The CNE: Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. Much More than the Midway.


A little tad—let’s call him Louis—counts the hours until the CNE, the Canadian National Exhibition opens in mid- August of 1956. Called the “Industrial Exhibition of Toronto” when it opened in 1879, in Louis’ day, the CNE was a “must see” for every kid in Toronto and its sprawling suburbs.

Young Louis is setting his 9-year-old sights on the food, the rides and the midway, but in years to come he’ll take an interest in the buildings that make up the mega-acre site along Toronto’s waterfront.

He’ll learn that around the turn of the century, Toronto’s city fathers had hired George W. Guinlock, one of the province’s premier architects to design a series of 15 buildings to showcase Ontario’s accomplishments during the duration of the Exhibition.

Inside these classically-designed structures, the best, and the most modern of Canadian commerce, arts, science, agriculture, horticulture and industry promised to  “wow” visitors over the CNE’s two-week duration.

Between 1902 and 1912, Guinlock’s buildings would rise over the massive 350-acre site of the Industrial Exhibition’s grounds, close by the Lake Ontario waterfront.

In 1912, the “Fair” took a new name, The Canadian National Exhibition” and Guinlock’s buildings became the showcases among the showcase of the CNE itself.


By 1956, when Louis and Marjorie Silcox arrive for their day at “the Fair,” several of Guinlock’s marvels, designed in the elegant Beaux-Arts architectural style have been demolished–the victims of “urban renewal.” Some have burned to the ground.

But little Louis doesn’t care much about history. He’s itching to hit the midway. Too young still for the Flyer and the Wild Mouse, he might talk Mom into letting him try the Tilt-a-Whirl or the Whiz-bang.

Marjorie has her priorities too. They’ll be sure to stop in at the Honey Dew booth. It’s the only time her taste buds will be satisfied by the orange-honey beverage.

The bus lets them off at the gates of the Fair and the pair head for the Horticulture Building. Marjorie’s a gardener and is anxious to see the glorious displays mounted by Toronto’s various horticultural clubs.

Guinlock’s building itself is a beauty to behold. Laid out in the shape of an E, a magnificent glass dome allows sunshine at the intersection of the building’s three wings.

The Horticulture Building has a history too. Between 1942 and 1946, it was claimed by the Canadian Armed Forces as their Quartermaster’s Store.

In 1949, Guinlock’s Horticulture Building served temporarily as a morgue for over 100 casualties of the sinking of the liner Noronic in Toronto Harbour.


Enough of flowers, next stop is the Food Building where Louis edges up to the front of the mouth-watering displays of food and the latest kitchen gadgets coming on the market. If he’s lucky, he might get chosen for a free sample– a donut, hot from the new-fangled fryer. Egg choppers are the latest time-saving tool and the young lad at the front of the crowd might get to sample some tasty egg salad too.

It’s time for the pair to move on. Marjorie stops to admire the CNE Administrative Building, the oldest of Guinlock’s CNE structures. While she’s not familiar with the architectural style—Beaux-Arts, she does admire the intricate ornamentation on the face. Colour has been incorporated into the Ontario crest design of Guinlock’s 1905 building.

The pair is finally on the midway and Marjorie fishes a quarter out of her change purse. Louis has his eye on The Flyer. It’s a monster of a ride—a noisy wooden coaster that, from the sound of the screams coming from the riders is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

He’ll have to be content with the tamer Tilt-a-Whirl. This whirling dervish still offers a shake-up to a lad’s innards.  


For a change of pace, the pair is heading to Guinlock’s Railway Building. Considered by many architecture buffs as the most beautiful and unique of his CNE structures, the Railway Building was designed as three octagonal domes connected to form a triangular inner space.

Inside, it showcased rail travel and achievements. As the popularity of rail travel waned in the 1960’s, the Railway building was reborn as the Hydro Building where advancements in energy development, then nuclear power were showcased.


