Saturday, December 28, 2013

My Twelve Most Favourite Posts from 2013

Well, we've finally come to the end of a pretty terrible year for the city of Toronto. Ice storms, floods, crack cocaine. But 2013 was actually a pretty wonderful year for the Toronto Dreams Project. I launched ten brand new dreams, started the Toronto Historical Jukebox, teamed up with the AGO, and published a whole whack of blogposts — both here and over at Spacing. Now, as the year winds down, I've got the perfect opportunity to be completely self-indulgent and look back at some of the posts I had the most fun writing in 2013. And you've got the perfect opportunity to catch any of the best stuff you might have missed over the course of the last twelve months. I've picked my favourite dozen stories — some of them are also the most popular; some are just personal faves. But hopefully you'll enjoy them all. And have a wonderful New Year.

Here we go:

How Napoleon Bonaparte Is Indirectly Responsible For One Of The Best Walking Trails in Toronto
One of my very favourite places in Toronto is the Mast Trail. It's in Rouge Park on the very eastern edge of the city, right on the border with Pickering. The forests there are absolutely gorgeous. So beautiful, in fact, that Rouge Park is slated to become a national park. But the natural beauty is only part of why I love it so much. It also has a rich heritage stretching back into prehistory, through the days of the First Nations and the first French explorers into the reign of the British Empire. In this post from February, I told one of my favourite Rouge Park stories: how the Mast Trails owes its beginning to the war with Napoleon.

Toronto s Stalingrad
I've long been fascinated by Canadian attitudes toward Communism. In particular, the way public opinion and official government policy has swung wildly back and forth on the subject. Some days, the Prime Minster is trying to have the leader of the Canadian Communist Party assassinated. Other days, Eaton's department stores are putting together window displays glorifying Stalin. So I was intrigued when I stumbled across a mention of a mostly forgotten chapter from Toronto's history: the time we "adopted" the Soviet city of Stalingrad. It was during the Second World War, after one of the bloodiest battles in history. And the post I wrote about it in March is still one of my favourites from 2013.

Toronto's First Great Baseball Team — the old-timey Toronto Baseball Club of 1887
Back in April, baseball fans in Toronto were full of optimism. The Blue Jays had just traded for some of the biggest stars in the sport. Las Vegas was declaring our team to be World Series favourites. So I seized the opportunity to write about some of the rich history that baseball enjoys in Toronto, which stretches back to about a century before our city got our first major league team. Our first championship came all the way back in 1887 thanks to a team filled with memorable characters and superstars. I wrote about them in this post on Opening Day.

Lee's Palace Before It Was Lee's Palace
My most popular post of 2013 was about what Lee's Palace looked like before it became Lee's Palace. The building — which is now one of most famous music venues in Toronto — started out all the way back in the spring of 1919. It was a silent movie theatre back then, designed by an architect who would make his name building some of the most beautiful modern masterpieces from Detroit's golden age. The post about Lee's has been racking up page views since I first published it back in May.

The Story Behind the Sakura Blossoms of High Park
This was a particularly good year for the cherry blossoms in High Park. They burst into full bloom just in time for one of the very first weekends of gorgeous weather we got to enjoy this Spring. Thousands upon thousands of people flooded to the slope above Grenadier Pond to take a look, snap some Instagram pics, or have a picnic under the beautiful pink and white flowers. Few of them, I suspect, knew the history behind the trees. I certainly didn't until I got home and Googled it. The trees were a gift from the people of Tokyo, commemorating Toronto's welcoming of Japanese-Canadians during one of the darkest episodes in Canadian history. I told the story in a post I published during that weekend of warm weather back in May.

A Brief History of the Pigeons of Toronto
This might very well be my favourite post of the entire year. Pretty much ever since I started the Dreams Project, I'd been thinking about the pigeons in our city. Where the hell they all came from — and why urban pigeons here look like urban pigeons everywhere else. I finally dug into the research for the post this summer, and used it as an opportunity to also explore the history of the wild Passenger Pigeons who used to live here. There were billions of them in North America when the first Europeans arrived. When Toronto was first founded, they flew above our city in flocks so huge they could block out of the sun for days on end. And yet, by the early 1900s, there wasn't a single bird left on Earth. It's one of the most disturbing — and, I think, most important — stories from the history of our city. I wrote about it in this post in June.

A Bird's-Eye Tour of Toronto in the Early 1930s
Some of my favourite posts to write are the ones where I take an old map or an archival photo and add a legend to it. That's what did with this aerial photo of the city taken back in the early 1930s. It was a fascinating period in the history of Toronto. As I point out in the post, many of the city's most beautiful landmarks opened in the few years leading up to this photo: everything from Maple Leaf Gardens to Union Station to what was, at the time, the tallest skyscraper in the British Empire. Many of them would remain our most striking new architectural icons for years to come — the Great Depression and the Second World War meant that most other major building projects would be put on hold. It's been one of the most popular posts on the blog since I published it back in July.

Simcoe's Vision for Toronto: A City So Awesome It Would Undo The American Revolution
Since Toronto was founded only about 200 years ago, we've got a much closer connection to our roots than many of the cities in the rest of the world. We're particularly lucky to have records kept by the founders of our metropolis. Elizabeth Simcoe's diary is one my favourite Toronto documents, telling the story of the earliest days of the building of our city, while she and her family lived in a tent on the beach by the lake. But this post is about a letter written by her husband, John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant Governor who founded Toronto back in 1793. He wrote it to a famous British scientist before he'd even left England for Canada — and in it, he lays out his vision for what he hoped Toronto would become. As I say in the post, "His plan, in short, was to make our city and our province so undeniably amazing that Americans couldn't help but realize how terrible America was by comparison. They would voluntarily give up their silly notions of independence and beg to be let back into the Empire." I published this post in August.

Star Trek & Nathan Phillips Square
Toronto, as it turns out, has a particularly strong connection to science-fiction. And that might not be too surprising when you take a look at City Hall: that alien modernist masterpiece built in the 1960s. In fact, it's turned up in the world of Star Trek on two different occasions. Once in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and once in a weird Star Trek comic book. The post I wrote about it has been one of the most popular posts on the site since I published it in September.

Toronto's Lucky Lion: The Story of One of Our Most Famous Early Monuments
As I mentioned above, the Toronto Dreams Project teamed up with Art Gallery of Ontario in 2013. I wrote three new dreams about Torontonian artists with work in the AGO's Canadian Collection. One of then was Francis Loring. She and her partner Florence Wyle were two of the most interesting figures I've come across since I started the project. They were both sculptors who moved here from the States in the early 1900s. Their home became the closest thing our city had to the Bohemian art salons of Paris. They became good friends with the Group of Seven and Dr. Frederick Banting. And their work can still be found all over the city. Loring's crowning achievement was the so-called "Lucky Lion" at the entrance to the QEW. Once, it was once of our city's most famous landmarks; today, it's mostly forgotten. And the story of how that happened seemed particularly important in September, while Toronto debated what should be done with the glowing neon disks of the Sam the Record Man sign.

A.Y. Jackson Goes To War — The Group of Seven on the Western Front
Another one of the artists I wrote a dream about for the AGO was the Group of Seven's A.Y. Jackson. He, too, has a fascinating history. I was particularly interested by his experiences during the First World War. He would eventually become one of the most famous artists in Canadian history, but back then his modernist work was being dismissed as meaningless rubbish. He enlisted, fought on the frontlines at Ypres, and was wounded before finally being saved: he was commissioned as an official war artist. His paintings of the Western Front are hauntingly beautiful — and an amazing piece of Canadian history. I wrote about Jackson's time in Europe and those incredible paintings in this post from November.

