the way to the re-urbanization of the downtown core, a process that continues today.” — Christopher Hume, Queen Street: Toronto’s Urban Treasure, 2012.

For those who came of age from the late 1970s through early 1990s, the heart of Queen West was between University and Spadina. It was the Queen West I was introduced to as a child, tagging along with my father as we browsed one used book store after another. To a kid from deep southwestern Ontario, it was a magical place, with its funky old buildings loaded with funky old things, and a stretch with a wide sidewalk to run around freely.

Flash forward to my teens. My hometown is finally wired up to cable, introducing the CHUM/CITY galaxy of channels, which, to a not-yet-cynical mind, depicted Queen West as the coolest place in the country. Based on an informal survey of friends on Facebook, this was not an unusual feeling. You could speak your mind on Speakers’ Corner, or check out whatever MuchMusic was doing. You could even toss in some shopping while you were at it.

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South side Queen Street West from 217 to 233, August 23, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 3, Item 1234.

“Along Queen Street West, purchasers in that section of the city will find much that it will be to their advantage to inspect.” — the Toronto News, December 23, 1885.

One of Toronto’s oldest roads, Queen Street (known in its early days as Lot Street) was laid out when York was established in 1793. During the early 19th century, the stretch we’re concerned with was the front of D’Arcy Boulton Jr.’s property, where he built The Grange. His lasting legacy along Queen is the short stretch east of Spadina where it widens out.

“Our worst streets are those Victorian and Edwardian thoroughfares where bad design and poor maintenance give an impression of sordidness and decay. King, Queen, Dundas, and much of Yonge are such streets, and their ugliness is not improved by their stretching, seemingly, to infinity.” — Eric Arthur, Toronto No Mean City, 1964.

For much of its existence, Queen West was a modest commercial strip serving local residents and workers at nearby factories and warehouses. Never glamourous, by the 1970s it was described by Toronto Life as being “inhabited by transient winos and the ethnics who had failed to prosper in the new country.” What it had was great older commercial architecture and cheap rents, two assets which would spur its revitalization.

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Map of Queen West, Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

“Six years ago, the unwary Saturday afternoon browser who slipped off Yonge Street on to Queen Street West unwittingly fell off the edge of the known shopping world. At that time, deepest darkest Queen Street West—notably the few blocks between John Street and Spadina—had little to offer the inquisitive, well-heeled young shopper with money to spend. There were the old, antique shops, the porno shops, and the Turner Wine Store at the corner of John and Queen with its down-at-heel clientele of listless, hungry men, the greasy spoons, office buildings, and machine shops. Even the more adventurous would go scurrying back to Yonge Street or north to Bloor, with its classy, high-priced Yorkville.

“Today that section of Queen—two blocks on the south side, three on the north—shows signs of becoming the new world. The spirit of trend has raised her elegant skirts and skipped down from gorgeous, pricey Bloor to nestle among scores of bright, funky craft stores, highbrow art book and comic book shops, new antique emporiums, elegant eateries, and purveyors of the crazy, imaginative baubles that attract the moneyed restless.

“The setting is a broad, tree-lined stretch of Queen Street, Toronto’s answer to the Rue des Capucines in Paris. There, close to 40 vibrant young stores have sprung up among the old—altogether a Saturday browser’s dream.” — Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

Expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario and a greater integration of the Ontario College of Art into the neighbourhood produced an influx of artists who remolded the street, whose works are currently celebrated in an art exhibition as part of the Myseum Intersections festival. Longstanding businesses, such as the Peter Pan diner, were revamped. Tourists were told the strip was, according to Fodor’s, “a strange world of dusty, neglected stores next to popular nightclubs” like Bam Boo and others.

“Think of Queen West as Toronto’s version of Hollywood’s Melrose, minus the palm trees. And Heather Locklear. Whether for shopping or people-gawking, Queen West is Toronto’s hippest strip.” — Stephen Davey, Now City Guide Toronto, 1999.