Louis is anxious to get a seat for the afternoon Grandstand show. The entertainment will feature a pack of testosterone-fuelled Daredevils, jumping cars over each other, stunt driving and the usual automotive mayhem.

On the way to the Grandstand, Mom and son pass by the CNE Fire Hall and Police Station.  It’s the only one of the 15 Guinlock-designed buildings that veers from the ornate Beaux-Arts architectural style. Quirky in design, it features a clock tower and a copper pitched roof.

The building continues to serve today as Toronto Fire Department Number 90 Station. It’s occupied during the CNE by the Toronto Police Services too.


It’s been a packed day and both Louis and Marjorie are ready to call it a day. Mom has promised her son a final treat before the bus ride home. It’s a tough choice between the caramel corn and a Shopsy’s hot dog, but the beef wins.

Heading back to the Dufferin Gates where they’ll wait for the Clarkson bus, they pass by the Government Building. “What in there, Mom?” Louis asks. “I have no idea—government stuff I guess,” she answers. She’s thinking on that Honey Dew drink, wishing it was available at her corner Red and White. “I guess that’s why nobody’s lined up to get in,” Marjorie adds.

The CNE’s Government Building does much more business in 2018. It’s the home of the popular Medieval Times Theatre Company. Jousting and armour are more fun than blueprints and documents any day.





The Diefenbunker: “A Communist under every Bed.”

Claustrophobics beware! The Diefenbunker will send you running for the exit door. But if you have a passion for history, Cold War style, then head to Carp, Ontario, an hour’s drive west of Ottawa. Slap down the $13 admission fee and step into the world of nuclear war paranoia, Canadian style.

You’ll need at least an hour to wander through the 100,000 square foot, 4-storey bunker, excavated 75 feet under the ground. Guides are there to tour you through the Diefenbunker’s 358 rooms, but we did it alone. Hailey, our companion dog National Historic Site mascot, was glad when we were done and back into the open air.


Step back to the year 1959 to set the stage for surely one of Canada’s most unusual National Historic Sites. The Cold War is raging and talk of nuclear war dominates newspapers and airwaves. The Soviets are the villains and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is sabre-rattling, sending western politicians into defense mode.

In Canada, a fearful Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker authorizes the construction of 50 “Emergency Government Headquarters” across Canada.  Their purpose? To protect key government officials in the threat of nuclear war. Mr and Mrs. Joe Public are invited to dig their own hole in the ground in their back yards!

And so, in evacuation distance from the Canadian government headquarters in Ottawa, the village of Carp is selected as the site for the largest of the sites, pegged to protect key government officials, including the Canadian Prime Minister and his Cabinet. No small feat is this construction project!

An abandoned gravel pit outside Carp has been selected as the site and construction begins in 1959. An army of cranes, earth movers, dump trucks and bulldozers as well as hundreds of workers descend on the sleepy little village, causing townsfolk to wonder if a Soviet bomb might be less invasive than the current hullabaloo.

Over the next three years, work continues. Covering over 100,000 square feet, 75 feet under the surface, the Diefenbunker will require 32,000 tonnes of concrete and 5,000 tonnes of steel to build. Sacrificing ambience for safety, the structure is constructed to be able to withstand a 5 megaton nuclear blast, detonated up to 1 km away. With massive steel doors at the surface, the Diefenbunker is also fitted with extensive air filters to prevent radiation.

On completion, up to 585 humans can be housed in the sprawling structure.  Supplies of water, food, fuel and other necessities of life are stored to last up to one month. And while the Canadian Prime Minister will be assured of accommodation to befit his station in life, his wife and children won’t be allowed to accompany him into nuclear safety. “Military  restrictions” the reason.


Approaching the Diefenbunker on foot, we’re directed to the yellow doors that mark the entrance to the structure. A horizontal passageway leads into the bunker itself. “The air is close in here,” I observe to Louis. “I’m glad we’ve arrived on a cool-ish October day instead of sticky mid-July.” “It smells like wet concrete,” he adds.