The Torontonian Roots of Doctor Who — the Canadian Behind the Legendary TV Show
On a completely nerdy personal note, I'm also going to remember about 2013 as the year I discovered how awesome Doctor Who is. I've been completely obsessed with the show it ever since. (I even write about every new episode over at The Little Red Umbrella). So I was stunned and thrilled to learn that the quintessentially British show was actually created by a Torontonian, Sydney Newman. And that he played an extremely important role in the history of Canadian film and television. He ran the NFB and was the head of Drama for the CBC; he's even the guy who put Hockey Night In Canada and the Grey Cup on television for the very first time. I looked forward to writing a post about Newman for most of the year, and finally published this post during Doctor Who's 50th anniversary last month.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Morley Callaghan on Winter & The Canadian Heart

The first post I ever wrote on this blog was about the Torontonian writer Morley Callaghan (and the time he punched Ernest Hemingway right in the face). I've come back to him from time to time. Earlier this week, I was listening to a CBC "Rewind" podcast about his life, which you can stream online here. It features an old interview he did with Michael Enright in November of 1974, which included a little snippet about Callaghan's love of Canadian winters. He was famous for it — and for his daily walks through Rosedale with his dog. (In fact, that's the subject of what I suspect is the most beautifully sad plaque in Toronto.)

Since this year's winter has finally just arrived, I thought I'd share a snippet of his thoughts (complete, unfortunately, with his dated pronoun usage):

"The other thing about winter is... that on a winter night, if it's not too cold — now I'm not pretending to be a lover of those harsh winter winds — but on a lovely winter night when there is snow and when there is sort of unbroken snow, I love the cities. I love the cities when they're absolutely snow-covered and there's a kind of unearthly winter calm about them. And I feel a curious sense of peace and ease with myself and you can walk... and it's great, you know, when you yourself can break the snow. And somehow or other you get a sense of well-being in that kind of weather that you don't get in the hot summer...

"The winter is in the Canadian. It's in his heart. It's in his imagination, even when he grouses about it and damns it and so on."


That photo, amazingly, is Bloor Street West in the winter of 1910. Right near High Park. (Which I found via the Toronto Archives.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Toronto in 1851 — a snapshot of the booming city at the dawn of a new age

In 1851, the year this painting was painted, Toronto was beginning to boom. It had been less than 60 years since the first British soldiers showed up to clear the ancient forest and make way for the new capital of Upper Canada, but the population was already skyrocketing. By the time of this painting, there were something like 30,000 people living in the city. The population had doubled over the last decade and would double again over the next. It was truly the dawning of a new age: in 1851 we started building our very first railroad. In fact, the City's own website uses this year as a defining line in the history of Toronto: between "A Provincial Centre" and "An Industrializing City."

There were big new public buildings opening all over town. Some of them are still there today. Near King and Jarvis, the gorgeous St. Lawrence Hall had just opened, the city's main venue for concerts, political meetings and other public events. In 1851, it hosted an important anti-slavery gathering: the North American Convention of Colored Freemen, which included a speech by Frederick Douglass. Today, it's a National Historic Site. A block away, a new building had just been built at the St. Lawrence Market: it served as Toronto's City Hall for the next 50 years and can still be seen in the facade of the current Market. Far to the west on Queen Street, near Parkdale, the new Provincial "Lunatic Asylum" had recently begun taking its very first patients. It lasted all the way to the 1970s before we tore the beautiful old building down. It was in 1851 that the first in a series of brick walls was designed for the grounds. The patients were used as free labour to build them. A section of the walls survives to this day, on the eastern edge of what's now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Meanwhile, the Province of Canada had just become a real democracy. Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine had recently won an overwhelming majority on an election platform demanding the British government allow Canadians to make our own laws. They called it Responsible Government. Some of the Tories who opposed them were so pissed off they attacked the Parliament Buildings in Montreal, burned them to the ground, and threatened further violence. As a result, the capital was moved to Toronto. As 1851 began, Baldwin and LaFontaine were hard at work in our Parliament Buildings down on Front Street (where the CBC building is now). Their government would become known as "The Great Ministry." In a few short years, they brought in public education, a public postal service, an independent judiciary, our jury system, and our appeals system; they brought democratic reform to municipal governments and made sure anyone — not just the upper class — had access to the courts and could be appointed to the civil service. They also extended the right to vote — it wasn't just for property owners anymore — though, at the same time, they restricted that right to men only.

Despite all this change, we still remained an overwhelmingly British city: in 1851, 97% of Torontonians had been born in the British Isles or traced their ancestry there. It would be a long time before that changed: fifty years later, in 1901, the figure was still 92%.

But now, more than ever before, we were a particularly Irish city. Ireland had just been devastated by the Great Famine. More than a million people died in just a few years; many others fled. Tens of thousands of Irish refugees flooded Toronto in the years leading up to 1851 — at one point during the terrible summer of 1847, there were more refugees in the city than non-refugees. Hundreds died of typhoid at the old General Hospital on the corner of King & John (where the TIFF Lightbox is now) and in the temporary fever sheds built out back. It was the beginning of a great wave of Irish immigration that changed the face of our city. Soon, we'd earn the nickname of the "Belfast of North America."

Toronto had always been a very Protestant town. In fact, for the first four decades of the city's history, Anglican ministers were the only ones allowed to perform marriage ceremonies. The Protestant Orange Order was immensely powerful — just like in Belfast — and they didn't hesitate to use that power against Catholics. Prejudice was rampant. In the few decades after 1851, as the city became home to ever-more Irish-Catholics, Toronto found itself dealing with some of the same sectarian violence that plagued Ireland. There would be dozens of riots between Protestants and Catholics before the end of the century.

But it was also a time of growing respect for diversity. Baldwin (an anglophone Protestant from Toronto) and LaFontaine (a francophone Catholic from Montreal) were helping to lay some of the early foundations of Canadian multiculturalism. They made Canada officially bilingual, opened Canadian ports to ships from all over the world, and challenged the exclusive privileges of the Protestant clergy. They took over King's College, an Anglican school in Toronto, severed its ties to the church, and turned it into the secular University of Toronto. Meanwhile, the city's first Catholic cathedral, St. Michael's, had just been consecrated at Church & Shuter. It would soon be joined by St. Michael's College, a Catholic school which would eventually also become part of U of T.

By the end of 1851, however, the era of Baldwin and LaFontaine was suddenly over. They had granted an amnesty to the rebels of 1837, allowing them to return from exile. For the first time in more than a decade, the old trouble-making former mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, was back at home living in Toronto. He was joined by other returning rebels — unsurprisingly, they were more radical than the moderate liberals (like Baldwin and LaFontaine) who had refused to take up arms. It didn't take long for Mackenzie to get elected to parliament and to cause problems for the Great Ministry. Baldwin and LaFontaine were relatively young — in their 40s — but they were already exhausted from years of political struggle and plagued by a variety of illnesses. (Most famously, Baldwin had been suffering from severe depression since the death of his wife 15 years earlier.) When one of Mackenzie's bills to overturn one of Baldwin's new laws got unexpectedly strong support, Baldwin resigned. LaFontaine wasn't far behind.

And so, as 1851 turned into 1852, the Province of Canada was in the hands of a new generation of political leaders. In the wake of the Great Ministry, people like George Brown and John A. Macdonald would rise to prominence. The fight for Responsible Government was over. Now, it was time to start down the road to Confederation.


