Thursday, November 4, 2010

Heritage: Toronto the Warrior City

Paul Federico, an expert on military history and artifacts, spoke to the Swansea Historical Society in Toronto, Ontario on 3-November-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the modern era, thinking of Toronto (or even Canada as a whole) as a place of warriors seems rather bizarre. However, in his presentation to the monthly meeting of the Swansea Historical Society last night, Paul Federico made the case that Toronto has long been a city of warriors, dating back to pre-Colombian times.

Uniforms including silver leaf were amongst the artifacts brought by Paul Federico to Swansea Town Hall in Toronto, Ontario on 3-November-2010

That thesis might be a bit of a stretch even in Federico's eyes, but there are definitely some great stories in Toronto military history, and he told quite a number I had never heard before. The term "sedentary militia," for example, refers to those in the era of the war of 1812 that were assigned to stay and defend their local communities instead of being commanded on a campaign. He pointed out some of the ridiculous uniforms worn in that era as well, with ornamentation that actually made it easier for the other side to take aim. He also mentioned that during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the "English" troops actually included 1,500 Scots and 900 Irish amongst 4,800 total--and that John Graves Simcoe had been designated to lead the fight against Napoleon until he died prior to taking command. Imagine how that might have changed history, or at least the perception of Ontario's (er, Upper Canada's) first Lieutenant Governor.

Paul Federico held up material used by British troops to make socks in the nineteenth century while speaking to the Swansea Historical Society in Toronto, Ontario on 3-November-2010

Another interesting anecdote was that 350 local Mohawks had been sent to paddle up the Nile during the Mahdist Revolt of 1884, since they knew how to handle themselves on Ontario waterways--but they did not arrive in time to save Charles George Gordon. Probably my favorite story from Federico related to the blue laws that once so defined Toronto. As troops were not allowed to purchase alcohol in the city, they came up with the idea of sending out a dog with a money pouch, who was trained to go a specific store, where he would be outfitted with two kegs of ale and would then return to Fort York. The practice proved controversial, but was ultimately ruled legal since dogs had the "freedom of the city" and were allowed to carry alcohol, and certainly the practice improved troop morale.

Some stories went beyond the troops. After the United States captured Toronto in the War of 1812, they made the captured troops sign a parole document saying they would not fight for the next year before they were released. There were only 300 troops at Fort York at the time--yet 1300 people signed parole documents. It seems potential draftees from all around Toronto came into town to sign the documents in order to avoid being called up to military service for the next year.

A variety of World War I through 1990's artifacts and accouterments provided by Paul Federico were found in Swansea Town Hall on 3-November-2010

The future for military artifacts in Toronto may be quite bright. Currently, there are quite a number of things preserved, but they are located in scattered locations, mostly active or retiree posts of various kinds. However, the Stanley Barracks from "New Fort York," which has most recently been a vacant building on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, is slated to become a military museum under the care of the 32nd regiment as part of the construction of a new hotel. When that opens, it won't be necessary to find Paul Federico to learn about Toronto as a warrior city.

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