Mayoral Candidates Debate Toronto Heritage Preservation

Originally published on Torontoist on August 25, 2014.

Just three candidates participated in last Thursday’s mayoral debate on heritage preservation issues, and in a refreshing change of pace, the participants managed to find some common ground.

Originally, five candidates were scheduled to attend the debate, hosted by Heritage Toronto. But Mayor Rob Ford went to a campaign fundraiser at his mother’s house instead, and Karen Stintz dropped out of the mayoral race altogether. That left John Tory, Olivia Chow, and David Soknacki, which made for a more reasoned—and less noisy—debate. And apart from a pair of snipes delivered by Tory and Chow, the candidates made no references to the absent mayor.

All candidates recognized emerging aspects of heritage preservation, such as marking the architectural and cultural significance of suburban landmarks and neighbourhoods, and sharing stories about our aboriginal past and immigrant communities. Regarding natural heritage, Chow and Tory proposed rebuilding the city’s tree canopy, while Soknacki suggested looking into creating parks that integrated nature and our industrial heritage.

The candidates felt more could be done proactively to beef up heritage protections. Setting up heritage impact assessments in the permit process was discussed—currently, they are used to evaluate sites listed on the City’s inventory of heritage properties when alterations are proposed. Tory felt such an assessment process required efficient handling to avoid years of delays for preservationists and property owners. Soknacki believed existing channels such as community councils—where residents and councillors would work to determine heritage sites before development battles erupted—could be effective. Chow proposed an increase in heritage conservation districts and developer incentives.

Opinions diverged most over the future of the Ontario Municipal Board. Chow said she’d like to scrap the OMB, but promised reforms—such as incorporating heritage impact assessments into developer applications—as long as the City remains stuck with it. She also proposed creating a local appeal body operated by the City to handle low-level disputes, which would lessen the OMB’s overall workload. Soknacki took issue with the question, noting that all three main provincial parties support the OMB’s continued existence—any talk of dismantling it, he argued, is a waste of time. He also said the establishment of a local appeal body would be a “perverse example” of downloading a provincial responsibility and passing on costs to taxpayers. Tory supported strengthening the development permit system, but feared that placing all appeals in the hands of politicians would create an equally unsatisfactory situation. He believed a local appeals body working with the committee for adjustment might convince Queen’s Park that the City is responsible enough to make sensible decisions.

Both Chow and Tory supported the concept of a Toronto museum. Chow believed it was important to teach visitors about the city’s diversity, and that such a project could be launched initially as an interactive virtual museum. She felt that stories should be gathered now before our elders pass away. Chow stated that such a project would need a “can-do” spirit—Tory indicated he had the will long lacking in past leaders to make a museum a reality: he wants to “get on with it.” He feels that residents have an inadequate grasp of the city’s past, and noted that past proposals have generated lots of talk but no action (here is a current proposal). He suggested that partnerships with the private sector were required, bringing up the construction of the TIFF Bell Lightbox as an example. Chow later elaborated on that point, noting that, depending on the site, a combination of Section 37 funds [PDF] and agreements with developers could be effective. Soknacki was unwilling to spend money on a museum unless it was deemed a priority—it was clear that in this regard, he supported the grand Toronto tradition of saving the museum for another day. Later on, he noted that resources such as bookmobile-style vehicles could be used in place of a physical museum.

Soknacki also questioned funding for an archaeological repository proposed under amendments to the City’s official plan. Currently, archaeological artifacts and records are held in trust by individual archaeologists—a repository would allow the City to take possession of the finds and provide safe storage for future exhibition and research. He suggested that the Royal Ontario Museum or local universities could hold onto items until a public space had been established. Tory wasn’t opposed to the proposal but didn’t view it as a priority, while Chow believed a repository would ensure a consistent approach to the collection of artifacts.

Pop-Up Goes the Museum

Originally published on Torontoist on August 29, 2014.


Advertising Card for Massey-Harris Co. Ltd, Head Office Toronto, Canada, 1895. Image courtesy of Heritage Toronto.