Image: it was an artist born in Germany who painted this painting. Augustus Köller had been raised in Düsseldorf and now lived in Philadelphia. He made his living off watercolours and lithographs. His work took him to cities all over North America. For this painting, he seems to have taken a vantage point looking out over the city from the ancient shore of the prehistoric Lake Iroquois, just north of Davenport Road now. The land up on top of the hill had long belonged to the city's elite — it's where many had their country estates. In fact, up on that hill right next to where Casa Loma is now, Robert Baldwin's family built the first Spadina House.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Jacques Cartier, Stephen Harper & Idle No More

Cartier's cross, 1534


So there's this story about Jacques Cartier. He was a French explorer, of course, one of the very first Europeans to ever come to Canada. At the end of his first trip here, he erected a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula, as a way of claiming the land for France. They say that's how he met Donnacona.

Donnacona was the Chief of Stadacona, a village around where Québec City is now. When the French erected their cross, they noticed that the Chief seemed kind of annoyed by it. So Cartier decided to trick him. The French made signs as if they wanted to trade with the Chief — and when Donnacona got close enough to their ship, they trapped him, forcing him and his two sons on board. Eventually, they came to an arrangement: the sons would sail with Cartier for France. They would learn French. And then, after the winter was over, they would return to the New World with Cartier — where they would be his guides

So that's what they did. In 1535, Cartier came back with the sons in tow. They showed him where the St. Lawrence was (he'd totally missed it on his first trip) and took him to Stadacona, their village. In fact, when Cartier heard their word for village, he thought they were talking about the entire area around them. Five hundred years later, we still call this place by the name Cartier put on his maps after hearing it from them: Canada.

Cartier was pretty excited. He had "discovered" the St. Lawrence. The whole point of his trip to the New World was to find a trade route to Asia. This giant river seemed like a promising lead. But for good reason, Donnacona and his sons didn't trust the explorer. So they stayed behind while he sailed further upriver.

It seems Cartier went too far. He was supposed to sail home for France before winter, but when the snows came and the river froze, he was still here. In fact, he and his men were trapped in a spot not far from Stadacona. They would be forced to stay there until spring.

This was very bad news. The Europeans weren't equipped to deal with a Canadian winter. They had no idea how to keep themselves alive. As the days dragged on, the men fell ill.

"The sickness broke out among us accompanied by the most extraordinary symptoms," Cartier wrote. "For some lost all their strength, their legs became swollen and inflamed, and all had their mouths so tainted that the gums rotted away down to the roots of the teeth which nearly fell out. The disease spread among the three ships to such an extent that in the middle of February, of the 110 men forming our company, there were not 10 in good health."

They had scurvy. But the Frenchmen didn't know that; Europeans didn't understand the disease. So instead of being able to treat their illness, all Cartier and his men could do was to pray. And so they did.

"I gave orders for all to pray and to make orisons and have an image and figure of the Virgin Mary carried across the ice and snow and placed against a tree... and issued an order: that on the following Sunday mass should be said at that spot, praying the Virgin to be good enough to ask her dear son to have pity upon us. At that time, so many were down with the disease that we had almost lost hope of ever returning to France..."

It was Donnacona's sons who saved them. They knew all about scurvy and how to cure it: with a tea from boiled cedar boughs. While Cartier's dying men refused to drink it at first, they were eventually convinced. The first to try it felt better right away. After two or three cups, Cartier says the sailors were cured. Twenty-five men had died of the disease, but the rest were going to make it.

Cartier & Chief Donnacona
Cartier assumed it was his prayers that had done the trick. The quick recovery of his men, he wrote, "must clearly be ascribed to miraculous causes... God, in his infinite goodness and mercy, had pity upon us." It would be hundreds of years before European scientists figured out what caused scurvy and how to cure it. The big breakthrough didn't come until 1932. Those cedar boughs were full of vitamin C.

Cartier wasn't exactly grateful for what Donnacona's sons had done. He answered their kindness with more trickery. When spring came, he organized a great feast on board one of his ships. And he invited Donnacona, his sons, and some of the other Stadacona villagers to attend. They were reluctant and suspicious, but they came. As soon as they were on board, Cartier took them prisoner.

This time when Cartier sailed back to France, he had ten First Nations people with him: the kidnapped villagers and some children he'd been given as "gifts". Donnacona was presented to King François — he regaled the monarch with wondrous tales about the riches to be found in Canada. But no matter how much he begged and pleaded, he would never be allowed to return home to his friends and family. None of them would. We know for sure that nine of them died within a few short years. The tenth, a little girl, has disappeared from the historical record.

Cartier, on the other hand, did go back to Stadacona. When he got there, he lied about what had happened. He told the new Chief that Donnacona had passed away, but that the others were rich and happy. It didn't do any good, though. Built on a foundation of mistrust, the relationship between Cartier and the Iroquoians of Stadacona quickly deteriorated. Soon, they would be at war — the first of many between the French and Iroquois-speaking nations over the next 200 years.

Stephen Harper & Chief Fontaine (via)

Now, it's 2013. It has been 478 years since Cartier spent that winter on the St. Lawrence. The story of his relationship with Donnacona comes from a very different — and much more racist — time. A lot has changed over the last five centuries.

But maybe not as much as we settlers would like to think. After all, as absurd as it seems, it was the official policy of the Canadian government to forcibly remove First Nations children from their homes until very recently. The last residential school didn't close until 1996. The entire system was founded on the idea that the First Nations should be taken far away from their ancestral homes and forced to assimilate. They, like Donnacona and his sons, would be forced to learn French, or English, and to leave their own cultures behind. The aim, as one government official put it, was to "kill the Indian in the child." Frequently, the child was killed too. In the 1900s, children at residential schools died much like the villagers Cartier took to France in the 1500s did. Many were also physically and sexually abused, sterilized, and experimented on. To be fair, there was some progress over those 400 years: the mortality rate in residential schools wasn't 100%; it was more like 50% according to some estimates.

Thankfully, the Canadian government has finally stopped stealing children to be shipped off to school. In fact, a whole five years ago, the government admitted it was wrong. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons, even said these words: "assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country."

Or, to be more precise, he said: "this policy of assimilation was wrong". Those are my italics, because it seems like a particularly important qualification given that many people, even some of those who believe in the sincerity of Harper's apology, still believe that his ultimate goal is the forced assimilation of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

Many people trace their concerns about Harper back to a man by the name of Tom Flanagan. He's one of Harper's former chiefs of staff, campaign managers, and writing partners. The Walrus once called him "The Man Behind Stephen Harper"; one former Reform Party colleague calls the two men intellectual and philosophical "soulmates". In many circles, Flanagan is best known for his book First Nations? Second Thoughts, which lays out old colonial arguments in favour of assimilation. "Call it assimilation, call it integration, call it adaptation, call it whatever you want: it has to happen," he wrote in that book. And he followed it up by claiming that assimilation is "historically inevitable," "now largely accomplished, and will remain the basis of Canadian society." (He is also known for his suggestion that Julian Assange "should be assassinated" and, according to The Walrus, once had a book removed from an approved list of high school textbooks because of "'racial, religious, and sex bias' against women and Jews." More recently, he made national headlines after controversial comments questioning the idea of jail-time for people who view child pornography.)

Of course, just because Flanagan believes something doesn't necessarily mean Harper does. But since he rose to power, Harper's policies do seem to be following an assimilationist script. He has made it easier to break up reserve lands so they can be sold off or leased for development. First Nations health care funding has been cut. Overall spending per capita is falling too. The salaries of federal bureaucrats are taking up more and more of what little money is left. The housing crisis is getting worse. Just one year after he made his residential schools apology, Harper stood in front of the G20 and claimed in the face of 500 years of evidence to the contrary, that Canada has "no history of colonialism". His government echoed that claim again just a few weeks ago in the Throne Speech,  praising Canadian pioneers for "forg[ing] an independent country where none would have otherwise existed." The government is currently refusing to release residential school documents to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. They cut all funding for a database compiling information about hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women. And when 144 countries voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Canada was one of the four countries who voted against it (although Harper did eventually back down and sign on). At the same time, giant omnibus bills like C-45 have gutted environmental regulations, making it easier for oil and gas companies to exploit ancestral lands — while making it harder for Indigenous people to live off them.

