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Where the Great War lives on in TorontoNearly half a decade after the last veteran of the First World War faded, we trace Toronto’s physical relationship with the war from the city streets to the memories tucked away in attics

The basement at Spadina House looks nothing like its subtle Victorian-meets-Edwardian-meets-Colonial Revival exterior. The exposed pipes above give it a modern feel while videographers weave their way through a growing crowd of grey hair and lapel-pinned poppies.

Along the flanks, tables are littered with First World War ephemera – greying photos of pre-war soldiers, pay books and medals.

Auburn-haired and bespectacled, Sandra Shaul watches as people funnel into the basement of Toronto’s so-called Downton Abbey. The 64-year-old’s eyes glow like a child; it seems Toronto’s Great War Attic pop-up museum series is going exactly as planned.

“Every event has more than the last,” she says before darting off to sift through another package.

Shaul, the project manager of the Great War Attic series, and a handful of historians have been poring over items brought in by Torontonians, physical reminders of a war that happened a hundred years ago, a global war with 37 million casualties – an estimated 4,035 with some sort of connection to Toronto according to the Canadian Great War Project.

Canada was still part of the British Empire then. The Toronto of today feels far estranged from the Toronto of the past.

“We always brag about our diversity,” says Shaul of the 230 self-identified ethnic groups peppered throughout the city. “Why not show it by searching out stories of Torontonians (and their ancestors) who were affected by the First World War regardless of where they lived at the time and regardless of whose side they were fighting on?”

In a sense, she’s right. But it’s only half of the story.

Not all history is movable, transferred through immigration. There are physical remains from the war in Toronto – they’re just hard to find.

Like up above us in Spadina House. James Percival Austin, a former resident of the estate, enlisted and served until shell shock rendered him tragically unfit to do much of anything during or after the war.

Every relationship with the war is an intimate affair, and Toronto’s is no different.

Despite the city’s revisionist tendencies when it comes to historical buildings, reminders of the “war to end wars” hide amongst the gleaming condo towers and pitter-patter of jackhammers.

That Mark Our Place

From atop the hill at the edge of the Spadina House estate, you can look down Spadina Ave. and see the city’s archives chock-full of wartime photos. But if you could climb to the top of Casa Loma, you’d be able to see the point of the Soldiers’ Tower at the University of Toronto sandwiched between University College and Hart House.

Dedicated to the faculty and students claimed in the First and, later, the Second World War, the cornerstone for the tower was laid the day the Hart House officially opened, the very first Armistice Day in 1919, exactly a year after the end of the First World War.

“Hart House was the newest building on campus and UC was the oldest,” says Kathy Parks, administrator for the tower. “They wanted to put the tower between them to unify the two, right in the center of campus.”

Next to the tower is a wall of names – 628 to be exact – earmarked with poetry from Thucydides, John Milton and of course “In Flanders Field” by renowned U of T alum, Canadian physician and WWI Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.

“A lot of memorials like this were made after the end of the First World War in Canada, Europe and Germany but the question was always ‘how are we going to make meaning out of the war’,” says Parks. “It had such a devastating impact and people didn’t want it to seem senseless.”

Up three flights of stairs in the tower sits a modest museum devoted to the names on the wall outside who lost their lives in the war. The space had over 3,500 visitors last year.

Out of the drawers below the display cabinets, Parks pulls out a stack of Varsity War Supplement magazines, a yearly special edition of the school’s paper released by the Students Administrative Council during the war. Each is filled with names and photos of that year’s casualties.

As we flip through the issues, they’re cumulative, the lists of names from previous years repeating with new names and pictures added. I remember Shaul mentioning how as she’d photographed these for the War Attic project, she couldn’t make it to the end, the tears clouding the camera lens.

For some people, 100 years is yesterday; for others, it’s a million years ago.

The university’s connection to the war runs deep. The nearby steps saw many recruits line up to join the efforts. The Great Hall was used as a drill hall and the Hart House was a rifle range for the school of musketry. During the tail end of the war, parts of the university became a makeshift hospital for war casualties.

“There’s a great picture of an old plane skimming over University College,” says Richard Fiennes-Clinton, a history buff and owner of Muddy York walking tours. “They did all this crazy aviation training at the University at a time when the concept of an air force was a pretty new invention.”

The university wasn’t the only building devoted to the cause.

“They also did a lot of training down at the CNE grounds, during the First World War, the Stanley Barracks was used as an internment camp for what they called enemy aliens – mostly Germanic people who were arrested for being unpatriotic,” says Fiennes-Clinton. “So they were locked up in there while the Ex was going on.”

Nearby at Exhibition Place’s midway, Torontonians chucked baseballs at mock-ups of the Kaiser in an attempt to win a prize for knocking out his teeth.

“Toronto and Canada were probably just as bad as a lot of the other allied nations for anti-German sentiment,” he adds.

But these buildings’ associations with the war are peripheral, subtler than the cenotaph in front of Old City Hall or the Soldiers’ Tower.

The Hidden Past

Then there are the places that have become distant memories, gone or transformed beyond recognition.

In 1919, sewing sweatshops lined Spadina Ave. making uniforms for the soldiers. Toronto, already a meatpacking hub, also became the epicenter of Europe-destined sustenance for the boys on the front lines.

“Just about any manufacturer was turned into a munitions factory, and those looking to expand expanded by getting into munitions,” says Shaul. “The Leaside neighbourhood exists because of the Leaside munitions factory which was where the Smart Centre is on Laird Drive.”

Ironically, says Shaul, Toronto benefitted from wartime.

“During the war, the Bloor viaduct was built, Union Station was started, street car tracks were laid – we were very wealthy,” she adds.

But wealth is impermanent, unraveled by change. In time, even the infrastructure built on the back of a war profiting Toronto will be torn down to make way for shinier, better infrastructure. In some ways, it’s not entirely lamentable. It doesn’t make sense for the city to stay the same when the people have changed so much.

Maybe the question isn’t what physical reminders remain from WWI so much as whether or not we need these to remember. Maybe the Soldiers’ Tower and the cenotaph at old city hall and the hidden monuments scattered throughout the city are enough.

“Sure, there are the concrete reminders but then there are the reminders that could only come to us through stories and the varied experiences that managed to survive immigration after that war,” says Shaul, considering her words carefully. “It’s those that give you a sense of the breadth that the war had in affecting the world and the city we know today.”

That is, after all, why so many have come out to the Spadina House to contribute their memories and memories of memories to the Toronto story, to revise and fill in the blanks, to tell the full story, to create something physical – a photograph even or a video – so there’s something tangible for the next in line.

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