10 November 2017




Today, the University of Toronto community will gather to commemorate those who lost their lives fighting for Canada. For the past 93 years the Soldiers’ Tower, the University’s war memorial, has provided a site of commemoration on Remembrance Day and every other day of the year. In today’s special edition of Beyond Tradition, I will explore the history of this “traditional” memorial that has been adapting and evolving for nearly 100 years.
Exterior image of the Soldiers' Tower. Photo courtesy of Amy Intrator.

The Soldiers’ Tower is a war memorial that features a monument, museum, and bell tower. The memorial honours the 628 members of the University of Toronto community who lost their lives during World War I, and the 557 members who lost their lives during World War II. The University of Toronto community includes students, staff, faculty, and alumni, and the memorial pays homage to each of these individuals through a stone memorial screen adjacent to the tower with the names of those who died in World War I. A memorial arch below the tower bears the names of those who died in World War II. 

The Memorial Screen with the names of University members who lost their lives in WWI. Source.

The cornerstone of the memorial was laid on November 11th, 1919, nearly 98 years ago today. The memorial is physically connected to Hart House, the non-academic centre for the University of Toronto community. The same day construction on the tower began, Hart House opened its doors as a space for students, faculty, alumni to come together outside the classroom. The tower was connected to Hart House as a way of connecting a dispersed university body to one central memorial. Amazingly, Hart House still serves as a centre for non-academic engagement and the Soldiers' Tower still stands at the crossroads of the University and the community at large. The Soldiers’ Tower was “complete” as of 1924 and became the second tallest war memorial in Canada.

Although the building was physically "complete" in 1924, the Tower is an active memorial so its meaning is always in transition. While some museums present a narrative of the past with a clear start and finish, many memorials shift and adapt to serve their audiences over time and bring memory into the present.

The Tower may have been physically completed after World War I, but its identity as a memorial shifted again after World War II. The memorial physically expanded to include the names of fallen soldiers on the outside archway and the memorial's bell tower was expanded to include additional carillon bells in honour of those who died in the World War II. The Second World War also shifted the memorial’s identity. After World War I, also known as the Great War, the world had never anticipated another war of similar magnitude, but World War II shattered this illusion of a single tragic world war. Similarly, World War II forced the Soldiers’ Tower to shift from a memorial in honour of a single tragic event, to a memorial that honoured soldiers across several decades and several wars.

The Memorial Arch with the names of University members who lost their lives in WWII. Source.

The opening of the Memorial Room, the museum inside the Tower, is another example of the memorial’s shifting identity. The “room” was originally called the “Muniment Room” and was created as a depository for the university’s war-related records (and was rarely open to visitors). In the 1970s, the room was revitalized as a small museum hosting artifacts and records, and rather than a depository for storing records, the room became a site of displaying and contextualizing items that related to the University and the wars. The museum is still open today, run by the University’s Alumni Committee, staffed by students and community members, and open to any member of the public. The museum may appear “traditional” from a collections viewpoint, as the museum displays portraits and war memorabilia like many other war museums, but the museum allows for a cross-community engagement that is far from traditional.

Interior of the Memorial Room museum. Photo courtesy of Kathy Parks, Soldiers' Tower Administrator.

At 11:00 am members of the University community and the larger Toronto community will gather in front of Soldiers’ Tower amongst veterans and active soldiers to commemorate those lost in war. The Remembrance Day service has been taking place at the tower since 1924, and today the service remains an integral part of the memorial’s identity. Every November the tradition of the Remembrance Day service brings multiple generations and communities together to re-interpret the Tower’s importance and contribute to the evolving history of the Soldiers' Tower at the University of Toronto.

The Memorial Screen after the 2016 Service of Remembrance. Photo courtesy of Amy Intrator.

Join the 2017 Service of Remembrance:

Date: TODAY, November 10th, 2017
Time: 10:15- 11am
Location: Soldiers' Tower, 7 Hart House Circle
(ceremony takes place outside the tower connected to Hart House)

For more information visit the Soldiers' Tower website: https://alumni.utoronto.ca/alumni-networks/shared-interests/soldiers-tower/service-of-remembrance

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