Residential school students in the 1950s
In short, since he first came to power in 2006, Harper has already made it harder for the First Nations, Inuit and Métis to maintain their unique and distinct cultures.

Meanwhile, the echoes of the forced assimilation that began with Cartier in 1534 are still being felt in First Nations communities today, in cycles of poverty, violence, suicide, and substance abuse. As a result, more First Nations children are "in care" now than ever before — more even than at the height of the residential school system.

Still, the Harper government seems to blame those problems on some kind of inherent cultural flaw rather than seeing them as the result of hundreds of years of brutal systemic discrimination. That attitude was evident in the federal government's reaction to the crisis in Attawapiskat. The Conservatives blamed the state of emergency on the reserve's leadership and tried to impose outside management. Never mind that Attawapiskat, like many reserves, was already co-managed by a federal bureaucrat — or that their audits are continually monitored by the government. A Federal Court declared the government's response to be "unreasonable". In fact, Canada's former Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, reported that there is too much oversight of spending on reserves. A study of First Nations audits found less evidence of fiscal wrongdoing on reserves than in the governments of the average Canadian province or municipality.

And yet, Harper's paternalistic, colonial ideas aren't limited to his own government and allies. The problem is much bigger than one Prime Minster or one political party. In fact, assimilationist arguments are considered to be remarkably mainstream. Both Conservative and Liberal federal governments — as well as some provincial ones — have used Tom Flanagan as an expert witness in order to oppose First Nations land claims in court. Before his child pornography comments, Flanagan was a frequent "expert" guest on news programs and wrote editorials for newspapers. His ideas are echoed not just by the rants of racist online commenters, but in the columns of some of Canada's most respected journalists.

Chelsea Vowel, the Métis writer and lawyer, recently compiled some examples of anti-Indigenous racism in the mainstream media, while pointing to a study that found the same arguments being made today as in 1869. "[W]e literally see the same arguments being made year after year after year," she writes. Distortions, half-truths and outright lies are repeated over and over again. And they've been successful in their attempts to sway public opinion. A recent poll found that 60% of Canadians believe, despite the evidence to the contrary, that "most of the problems of native peoples are brought on by themselves." That's up from 35% in 1989.

It seems that far too many 21st century Canadians see the First Nations, Inuit and Métis in much the same way Cartier saw the Iroquoians of Stadacona back in the early 1500s: as people who must be assimilated for their own good; as primitive curiosities stuck in the past; as an obstacle to progress; as people with a culture colourful enough to parade before the King of France or at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, but with nothing more important than that to offer the modern, European world.

Idle No More

Jacques Cartier wasn't the only European who came to Canada. He was, of course, followed by hundreds and then thousands and then millions more. And while there have always been plenty of settlers who saw Indigenous people in much the same way Cartier did — as "heathens" to be "civilized" — others saw things differently. In a new world they didn't entirely understand, some realized how much they could learn from the people who already lived here. The curative powers of cedar tea were just one contribution to a period of immense learning.

As John Ralston Saul points out in his book, A Fair Nation, some new Canadians didn't just see the First Nations and Inuit as peoples to be conquered; they saw them as civilizations worth engaging in a partnership. For 200 years, the fur trade was the foundation of the Canadian economy and the driving force behind European settlement in the northern half of the continent. Many newly arrived Canadians lived far from the growing cities of the east, in close quarters with the First Nations and the Inuit. From them, they learned how to live in this land: how to survive, how to travel, what crops to grow; they discovered shared values and new ideas. They were allies in business and allies in war. Some would form strong and lasting partnerships. Many even got married. In fact, it was the French government who first pushed the idea of intermarriage as a means of assimilation, but it backfired: many of the fur trappers who did get married chose to embrace Indigenous lifestyles and ideas. An entire new people came out of that period: the Métis.

So did an entirely new country. Canada would not be the nation it is today if it weren't for the contributions of Indigenous peoples — despite the myth of our having only two founding peoples: the English and the French. In fact, Saul goes as far as to say that many of the values we think of as modern, Canadian values — environmentalism, diversity, respect for the other — can be traced back to those centuries spent living with and learning from Indigenous peoples. He argues that Canada is, in a sense, a Métis nation. And that as progressive Canadians look for ways to embrace and support those values in the 21st century, it's important to be conscious of the debt those ideas owe to what Saul calls the "third pillar" of Canadian civilization.

Of course, there have always been Canadians who don't agree, who don't share those values, and who see multiculturalism as a failure: an unnecessary and dangerous compromise by whatever the dominant "Canadian" culture happens to be at the time. Instead, they look to the example of those old monolithic European empires: one nation; one people; one culture. And so, they said we could never form a country with the Québecois, that Catholics could never be trusted, that the Acadians needed to be expelled, that we needed a head tax on Chinese immigrants, that we needed to jail and deport all Canadians of Japanese descent and Canadians of Ukrainian descent, too. The day Canada became a democracy, they claimed we were betraying our superior British heritage and handing the country over to minorities. They were so angry, they burned the parliament buildings down. Many of our darkest days as a nation have come when too many of us agreed with those voices; our greatest days, when we've seen those voices for what they are — rooted in ignorance and fear — and we chose to stand up against them.

For centuries now, when it comes to the question of our relationship with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis, far too many of us have been listening to those voices. They are still there today, saying that the "Indian problem" is too complicated to be solved, that it's a cultural issue and a foregone conclusion — that there's nothing to be done but admit defeat and force Indigenous peoples to assimilate.

They're wrong.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763
In fact, there already is a plan. The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples — launched by the Conservative Mulroney government and completed during the Liberal Chrétien years — spent five years and more than $50 million dollars doing research, meeting with experts and consulting with the public before coming up with a realistic path forward. It identified problems with the current reserve system and proposed solutions. It called for a new level of Indigenous government, a temporary rise in spending, and shared resource development based on the legal, nation-to-nation relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples. That relationship was first established by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, was enshrined in the Constitution in 1982, and has been confirmed by one Supreme Court case after another since then. In 2005, Paul Martin's government even took the first step forward, negotiating the Kelowna Accord. But when Harper came to power, he cancelled it. Then he began to dismantle the existing system without building an improved system to replace it.

And so, last winter, his government's actions were met by Idle No More. It was the giant omnibus budget bill, C-45, that sparked it. Chief Spence went on hunger strike. There were protests at shopping malls, marches in the streets, railroads shut down, and construction sites occupied. The movement's website calls it "a peaceful revolution to honour Indigenous sovereignty." That alone would make it a worthwhile movement — the Canadian government has already gone far too long without living up to its legal, constitutional and moral obligations in its dealings with the Indigenous nations. But the website adds, "And to protect the land & water," which hints at the implications Idle No More has for all Canadians. Even the most selfish settler stands to benefit.

For one thing, Harper's attacks on the rights of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis are part of a larger attempt to remove any and all obstacles to "resource development" — including large-scale extraction projects like the tar sands, fracking and open-pit mines. Bill C-45 was one more skirmish in that fight, a fight progressive Canadians have been losing. The Conservatives have gutted environmental regulations, denounced environmental advocates as radicals and terrorists, muzzled government scientists, slashed funding for environmental projects and sidestepped parliamentary oversight. That leaves the unique constitutional land rights of Indigenous peoples as one of the strongest and most effective checks on the Harper government's unprecedented power. Last year, the Financial Post reported that the First Nations were on "the biggest winning streak in Canadian legal history": 170 victories in the courts. At a time when climate change is becoming an ever-greater challenge, the importance of those land rights is a truly global concern.

