Four City Museums to Close?

Originally published on Torontoist on November 14, 2011.


Councillor Joe Mihevc, interpreters, and community forming a chain around Montgomery’s Inn.

“Our heritage is not for sale. Our heritage is not for closure. Our heritage is not for contracting out and it is not for dismantling piece by piece.”

With these words Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) greeted a crowd of around 200 concerned citizens outside Montgomery’s Inn in Etobicoke yesterday afternoon. The historic site is among the four City-operated museums rumoured to be on the chopping block when the city budget comes out on November 28. Besides Montgomery’s Inn, the other heritage properties that account for $1 million in cuts are Gibson House, Market Gallery, and the Zion Schoolhouse.

Mihevc organized the Sunday press conference to mobilize public support for the museums. A petition is already online, and the audience was told that they should chat about the affected sites via social media. He announced a plan to request that the city museums division conduct a review to find ways to increase revenue. Mihevc believes that both the community and council need to act as “good stewards” of the city’s historic properties, many of which survived through decades of committed volunteer engagement that could be disrespected and forgotten.


Michael Redhill speaking at Montgomery’s Inn. 

Among the speakers was writer Michael Redhill, who compared the effect of closing museums to a dementia patient’s loss of memory. “Only a form of dementia would make the loss of the city’s history a fair value for a million dollars. Is your soul worth a mere million? Apparently Toronto’s is.” Redhill proceeded with a thoughtful critique of the Ford administration’s valuing of cost-cutting over the more enduring, if intangible, benefits of preserving heritage sites in which citizens can take pride:

The current municipal government has shown that it is willing to do anything in the name of money, no matter the cost to the city’s soul. The closure of four museums that are also heritage sites is an indication of soul sickness at the municipal level. This inn has stood on this very spot for 180 years while this city council will be gone in three. Torontonians should stand united against short-term fixes that will do permanent damage. These coming budget cuts will effectively ensure the disappearance of four important historical sites, and I think we have to recognize that. They’re not just closing the museum and getting rid of the workers; there will never be the political will to reopen these places once they are closed… Without a history to draw on, citizens will eventually think that there is no city to honour or preserve and that the needs of the present are the only ones that matter. We know what happens to people when they are convinced that their own needs are the only ones that matter. Do we want to live in a city that thinks that way?

Following a series of speakers connected to the affected museums, the audience was asked to form a human chain around Montgomery’s Inn.

Some of Mihevc’s fellow councillors went on Twitter yesterday to refute his claims regarding closures. Executive committee member Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), who proposed in September’s council budget sessions that alternative service models for city museums be examined, stated that “museums are not being sold and will hopefully never be closed. Staff can make budget cut recommendations but Council has final say.” She was backed up by Gary Crawford(Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest), who noted, “We should not allow political grandstanding to take us off course.”

When we spoke to Mihevc about these comments earlier today, he noted that he had talked to Robinson and, based on that conversation and further checks with his sources, he is “absolutely right” about the proposed closures. (Robinson did not respond to our request for an interview before publication time.) He mentioned the parallel example of a council vote in September that prevented the elimination of community environment days, which the budget committee appeared to ignore when it proposed last week to reduce the number from 44 to 11. “So it seems the mayor is not paying any heed whatsoever to any of those motions,” says Mihevc.

Whether million-dollar or nickel-and-dime cuts are to be made to Toronto’s museums, intimations made over the past few months that there will be closures are stirring people to defend the value of these institutions. As Redhill mentioned, it’s difficult to imagine these sites will ever reopen if the doors are locked, at least not without extraordinary effort.


The following disclaimer was added shortly after the piece was published:

Shortly after publication, and after emerging from a meeting she’d been in, Councillor Robinson did indeed call us back. She insists that museum closures are not on the budget cut list, and feels that the combination of a front-page article in the Star on Saturday and Mihevc’s statements are needlessly stirring up fear within the heritage community. “I’m not sure why this has resurfaced because council was very clear in its direction to staff to say that this was not a direction we want to go in,” she told us. “Council is willing to look at alternate service delivery models and alternate funding models but we want to keep our museums open.” Robinson, who calls herself “a museum nut,” finds the prospect of closing any heritage site “as bad as closing a library, if not worse.”

