By Renée S. Gordon
The Afro-Canadian experience was unique to each individual and varied from place to place and there is no better way to experience the historic spectrum than to visit the Chatham-Kent area and travel onward to Toronto, a journey of approximately 200-miles. VIA Rail, Canada’s national passenger rail service, is an excellent way to make this trip. It allows visitors to follow a route taken by early settlers and much of the landscape appears unaltered. Toronto’s Union Station is in the heart of the city, near accommodations and attractions, and makes a car an unnecessary expense. VIA Rail’s Corridor encompasses 450 communities, 7,767-miles, and a 10-day corridorpass is offered as well as a huge selection of discounts and packages. www.viarail.ca/en
First Nations people inhabited the area the Iroquois referred to as “Toronto,” “place where trees stand in the water,” for more than 10,000 years prior to the 1608 arrival of Samuel de Champlain and explorations by his indentured servant Etienne Brule. In 1750, the French built Fort Rouillé, a trading center, adjacent to a native village. The land was sparsely settled until British Loyalists, bringing their slaves with them, migrated because of the American Revolution and the Mississauga Tribe sold the area to the English.
Blacks were woven into the fabric of life in Toronto from its inception in 1793. At that time, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe relocated the capital of Upper Canada and, after proclaiming that the name Toronto was “outlandish,” renamed the colony York in honor of the Duke of York. In that same year, a law was passed that halted slavery’s extension into Upper Canada.
Fort York National Historic Site, 100 Garrison Road, is situated on the northern shore of Lake Ontario to protect the bay’s entrance. The U.S. declared war on England in 1812 and attacked York on April 27, 1813 by sea and land. The fort eventually fell. Though the British army had restrictions of black enrollment while the Royal Navy did not, units of blacks fought the Americans in both services not only to defend York but also to maintain their free status on Canadian soil. The war also proved an opportunity for more than 2,000 American slaves to escape. The fort was in use until the 1930s and was opened to the public as a museum in 1934. It contains the largest group of 1812 era structures in the country and tours highlight the earthworks, blockhouse and ten-room senior officers quarters. www.fortyork.ca
Old Town Toronto is where the city began and one of its earliest structures was the Farmer’s Market, 92 Front St., designated in 1803 by Lt. Governor Peter Hunter as the official market area. The first structure on the site was a wooden building, 35′ X 29′, constructed in 1820. In 1831, a brick building replaced the wooden one. It had two wings that housed shops and offices, an assembly hall, police station #1 on the main floor, prison cells in the basement and a triple-arched entrance. You can still see the original cell stones and marks from the chains.
The 20th-century St. Lawrence Market Complex is actually two markets. A Market Gallery opened in 1979 on the 2nd level. It features the city’s art collection, historic memorabilia and archival information. Here you can see a diorama of the old market and the gallery windows provide a great view of Old Town. During the 1800s, boats docked at the City Wharf, just outside the market at Front & Jarvis, and this location was where some of the 3,000 blacks that settled in Toronto prior to the Civil War disembarked and were met by abolitionists. www.stlawrencemarket.com
The original St. Lawrence Hall opened in 1851. The Classical building, with Corinthian columns, was authentically restored in 1967. The first meeting held in the hall, on April 1, 1851, was a lecture on slavery held by the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada. In September, the Convention of Coloured People was held on site and both Frederick Douglass and Frances Watkins Harper lectured here. St. Lawrence Hall has been designated a National Historical site and an important stop on the Heritage Trail. 157 King St. East.