Over the complex’s four levels, we’re presented with a microcosm of bunker-life, 60’s style– dentist’s office, doctor’s clinic, kitchen facilities, recreation and dining areas. “Remember melmac and arborite?” Louis observes as we take a peek inside the Diefenbunker kitchen, resplendent in shades of orange cupboard doors and matching wall paper.

A walk past the communication centre provides another journey into the past. “Not a computer in sight,” I chuckle, taking in the typewriters and mammoth tape recorders.

We enter the “women’s quarters” with the warning “no men allowed past this point.” “Of course there would be very few women in senior government positions in those days,” Louis remarks.

While most government workers and politicians will need to share quarters—bunk beds to save space—the Prime Minister’s suite befits his position. Curiously, the Prime Minister’s butler is housed on a different floor that his esteemed boss.

With cross-Canada communication essential in case of a nuclear attack, the Diefenbunker boasts the latest telecommunication equipment in the CBC Emergency Broadcasting Studio. Norman Depoe in a bunker! Chilling thoughts indeed.

No secret bunker would be complete without homage to a spy or two, and the Diefenbunker provides its own version of espionage Canada-style. Behind a glass case is the facsimile of a bodyless head, covered with what looks to be a pillowcase. The story that accompanies the display is worth the price of admission alone.

As the temperature of the Cold War lowered, a lowly cipher clerk, one Igor Gouzenko, working at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa presented himself at the Canadian Embassy with the news that the pure white north was indeed a hotbed of Soviet spies. And to add substance to his story, Igor pulled from his briefcase over 100 sensitive government documents that were on their way to Moscow.

Given asylum by the Canadian government,  Gouzenko wore a white pillowcase over his head to hide his identity when he was called upon to testify. Gouzenko lived out his life in the Toronto suburb of Bramalea as Jim Brown with few people ever knowing his idenity or role in the Cold War era..

And don’t miss the last stop on the Diefenbunker tour –the basement. First stop: the morgue. Kept at a cooling body preservation temperature, the morgue comes complete with shelves for multiple casualties. Beside the morgue you’ll find  the vault, designed to hold the gold reserves of the Bank of Canada . Two formidable vault doors prevent unauthorized entry. Sure don’t want the country’s money melting like chocolate on a hot summer day.

Completed in 1961, the Diefenbunker remained in continuous operation until it was decommissioned more than 30 years later in 1994. With the threat of nuclear holocaust diminished, the Bunker also served as the headquarters for Canadian Forces Carp. A staff of 150 kept the centre running 24 hours a day. At all times during the Diefenbunker’s active life were its cupboards fully stocked with food.

In 1994, the Diefenbunker was named a National Historic Site. It remained empty until 1997 when it re-opened as a museum.

Saying goodbye to what is surely one of Canada’s most eccentric National Historic Sites, I offer: “I’m really glad we visited; the Diefenbunker gives baby-boomers like us an unparalleled insight into such a different time—a time where fear and paranoia reigned.” We’re both relieved such times have faded into history.





Too Short a Time on this Earth: Dr. John McCrea and McCrae House

We’ve returned for a second visit to McCrae House in Guelph. It’s here, four years ago, where we began our quest to visit all of Ontario’s National Historic Sites. Having seen over 200 Sites to this point, McCrae House remains one of the treasures of our historical journey.

A compact limestone cottage in the heart of old Guelph, McCrae House was the childhood home of Dr. John McCrae, surgeon, soldier and the author of undoubtedly the world’s best-known war poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

Over 1000 artifacts are displayed in the home’s compact four rooms, from the earliest years of McCrae’s life, through to his school days at Guelph Collegiate Institute, on to the University of Toronto, to medical school and finally to the battlefields of Belgium and France during World War 1.


Of particular interest to visitors are the earliest of McCrea’s writings and sketches. He began to seriously write poetry while in high school. Poetry sustained him too when he was forced to take a leave of absence from his studies at the University of Toronto, due to ill health.