As Queen West evolved, it fell victim to its own success. As rents shot up, the next generation of artistic entrepreneurs moved further west, pushing out beyond Bathurst. Filling the spaces were chain stores, leaving the impression among those who enjoyed its renaissance that the strip was becoming an extension of the Eaton Centre. Shifting ownership drained the vitality out of the old CHUM/CITY channels. Some pushouts were less successful than others—the space where Pages bookstore operated has been vacant for years, though recent renovations of the front indicate something may finally be happening.

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“Today Queen Street West is an animated mixed-use corridor that functions as a local and regional destination, drawing people from the residential neighbourhoods that surround it, and extensively, from all over the city and beyond. The history of the street, and its place in the collective memory, continues to be enhanced by the presence of a vibrant retail and entertainment scene, and the multiple events and venues that make Queen Street West their home.” — Queen Street West Heritage Conservation District Plan report, 2007.

Sidewalks remain packed on average days. Live entertainment still holds sway at venues like the Horseshoe, Rivoli, and the Rex. Designation as a heritage conservation district in 2007 offers stronger protection to retain its low-rise, century-old architecture (even if it currently boasts at least one example of odd facadism where Silver Snail used to be). Whatever you think of the strip’s evolution, it retains its vitality.

Additional material from Toronto No Mean City by Eric Arthur (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964); Now City Guide Toronto by Stephen Davey (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999); Fodor’s Toronto (New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 1984); Queen Street: Toronto’s Urban Treasure (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2012); the March 1979 edition of Toronto Life; and the February 2, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star.

BEHIND THE SCENES

This was the final installment of Shaping Toronto.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

I wrote about the initial revival of the Queen West strip during the lare 1970s in the following installment of Retro T.O. for The Grid, originally published on April 17, 2012. 

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Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

With Silver Snail’s impending move to Yonge Street, one of the few remnants of the original Queen West strip is departing the scene. The ongoing transformation of the stretch between University and Spadina into a row of chain stores is just the latest evolution of the street. Back in the winter of 1979, the Star and Toronto Life devoted lengthy articles to the birth of what would become, as one headline put it, “gutter glamour on Glitter Street.” The Star depicted pre-hip Queen West as such:

Six years ago, the unwary Saturday afternoon browser who slipped off Yonge St. on to Queen St. W. unwittingly fell off the edge of the known shopping world. At that time, deepest darkest Queen St. W.—notably the few blocks between John St. and Spadina—had little to offer the inquisitive, well-heeled young shopper with money to spend. There were the old, antique shops, the porno shops and the Turner Wine Store at the corner of John and Queen with its down-at-heel clientele of listless, hungry men, the greasy spoons, office buildings and machine shops. Even the more adventurous would go scurrying back to Yonge St. or north to Bloor, with its classy, high-priced Yorkville.

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Toronto Star, February 2, 1979. Click on image for larger version.

Toronto Life characterized the area as a marginal strip on the fringes of the clothing trade, where the streetscape was “inhabited by transient winos and the ethnics who had failed to prosper in the new country, ‘old-country good-for-nothings’ in the eyes of their more successful compatriots.”

Several explanations were given for why the landscape changed. There was the influence of Ontario College of Art graduates who stayed in the neighbourhood. Rent was far lower than in Yorkville, which provided better profit margins for the new business owners whose average age was 30 to 35. There was the allure of nearby cultural attractions like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Alex. Frequent streetcar service and plenty of on- and off-street parking didn’t hurt.

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Queen Street looking west from St. Patrick’s Market, June 7, 1981. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526,  File 76, Item 29. 

The result, according to the Star, was a neighbourhood where “the spirit of trend” had “raised her elegant skirts” and nestled “among scores of bright, funky craft stores, highbrow art book and comic book shops, new antique emporiums, elegant eateries and purveyors of the crazy, imaginative baubles that attract the moneyed restless.” A few reminders of the old days, like the A. Stork and Sons poultry store and a touch of industrial pollution, lingered on.

Both articles viewed the refurbishment of the Peter Pan restaurant as the turning point for the strip. With a history as an eatery stretching back to 1905 (and under its present name since 1935), the diner at 373 Queen St. W. attracted three partners who discovered old booths, counters, and fixtures gathering dust in the basement. After a refurbishment, the new Peter Pan was, according to the Star, “an art deco wonderland, a smash hit with the city’s young affluent.” That is, it was a hit if you could stand the servers, who Toronto Life declared the representative figure of the new Queen West (“the narcissistic waiter who’s in a punk band”).

