“We remember them”


10 November 2018 – I am in a hurry, pressed for time, just striding down the Cambie Street hill: “Out of my way! I have things to do!”

And I stop flat at City Hall, not for the architecture I love so much, but for this:

Almost Remembrance Day, and isn’t this cascade of poppies a touching & wonderful sight? How could I power on by, oblivious?

I step into the installation, begin to read its signs.

I keep reading. There is history.

I nod, like these children, to the Tower of London project — but, above all, I nod to Lieut.-Col. John McCrae, the Canadian surgeon, poet, author and artist who enlisted at the outset of the War, in August 1914, despite being 41 years of age. He served as Medical Officer with the 1st Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery.

In April-May 1915, he tended the wounded at the Second Battle of Ypres, the first battle in which poison gas was used. During that prolonged battle, he wrote the poem that has made poppies a world symbol for remembrance.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow…

All of it is powerful, but I am most touched by this very human stanza part-way through:

We are the dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

The poem has been recorded by Leonard Cohen, another author/poet/global Canadian.

Here at one precise intersection in one city in one province in one country in a whole world of remembrance, I read the words of the children who created this installation, this year.

Stepping gingerly around poppies, careful not to step on a single one, I keep reading.

They should feel good, about their own craftsmanship, along with everything else.

And so history lives within us, and through us, generation to generation, and we interpret present meaning from past events.

John McCrae survived the Second Battle of Ypres, but not the war. His asthmatic lungs further weakened by the poison gas, he died of pneumonia in 1918, in Boulongne-sur-Mer, France.

He lies in the nearby Wimereux Communal Cemetery, one of 2,847 Commonwealth soldiers to share that final resting place. If you’re ever in Guelph, Ontario, visit his childhood home, now museum.


Away Up Bay

4 November 2015 – Bay St., from lakefront to its extinction at Davenport, is the backbone of our Tuesday walk. But first, of course, one has to get to Bay Street.

We make a few stops on the way, Phyllis & I — and my own first stop comes before our rendezvous at Yonge & King. I am transfixed by this promotional blackboard on a pita shop. It is not the usual pita promotion.

Richmond & Jarvis

This, I contend, is a good example of what author & artist Douglas Coupland calls the “Secret Handshake” (part of his show at MOCCA in April 2015) — i.e. imagery & objects laden with symbolic meaning for Canadians and thus “a secret handshake not easily understood by others.”

In this case, probably only understood by politically aware Canadians of a certain age (read, greying & wrinkled). If that describes you, you are already laughing. Everybody else will have question-marks dancing over their noggins.

So let me explain — and today is the day for this explanation, as you will see.

This apparently awkward message plays on two political quotes, both many decades old but still resonating, and both uttered by Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

  • “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” said then-Minister of Justice Trudeau, introducing the Liberal Government’s Criminal Law Amendment Act 1968-69, which, among other things, decriminalized homosexuality.
  • “Just watch me,” retorted a grim Prime Minister Trudeau on October 13, 1970, when he invoked the War Measures Act during our October Crisis, and was asked by a CBC reporter, “How far will you go?”
  • The dude’s son (to quote that blackboard), Justin Trudeau, does indeed have nice hair. And he was sworn in today as Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister. (It will be all over YouTube. Go check it out.)

I report all this to Phyllis when we meet and she (also being of a certain age) laughs in recognition. It’s maybe not brilliant advertising — always better to use references widely known to your target market — but it is unexpected, and puckish, and wonderful.

There’s another politically timely moment on Lower Yonge Street, just before we hit the water and turn west to Bay St., when we spot this bronze sculpture, created in 2007 by Tom Otterness.

"Immigrant Family" on Yonge St. near the lake

It is called “Immigrant Family.” Today’s heart-rending political refugee crisis makes it more poignant than ever.

We circle the piece, notice the touching, small details, including the tell-tale sign of an overstuffed suitcase.

detail, "Immigrant Family"

Then it’s right-turn at the waterfront, & a short hop along the lake to Bay Street. We go right down to the water’s edge (well, the railing), wanting to start the main element of our walk right at the very, very, very beginning.

Fabulous day, sunshine & mid-teen temperatures, everyone is out lollygagging.

Toronto Harbour, Lake Ontario, at the foot of Bay St.

Those aren’t piles of litter on the boardwalk, they are backpacks. Seems a couple of people decided to leave them behind while they took a stroll. (Such trust!)

And up Bay St. we go. It’s really not such a long street — my total walk is only 12 km, the whole rectangle including Bay that takes me from home back to home. But it is full of iconic buildings, some old, some very new. I become caught up in tangible evidence of our past & present, and our momentum into the future.

First icon, the tower that photo-bombs just about every skyline shot you can take in this city: the CN Tower. Briefly the tallest free-standing structure it the world, hasn’t been that in a while, but still a commanding presence.

CN Tower, from s. of Gardiner Expressway

Neatly framed by other towers, when seen from this angle, and sparkling in the sunshine.

Walk-walk-walk, and soon we’re just north of King Street. Another iconic tower appears, also framed by its neighbours — but much older, and no longer commanding the skyline. (At least it still has streetscape impact, thanks to its position at Queen St., where Bay takes a little hike to the west.)