For all the negative coverage of potential closures to city heritage museums, Councillor Robinson perceives some positives coming out of this incident. She referred to the fallout from Doug Ford’s dreams of Ferris wheels and monorails: “The silver lining on the waterfront was people started talking about it and it reinvigorated that piece of the city and got some attention focused back on it. There’s always a silver lining.”

Let’s just say that Robinson was furious when she phoned back, as I received an earful about professionalism and such. This incident illustrated the pitfalls of turning around stories in a hurry in order to be first/close to first online.

It was a learning curve.

The press conference itself was a little weird, especially the human chain element. My cynicism about events such as this grew over time (even if my sentiment was with the speakers), as did my pessimistic view of politics in general. None of the museums rumoured to be on the chopping block closed permanently.


Vintage Toronto Ads: Auntie Nuke Needs You

Originally published on Torontoist on November 8, 2011.


Harrowsmith, April 1980.

Dear old Auntie Nuke would have been busy in 1980. Public concern about the nuclear industry was heightened by the accident at Three Mile Island a year earlier. This, we suspect, would in turn have increased support for Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear groups campaigning against Ontario Hydro’s plan to build four reactors near Bowmanville. As the protest date approached, Auntie Nuke spent several hours a day carefully reading the large volume of mail she received, and responded to each letter regardless of whether the writer supported her position or not.

So what happened if you showed up at Darlington to help Auntie Nuke?

For the more than 100 people who attended the demonstration, the reward was a $13 fine for petty trespass.

Initially, the protest was as peaceful as promised. Around 800 people showed up that afternoon, half as many as were at a similar demonstration a year earlier. Depending on the source, the crowd was either mostly in their late teens and early twenties (Star) or late twenties and early thirties (Globe and Mail). Amid T-shirts and placards bearing slogans like “Hell No I Won’t Glow” and “Cycle Power,” the Star observed that “the happy crowd danced and clapped to bluegrass music or sprawled on the grass listening to speakers denounce Ontario Hydro and call for a halt to construction of what they called a ‘white elephant.’” To make the protestors comfortable, Ontario Hydro cut the foot-high grass surrounding the site and provided garbage bins and portable toilets.

Halfway through the demonstration, a group of protestors tossed blankets and rugs over the barbed wire atop the eight-foot fence surrounding the construction site. Ladders cobbled together from rope and wood allowed people to scale the fence. Around 60 people headed to the edge of the excavation area and attempted to set up an Occupy-style tent city, complete with tree and vegetable planting. And then Ontario Hydro employees whipped out their cameras and waited for the Durham Regional Police to show up.

The occupation lasted half an hour before the campers and the dozen media that followed them were dragged away. Among those arrested were members of a Greenpeace flotilla, who breached the site via Lake Ontario. Auntie Nuke failed to provide them with sturdy ships, as their inflatable rubber boats developed tears or were equipped with defective motors. As she sat in the paddy wagon, Auntie Nuke scribbled a note to herself to find a better supplier for the next protest.

Additional material from the June 9, 1980, edition of the Globe and Mail and the June 8, 1980 edition of the Toronto Star.


Vintage Toronto Ads: Fothergill’s Follies

Originally published on Torontoist on November 1, 2011.


Colonial Advocate, February 16, 1826.

It’s rare to see an advertisement accompanied by a large image in an early-19th-century newspaper. Ads of the era were usually a narrow column of text that occasionally featured a small illustration—pages from this period resemble a modern classified section more than a collection of eye-grabbing enticements to buy merchandise, return lost horses, or read government bulletins. But the person whose home was up for grabs in today’s ad was embroiled in a controversy at the time that merited an unusual notice.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography’s entry on Charles Fothergill is blunt about his professional shortcomings:

Fothergill’s career was an unbroken sequence of failures that were largely of his own making. He was well read in both general and scholarly literature but vitiated his promise by espousing projects far beyond his financial, if not his intellectual, means. He bemoaned his lack of patronage in Britain, and in Upper Canada he found it galling to be denied preferment by a clique of officials whom he thought beneath him in both breeding and education. In neither country, though, did he adopt any rational plan to achieve by his own efforts the wealth and leisure he needed for his scholarly projects, and in Upper Canada he squandered his one bite at the cherry of public patronage. His self-destructive risk-taking is probably traceable to an obsessional neurosis akin to that of the compulsive gambler.