The term “pop-up” conjures images of hip retailers and restaurants occupying temporary storefronts. But the concept is spreading to other fields, too. Among those jumping on the bandwagon is Toronto Museum Services, which is involved in two kinds of pop-up program.

The first, a collaborative effort between Museum Services and Heritage Toronto, will open Saturday in conjunction with the unveiling of a historical plaque commemorating the Massey-Harris plant that once stood at King Street West and Strachan Avenue. The pop-up will feature ephemera related to the plant, which was the largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment in the British Empire.

For Heritage Toronto plaques and markers co-ordinator Kaitlin Wainwright, display items such as anniversary pins and colour advertising cards show what it was like to work for Massey-Harris years ago. “We can learn about a company not only from what it did in the past, but how it remembers and celebrates itself,” she says. “Given that the presentation is taking place where much of the facility stood, it makes sense to bring artifacts to a place where there is a geographical connection.”

The display may prompt visitors with connections to Massey-Harris to share their personal stories. The potential for that kind of public participation and knowledge sharing is the driving force behind the second kind of pop-up program in which Museum Services is involved, which offers visitors the opportunity to display artifacts of their own. As Museum Services defines it, a pop-up museum is “a temporary exhibit created by the people who show up to participate. It works by choosing a theme and location, and inviting people to bring something on the topic to share.” Cities across Europe and the United States have already taken to this concept—the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has posted a video that explains how it works. Interactive events, often held in public spaces, allow institutions to bring out items long unseen by the public. Ilena Aldini-Messina, supervisor of program design and development for Museum Services, says pop-ups foster public engagement with local history and “make it a participatory experience rather than doing an exhibit from a curator’s perspective.”

A pilot pop-up, “Toronto Treasures,” ran at the Market Gallery on June 6. Alongside displays of City-owned artifacts such as subway-related buttons, 15 people set up tables to share their own treasures. Show-and-tell items ranged from decades’-worth of local baseball memorabilia to a jar of marmalade made in Toronto that shaped one woman’s view of the city as an industrial powerhouse during her childhood in Alberta. The experience was educational for the displayers and visitors: a man who brought a scrapbook commemorating a 1978 Blue Jays game where singer Ruth Ann Wallace was booed for singing “O Canada” in French learned that Wallace later married Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley.

For the upcoming holiday season, there are plans for a toy-centric pop-up. Though a location hasn’t been confirmed, Spadina Museum seems a likely choice, as it houses a large collection of toys. Beyond that, ideas include marking Valentine’s Day and other occasions ripe with objects and stories to share.

Heritage Toronto Leads a Historical Bike Tour of the Huron-Wendat Trail

Originally published on Torontoist on June 18, 2013.


Riding a bicycle along the Finch Corridor path near Jane Street and Finch Avenue takes you past plenty of grassy fields and hydro towers. The serene surroundings make it hard to imagine that over 500 years ago the area already had its present-day population density.


The path runs through the Parsons Site, a former Huron-Wendat village that is now considered one of the city’s major pre-European archaeological discoveries. On June 15, Heritage Toronto staged a historical bike tour through the area.

The ride, Heritage Toronto’s second bike tour this year, was run in collaboration with Community Bicycle Network (CBN). Those who couldn’t drag their bikes out to North York were accommodated with Bixi bicycles.


The ride followed an unveiling ceremony for some new trail plaques. City Councillor Anthony Perruzza (Ward 8, York West) read a proclamation from Mayor Rob Ford declaring June 15 Huron-Wendat Day. Speakers included descendants of the Parsons Site community, who currently reside on the Huron-Wendat reserve in Wendake, Quebec. Starting in 2010, the band consulted with the City on the trail’s creation.


