HAPPY BIRTHDAY TORONTO FROM THE JUNCTION
By Neil Ross
TORONTO CITY HALL Toronto turned 175 today and as Sylvia Tyson quipped, "it didn’t look a day over 100." The day began appropriately enough with a smudging ceremony performed by the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation. Then the Tories & the Reformers wrestled the challenges of the city’s first council (wasn't there for that event, assume it was "Muddy York Wrestling.") The Queen's Own Rifles re-enacted all of Toronto's battles in a historical skirmish in which no guns were fired and nobody was hurt. Those were the days.
Inside the rotunda the walls were filled with images from Toronto's Visual Legacy: Official City Photography from 1856 to the Present. These photos are an incredible collection and a viewer is immediately struck by the fact that David Crombie and the Queen Mother were exactly the same size. Deputy Mayor Pantalone introduced Mayor Miller who recalled how he came to Toronto as an immigrant boy who came to play soccer and fell in love with the city. He lauded the "best public library system in the world," and spoke of the city's "peace, social justice and relative prosperity." The Mayor was interrupted by the city's Town Crier (another job posting I missed) who invited the Mayor to a debate with the city's first mayor William Lyon Mackenzie, who as everyone in the Junction knows robbed the Royal Mail right outside the Coffee Time Donuts and Dundas, Dupont and Annette.
Then the poets took over the stage as Lillian Allen, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and Archer Pechawis read poetry especially commissioned for Toronto's anniversary. Lines caught at random: "Beat your SUV’s into plough shares." "A fridge that is Toronto in winter." "Homelessness is us."
The main event for historical buffs was held in the council chambers as the Town Crier predicated when the first Mayor of Toronto debated its most recent (this reporter saw them earlier with microphones in their hands giving a preview for CBC Radio one.) Mayor Miller appeared as himself and Eric Peterson was once again the little rebel William Lyon Mackenzie, a role which he has been playing since 1837: A Farmer's Revolt, the Theatre Passe Muraille classic. I once saw him blow the roof off of Massey Hall as the character in 1987 at an anti-free trade rally. Here he was in fine form telling the anecdote of finding a hat in the muddy streets of Toronto under which was a man, and underneath him a team of oxen.
Mackenzie, a journalist when he wasn't running for Mayor or leading rebellions, characterized Toronto newspapers as "milquetoast" although he took some joy at reading that "someone named Tory is out of a job."
He described the modern Toronto as "huge towering phallic buildings which all seem to be banks while people with nothing are begging for money." This naturally enough led him to urge the crowd to rise up and join him in rebellion.
Mayor Miller observed, "The people of Toronto don't take kindly to their elected officials taking to arms in the streets." Mackenzie shot back: "Has anybody tried it?"
Later, speaking of his ill-fated rebellion, Mackenzie said reflectively, "I was surprised at the turnout . . ." Mackenzie then gave Mayor Miller advice on how to respond to the Ontario and Canadian governments with some very spirited hand gestures, which the current Mayor took to like a natural. Mackenzie, who noted that he had experience stretching over 175 years, "although for most of them I was dead," told Mayor Miller he had attempted to give advice to his predecessor. "He didn’t know who I was and attempted to sell me a couch."
As I left to get a good seat at the Bohemian Embassy Revival, Mackenzie had taken off not only his hat but his wig, but then he always did that.
In the City Hall library, Toronto's Executive Director of Culture Rita Davies, reminiscing of the grand old days of the Bohemian Embassy, spoke of "a city of dreams of possibilities, the city imagined into being." Then she introduced Don Cullen who launched the ground breaking coffee house, named after a slang turn for cold water flat. Over the years, starting in 1960, it had locations on St. Nicholas Street, Harbourfront and Queen Street. The Bohemian Embassy was arguably the most important cultural gathering point in Toronto’s history and introduced some of Canada’s most talented poets and folk singers.
A citizen of the Junction would have been proud that the two poets most lauded were the sadly short lived and brilliant Gwendolyn MacEwen (born at 38 Keele Street) and the man who has been called the quintessential Toronto poet, Raymond Souster who now lives in Swansea but over the course of his life seemed to have lived in just about every house in the Junction. Author John Robert Colombo said that had asked Ray, now housebound at 88, to write a new poem for the occasion. Ray had offered his classic Gwendolyn MacEwen at the Bohemian Embassy. The always persuasive Colombo held out for an original and a few days later received Sylvia Fricker at the Bohemian Embassy (Sylvia Fricker, one of Canada’s most brilliant songwriters, you may recall was once married to a cowboy named Tyson.) The last line of the poem spoke of a low, but clear voice "reaching out and touching as if by magic every lonely heart."
(At the Junction Literary Pub Crawl featuring Junction poet Glen Downie on April 18 at the Annette Street Library at 2pm I will be reading Ray's angry and moving poem, Last Sad Day for our West Toronto Station and Kristen Buckley as Gwendolyn MacEwen will be reading from Magic Cats.)
The night was in many ways a tribute to Don Cullen, who you may remember from Wayne and Shuster, he was the guy who did all the accents. John Robert Colombo quoted Don as saying, "There’s something in Toronto that turns everyone into Presbyterians." Don proceeded to introduce some of his favourite poets and folk singers, most of who began at the Bohemian, which was once listed in the Toronto phone book under "Consulates and Foreign Embassies" and got press in the New Yorker, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal as a result.
Also reading, singing and speaking were Sharon Hampson and Bram Morrison of Sharon, Lois and Bram (no one mentioned the Elephant, but I’m sure he was hanging out and drinking cappuccino with the rest of the bohemians). Greg Gatenby (author of the phenomenal six hundred page Toronto: A Literary Guide and founder of the Harbourfront Reading Series) spoke of the Harbourfront incarnation of the Bohemian in a building full of holes in which you had to kick the snow away in winter and Irving Layton breathed a plethora of icicles onto his microphone. Everyone recalled the Chianti bottles with candles in them.
Introducing biographer and poet, Rosemary Sullivan (author of the haunting Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen), Cullen said that Gwendolyn was a bit like a frightened fawn and he was concerned about her going onto the stage, but then she took over like she'd been doing it for years and her poetry "cleared everybody’s sinuses." Rosemary read Gwendolyn's A Breakfast For Barbarians and her breathtaking tribute to Canada, Dark Pines Under Water. "There is something down there and you want it told . . ."
Nancy White was a surprise guest singing a powerful song called Piping Them Home about military funerals of Canadian soldiers returning from Afghanistan. George Miller, dubbed the Bohemian's poet laureate, read Milton Acorn's works and his own. Dennis Lee, Toronto's first poet laureate read Al Purdy's work and his own. Sylvia Tyson (nee Fricker), Canada's goddess of song, sang a searing and sad response to Stephen Harper (Canada's ogre of repression) and his remark that the average Canadian doesn't care about culture, No Crowd, No Show. The evening concluded with her classic You Were On My Mind.
And they all were, on our minds, these writers who built this city in words.
Happy birthday, Toronto. Or as Don Cullen used to say when handing out pamphlets for the Bohemian Embassy, "Would you like some subversive literature?"
2009 © Neil Ross
The Arts Junction: Happy Birthday Toronto from the Junction, by Neil Ross