Born in England in 1782, Fothergill gained an early reputation as a naturalist and might have led a more successful life had he devoted himself entirely to ornithology. Instead, he immigrated to Upper Canada in 1817 and soon piled up debts via businesses he operated in Peterborough and Port Hope. Fothergill moved to Toronto (then called York) to assume the job of King’s printer in January 1822.

Elected to the colonial assembly to represent Durham County in 1824, Fothergill caused endless grief to Lieutenant-Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland in both his elected and his patronage positions. Originally a loyal Tory supporter of the government, he gradually fell into a leading opposition role and voted with the Reformers in the assembly. By January 1826, Maitland had had enough of both Fothergill’s attacks on government policy and his inefficient, debt-piling operation of the official print. Though fellow Reformer William Lyon Mackenzie was not a personal fan of Fothergill’s, he defended his colleague’s work in improving the quality of the official newspaper, the Upper Canada Gazette. A week after Fothergill got the boot, Mackenzie wrote in the Colonial Advocate that he lost his position due to “his open, candid and independent conduct in the assembly.” Mackenzie saw the dismissal as a warning to other assembly members that “if they exercise the faculty of thinking and speaking, they must succumb to the opinions of the powers that be, or lose their bread.”

At a public meeting on January 24, 1826, prominent Reformers voted to raise funds to financially support Fothergill during this rocky period. We suspect they also decided to help Fothergill sell his home—note Mackenzie’s role in the ad. Fothergill returned to Port Hope, where he once again demonstrated his lack of business acumen. He also gradually alienated his Reformer colleagues in the assembly as his conservative impulses reawakened. He launched an anti-government newspaper, the Palladium, two weeks after the rebellion of 1837, but, as Early Toronto Newspapers 1793-1867 notes, “The paper died a natural death from its publisher’s lack of business sense in 1839.” The final insult came a month after he died penniless in 1840: personal papers and materials he long planned to incorporate into a “Lyceum of Natural History and Fine Arts” went up in flames.

Additional material from the January 12, 1826, and January 26, 1826 editions of the Colonial Advocate.


Projecting Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on October 27, 2011.


One of the great misconceptions about Toronto is that its past is boring. The city has seen its fair share of rebellions, grand celebrations, tragedies, ambitious plans, and unrealized dreams that in various ways intersect with our present. Teaching Toronto’s citizens about how the past and present connect is one of the goals of The Toronto Project, a new website that hopes, in the words of its introductory essay, to “explain who we are, and what we will become, by telling the stories of who we have already been.”

For years, community leaders and civic officials have envisioned a museum showcasing Toronto’s history. During David Miller’s administration there was a push to build one, known at different times as Humanitas or the Toronto Museum Project, in the old Canada Malting silos at the foot of Bathurst Street. The recession ended those plans, which evolved into a website that vows to weave “100 artifacts, 100 Torontonians, 100 stories, 100 exhibit ideas.” The Toronto Project organizers don’t see their effort as in competition with the Toronto Museum Project or other local heritage interests; organizers of The Toronto Project are reaching out to institutions and historical associations via public meetings. As the project’s executive director, veteran journalist David Macfarlane told us by email, “because we insist that we are in competition with nobody and link to everything, any territorial resistance quickly disappears.” Sponsors listed on the site, from cultural institutions like the AGO to legal firms, are providing editorial and financial assistance.

The idea for The Toronto Project grew out of conversations between Macfarlane and former Toronto mayor David Crombie. Macfarlane had just written the text for a coffee table book about the city’s past, while Crombie, who serves as the project’s chair, had long advocated a museum. Both concluded that the flexibility of the online world would allow them to, in Macfarlane’s words, “approach history in a more dynamic, interactive way.” During an interview with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning last week, Macfarlane indicated that he sees the Toronto Project site as an ideal gateway into Toronto’s history for schools and for those who aren’t normally drawn to discovering the city’s heritage.