The earliest black institution, and the oldest institution, in Toronto is the First Baptist Church. The Baptist faith began in Toronto when 15 ex-slaves met lakeside to worship. In 1826, Elder Washington Christian, an African American, founded the church. The congregation actively participated in the UGRR by providing a forum for lectures and information and feeding, clothing and sheltering freedom seekers. 101 Huron St. www.firstbaptistchurchtoronto.com
The story of Thomas and Lucie Blackburn is an excellent example of the resonance of history. The Blackburns escaped enslavement in Kentucky in 1831 and rode the UGRR as far as Detroit where they lived until apprehended in 1833. The resistance of their supporters to their return south sparked Detroit’s first race riot and in the ensuing confusion they managed to escape to Toronto. The US requested that they be extradited but the Canadian government refused, creating case law based on the fact that their punishment would be harsher than Canadian law allowed. This precedence, along with the Jesse Happy Case, continues to be the basis of Canadian extradition policy. The subsequent case of fugitive Jesse Happy in 1838 determined that in order to extradite the offense had to be a crime in both the US and Canada.
The Thorntons started the first taxi service in Upper Canada and were active in the black community. The site of their home was the first fugitive slave location excavated and remains the only fully excavated one in Canada. They have been designated “Persons of National Historic Significance.” A plaque stands on the archeological site at Sackville St. and Eastern Ave.
One of Toronto’s most highly regarded Afro-Canadians was William Peyton Hubbard the son of free parents and a trained baker. He entered politics at the age of 51 and was elected alderman on his second attempt in 1893. He was re-elected 13 times and served as acting mayor on several occasions. A park was named in his honor and a plaque was placed at 660 Broadview Ave.
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), 100 Queen’s Park, is the largest museum in Canada with 5 floors of exhibit space. “Stitching Community: African-Canadian Quilts from Southern Ontario,” a special exhibit, is featured until September 6th. The quilts were crafted between 1848 and 1976 in Windsor, Canada. Filmed interviews accompany the display as well as photographs, and quilting tools. The ROM’s C5 Restaurant is a wonderful place to lunch, enjoy the view and look over the purchases you made in the outstanding museum store on the premises. www.rom.on.ca
While information on heritage sites is available I recommend that visitors arrange an organized tour in order to locate the sites and obtain more detailed information. Muddy York Walking Tours, led by Richard Fiennes-Clinton, are fully customizable and are available with reservations. 416-487-9017
Though not a hockey fan but even I enjoyed the 57,000-ft. Hockey Hall of Fame, 30 Yonge St., in BCE Place. The hall pays homage to the game through the largest collection of related artifacts in the world, interactive exhibits, and a reproduction of an NHL dressing room. www.hhof.com
The hollow concrete CN Tower was completed in 1976. It stands an iconic 1,811.5-feet and allows a 75-mile panoramic view on a clear day. The Sky Pod Level, located at 1,465-ft., is the tallest public observation deck in the world and a 258 sq-ft. Glass Floor and Observation Deck are located at 1,122-ft. There are two restaurants, Horizons and 360. The 360 restaurant is situated at 1,151-ft., makes one full rotation every 72-minutes and the ride up the tower is included if you dine there. There are 6 glass elevators and rides to the Lookout Level take 58 seconds. A separate admission ticket is necessary for the Sky Pod Level. www.cntower.ca
N’awlins Jazz Bar & Dining, www.nawlins.ca, and Harlem Restaurant, www.harlemrestaurant.com, are great dining choices for this tour. Patrons can enjoy the artwork and cuisine at both and N’awlins offers live jazz nightly.
The Intercontinental Toronto Centre, 225 Front St West, located within walking distance of most attractions and provides every amenity you could wish for. Artist Timothy Mohan’s original aboriginal art adorns the lobby as part of the $30-million renovation and as a guest you have access to the 8,000-ft. spa, complete with a full line of services and Himalayan salt hot tub and solarium, fitness center, WIFI, 24-hour room service and gourmet dining. www.ictc.ca
There are non-stop flights to Toronto daily from Philadelphia and the flight time is under two hours. All of the ingredients for a great vacation, museums, heritage, history, attractions, more than 500 restaurants and a stunning menu of festivals and events, are present. You do need a passport but it is well worth the effort. My suggestion, think Toronto! www.torontotourism.com
I wish you smooth and epic travels!