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Queen Street looking west from Beverley Street, June 7, 1981. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526,  File 76, Item 30. Click on image for larger version.

Of the 27 businesses listed in the Star’s “Where to shop in new village” guide and a few others included on a map, only four will continue on Queen West following Silver Snail’s departure: the Black Bull, Peter Pan, the Queen Mother Café and Steve’s Music Store. Even in 1979, merchants worried about the street’s future. “I don’t want too much change in the original street,” noted Peter Pan co-owner Sandy Stagg. “Change will come, I know. I just hope we can keep it under control.”

Additional material from the February 2, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star and the March 1979 edition of Toronto Life.

Shaping Toronto: Centennial Projects

Originally published on Torontoist on February 24, 2016.

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A mark of the centennial at the fountain at Rosehill Reservoir.

From neighbourhood tree plantings to the international spectacle of Expo 67, Canada proudly celebrated its centennial. The stylized maple leaf logo graced everything from historical sites to reservoirs. Cities and towns applied for governments grants to spruce up parks, restore historical sites, and build attractions to last long after the centennial spirit faded.

Across Toronto, many legacies remain of, as Pierre Berton’s book on 1967 termed it, “the last good year.” There are the community centres and parks in the pre-amalgamation suburbs with “centennial” in their name. Celebratory murals lining school walls. Caribana and its successors celebrating Caribbean culture each year.

Many of these projects received funding from programs overseen by a federal commission, whose work sometimes felt like an Expo footnote. “They felt like poor cousins,” Centennial Commission PR director Peter Aykroyd (Dan’s father) observed. “Expo was so big, so appealing, so clearly headed for success that it discouraged those who were plodding away on the less focused, something-for-everyone program of the Commission.”

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North York Centennial Arena (later named in honour of Herb Carnegie), 1967. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 27, Item 7.

As is our habit, Toronto wanted spectacular major centennial projects. As is also our habit, they were mired in bureaucratic squabbles involving penny-pinching city councillors, politicians and pundits who swore delays embarrassed us in front of the rest of the country, and bad luck.

Discussions over marking the centennial began in earnest in September 1962 when the Toronto Planning Board proposed a $25 million cultural complex. With financial pruning, this evolved into a $9 million centennial program focused on the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, which included a repertory theatre, arts and culture facilities along Front Street, and a renovation of the decaying St. Lawrence Hall. Proponents also tossed in an expansion of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO) and refreshing Massey Hall. Mayor Phil Givens supported the project wholeheartedly—during his re-election campaign in 1964, he said “I have never been so sincerely convinced in my life that something is right.”

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Sketch of a proposed theatre inside the St. Lawrence Centre, Globe and Mail, March 20, 1965.

A key opponent was councillor/former mayor Allan Lamport, who believed the city couldn’t afford the project, and was only willing to support the St. Lawrence Hall rehab. “He is barren of ideas concerning what the city might put in its place,” a Globe and Mail editorial criticized. “It is this sort of negative approach which could find Toronto celebrating the nation’s birthday with nothing more impressive and enduring than a pageant in the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand.”

The fate of the St. Lawrence Centre see-sawed over the next few years, as council battled over the budget. When it was clear the project wouldn’t be remotely ready for 1967, the city switched its focus to St. Lawrence Hall. When the 1960s started, the site was split among several owners, and there was at least one proposal to replace it with an office building and parking deck. Under the leadership of a committee of local architects and construction officials, the restoration of the hall appeared to be on track as 1967 dawned.

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“Searching for bodies; city firemen comb through the rubble of the east wing of St. Lawrence Hall which collapsed yesterday while being restored as a Centennial project. No one was injured and no bodies were found. Credit for this is given foreman Jack McGowan who cleared the building and sent men to stop traffic only minutes before the four-storey section crumbled in a cloud of dust.” Photo by Dick Darrell, originally published in the March 11, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0000233f.