With the assistance of the Toronto Star, the site’s current focus is collecting stories from Toronto’s diverse communities to build an interactive encyclopedia. “These are, in the main, stories of immigration and settlement,” says Macfarlane, “but by no means exclusively so.” We hope that the remembrances collected will include stories of the warts-and-all variety, which make history livelier and more relatable to contemporary day-to-day struggles than what Toronto Life once referred to as the “People Living in Harmony” school of museums.

Also underway is work on an exhibit highlighting Toronto’s waterfront. That public policy makers sometimes pay dangerously little attention to the area’s historical evolution was painfully evident when the Ford brothers unveiled their derided Ferris wheel and monorail proposals during the summer. The educational value of the Toronto Project’s efforts to contextualize areas of the city, like the waterfront, which have a long history of both good and bad development proposals, could be useful in urging public dialogue that may make voters think about what their elected representatives are really up to.

But will these kinds of discussions ever take place at a physical city museum? When asked where he might envision one being operated, Macfarlane says that “I’ve been spending so much time imagining the city as a museum of itself, it’s actually really hard for me to imagine any single location as a physical museum. That said, I hope there will be one.”


Little more emerged from The Toronto Project. The website no longer exists, though there is another site with the same name which apparently launched in 2005. The last time I heard about it was during the press conference for the Toronto Public Library’s acquisition of the Toronto Star’s photo archive.

A video remains on the project’s YouTube page, along with a few notes on Macfarlane’s website. At this point in time, it’s safe to file this one under failed “celebrate Toronto’s history” attempts.

The idea of some form of city museum carried on. I attended a workshop in 2014 for a “Museum of Toronto” which David Crombie was involved in – a post on Active History sums up how that session went. A year later, Myseum emerged, which has programmed many events and exhibitions under its decentralized model (Disclaimer: I’ve been involved in a few of them).

A city staff report released in January 2018 recommended using Old City Hall as a museum site after municipal and provincial courts move out in 2021. On February 1, council voted 35-3 to go ahead with planning. Not surprisingly, the loudest complaint came from a councillor whose family has long been intrenched in the never-thinks-of-wider-public-good/knows-the-cost-of-everything-and-value-of-nothing politics that always seems to entice voters from Etobicoke (a topic I’ll probably rage…erm…provide a thoughtful, well-considered approach to someday).

Recommended reading: for Spacing, John Lorinc suggests how a thoughtful approach would benefit creating the museum.

Vintage Toronto Ads: No Tricks—Just Treats

Originally published on Torontoist on October 25, 2011.


Toronto Sun, October 26, 1980.

Ghouls definitely aren’t fools when it comes to style or a bargain. Never mind if the garments from a purveyor of affordable clothing for teenagers might not be top of the line—if you’re dressing as a zombie, tears to clothing resulting from their first visit to a laundry machine only add to the illusion.

As for how campy a cowboy hat could be, keep in mind that today’s ad appeared in the wake of the box office smash Urban Cowboy. It’s likely Stitches was appealing to John Travolta wannabes who planned to spend their Halloween riding a mechanical bull or engaging in other forms of western-themed horseplay.

We sympathize with the guy on the right, who spent months mastering the art of sticking his tongue out like Gene Simmons only to discover every Kiss costume in the city was sold out. He couldn’t even find a Kiss Your Face Makeup Kit that would provide proper instructions on how to look like his musical idols.

Toronto’s First Glimpses of Gadhafi

Originally published on Torontoist on October 21, 2011.


Globe and Mail, September 2, 1969.

As the world witnessed via video yesterday, the life of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi came to a brutal, bloody end. The graphic manner in which his 42-year regime met its demise was a 180-degree turn from its beginning via the bloodless overthrow of an elderly monarch. But don’t go looking for immediate coverage of Gadhafi in the archives of Toronto’s newspapers following the Revolutionary Command Council’s speedy takeover of the Libyan government on September 1, 1969: nearly three weeks passed before his name appeared in print.