Riders pedalled back and forth along the trail from Jane Street to Sentinel Road. At each stop, archaeologist Ron Williamson discussed different aspects of the significance of the site, which was the largest of four major Huron villages between the Humber and Rouge Rivers. He addressed why the trail honours the Huron-Wendat, when most people associate Toronto’s aboriginal past with other tribes. The answer: the Huron-Wendat (also known as Wyandot) remained in the area until they were displaced in the mid-17th century because of a combination of epidemics of European diseases and war with Iroquois tribes, who were subsequently pushed out by the Ojibwa. Williamson discussed the importance of maize to the Huron diet—it made up half their daily food intake—and how trading maize and other items changed their language from an Algonquian tongue to Iroquoian long before they were physically displaced.

Williamson also discussed how the Parsons Site has been excavated and protected over the years since the University of Toronto first dug there in 1952. Just under the grassy surface sit palisades and the remains of at least 10 longhouses. The last major dig in 1989 was prompted by a watermain project.


Members of the CBN marshalled the ride. Among them was Thomas Hasan, whose Heritage Rides organization seeks to bring together historians and cycling advocates to provide guided tours. While there aren’t any other rides scheduled at present, Hasan has had interest from groups stretching from Mimico to The Beaches. He notes that he would “like to work more closely with the BIAs, local businesses, and other sources of funding, including crowdsourcing, to support the development of new heritage rides.”

Heritage Toronto’s Chief Historian and Associate Director Gary Miedema hinted that there might be a remount of the first heritage bike tour, which had taken place a week earlier on the Toronto Islands. He imagines future tours drawing on longer stretches of off-road trails, like those along the Don and Humber Rivers, as well as rides exploring the histories of communities like Don Mills. He finds the participation of cycling groups like CBN critical to making tours work smoothly. Expansion of the program will depend on finding volunteer tour leaders.

Diversifying Toronto’s History

Originally published on Torontoist on December 21, 2012.

An oral history of Italy’s 1982 World Cup victory, and its effect on Toronto’s Italian community. The video was made as part of Heritage Diversity Stories.

“Cultural diversity has become a defining feature of this city and a fundamental part of its identity,” begins the introduction to Heritage Toronto’s new initiative, Heritage Diversity Stories. The project aims to shed light on the stories of communities that have helped transform Toronto from a very British locale (and one that frequently discriminated against newcomers) to a diverse, multicultural metropolis.

Supported by a grant from the provincial Ministry of Tourism and Culture and corporate assistance from RBC, the first wave of Heritage Diversity Stories consists of 26 written pieces spotlighting nine of the major non-English language groups in the city. Some are contextual essays written by project coordinator Tyson Brown, while others are oral histories prepared by students. The stories, which are presented on the revamped Heritage Toronto website in English and the relevant language, aim to show how immigrants brought their cultures to Toronto and adapted them to a new setting. Besides text, the entries incorporate archival photos and video interviews.

Oral histories are key to preserving records of these communities. That’s because coverage in the mainstream press used to be—especially prior to the Second World War—non-existent, or dripping in stereotypes. A flip through any of the major daily papers prior to the 1960s can be a cringe-inducing experience. Acknowledging the change in the cultural makeup of the city was a slow, awkward process that sometimes resulted in well-intentioned but patronizing work.

“Heritage Toronto has wanted for some time to make sure that the stories we tell about this city reflect the full diversity of the city,” notes project director and Heritage Toronto Chief Historian Gary Miedema.

The project has served as a mutual bridge-building exercise. Heritage Toronto wanted links to groups it had previously had little connection with, while community cultural groups sought ways to assemble their organizational histories—an especially tricky process in groups with longer histories in Toronto, whose first-generation leadership is aging. “All of us were in the right place at the right time to realize that this is something we can all work together on,” says Miedema.

The initial batch of stories covers topics ranging from Filipino caregivers, to the evolution of Lahore Tikka House. One tale that stood out for Miedema was one about the celebrations surrounding Italy’s victory in the 1982 World Cup. Beyond providing a model for other communities around the city to celebrate future wins in the soccer tournament, the victory provided local Italians a chance to demonstrate their self-confidence. “I hadn’t realized fully how important that moment was to Toronto’s Italian community as a moment when they could really feel like this city was theirs as much as anyone else’s, and that they felt immense pride at being Italians and Torontonians,” Miedema says. (A video of an oral history of the soccer victory, assembled as part of the project, is embedded above.)