During McCrea’s year-long recuperation he wrote 16 poems and a number of prose pieces. Their sensitivity and astuteness foreshadow his most famous work “In Flanders Field,” written in 1915.

The centrepiece of the museum, well-protected behind glass is a copy of “In Flanders Fields” in McCrae’s own handwriting. Only six copies are known to exist.

The circumstances behind the writing of the poem are tragic. History tells that McCrae wrote the poem in 1915 after the death of a close friend in battle.  Sitting in the back of a Canadian Army ambulance on the way to bury the soldier, the vehicle passed by the rows of white crosses marking the graves of dead soldiers. Wild poppies grew between the interminable rows. McCrae was inspired to write:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

But stories vary as to the circumstances behind the anonymous publication of “In Flanders Field” in the British Magazine Punch.  Some lore speculates that family members encouraged McCrae himself to send in the poem to the magazine.

Another more fanciful tales sees a dissatisfied McCrae crumpling up the poem, and leaving it as refuse in the back of the ambulance. Another soldier finding McCrae’s discarded poem where it was left, reads it and is so moved by the words that he sends it anonymously to Punch.

Only when the poem is published, does McCrae become aware of its journey to London, England.


Moving through the Museum, John McCrae’s military medals now take centre stage. Only within the past 20 years have the medals returned “home.”

After McCrae’s death in the New Year of 1918, his personal artifacts were returned to his parents. After their death, the medals were entrusted to his sister, Geills living in Winnipeg. She stored them in a safety deposit box, informing no other family members of their existence.

After Geills’ death, the medals languished for years in a safety deposit. When the bank moved locations in 1990, employees opened a number of long-closed safety deposit boxes. Inside one were found military medals of unknown origin and ownership.

Uncertain of the value of the discovery, the bank manager kept them for some time before turning them over to an auction house. An astute auction official realized the origin of the medals and the wheels began to turn.

Fearful that the medals may be lost to a wealthy collector, members of the McCrae family contacted the media which exploded with the news of the find.

In 1997, Toronto businessman Arthur Lee purchased John McCrae’s medals for $500,000. They were promptly turned over to the safekeeping of McCrae House for display.


Poet, artist, skilled surgeon, dedicated friend and beloved family member, John McCrae’s short life was also distinguished by his compassion for children and animals. During his medical internship at a Montreal Children’s Hospital he cared for the most seriously ill of patients. One day a young boy, tears welling in his eyes confided how much he much he missed his pets.

Brought to tears himself, the good doctor was determined to help. He “borrowed” a kitten from a friend whose cat had recently given birth to a litter and each day smuggled it into the boy’s room. When Dr. McCrae left for home for the day, the kitten would leave under his coat!

In his medical diary, McCrae noted how the boy’s outlook had improved, concluding that “there was no better pain control than the affections of an animal.”

So it was no surprise to family and friends that when McCrae left for the battlefields of Europe in 1914, a horse named Bonfire travelled with him. Tending to a never-ending stream of wounded soldiers, McCrae would recharge his emotional batteries composing letters to his nieces and nephews back in Canada in the voice of Bonfire. “Bonfire’s” letters back home were routinely signed with a hoof print.

It seems that like his master, Bonfire had a sense of humour. In an impish mood, the horse would knock off soldier’s caps and snatch officer’s “swagger” sticks, carrying them off to before giving them up.

As the war continued, McCrae retreated more into the company of Bonfire and Bonneau, a spaniel he adopted while in Belgium. He continued to write poetry including his last poem, “The Anxious Dead.”

Over 1917, John McCrae’s health deteriorated. He died of pneumonia and meningitis on January 28, 1918.

Appropriately, a tour of McCrae House ends with photos of his funeral procession. The faithful Bonfire, rider-less and led by the halter, his master’s boots backwards in the stirrups leads the funeral procession. Lt. Colonel John McCrae was buried in France with full military honours.

Stories vary about the fate of Bonfire after McCrae’s death. One report sees the horse returning to the farm where he was raised in Quebec. Other stories see him being retired to a farm in northern France.