"It is our responsibility to protect Mother Earth, to protect the land for non-natives too," one former Mi'kmaq Chief, Susan Levi-Peters, said just a few weeks ago. "My people are speaking up for everyone... People care about the water. People care about the environment. This isn't just a native issue." And it's true. A recent poll found that 62% of Canadians support a moratorium on fracking — 66% of people in Atlantic Canada. But it was Levi-Peters' Nation, Elsipogtog, who organized a peaceful, weeks-long protest against fracking on their ancestral lands in New Brunswick. They were the ones who drew attention to the issue, they were the ones at risk when the RCMP's camouflaged snipers moved in, and they are the ones who now, in the wake of the violence that followed, find themselves the subject of one racist media commentary after another.

Meanwhile, Indigenous people make up the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population and are younger than the rest of Canada, too: nearly half are under the age of 25. Ensuring those young people have access to the same opportunities and educational advantages as other young Canadians isn't just the moral thing to do (although it is) or the fiscally responsible thing to do (although it is), it will also unleash a vast source of human potential: new doctors and nurses, new artists and teachers, new ideas and new advances. Then there's the economic argument: one study [PDF] found those young people could be adding $400 billion to Canada's GDP before the end of the next decade.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms
But Idle Is No More is about more than that, too. The land and treaty rights of Indigenous peoples were enshrined in the same constitution as the rights of every Canadian — a successful attack on one of those rights makes it that much easier for other rights to be undermined or discarded. The Harper government has made no secret of its feelings when it comes to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms‚ ranging from ambivalence to outright contempt. Their attempts to undermine its importance come as no surprise and have ramifications for everyone who lives in this country.

Idle No More cuts to the core questions about what kind of Canada we want to live in. A Canada where all citizens are treated fairly? Where everyone has a voice? Where we seize the opportunity to learn from each other? Most Canadians are fiercely proud of our history of immigration and see our diversity as a strength. But this country is also home to scores of unique Indigenous cultures — cultures found nowhere else on earth — and for far too long, we've essentially ignored them, seeing their extinction as an inevitable side effect of progress. Or as a tragedy already complete.

But it's not too late. We still have a unique opportunity in Canada. And a unique history to guide us. While Idle No More has lots to offer politically, it's also a reminder of that cultural opportunity. If we, settler Canadians, want to take advantage of it, it will require our active effort. The true story of our nation's history — and of the current relationship between our federal and provincial leaders and the First Nations, Inuit and Métis — is not one the government has ever been anxious to tell. They won't do the work for us. We must also be idle no more.

Luckily, it's 2013; it will be easier for us to take advantage of that opportunity than it has ever been before. We can read Chelsea Vowel's blog with the click of a mouse. We can listen to Thomas King's Massey Lectures online for free. We can order his book, The Inconvenient Indian, in just a few seconds. Or have it shipped for free to our neighbourhood library. We can follow Vowel and Pamela Palmater and Hayden King and Wab Kinew and countless other Indigenous leaders on Twitter. We can stream panel discussions from The Agenda, or a free NFB documentary about the Oka crisis, or the entire CBC series 8th Fire. We can listen. We can learn. It's just the first, very small step, but the effort to take that step is barely any effort at all.

"Canada will not crumble and fall apart," Vowel writes, "if we become more honest and aware of the history of these lands and the incredible diversity of contributions by peoples from all over the world." She's right. In fact, Canada is at much greater risk if we don't.

In 1535, Jacques Cartier was too arrogant to realize how much the European world stood to benefit from Indigenous peoples. Nearly 500 years later, Stephen Harper and far too many other Canadians are making the very same mistake. We can — and we must — actively make the decision to see our country in a different light. To turn our backs on the worldview of Cartier and of Harper. To learn the unique lessons of our own history — and to make sure we never repeat the same mistakes again.


Friday, November 29, 2013

The Toronto Dreams Project at the AGO

The AGO before the AGO, 1907
New news! I'm teaming up with the Art Gallery of Ontario to launch the next three dreams in my project. They'll be part of the First Thursdays shindig at the Gallery next week. Each of the dreams is about an artist from Toronto who was working in the years between 1910 and 1918 — the same time period the AGO is exploring with their big new exhibit The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, which opens this weekend. Each of the dreams is inspired by an artwork from the Gallery's Canadian Collection: A.Y. Jackson's Springtime in Picardy, Frances Loring's Grief and Kathleen Munn's Cows on a Hillside. I'll also be talking a bit about the dreams in a "pop-up talk" (probably at 7:30). Meanwhile, singer-songwriter Julie Doiron will be playing, Kieran Adams from DIANA will be DJing, and there'll be all sorts of other art and music going on throughout the Gallery.
It all happens next Thursday, December 5, from 7-11:30pm. You can get tickets online and find all the rest of the details here.

In the meantime, you can learn more about A.Y. Jackson and Frances Loring in a couple of recent blogposts I wrote during my research for these dreams: "A.Y. Jackson Goes To War — The Group of Seven on the Western Front" and "Toronto's Lucky Lion — The Story Of One Of Our Most Famous Monuments." And the Toronto Star has more about Kathleen Munn here.

Hope to see you there!

Image: The Grange in 1907, via Wikiemdia Commons, with some photoshopping by me. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Torontonian Roots of Doctor Who — The Canadian Behind The Legendary TV Show

Doctor Who is more than 50 years old. The Guinness Book of World Records calls it the most successful science-fiction series of all-time. It's the longest-running, too. Since it first debuted in 1963, the show has aired nearly 800 episodes, plus specials, spin-offs, movies, radio plays, mini episodes, sketches for charity shows, books, graphic novels... It's an icon of British culture; the London Times called it "quintessential to being British." But if you want to trace the show back to the very, very beginning, to the person who more than any other is credited with the creation of Doctor Who, well, then you have to travel back to Canada, back to downtown Toronto, back to a brand new baby boy born in our city during the First World War.

His name was Sydney Newman. He was born in 1917, to parents who had moved to Canada from Russia. They owned a shoe shop, but their son dreamed of being an artist. As a kid, he went to Ogden Public School (just a block north-east of Queen & Spadina); as a teenager during the Great Depression he studied art and design at Central Tech (on Bathurst just south of Bloor). By the time he was in his early twenties, he was making a good living as a commercial artist, designing movie posters. 

But by his own admission, Newman was a restless sort. He was quickly developing a new passion: film. And his timing was absolutely perfect. In 1939, when Newman was just 21 years old, the National Film Board of Canada was created. The government had commissioned a report that recommended they commission another report that recommended they create the NFB. It was a way of strengthening Canadian culture and promoting national unity by making and distributing uniquely Canadian films, especially documentaries. Newman got in on the ground floor pretty much right away, working as a splicer-boy editing film.

He worked his way up quickly, writing and then directing and then producing. He got to work under John Grierson, a documentary filmmaker from Scotland who had written the government report and co-founded the NFB. He's hailed as "the father of British and Canadian film." With the Second World War breaking out just a few months after the NFB got started, Newman found himself working on the "Canada Carries On" propaganda newsreels that ran in movie theatres before feature films. Eventually, he'd be in charge of the whole series. His work would appear on hundreds of movie screens across the country. During his decade at the NFB, he worked on something like 350 films.

But now, with the war over, an even newer medium was catching on: television. By the late 1940s, some Canadians along the border had already bought their first TV sets to watch the earliest American shows. But we didn't have our own channel yet, so the CBC put together yet another report: this one was a plan to launch their own public television network. As part of the preparations for the launch, the government sent Newman down to New York City. He spent a year observing the various television departments at NBC, sending monthly reports back to Ottawa. "I fell passionately in love with television during my year in New York," he later remembered. He was particularly fascinated by the educational potential.