Those behind Heritage Diversity Stories hope that the launch material is just the beginning. As strong relationships build, more unheralded pieces of Toronto’s history will, if all goes as planned, be uncovered for a wider audience.

Talkin’ ’Bout the War of 1812

Originally published on Torontoist on May 28, 2012.


Proclamation issued by the Province of Upper Canada, 1812. Toronto Public Library.

As the bicentennial celebrations surrounding the War of 1812 kick into high gear, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. For those curious about how the conflict affected all corners of present-day Toronto, or why the battles were significant in the development of Canada, the War of 1812: Bicentennial Talks program of discussions and lectures may provide answers.

“Heritage Toronto was interested in an 1812-related lecture series,” notes Gary Miedema, the agency’s chief historian, “and was aware that the Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto Public Library might be doing something as well.” After discussions with the administrator of the city’s 1812 bicentennial celebrations, each organization contributed events to the series; the project has also drawn in local historical societies and the Luminato festival.

When considering how the War of 1812 affected what would become the City of Toronto, the focus is usually on the invasion of the Town of York, but the surrounding rural townships were hardly isolated from the conflict. Three of the lectures focus on these areas, including one we attended last week at North York Central Library about York Township. Genealogist Janice Nickerson presented her talk from the perspective of resident Sophia Playter five years after hostilities had ceased—choosing Playter because both her father and husband were tavern keepers, which might have made her privy to local gossip. It was an approach that lent a better sense of what someone’s opinion of unfolding events would have been.

Nickerson began with a backgrounder on the township, which was bounded by the Humber River, Lake Ontario, present-day Steeles Avenue, and present-day Victoria Park Avenue. When the war began in 1812, only 750 people lived in the township. While Yonge Street was the main artery, it was a poorly maintained road full of hazards like boulders, mud, swamps, and tree stumps, which often made travel by foot as fast as horseback. During the war, farmers sold their excess crops to the militia for a tidy profit.


Reunion of War of 1812 veterans at William Botsford Jarvis’s home, Rosedale, October 23, 1861. Toronto Public Library.

Loyalties within the township were not all on the side of the crown. Many early inhabitants were loyalists who migrated from the United States, and some still had family members there. As the war dragged on, there were thoughts that an American victory wouldn’t be a bad outcome—seven residents were charged with sedition. Nickerson noted that a speech given by Bishop John Strachan following the war—which attempted to persuade residents that they should be satisfied with the war’s resolution thanks to the survival of British rule, the rooting out of traitors, and healthy donations to the Loyal and Patriotic Society to support war victims and their families—didn’t impress those who thought the conflict was a waste of time and resources. While prices for crops collapsed and military pensions were suspended in the years following the war, the population grew and roads were improved. Disgust with the government grew as officials rewarded themselves with high salaries and seemed increasingly detached from the concerns of the local farmers. Sophia Playter could not have known that in 1820 the seeds of a rebellion that would take place nearly two decades later were already sprouting.

The three lectures held so far have drawn a favourable response, with Denise Harris’s talk on Etobicoke’s role in the war having been booked at least four more times. “There is clearly an interest in the War of 1812 in general,” Miedema tells us, “and in how it affected this city.” Topics for the remaining talks include perspectives on Scarborough, the conflict’s impact on North America, and key figures like Isaac Brock and Tecumseh.

Building Storeys and Mapping Our Music

For a variety of reasons, ranging from rights to use certain images to not feeling like wrestling with the format originally used to post the material, I am not republishing the “Building Storeys” and “Mapping Our Music” series I wrote for Torontoist in 2012. Instead, check out the original posts listed below:

Building Storeys

A series of posts tied into a Heritage Toronto photography exhibit shown at Steam Whistle Brewing in May 2012.