Slated for demolition in 1966, John McCrae’s birth home was saved from demolition by a group of concerned Guelph citizens who mortgaged their own homes to purchase the 1857 cottage.

They formed the Lt. Col. McCrae Birthplace Society, restored the home, and opened it as a museum. In 1966, McCrae House was designated a National Historical Site.


Industrial on the Outside; Glorious within. The Studio Building

IMG_0902IMG_0905IMG_0903355722_2“Well,” I comment to Louis,” all the detective work it took to get us here was well-worth it wasn’t it?” He agrees and like me regrets time-traveling back into the bustling world of present-day Toronto.

We’ve spent the last 90 minutes poking into the nooks and crannies of the National Historic Site  “The Studio Building” in mid-town Toronto. Designed and built by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris and his friend, art patron Dr. James McCallum  in 1914 , the Studio Building’s intent was to provide studio space for the builders’ artist friends including Group of Seven painters Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson,  Franklin Carmichael and JEH MacDonald.

Now a private residence, the public is not welcomed to this historic site without permission. A long and winding trail led me to the present owner and an invitation to tour the building, located on the edge of the Rosedale Ravine at 25 Severn Street.

“The exterior of the building is pretty unremarkable,” I suggest to Louis as we approach the door. “It looks like it could be an office building or even a factory.” “Industrial design pretty-well describes it,” he counters.  “I hope the inside is more remarkable.”

We need not have worried.

Tag along with the art-loving Silcoxes  as we explore Canada’s first “purpose-built artistic studio and residence in Canada.” The Studio Building’s  live-in caretaker Abe will show us around.


“As you probably know, Lawren Harris and his friend Dr. James McCallum were the brains, and the money behind the Building,” offers Abe. “Harris came from a wealthy family and was generous with it, especially when it came to helping his artist friends.” The builders’ plan saw six apartments providing living accommodation for artists who planned to work in the Studio for some time.

“At the time it was constructed, it was big news in Toronto,” continues our guide. “Not because of its purpose but that people thought it was ugly.  Critics in 1914 called it a ‘factory-looking building.'”

“I know that Tom Thomson lived here for a time, but he didn’t paint inside,” I question Abe. “Yes it’s true,” he answers and points out the area at the back of the building where Tom Thomson’s  “shack” sat. (see photo of area and of shack) -“Thomson much preferred the outdoors to the inside and felt his creativity was stifled in the modern and comfortable environment of the Studio Building.”

So, Group of Seven lore tells us that Harris and McCallum (the patron of a number of artists) located a suitable one- room shack and moved it to the back of the property for Thomson’s convenience. Lore tells that “renter” paid “landlord” $1 a month rent.

“And when spring came, Thomson cleared out for Algonquin Park where he spent the summer,”says Abe.


Thomson’s shack “explored,” we climb the stairs to the Studio Building’s main floor and enter a studio.  I’m stopped in my tracks by the effect of the strong January sun shining on the rich wood floors and furniture. “I’ve admired the huge windows from the outside,” I offer to Abe, “but they can’t even begin to convey the effect of light from the inside.”

“Light,” says Abe “was the whole purpose.” Harris left much of the design of the building to his architects, but he was firm about one feature–the windows. They had to be big, allowing the maximum light into the rooms.”  Six massive north-facing windows over the 3 floors of the building measure 3 meters (approx 10 feet) high by 4.5 meters wide (approximately 15 feet). On this sparkling January day, the effect is magical.

I close my eyes and images of A. Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, J.E.H. MacDonald and Harris himself filter by. “I can’t believe I’m standing in the very spot where members of the Group of Seven painted,” I say, with reverence,  as a shiver runs up and down my spine. Abe laughs. “I live here and I still feel that way.”

Passing out of the first studio,  my eye is drawn to the numerous paintings on the walls. A fan of artist David Milne, Louis stops to admire several of his works. I’m an A.Y. Jackson fan and am not disappointed either as I move on.