On its September 2, 1969, front page, the Globe and Mail provided a sober account of the coup that ousted King Idris, who had ruled Libya since the country gained its independence in 1951. Libya was seen as one of the most stable, friendly nations in the Middle East, having welcomed foreign investment following the discovery of oil there in the late 1950s. Idris was receiving treatment in Turkey for rheumatism when the coup occurred. Though he vowed to come back (but never did), his heir went on national radio to abdicate any claims to the throne as a Libyan Arab Republic was declared. There was a sense of relief in the Globe’s coverage that the coup was a clean one, given that experts believed any transition from Idris’s government would be bloody. The paper suspected that, contrary to the free hand Idris gave powers like the United States in establishing military bases, “if the new rulers pursue a radical course, Libya’s great oil wealth will enable them to finance anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism easily.”

In front page stories in the city’s other papers, though, the day’s action ramped up. Though it bore a passive headline (“West’s oil safe—Libya junta”), the Telegram reported that brief bursts of gunfire were heard in Tripoli and, in the face of some resistance within the army, the RCC urged pro-coup officers to seize helicopters. The Star added in touches of intrigue, positioning the coup amid the backdrop of a squabble between Israel and Syria over a hijacked plane and Idris’s salting away of $20 million in Turkish hotel safes.

Differing opinions on the situation appeared in the city’s editorial pages on September 3. The Telegram portrayed Idris as having been the most enlightened monarch in Africa due to his use of oil royalties for public infrastructure and hoped that if the new regime’s socialistic goals were honest, “they can only continue the old king’s program. Libya’s future as a progressive Islamic state depends on their wisdom as rulers.” The Star had fainter praise for the deposed king, depicting him as a once-able ruler who grew too infirm to cope with new social problems. Portraying the coup alongside consolidation of military power in Brazil and South Vietnam that week, the Star pessimistically noted that “democratic, constitutional government is still a dream of the future in Libya.”

Looking for mentions of Gadhafi by this point? Keep waiting, as apart from a handful of public spokesmen, members of the RCC preferred anonymity. One leader, Colonel Saad Bushweirib, denied that he headed the coup, noting that “the real boss wishes to remain nameless, like all officers.” In a September 5 article, the Star speculated that the leadership preferred a cloak of mystery to avoid enraging residents in the eastern region of Cyrenaica (where Idris was raised) when they discovered that the RCC’s leadership was mostly from western Tripolitania. The paper feared such a revelation could lead to a civil war along the lines of the Biafran conflict in Nigeria. In the long run, Cyrenaica saw occasional anti-Gadhafi activity, which culminated when it became the early stronghold of this year’s Libyan rebellion.


Soon after the coup, this ad no longer applied to Libya, unless you smuggled in a bottle. The Globe and Mail, October 3, 1969.

Far more hopeful was the Star’s analysis of the new government on September 20: “The Libyan revolution, at age two weeks, looks like the coolest, neatest transformation in the Arab world since Gamal Abdel Nasser and his colonels kicked out King Farouk and his playmates.” Though the government favoured the Palestinian cause, readers were assured that Israelis could breathe slightly easier due to the regime’s refusal to be Egyptian president Nasser’s puppet and a promise to protect Jews within Libya. Business leaders were relieved that nominal Prime Minister Mahmud Al-Maghribi was not a raging Marxist—“No cabinet headed by a prime minister with a doctorate in petroleum law from George Washington University can be all bad.” In the paper’s eyes, an immediate doubling of the minimum wage to three dollars per day cast him in a good light. As a counterpoint, Idris was depicted as a feeble ruler who could be bribed all too easily.

Halfway through the article is the first mention we found in any Toronto newspaper of the RCC’s president of council, “Lt. Col. Moummar Ghedaffi,” a 27-year-old communications expert with a military history degree. As a Bedouin from the east, Gadhafi was seen as a balancing figure against the Tripolitanians. History proved that Gadhafi would not live up to the article’s famous last words: “The Libyan captains are not looking for an ideologue or a patriarch.”