On March 10, 1967, the northeast portion of the building collapsed. The press offered unanimous support to keep the project going, such as the following Star editorial:

The restoration of the old St. Lawrence Hall was one centennial project upon which everyone in Toronto was happily united. Today, when a section of the building lies in rubble, we can be sure the determination that it will live in its former glory is stronger than ever…it wasn’t until the report of the collapse that most of us realized how much the restoration of the historic old hall was coming to mean in this centennial year, troubled with apathy and dispute over other projects…Our appetite for history has been whetted and we need the completion of the St. Lawrence Hall to satisfy it. So light the torches and beat the drums, we’ve got a building to raise.

While the restoration endured further delays from a series of city-wide construction strikes (which prompted the city to sneak in concrete via the back entrance), the refurbished St. Lawrence Hall celebrated its rebirth when Governor-General Roland Michener officially re-opened it during a December 28, 1967 gala.

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Globe and Mail, April 28, 1965.

The St. Lawrence Centre finally opened in February 1970, several months after another delayed centennial project. When the province announced a science museum in 1964, it chose 180 acres of parkland at Don Mills and Eglinton. The city opposed the suburban location, preferring the CNE grounds, where Givens felt there were better connections to highways and transit. Unless the province provided compelling reasons regarding the CNE’s unsuitability, he threatened to hold up the transfer of the Don Valley site. The province wasn’t moved. Initially known as the Centennial Centre of Science and Technology, the project suffered numerous construction delays and bureaucratic bickering before opening as the Ontario Science Centre in September 1969.

Other local centennial projects had smoother rides, even if they occasionally ruffled egos. Leaside was the first to complete theirs, a community centre in Trace Manes Park which opened in September 1966, mere months before the town was absorbed into East York. The latter unveiled their major project, the restoration of Todmorden Mills, in May 1967. Mayor True Davidson scornfully called Leaside’s project “a change house for tennis players,” while touting Todmorden as “one of the most ambitious projects in Metro.”

The work on St. Lawrence Hall and Todmorden Mills demonstrated what Pierre Berton later called the true legacy of the centennial: recognizing the value of local heritage.

In 1967, the idea of preserving something of the past by restoring old buildings and preserving historic landscapes was a novel one at a time when local governments were still applauded for bulldozing entire neighbourhoods in the name of “urban renewal.” The Centennial marked the beginning of the end of that philosophy. “Heritage” had come into its own when Victorian mansions that had once seemed grotesquely ugly began to be viewed as monuments to a gilded age. Old railway stations, banks, even 1930s gas stations would be seen as living history lessons.

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Globe and Mail, May 20, 1967.

So far, the upcoming Canada 150 celebrations show little of the fervour associated with the centennial. An August 2014 city report recognized that the influx of legacy projects associated with the Pan/Parapan Am Games made it unlikely there would be similar scale construction to mark the country’s 150th birthday next year. A more recent report promotes marking the occasion through cultural festivals and community heritage programs. Unless an enduring celebration like Caribana/Caribbean Carnival emerges, it’s likely the reminders of 1967 will outlast those of 2017.

Additional material from 1967: The Last Good Year by Pierre Berton (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1997); The Best Place To Be: Expo 67 and Its Time by John Lownsbrough (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2012); St. Lawrence Hall (Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1969); the December 27, 1963, September 2, 1964, June 17, 1965, and May 23, 1967 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the March 11, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star.

Shaping Toronto: Chinatowns

Originally published on Torontoist on February 4, 2016.

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Marking the end of the Second World War in Chinatown, August 12, 1945 (two days before the official declaration was signed). City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 98337.

A glance at the listing for Adelaide Street East in the 1878 city directory shows a mix of Anglo-sounding businessmen whose trades range from contracting to insurance. The name at number 9 stands out: Sam Ching & Co, Chinese laundry. Mr. Ching’s presence was a cultural milestone, as he was the first recorded Chinese resident of Toronto.

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Page from the 1878 city directory listing Sam Ching’s business at 9 Adelaide Street East.

Since Ching’s era, Toronto has included several Chinatowns, a term which has evolved from its original negative connotation. As Library and Archives Canada observes, “’Chinatown’ was coined in the 19th century as a European concept to signify an undesirable neighbourhood full of vice, and peopled by an inferior race.” That proper Torontonians of the early 20th century viewed the city’s small Chinese population—just over 1,000 in 1910—as lesser beings puts it mildly.