“It’s obvious that cooking and eating wasn’t tops on the artists’ list of priorities” says Louis, as he peruses the small utilitarian kitchen on the main floor.

In 1948, Harris sold the Studio Building to artist Gordon McNamara. On McNamara’s death in 2006, his son James Mathias inherited it. It was designated as a National Historic Site in 2004. Mathias, a successful underwater photographer spends most of his year in Fiji and resides in the historic Studio Building for only a few months a year.

I speculate to caretaker Abe that keeping up such a historic building surely cannot be inexpensive. He agrees, noting that all the windows and doors have undergone recent replacement. “And it was a huge expense.”

And what does the future hold for the historic Studio Building? “Maybe someone wealthy with a last name of Thompson will buy it?” I suggest. “Or maybe it’ll be turned into an office building?” Images of other proud historic buildings now neglected and crumbling  leave me troubled.

National Historic Site “The Studio Building” is not open to the public.





“By Invitation Only” The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto


You’ve seen the photo a hundred times and somehow never tire of scanning the faces again. Seen through the smoky haze of a dimly lit room, seven men–a cultured lot, in conservative dark suits with perky pocket handkerchiefs showing, are seated round a table. They’re clearly relaxed in each other’s presence, sharing a beverage or two in congenial conversation. 

On closer view, it’s plain that a few show discomfort, even hostility towards the intrusion of the camera into their social time. One, craggy-faced, with a “take no prisoners” attitude stares belligerently at the camera’s eye; two respond with faces cast downward; a fourth, of finer features adopts an embarrassed grin.

Taken in 1920 at Toronto’s  Arts & Letters Club, the photograph  captures the faces and personalities of six of the seven members of the Group of Seven.  It marks the only known photograph of A.Y. Jackson, Fred Varley, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Franz Johnson  and Arthur Lismer together.

Over the next century, the venerable “members only” club, devoted to the artistic fellowship and promotion of Canadian literature, music, and the arts would welcome other icons including novelist Robertson Davies, eminent orchestra conductor Sir Ernest MacMillan, and Sir Edmund Walker, banker, patron of the arts and founder of the National Gallery of Canada.

Almost 100 years later, a walk through the National Historic Site Arts and Letters Club of Toronto continues to reverberate with Canadian artistic and creative history. Come on along; let’s discover more.


Founded in 1908 by Toronto journalist Augustus Bridle,  the Arts & Letters Club, moved in 1920 to its present quarters at St. George’s Hall on Elm Street, Toronto. 

Founded with a mission to promote the Arts in Canada, the Arts & Letter Club quickly became the favoured meeting point for the aesthetically inclined of Toronto society.  They included journalists and writers, musicians, painters, poets and publishers.

The Club’s best known members remain the Group of Seven who, according to later Group member AJ Casson “luncheoned there daily.”

The collegial setting allowed these artistic pioneers to gain strength from each other, to strike out on their own artistic journey, rejecting the premise that Canadian art must copy the well-worn path tread by European painters. Instead this Group of Seven patriots would celebrate the distinct landscape of Canada.

Group member J.E.H. Macdonald served as Vice-President of the Club for four years and designed its crest. Madonald’s design, still the Club’s logo, shows a Viking ship with sails billowing against the rising sun. Macdonald’s artistic mission was to “remind members of the open seas and great adventure.”


In the 1920’s and 1930’s, one of the Arts & Letter regulars would seem, at first glance, out of place in a meeting place devoted to the arts. He was Dr. (later Sir) Frederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin and Nobel Prize winner.

But this scientist was a closet “Artsie” too, an amateur painter, on friendly terms with members of the Group of Seven, and  a frequent sketching companion of  A.Y. Jackson.

And while the eminent doctor was said not to participate in many of the songs and skits presented regularly by talented Arts & Letters Club members at lunchtime gatherings, Dr. Banting was  known to be “a good companion at table, for he loved the singing, the story telling and the good drinking of men relaxing .” (Michael Bliss, Banting: A Biography,  page 168).