Sydney Newman at the CBC, 1950s
So when he got back from NYC, he left the NFB and accepted a job at the brand new CBC-TV. He was put in charge of all their outdoor broadcasts. Newman was the guy who put Foster Hewitt and Hockey Night in Canada on TV for the very first time. That same year, he broadcast the very first televised Grey Cup game.

But he would make his biggest splash as the head of the Drama department. He took it over in 1954; by then, CBC-TV was a big deal. Well over half the people in Canada now owned a television set; we had quickly become one of the leading television-producing nations in the world.

Newman, still only 31 years old, got to work implementing his new ideas. He was deeply influenced by his time making documentaries at the NFB, and he passionately believed television shows should try to connect with the lives of the people watching. "Canadians seeing themselves in dramatic situations always seemed to me the best way to get them to watch my programmes," he later said. At a time when a lot of the dramas on television were just classic old plays and novels shot with TV cameras, Newman hired exciting young writers and directors to produce original screenplays. He encouraged them to write about current events, tell stories about the world around them, and to break new ground. "[O]ne always complains about Canada," he said, "...we don't know who were are or where we're going or how we connect up with the USA. Well, I would say the bloody simple way to find out is to let the writers talk about themselves... and Canadians will quickly find out what they are."

By the end of the 1950s, Canada was getting a reputation for being on the cutting edge of the new medium. While Marshall McLuhan was teaching groundbreaking media theory just a few minutes away at the University of Toronto, the producers at the CBC were developing their own new ideas. "We were the only country that had no [pre-existing film or television] tradition," one CBC writer later remembered, "so television was our beginning. We did things on television they didn't do in England or America." The CBC gave them the freedom to experiment and Newman made sure they used it. His Tuesday night show, General Motors Theatre, became a hotbed for new story ideas, camera techniques and young talent.

He hired, for instance, Lister Sinclair, the future host of CBC Radio's Ideas, who had recently been called out in the House of Commons over a radio play he wrote about an unmarried pregnant woman considering an abortion. (The leader of the Conservatives denounced it as "disgraceful" and demanded government action.) Another was Len Peterson; he'd been criticized for daring to write about alienated youth and the erosion of democratic freedoms during the hyper-nationalistic years of the Second World War.

But it was a third playwright, Arthur Hailey, who wrote the biggest hit for General Motors Theatre. It was called Flight Into Danger, a tense thriller about an airplane whose pilots get food poisoning. It starred James Doohan (just a few years before he played Scotty on Star Trek) and it was a HUGE success. One critic called it, "probably the most successful TV play ever written anywhere." Hollywood turned it into a feature film (which was then, in turn, spoofed by Airplane!). The BBC aired the original CBC version, too. In fact, they bought more than two dozen Newman-produced CBC episodes. His shows were grittier, more innovative and more exciting than what the British were doing. And there, at the end of every single one, was Sydney Newman's name.

Flight Into Danger, 1956
So that's how he ended up in England.

The BBC had started their own television network all the way back in the very late 1920s — more than 20 years before the CBC did — and for a long time they had a monopoly on the British airwaves. But now, in the 1950s, they were forced to compete with private broadcasters. It was one of those private channels, ABC, who offered Newman a job. He was happy in Canada — he says he found the television scene here "terribly exciting" — but he just couldn't resist the opportunity.

So he packed his bags and headed off to London to become the head of Drama for ABC. He brought his trademark moustache and bowtie with him — along with his radical, new, Canadian ideas.

"I didn't really like what I saw here [in England] on television," he said. "Most television drama in 1958 — and when I say most, I mean 98% of it — consisted of either dramatization of short stories or a novel, or consisted of hand-me-down theatre plays, which were adapted for television... The theatre has always been a kind of middle class activity... These plays never had any real roots in the mass of the audience."

Or as he put it more bluntly: "Damn the upper classes – they don’t even own televisions!"

As part of his job at ABC, Newman took over a show called Armchair Theatre — sort of the British version of General Motors Theatre — where he again made sure to hire exciting new writers. This time, they were British ones, many of them playwrights who were having trouble establishing themselves in the upper-middle-class world of London's West End theatres. Newman helped launch the early careers of English writers like Harold Pinter, Ken Loach and Alun Owen (who would later write the screenplay for The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night). His writers wrote about issues like race, sexual assault and the potential for a nuclear holocaust. And the work they produced for Newman at ABC met with the same kind of popular acclaim he had achieved with the CBC.

"They were locals," Newman explained. "They were ordinary people... they wrote about the country that they knew... We discovered that the audiences were just eating this stuff up. And in retrospect, looking back, the audience loved the plays because the plays were about them, not about some elegant people in drawing rooms... They were plays, really, about the working class. And for the first time in England, the working class was being presented not as comic foil."

Newman & Kotcheff, CBC, 1956
Newman liked to call this kind of TV show "theatre of the people," but the programs would become better known as "kitchen sink dramas."

And it wasn't just the writers. Newman brought some Canadian directors with him to England. People like Ted Kotcheff (a Torontonian who would later direct The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Weekend At Bernie's) experimented with new camera techniques. Instead of boring, static shots, they adopted a more cinematic style, including hand-held camerawork and more frequent close-ups. Newman used those Canadian directors along with young British directors who were interested in the same kind of innovation. "We wanted to push against the limitations of the medium," Kotcheff remembered, "to approach the freedom of film, and not to enslave it to the theatrical tradition in which we found it when we arrived..."

Meanwhile, Newman used the talent he assembled to create a slate of brand new shows. His biggest hit with ABC was an adventure thriller capitalizing on the public's obsession with spies during those early years of the Cold War. It starred one of the British actors Newman had regularly used back in Toronto. It was called The Avengers. It would prove to be one of the most famous television shows ever. But that was nothing. Newman had an even bigger hit coming.

In 1962, he left ABC for the BBC. Now, he would be the head of their Drama department. And the new boss wanted him to mix things up.

"Syd brought this breath of fresh air into the stuffiness of the BBC," one of his colleagues later remembered. "With all its invention and all its wonderful storytelling, the BBC had been very stuffy... I don't think Syd had read Dickens. He certainly hadn't read Thackery. And as for Jane Austin, I mean, it was absolutely dead meat as far as he was concerned. He wanted something new."

One of his first challenges was to fix a slot in the BBC's Saturday afternoon schedule. They already had two big Saturday afternoon hits: Grandstand (a sports show) and Juke Box Jury (a pop music show). But right between them, at tea time, the ratings took a dive. The BBC had been airing a serial of classics, stuff like adapted Dickens novels. People were tuning out. Newman wanted to replace it with a new show of original material that would still educate and inform, but also appeal to the younger viewers who were already watching the other two shows.

He decided the perfect solution was a science-fiction show for kids.

Back when he was growing up in Toronto, Newman had been a big fan of science-fiction. And he still was. "[U]p to the age of 40," he said, "I don't think there was a science-fiction book I hadn't read. I love them because they're a marvellous way—and a safe way, I might add—of saying nasty things about our own society."

Pathfinders in Space, 1960
When he was at ABC, he had produced a science fiction trilogy called Pathfinders. And back when he was at the CBC, they'd done a Canadian version of the Howdy Doody puppet show with a science fiction twist: a character called Mr. X who taught kids about history and science by travelling through space and time in his Whatsis Box. (Mr. X didn't last long; parents complained he was too scary.)

The BBC was no stranger to science-fiction either. They had already done a bunch of shows with a sci-fi theme, stretching all the way back to some of their earliest programming. In fact, earlier the same year Newman joined the staff, the BBC compiled a pair of reports exploring the idea of a new science-fiction show.