By Christmas, things looked bad for outsiders in Libya as the regime asserted itself. Reports throughout December 1969 noted how Westerners dealt with soldiers entering hotels to destroy any items adorned with non-Arabic script. A prohibition against alcohol led to complaints that the strongest drink available was Coca-Cola. The regime promoted Arab unity over issues like Israel. Mentions of Gadhafi slowly grew, though throughout his reign nobody settled on a consistent Westernized spelling of his name. The Globe and Mail stuck by “Moammer Kazzafi,” while the Stareither couldn’t make up its mind or didn’t check wire copy too closely—on December 26 he was “Muammar Gaddafi,” the next day “Muammar Kadafi.”

However you spelled his name, Gadhafi proved within the next few years that any optimism Toronto’s newspapers had about a trustworthy or democratic government taking hold in Libya was unfounded. Little wonder their current editorial counterparts are cautious about what the future holds for the country.

Additional material from the following newspapers: the September 2, 1969, and December 25, 1969, editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 2, 1969, September 3, 1969, September 5, 1969, September 20, 1969, December 8, 1969, December 26, 1969, and December 27, 1969, editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 2, 1969, and September 3, 1969, editions of the Telegram.


Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 7

A Victory Shower

Originally published on Torontoist on August 23, 2011.

Vintage Ad #1,617: Victory Means a New Bathroom!

Mayfair, March 1944.

We suspect a shining new bathroom with a corner shower was not high on the daydream list for those on the battle lines in World War II—getting home in one piece might have been slightly higher. Still, executives at heating and plumbing equipment manufacturers could sit back and soak up war effort projects until the postwar consumer boom hit. Then they would find customers like this fellow, who was relieved to clean himself with more than just the canteen-sized doses of water he was forced to use in the field. A private shower to him would truly be a “fruit of freedom.”

After several mergers, Standard Sanitary dropped the icky part of its name and, as American Standard, continues to provide products to make anyone’s bathroom dreams come true.

Have You Tasted This Sensational Soup?

Originally published on Torontoist on October 11, 2011.


Was it the mounting effects of wartime rationing making this man so excited about Lipton’s Noodle Soup Mix, or the high sodium content of the broth? Comforting as a bowl of reconstituted dry soup mix can be, calling it “rich and natural” is a stretch. But to wartime consumers, the convenience, economy, and versatility were irresistible qualities.

While present-day Knorr Lipton soup no longer touts tasty chicken fat among its enticing attributes, two predictions came true: children enjoy the seemingly bottomless supply of noodles, and the pouches of dehydrated goodies have remained a standby in many Toronto homes for the past 70 years.

Miming Increased Productivity

Originally published on Torontoist on September 13, 2011.


Financial Post Magazine, March 1980.

Hinted at but not made explicit in today’s ad: besides promoting time-saving business forms, this advertisement for the Moore product-ivity kit inferred that word processing speeds would improve if staff donned white makeup and communicated solely through miming during working hours. While there was a risk that an interested firm would lose employees due to their inability to keep their mouths shut, allergic reactions to makeup, or fear of mimes, a manager thinking outside the box might have taken the risk. Less idle chit-chat equals profit!

Using a mime spokesman might not have been out of line for Moore Business Forms, given that founder Samuel J. Moore was the production manager for the satirical weekly Grip before entering the stationery field in 1882. You might have to mimic the outline of a building where the company’s former office was in Mount Dennis: Google Maps shows Goddard Avenue as a blocked-off road awaiting residential redevelopment.

Master the Art of Pleasing Each Other

Originally published on Torontoist on October 18, 2011.


Maclean’s, April 3, 1978.

After moving into the zigzagging towers of The Masters zipped into the Markland Wood neighbourhood, this couple spent more time together enjoying nightly swims, sipping fine wines despite the stares of the medieval citizens depicted on their wallpaper, practicing their golf swings, and spending quality time in the sauna. They also took advantage of the leisure facilities to further their individual interests: he spent hours in the darkroom developing photos of amateur models who succumbed to the charms of his red neck scarf, while she unwound in the pottery room by recreating in clay pleasant and disturbing visions from her dreams of what her lover was up to.