Old City Hall, from Bay n. of King St.

Right, that’s Old City Hall, a riot of High Victorian architectural excess, but also wonderful, for the same reason. Crammed with carved imagery & gargoyles, rewards close inspection.

Smack across Bay St. sits our “new” City Hall. Well, not new any more, it went up in the 1960s and yanked Toronto well & truly into the mid-20th c., architecturally speaking. A recent innovation: big bold letters spelling out TORONTO immediately behind the reflecting pond / skating rink. (Which is very reflecting-pond indeed, today.)

Irresistible for photo opps, whether of individuals or galloons of school kids on an outing.

class photo in City Hall square

We’re not the only ones watching. Phyllis & I climb the ramp, hoping to visit an upper-level garden (where I hung out while ogling Nuit Blanche projects a few weeks ago). The gate is closed, but we see something even better. Phyllis’ sharp eyes spot him — but his sharp eyes would trump hers, any day of the week.

hawk at City Hall -- Cooper's Hawk?

She thinks he is a Cooper’s Hawk. All I know is that he is a hawk, not a handsaw (oh, go re-read your Hamlet), so I’m no help. She asks a security guard near the closed gate: “Is that a Cooper’s Hawk, do you think?” He replies, “It’s closed.” Saves time, I guess, not to bother listening to the question.

Our next cultural icon sits on the west side of Bay, just north of Dundas. Uncle Tetsu! The first location outside Asia for this wildly successful cheese cake empire.

“I’ve never been in. If there’s no lineup, let’s go in,” I say, adding, “Which means we won’t go in. There is always a lineup.” Except today there isn’t, so we go in & make our purchase. Signage proves that lineups are the norm.

Inside Uncle Tetsu's, which has to ration its cheesecakes per customer

As we leave, a young employee — by accent & style probably brought here from Japan, not local — points to the poppy on Phyllis’ lapel. “What is that, please?” Phyllis explains about Remembrance Day, & the poppy symbol. She quotes the beginning of the poem that sparked the symbol (In Flanders Fields the poppies blow), written on the battlefield in May, 1915 by Canadian Lieut-Col. John McCrae. (Killed in action soon after.)

We carry our treats with us, plan to eat them a bit farther north, in some as-yet unspecified park or other.

We begin to see more of the city’s old/new juxtapositions. The new is definitely what’s trending (to use that odd expression); the old often seems, and often is, beleaguered.

This charming home on Charles St. West, for example, near St. Thomas St. It is pleasing to the eye, built to a lovely human scale, & its slate mansard roof is still in good shape.

Charles W., near St. Thomas

But it is enclosed within chain-link fencing.

I’d like to hope it will be repurposed; I fear it will disappear, and another tower take its place. (Please understand I appreciate new towers, love some of them a great deal — but we do need to honour who we have been. The old underpins our collective memory, and adds diversity & energy & particularity to the civic whole.)

Phyllis & I had decided on a no-deviations policy; we’d march straight up Bay, so there. And then, as one often must do, we make an exception.

No deviations, we now agree, except when we want to find a coffee & enjoy our coffee & Uncle Tetsu treats in a pretty setting! So here we are, off-piste you might say, in the Village of Yorkville Park just west of Bay & north of Bloor.

It is full of happy people, enjoying the unseasonable warmth.

Patio tables have been taken in, but it doesn’t matter, thanks to the park’s clever hardscaping, which protects the plantings with structures that also offer space for human bums. We settle on a ledge, look out over a grove of aspen — just one of the segments of this park, each rectangle the exact footprint of one of the homes expropriated & razed for the construction of the Bloor subway line.

Village of Yorkville Park

A brown pigeon patters by; a ghostly rumbles underground tells us another subway train has just gone through.

Back to Bay Street and on north, more old/new architecture as we cross Scollard.

Bay nr Scollard

No idea about the future of that little house on the corner, or its neighbours along the street. I hope they survive.

Soon we’re at Davenport, a great curving E/W road that marks the end (or start…) of Bay Street. I look around for a grand-finale shot to offer you, but despite some flaming maple trees, my heart is not really in the search. Bay just politely fades out of existence at this point, with nothing as dramatic to mark this terminus as the lake at the other end.

Oh well.

We part at Yonge, Phyllis heads north, I turn south & east.

Down through Rosedale Valley Ravine for a while, enjoying as always the sensation of nature-in-city. Also enjoying as always the Group of Seven studio, handsome as ever, its north-facing windows (of course north-facing!) reflecting the afternoon light.

Back to city streets, soon I’m on Church St. south of Bloor, the last stretch toward home.

One more architectural wonder for my day. Quite an ordinary building, really — not very old or new, not very tall or small, nothing wonderful or wonderfully awful about its design.

Nothing special at all, except for the play of light.

south of Bloor, on Church St.

No idea what is reflecting onto it, to create that honeycomb pattern. But what fun!

A little later, I pass a young mum pushing a stroller. She has quite prudently clothed the toddler in long pants & a long-sleeved shirt, but she has left off his socks & shoes. I watch him luxuriously wriggling his bare toes in the sunny warmth.

My own toes, firmly socked-&-booted, are madly jealous.






    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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