So that's how Doctor Who started: with a meeting in an office at the BBC during the spring of 1963. Newman brought the authors of the science-fiction reports together with screenwriters from the old Drama and Children's departments (which Newman had now merged). It was the first in a series of brainstorming sessions over the course of the next few months, which produced a series of story ideas and character sketches that gradually coalesced into Doctor Who. A whole team contributed ideas, but it's Newman who generally gets credit for the core of them, from the name of the show to the basic premise. "The idea of Doctor Who," he later explained, "...was basically a senile old man, of 720 years or 60 years of age, who has escaped from a distant planet in a spaceship. And the spaceship had the capacity to go forward and backward in time."

Newman insisted the show had to be educational — about science and history — and that, even if the premise was extraordinary, it still had to connect with the ordinary lives of the people watching. He nixed the idea of making the main characters scientists (they wouldn't need to learn as much), proposed the cast should include a teenaged girl (who young people could identify with) and when the writers suggested the time machine should be invisible, Newman argued it should present a striking visual image instead. In the end, the Doctor's first companions would be a science teacher, a history teacher and his own teenaged grand-daughter, while the TARDIS time machine would take the form of an iconic blue police box — a familiar sight to English viewers in 1963.

But while Newman might have played a leading role in the creation Doctor Who, he wasn't going to produce it or direct himself. So, as usual, he set about finding the most exciting, young, innovative talent he could find.

Verity Lambert
First up: producer. "I didn't feel I had anyone on the staff who seemed right for the kind of idiocy and fun and yet serious underlying intent," Newman said. So he called up his old production assistant at ABC and offered her a promotion. Verity Lambert was just 27 years old when she became the producer of Doctor Who. At the time, she was the youngest producer in the Drama department and the only female producer at the BBC.

Meanwhile, the director for the first episode would be Waris Hussein. He was even younger: just 24, a recent graduate of Cambridge, where he'd worked with student actors like Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellan. He, like all of Newman's favourite directors, was interested in bringing a more cinematic style to television. And he, too, was breaking new ground: the very first Indian-born director to work for the BBC.

But as talented as they were, shooting that first episode would prove to be a major challenge for Lambert and Hussein. The BBC executives above Newman weren't completely sold on the show. They threatened to cancel it before a single episode had aired. The production team was forced to make do with a small budget despite their need to create entire alien worlds, historical costumes and the elaborate interior of the TARDIS. They were also forced to shoot on a sound stage so old it was nearly obsolete: Studio D at Lime Grove, a long, thin room which didn't give them much space at all. They couldn't even fit the police box in the elevator. "It was so old-fashioned, it didn't even have a lighting console," Lambert remembered in later interviews, "...It was like going into a studio that had come out of Noah's Ark... It was horrendous. If it got too hot, the sprinklers would turn on."

Their first attempt at shooting the first episode — in which the Doctor and his companions travel back to the Stone Age — was a disaster. The Doctor wasn't funny enough. The grand-daughter was too strange. Hussein had been too ambitious with his cinematic camerawork; the early TV cameras were just too clunky and heavy to pull it off. One of the actors remembered the day they screened the episode for Newman: "There was a long silence. And then Sydney got up and just said, 'Do it again, Waris.'"

Newman took Lambert and Hussein out to a Chinese restaurant in Kensington High Street to explain just how bad it was. "By rights I should be firing both of you," he told them, according to Hussein. But he believed in their talent and was willing to give them a second chance. Decades later, Hussein is still grateful: "For Sydney to put himself on the line makes him into somebody who, as far as I'm concerned, is a hero."

Their second attempt at filming the first episode went much better. The night before it was supposed to air they were already working on the filming of a second storyline. It was November 22, 1963. That date is better remembered for another reason.

The First Doctor, William Hartnell
Carole Ann Ford, who played the Doctor's grand-daughter Susan, was waiting for the elevator on her way up to the studio when she heard the news: John F. Kennedy had been shot. "I'll never actually understand how we got through it," she remembered, "because it was a very, very shocking thing... I was shaking. I thought, 'I'm never going to be able to do this.' ... I think I was trying not to cry, actually; I think we were all like that."

No matter how good it was, the premiere of Doctor Who was doomed to be overshadowed by the death of JFK. When the first episode aired the next day, it was slightly delayed in order to broadcast more news about the assassination. And the public just wasn't in the mood for time-travelling adventure. The BBC decided to the air the first episode again the very next week, but at the end of the first serial — four episodes based on the Stone Age story — the show's ratings were average at best. The BBC was going to need more convincing.

They say it was the Daleks who saved Doctor Who. The Doctor's arch-nemeses both terrified and thrilled children: their creepy robotic voices; their bone-chilling "Exterminate!" catchphrase; the aesthetics of a lethal salt and pepper shaker armed with a toilet plunger and a ray gun. The aliens who felt no emotion but hate were a hit as soon as they appeared for the very first time in the show's second serial. By the end of that storyline, there were more than 10 million people watching Doctor Who. Dalekmania had arrived.

Sydney Newman didn't like the Daleks. He agreed with one of the BBC reports when it said the show should avoid the use of "bug-eyed monsters." Newman called it "the cheapest form of science-fiction." But as you might expect from a 50 year-old show whose main character has been played in a dozen different forms by a dozen different actors, Doctor Who can't be reduced to the vision of one person. It quickly took on a life of its own. Those bug-eyed monsters became a staple of the show's format and a large part of its appeal, sending generations of delightfully terrified children scrambling to watch the action from behind the safety of their sofas.

But even half a century later, the use of those alien monsters still reflects the values Newman brought to the show when it first started. They're about more than just cheap scares; they're a learning opportunity. They give the Doctor a chance to demonstrate his respect for others and his belief that violence should be used only as the very last resort. He prefers to use his brain to solve problems. He's willing to risk his own life in order to open a dialogue with those bug-eyed monsters who, more often than not, turn out to have perfectly logical motives. Even if they're not always good ones.

"The Dalek Invasion of Earth," 1964
Those ideas about peace-making and peace-keeping had a new weight in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War. In fact, at the time Newman left Toronto, they were helping to forge a new Canadian national identity. The year before Newman's departure, future Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson had won the Nobel Peace Prize for being the champion of the brand new idea of United Nations peacekeeping. The idea quickly became a central part of the Canadian identity.

It was also, at the very same time, helping to reshape the British national identity. Pearson's peacekeepers were a response to British and French military aggression during the Suez Crisis in the Middle East. The Crisis was, for many Britons, a sign the Empire was not only over, but immoral. The BBC played an important role, clashing with the Conservative Prime Minster who wanted to muzzle opposition, pressuring the public broadcaster to support the government's position. It became a defining moment in the history of the BBC.

So it's not surprising a Canadian in the early 1960s would create a TV show reflecting something of a Pearsonian worldview — or that upon his arrival at the BBC, he would find plenty of people who agreed. Within a few years, in fact, Doctor Who had made the United Nations a major part of the show's storyline. And even today, the modern version of the series echoes the lessons learned in those dark days: the Doctor is haunted by the horrors of a recent Time War between his own people and the Daleks, and he's troubled by his own role in the violence.

Newman would continue on with the BBC until the late '60s — he was still there when the show made its next genius leap forward: the idea of "regeneration." It allowed them to replace the aging actor who played the First Doctor, William Hartnell, with a new actor playing a new twist on the same old character. It gave the show a built-in way of evolving over time, connecting with successive generations of viewers, and helping to ensure that it would still be a huge hit long after Newman and all the other original creators of the show had moved on. 

And for Newman, that time would come sooner rather than later. After he left the BBC, he stayed in England to make feature films for a while, but he didn't find much success with it. Besides, he missed Toronto.