Rail Bridges (April 26, 2012)
The Trillium (May 3, 2012)
Subways (May 11, 2012)
TTC Yards (May 17, 2012)

Mapping Our Music

A series of maps illustrated by Chloe Cushman which depicted “the venues, schools, record labels, stores, and other landmarks that created the sound of our city and shaped its music history.”

Before 1960 (May 9, 2012)
The 1960s (June 13, 2012)
The 1970s (July 19, 2012)
The 1980s (August 21, 2012)
The 1990s (September 19, 2012)

Planning Toronto’s Heritage

Originally published on Torontoist on June 9, 2011.


An early example of structural re-use: portions of the building that served as Toronto’s city hall from 1845 to 1899 (pictured above in 1895) were incorporated into South St. Lawrence Market when it was opened in 1901. Left image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 98.

In a perfect world, heritage preservation policy would be clear and concise. No finding out well into a redevelopment project that you can’t place a parking spot in the upper right corner of a protected property, no wondering what your exact role as a member of a community heritage panel might be, no struggle to maintain something that clearly should be maintained because some developer found a technical loophole on the books.

But this is not a perfect world. Until paradise comes there will be many discussions, like the one held at City Hall on Monday, to address the issues with heritage preservation in Toronto.

Inspired by the Heritage Voices report issued by Heritage Toronto in February, Planning and Growth Management Committee chair Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) helmed a roundtable discussion that brought together heritage activists, architects, bureaucrats, and developers. The session felt like a starting point for a much longer and more complicated process of finding fixes to an array of bureaucratic obstacles, and addressing the perception that the public isn’t fully hearing the echoes of the city’s past that reverberate around us.

Worries about the effectiveness of local history education may stem from the public seeming to demonstrate their interest in historic sites only when they are in jeopardy—or already lost. (Think for a second: did you ever wonder about the history or state of the Empress Hotel building before the wall collapsed?) The tendency is to put the preservation machinery into motion when it’s almost too late for the affected site.

Once it’s known a heritage site is in trouble, our emotional knee-jerk responses kick in. Case in point: even the engaged audience at the roundtable was sedate until Mary Louise Ashbourne, chair of the Etobicoke York Community Heritage Preservation Panel, described the fight to preserve a gardener’s cottage on the former Fetherstonhaugh Estates in Mimico. When she finished noting the neighbourhood’s concerns about the site and condo developments that will change Mimico’s character, the audience applauded.

Discussions around public education included a few shots at the current City administration—when it was suggested that rookie councillors should attend introductory sessions on heritage issues, several speakers pointedly commented that longtime elected officials could do with a remedial course. Former city chief planner Paul Bedford noted that when he chaired a mayoral debate last year, Rob Ford was surprised to find out how little City funding was allocated to heritage matters. While Bedford saw a “golden opportunity” to raise the mayor’s awareness, calls from other panellists to increase heritage staff were dampened by Milczyn, who expected to see employee levels remain static or drop in the face of next year’s much-discussed budget shortfall. Given the penny-pinching at City Hall, we suspect it’s the dedicated volunteers who will be keeping heritage agencies afloat for some time to come.

Amongst those dedicated volunteers and other supporters of local history assembled on Monday there was a feeling in the room that preservation efforts suffer from too much of a stigma, thanks to the vague and heavy-handed legislation that encourages developers to find every loophole and to drag disputes to Ontario Municipal Board tribunals. Some suggested that tax incentives (which are offered in some American cities) would be a good way to encourage developers to work with old buildings (though we hope such incentives would not result in more orphaned façades facing sidewalks). Also on the list of suggestions: better coordination between City departments, property heritage audits, and asking community groups to devise lists of vital neighbourhood sites worthy of heritage designation.

As Michael McClelland of E.R.A. Architects emphasized—and this is a good summary of the day’s insights overall—the systems we set up around heritage preservation should be making developers go “Wow!”—considering the creative possibilities for revamping heritage sites—not “wow…” as in another obstacle to a quick-build office or condo.