Wednesday, 7 June 2017




I am very excited to introduce a new column to our ever-expanding Musings family: Ghosts of Toronto's Past. My impetus for creating this new byline sprang from my twin loves of Toronto and of history. The latter was one of my majors when I did my undergraduate degree here at U of T, but I fell into a stereotypical Canadian trap, meaning I focused most of my energy on international history and ignored what was in my own backyard.

There are so many fascinating, thought-provoking, and fun things about Canadian history that get overlooked in both the public and educational domains because as Canadians we tend to be modest and subdued with the concept of civic pride. I think a significant part of why that's so is the fact that much of our urban growth has its roots in destructive imperialism. Pride in our history comes with the caveat that we must accept and celebrate the forced removal and genocide of Indigenous culture. The ghost stories we sift through and mourn only existed in the first place because of a much greater tragedy; a tragedy that has for most of Canada's history been omitted from the national narrative. As a country that spends so much time defining its national character based on what it isn't as opposed to what it is, it's particularly difficult to synthesize a historical narrative, especially one that is so heavily reliant on colonialism and immigration.

I could probably write about our national history forever, but I have chosen to focus on Toronto for a few reasons. Firstly, we are University of Toronto students. I want to acknowledge how much the school and city has given to its students over the years. I am the first to complain about post-secondary bureaucracy, but that frustration lives alongside an abiding love for higher education and the pure joy of academia. Secondly, Musings featured a special, one-time byline called Toronto Stories that was a wonderful, eclectic array of local history.

Their snippets of Toronto's past got me thinking of how little we Torontonians are aware of the ground we stand on. Since the column was the result of a special class project and is not an ongoing feature, I figured it was time we create something that we could continually revisit. Toronto history has its own unique blend of heroism, political intrigue, national firsts, and seediness. The word "ghosts" is in the title not because of any supernatural elements (though a ghost story may pop up every once in a while), but because the contemporary city has been forged and maintained with the blood, sweat, and tears of countless forgotten individuals. There are echoes of this forgotten past all around, from Union Station to Campbell House to Pearson Airport.

In the post-modern era, tourists and new Canadians will likely see the country for the first time through Union Station via Pearson Airport. When my father emigrated from Italy he spent several nauseous days aboard a ship before docking in Halifax, only to immediately transfer to a train that took him and his family to Ontario. Nowadays the route to the heart of the city is far less circuitous, but no less overwhelming. Union Station is currently transitioning to its fourth iteration. Here is how it looked when it was first constructed in 1858:

And here is William Armstrong's painting of the original station from 1859:

The city and the railways grew so quickly that the station had to be rebuilt less than thirty years later. Here is the second Union Station, completed in 1873:

And here is a photograph of the same station in 1888:

These photos are all public domain, easily accessible through the Toronto Public Library archives or through Wikipedia, but what interests me is what is unseen. The 1888 photo shows a Toronto that doesn't yet have a lakeshore, but even with all of the changes that have taken place in the city since then, it was already a colonial metropolis. By the 19th century there were precious few traces of the land and cultures that had thrived for hundreds of years. Our Toronto is a social and cultural construct that was forcibly carved from the remains of several First Nations, most notably the Wyandot, Iroquois, and the Mississaugas. 

Scroll back up and look at Armstrong's painting. There's a hint of what was already long gone by the time the first Union Station was erected. It's a sobering thought. When we shuffle through Union to get to a Jays game or catch a commuter train, we don't think about what specifically brought us to that moment. We certainly don't think of the decades of blood, labour, infrastructure, and sheer volume of bodies that necessitated Union Station to be built and rebuilt four times in less than two centuries. I'm hoping that this column will remind me to occasionally slow down and rethink my perspective on the subjects of land, culture, and the intangible concept of home. Perhaps some readers will join me in that, but in the meantime I'm happy to traverse Toronto's haunts on my own. I've a feeling that the solitude will be temporary, though, because aren't we all haunted by something?

No comments:

Post a Comment