"I am eternally interested in going back to Canada," he told one interviewer, " is my country. I mean, just the sheer thought of Yonge & College streets sends shivers... I can't wait to see the Toronto City Hall. I can't wait to go to Georgian Bay. It's my country. And there's something deep about this. It's corny and it's junior Chamber of Commerce stuff, but it's me."

Finally, after a decade in England, Newman headed back home to Toronto. London's Sunday Times mourned the loss. "Sydney Newman flew back to Canada yesterday, and British television will never be quite the same again. Arguably the most significant individual in the development of British television drama and a central architect of Canadian television in the fifties."

But the Canadian television scene he came back to wasn't quite the same as the one he'd left behind. The CBC had drastically slashed their drama department, prompting an exodus of Canadian talent. Homegrown writers, directors and actors all decided they would be better off in England or the United States. Newman called it, "a tremendous loss to... the consciousness of the nation... a tragedy for the country as a whole."

Student FLQ rally, Montreal
Instead of heading back to the CBC, Newman took a job as the head of the NFB. But it, too, was an organization in turmoil. This was 1970: the height of the separatist terrorist attacks by the FLQ. The desire to separate from the rest of Canada had reached a boiling point in Québec: there were riots, bombs going off, kidnappings of diplomats and politicians. Two months after Newman returned to the NFB, the FLQ murdered a cabinet minister. The Prime Minster temporarily declared martial law in Québec. Newman — who didn't even speak French — spent a lot of his time at the NFB clashing with separatists inside the organization. He claimed Québecois filmmakers were too focused on high-minded politics, ignoring ordinary people. And when Denys Arcand — one of the great Québecois filmmakers, who won an Oscar in 2004 for The Barbarian Invasions — made a documentary for the NFB that included two members of the FLQ calling for armed revolution, Newman kept it from being released. He was denounced for censorship. The FLQ even considered him as a target for kidnapping.

Meanwhile, the greatest success of his career wasn't even being aired in Canada. The CBC had shown the first 26 episodes of Doctor Who, but then stopped. Canadians wouldn't be able to watch it on TV again until the late 1970s, when TV Ontario finally picked it up for good. They even added to the educational angle of the show: an intro or wrap-up put each episode in its scientific or historical context, hosted at first by a futurist U of T professor and then Torontonian science-fiction writer Judith Merril.

Sadly, by the late 1980s, the show's popularity was slipping even at home in England. On Saturday afternoons, it was forced to complete with Mr. T in the wildly popular American show The A-Team; when it got moved to Mondays, it was up against the mother of all British kitchen sink dramas: Coronation Street. Doctor Who was almost cancelled in 1986, survived and then got cancelled for real. Newman had some meetings with the BBC in an attempt to save it and take over as producer, but he didn't get along with the network's new management. For more than a decade, the BBC didn't make any new episodes of Doctor Who. A full-length movie by FOX, featuring a new Doctor in an American setting, was meant to spark new interest and a new series, but it didn't work. It looked like Newman's greatest triumph was finally, completely dead.

The Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith
But not for long. A new generation of BBC executives and producers realized what they'd lost. In 2005, Doctor Who came back with a new Doctor, a new companion, a new look, and all the old villains. This time the CBC played a more direct role. They aired the new series right from the very beginning — even accidentally allowed a leak of the first episode before it aired — and then co-produced the next two seasons. Canada had invested public funds in the career of the show's creator and now Canada invested public funds in order to help the show regain its position as one of the most popular dramas on TV. The reboot has been shown every week in more than 50 countries. The biggest episodes are seen by more than 10 million viewers in the UK alone. And there's not a single drama on television that gets a better appreciation rating from viewers. Half a century after the TARDIS first materialized at Studio D in Lime Grove, Sydney Newman's greatest triumph is quite literally the most loved drama on television.


Tonight the BBC airs a drama all about Newman, Lambert, Hussein and the making of Doctor Who: An Adventure In Space and Time. This Saturday, they air the big 50th anniversary special. I could not possibly be more excited. #OMFG It's also being shown in theatres on Saturday and on Monday, though Saturday is already sold out. Cineplex has all the deets here.

I'll be writing about the new episode at the Little Red Umbrella, where I've already got posts up about the recent mini episode and pretty much all of last season. You can check that all out here.

Newman and Lambert have both been referenced a couple of times in the new version of the series. There's a character in one episode called Verity Newman; in another, in which the Doctor forgets who he is and think he's human, he gives his parents' names are Sydney and Verity.

There's a whole documentary about the origins of Doctor Who called, appropriately enough, Doctor Who: Origins. There's another one, too, called The Story of Doctor Who. They're both great. The BBC also did a radio program all about he creation of the show recently, which you can stream online here. And they have a whole website dedicated to the creation of the show, including all those early reports and character sketches. They also have an article about one of the documents here.

Jamie Bradburn has the full story of Flight Into Danger and "The Adventures of Sydney Newman" in a post for Torontoist here. Sydney Newman gave a long interview to the CBC in 1966, while he was still with the BBC, which is where some of the quotes in my post come from. You can watch it online thanks to the CBC archives here. The Museum of Broadcast Communications has a webpage about him here. The Canadian Film Encyclopedia has one here. The British Film Institute has another one here. He's also featured a bit in the book Rewind & Search which you can, in part, online thanks to Google Books here. And in When Television Was Young here. His Wikipedia page is here.

Sydney Newman interestingly enough, was also the first person to Marshall McLuhan on TV, as part of a series on University of Toronto professors which you can learn a little bit more about here.

Newman died of a heart attack in 1997. He lived in Governor's Bridge, just north of the Brickworks. When he passed away, the Guardian declared, ""For ten brief but glorious years, Sydney Newman... was the most important impresario in Britain... His death marks not just the end of an era but the laying to rest of a whole philosophy of popular art."

Verity Lambert has also passed away. The Independent shares more about her story in her obituary here. She would eventually run her own Drama department at Thames Television. Sad they're not both still here to enjoy the show's 50th anniversary.

You can watch a couple of Sydney Newman's WWII propaganda films here and here. The Canadian Film Encyclopedia has more about the entire "Canada Carries On" series here. You can learn more about the founding of the NFB here. And about the NFB in general from the book In The National Interest: A Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada which is, in part, online thanks to Google Books here. The Canadian Encyclopedia shares the history of the CBC here. You can learn more about General Motors Theatre here. And about Lister Sinclair's controversial abortion CBC radio play here. Wikipedia has a bit about the Canadian version of Howdy Doody here. And there's a blog with a little bit more about it here.

There are a bunch of Canadian Doctor Who fan sites. In fact, the Canadian fan club offshoot of the original British fan club — The Doctor Who Appreciation Society — is the longest-running Whovian fan club in North America. 33 years old this year. They're called the Doctor Who Information Network. There's a terribly popular podcast, too: Radio Free Skaro. And countless blogs and Tumblrs, as well as reference sites like The Doctor Who Reference Guide and Doctor Who: A Brief History of Time (Travel).

You can learn more about the BBC and the Suez Crisis in this PDF from the BBC.

You can learn more about the Torontonian director of Weekend At Bernie's, Ted Kotcheff, here.

Oh and here's an interesting comment from Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor, linking the Daleks to that sense of historical militarism: "I think Doctor Who played a lot on the fears we were growing up with. You know, the Daleks were kind of like fascistic. Those images of tanks in the First World War coming over, a Dalek looks like one of those in a way."

I also wanted to include something about the amazing original theme song and title sequence, both done with cutting edge experimental technology by 1960s standards. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop put the music together using tape loops, piano strings, oscillators and filters. The TARDIS sound comes from scrapping keys along piano strings. Soooooo nerdily cool.

Alright, that's it. I'm done.