Both the respectable and gutter press hyped up the “yellow peril,” editorializing on how the eastern mindset was alien to western concepts of democracy and good citizenship, and how the Chinese would corrupt morals via gambling and opium. Efforts to curb their presence in the laundry and restaurant trades ranged from licensing fees to unsuccessful attempts by City Council to deny business licenses. Paranoia led to provincial legislation preventing Chinese-owned businesses from hiring white women, lest they be sold into white slavery. The Rosedale Ratepayers Association wanted to keep Chinese laundries out of their neighbourhood, adding them to the long list of things people don’t want in Rosedale.

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100-110 Elizabeth Street, April 8, 1937. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 178.

While there had been small clusters of Chinese along Queen Street (one at George, another at York), by the end of the First World War a stable community established itself in The Ward, the neighbourhood west of Old City Hall which, despite its great poverty, had welcomed numerous immigrant communities. Elizabeth Street between Queen and Dundas served as this Chinatown’s spine, lined with businesses, restaurants, and societies. It mostly served single men, thanks to a series of harsh immigration measures preventing families from joining them. These laws escalated from head taxes to the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which all but banned entry to Canada for two decades.

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56-48 Elizabeth Street, April 8, 1937. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 171.

Over that time, the “almond-eyed Celestials,” as the Globe dubbed Chinese residents during the early 1920s, endured frequent police raids on gambling houses, a riot, and periodic rumours of imminent tong wars. If anything, the gambling dens offered lonely people social space, work, and shelter during hard times. Viewed as a threat to the existing social order, the Chinese found Chinatown a refuge they felt accepted in.

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Globe and Mail, October 14, 1948.

Major changes came after the Second World War. The end of the Chinese Immigration Act led to a slow reunion of families. Provincial liquor law reforms allowing cocktail bars provoked a restaurant boom in Chinatown. Locals and tourists dined at Kwong ChowLichee GardenNanking TavernSai Woo, and other eateries which benefitted from both the new booze rules and increasing interest in Chinese-Canadian cuisine.

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Globe and Mail, June 17, 1969.

There were also new threats. The City acquired properties at the southern end of Chinatown to build the current City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. By 1967, the city’s development commissioner recommended that the remaining buildings be replaced by municipal structures. Lead by the likes of Kwong Chow owner and community activist Jean Lumb, the Save Chinatown committee fought to preserve what was left. Lumb presented her arguments to the Star:

One reason why we feel there should always be a Chinatown in a city the size of Toronto is simply that there has been one, and to have it lost would be strongly felt. Its existence has its effects on people, especially as long as there are new Chinese immigrants coming every year. We should have a spot for them to start from, a place where they can be among their own people, hear their own language spoken. The Chinese people are quiet and reserved; it takes them longer than many other immigrants to make friends, to get used to new ways.

Some people say a Chinatown encourages ghettos and this is a reason why it shouldn’t be, but that’s not so. It just gives the people a sense of belonging. It’s a nice environment for them until they’re ready to go on their way more and fit into the Canadian community.

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Toronto Star, August 28, 1971.

After a series of deputations in 1969, City Council decided to keep what was now known as Old Chinatown. Efforts to keep the neighbourhood alive during the 1970s included Dragon Mall (a pedestrianized Elizabeth Street, à la the Yonge Street Mall) and earning recognition as a tourist destination. Over time, large scale development projects crept in and the remaining Chinese businesses closed. By the 21st century little remained beyond historical plaques marking where the neighbourhood had been.

Meanwhile, the gradual loosening of immigration rules during the 1960s prompted an influx of arrivals, especially from Hong Kong. As the old Chinatown shrank, a new one grew to the west along Dundas and Spadina, replacing the Jewish community which was moving north. By the late 1970s this area was recognized as downtown’s primary Chinatown, marked with cultural motifs and Chinese-language street signs.

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Corner of Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East, sometime between 1975 and 1988. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 383, Item 1.

For those who found Spadina too pricey or touristy, there was Chinatown East, which emerged at Broadview and Gerrard. Starting with the opening of Charlie’s Meat in 1971, the neighbourhood’s affordability attracted businesses which served an increasing number of migrants from mainland China and Vietnam.

By the mid-1980s, new Chinatowns developed in the suburbs. The influx of new businesses and residents revealed that fears of the “yellow peril” were far from dead. Agincourt became a flashpoint in 1984, as a wave of immigrants from Hong Kong (on the move as the end of the British lease on the colony in 1997 loomed) arrived. Some longtime residents were alarmed by the new faces around them. “I don’t want to be biased or prejudiced but I don’t think they should be allowed to come into a neighbourhood and take over with such force,” 30-year resident Mildred Jackson told the Star. A heated community meeting ostensibly about parking issues related to the recently-opened Dragon Centre and two other plazas at Sheppard Avenue and Glen Watford Drive degenerated into jeers and racist remarks. The tone may have been set by the meeting’s chair, who referred to the “rape of our community” and that “we should not actively encourage any group to cling together as an enclave” (he later wrote the Star to protest that his remarks were taken out of context). Flyers distributed to homes asked for tougher immigration policies, alleging links between new arrivals and crimes across the Pacific.

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Dragon Centre, Agincourt, February 2016.

Backlash against emerging Chinese business and commercial areas continued over the next decade as new enclaves emerged in Markham and Richmond Hill. But Agincourt also pointed the way to the nature of later areas, from large restaurants to Asian-themed shopping centres like Pacific Mall.

In a book profiling Canadian Chinatowns, Paul Yee summarized how the role of these neighbourhoods changed from a necessary presence to ensure the community’s safety to being woven into the urban fabric.

Some Chinese saw old Chinatowns as living monuments to a turbulent history and to the fragility of equality. Others saw them as sites where Chinese culture was preserved and shared. Both these views supported the building of cultural facilities there. In a sense, old and new Chinatowns bridged the historical divide between Chinese Canadians, because more and more people appreciated Chinatowns’ different functions and freely visited them.

Additional material from The Chinese in Toronto From 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle by Arlene Chan (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011); Chinatown by Paul Yee (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2005); the July 6, 1922 edition of the Globe; and the March 8, 1969, May 14 1984, and May 29, 1984 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Globe, October 11, 1907.

The fear of the “yellow peril” in action – one of the more jaw-dropping (from a modern perspective) editorials regarding the place of Chinese in Canadian society during the early 20th century.

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The Globe, July 6, 1922.

A profile of Chinatown, which tosses off a “gee, aren’t they cute?” vibe.

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Chinese victory celebrations, parade on Elizabeth Street, August 26, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 98604.

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Toronto Star, March 8, 1969. Click on image for larger version.

The article from which Jean Lumb’s defense of maintaining a Chinatown was quoted from.

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Toronto Star, August 27, 1971. Click on image for larger version.

An early 1970s look at Old Chinatown, which discusses some of the remaining businesses, the Dragon Mall pedestrian zone, and several recipes inspired by local grocers.

gm 1975-06-27 new chinatown changing spadina

Globe and Mail, June 27, 1975.

One of the first major projects as Spadina became the heart of downtown’s Chinatown was China Court, which opened in August 1976. Within a decade, it was razed for the cold concrete of Chinatown Centre.

gm 1975-08-02 yen pin palace

Globe and Mail, August 2, 1976. Click on image for larger version.

The building at 346 Spadina Avenue has gone through numerous incarnations, from the Labor Lyceum, to a series of Asian restaurants beginning with Yen Pin Place.

star 1984-05-29 protest over parking in agincourt

Toronto Star, May 29, 1984.

star 1984-06-01 letters to editor on agincourt

Toronto Star, June 1, 1984.

The Star’s coverage of a testy meeting in Agincourt, and reaction from readers. The paper also published an editorial criticizing attendees for their remarks, observing that the parking issue was one Scarborough’s city council was attempting to fix.

star 1984-06-16 agincourt letter

Toronto Star, June 16, 1984.

A few weeks later, meeting chairman Dr. Douglas Hood defended his actions, claiming that coverage was a smear job which took several remarks out of context. Having covered community meetings over the years where the yahoos came out in full force, and reading about similar meetings in the 905 belt a decade later, I’m tempted to lean toward the paper’s interpretation of events.