A sketch of Banting by Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer reveals the affection by which the artists felt for their medical friend. The admiration was no doubt mutual. Banting biographer Michael Bliss speculates that that the time spent with friends at the Club was a pleasant change from the “stuffy formality of the University.”  


And for artistic women? Sorry ladies. Women were not invited to become members of the Arts and Letters Club until 1985. Even then, outraged protests from male stalwarts were heard. One hardliner protested vigorously against the ground-breaking change, fearing that there was little doubt that “women’s superior acumen and intuition would in the end take over the club leaving the male members with no opportunities to develop their limited skills. “

When all was said and done, the vote saw 64 in favour of women; 38 opposed. Given its usual membership in the hundreds, clearly many men abstained from voting.


In 2017, Arts and Letters Club membership hovers around 600. It includes both men and women of all ages, “for whom the arts are an essential part of life—a place to pursue creative expression, engage in the free and vigorous interchange of ideas and opinions, and enjoy good conversation and the companionship of kindred spirits.”

In addition to fellowship of kindred spirits, members use the venue to promote their own, and other artistic ventures.     

While the club is closed to the public, arrangements to visit are welcomed by calling Club Manger Fiona McKeown at 416-579-0223.




Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”



Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”

It’s a delicious spring day and the Silcox National Historic Site bus is on the road. We’re heading to Brantford—the First Nation Reserve of Oshweken to be exact. Our destination is Chiefswood, the ancestral home of poet and performer E. Pauline Johnson.

As we approach the Site on the banks of the slow-moving Grand River, snippets of Pauline’s  best-known poem “The Songs my Paddle Sings,” are called up from the depths of my six-decade-long memory.

West wind, blow from your prairie nest,

Blow from the mountains, blow from the west

The sail is idle, the sailor too;

O wind of the west, we wait for you!

Now you remember her from your own school days, don’t you—this half First Nation princess; half proper Victoria lady. And your memories aren’t that favourable are they? Like me, you were forced to study her poetry in high school and we found it sickly sentimental and flowery.  Too bad the English teachers of the 1960’s didn’t tell us about the woman herself.

“Pauline Johnson was before her time,” I remark to my chauffeur. “She lived generations before social media, but still Pauline knew how to get attention.   She was mysterious; she was beautiful; she had talent; she had chutzpa; but more than all this, Pauline Johnson knew how to court the media,” I add.

My driver,who doubles as navigator, dog-handler and purser agrees whole-heartedly.

We’re both hoping to get more insights into her larger-than-life character before we leave Chiefswood for home.


Born in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the child of a mixed marriage. Her English mother, Emily Howells had married Mohawk George Henry Martin Johnson.  Four children including Pauline were eventually born.

Now George Johnson was no ordinary mortal.  Descended from the great Hiawatha, he was known in diplomatic as circles as Teyonhehkon, (some sources name him Onwanonsyshon)  the esteemed Chief of the Mohawk Confederacy. As such, he was afforded the respect that few of First Nation blood achieved.

As the children of “royalty,” Pauline and her siblings were educated at home in the English tradition. Her diary entries detail her growing infatuation with the romantic poets– Keats, Byron and Shelley. She began to write poetry herself and in her teens, her verse was published in the literary journal Gems of Poetry.

Much to her parents’ chagrin, by her early 20’s, Pauline had begun giving recitations of her poems.  But no run-of-the-mill Victorian poetry readings were these. The first part of the evening’s entertainment would see the night’s attraction  reading poems in her persona as the finely-bred English lady, Pauline Johnson.

Audiences politely applauded but remained restrained. They were waiting anxiously for the main act!


After a quick wardrobe change–out of hooped skirt and demure long sleeves into buckskin, beads and feathers, the main event returned as Indian princess Tekahionwake. Her verse reflected her altered persona. Birch-bark canoes and brave warriors had replaced flowers and singing birds. Crowds cheered and begged for more.

Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake was soon in demand across Canada, the United States and Great Britain. She became a veritable celebrity and enjoyed the status that this gave her. This included rubbing shoulders with the literary and artistic crowds of the day.

Two of these luminaries were artists Carl Ahrens and Homer Watson. The artistic trio had also been drawn together as spiritualists who met regularly at séances (usually at the Watson Kitchener-area home) hoping to  seek contact with those who had moved on to the afterlife.

One spiritual tall-tale tells of  Johnson and Ahrens on an evening canoe outing paddling down the Grand River.  Suddenly they are ambushed by a war canoe carrying a vengeful Iroquois hunting party. Only Tekahionwake’s skilled canoeing skills save them from losing their scalps to the vengeful foe.


Sadly Pauline Johnson’s life was to be a brief one. In 1913, she died of breast cancer in Vancouver where she had relocated in the early 1900’s. she was only 52. 

Time has not been a friend to Pauline Johnson, poet. The writer of 13 books of verse, she is now rarely studied in school. Her name is more associated with overwrought emotion and Victorian angst than outstanding verse. Critics have also dismissed her performance legacy, calling her  nothing more than a savvy “entertainer;” one whose fame was based more on “showmanship” than literary talent.

Still, some with broader perspectives, treat Pauline Johnson with  more respect. She’s lauded as the woman who opened the door for succeeding female Canadian writers and performers.

In 1992, Chiefswood was designated a National Historic Site. Set on a hill overlooking the Grand River, the property is well worth a visit. If only to see the photographs displayed of the Mohawk Princess in buckskin, feathers and beads.


The Kingston Penitentiary:Murderers,Serial Killers and Childen

li-kingston-pen-istock-6201954_riot.jpg.size.xxlarge.promor-KINGSTON-PENITENTIARY-CLOSE-large570Constructed in 1835 during Queen Victoria’s reign, and occupied continuously until 2013, the Kingston Penitentiary once held a dubious distinction.  K.P. as it was known in the corrections system remained among the oldest of North American prisons to house criminals in the age of computers, space exploration and smart phones.

On a fall visit to the lovely and historic “limestone” city of Kingston, on National Historic Site adventuring, Louis and I  had “The Pen” on the top of our “must see” list.

On arriving at the massive 8.4 hectare site, we were disappointed to learn that the doors to the Gothic fortress remain bolted shut. “You’d think Corrections Canada could make a bundle having public tours,” I suggest. He agrees.


Kingston, Ontario once reigned as Penitentiary King of Canada. At one time 9 jails, including the Kingston Women’s Prison, held society’s law breakers in the province of Ontario.  

One Joseph Bouchette was the first criminal sentenced in 1835  to serve a penitentiary term at Kingston. His crime “Grand Larceny.” His punishment 5 years. 

The youngest inmate to arrive at K.P. was 8-year-old Antoine Beauché, a pick-pocket. Even at that young age, the court described him as an “old offender” and an” experienced pick-pocket.” The lad’s sentence was 3 years.

Records show that within a week of arriving, Antoine received the lash. Over the next 9 months he was lashed on 47 other occasions for: “staring, laughing, whistling, giggling, making noise in his cell, having tobacco and idling.”

Bad Girls Too

The adjacent Kingston Women Prison opened in 1836, thanks to the labours of their male “neighbours.” Three women, sentenced on the same day, were its first residents. All from the Hamilton area,the women had been convicted for the crime of Grand Larceny (theft).

The youngest female inmate to occupy a cell was 9-year old Sarah Jane Pierce. She was sentenced to 7 years of imprisonment for housebreaking and larceny. Among the items that the little girl was found guilty of stealing were: a quilt, a ladies hat, a towel, some beef, raisins, biscuits, tea and sugar. 

Larceny was by far the most common crime for which men, women and children were sentenced. It takes little insight to see poverty and empty bellies as the motive behind such crimes.

Too Tired to Cook up Trouble

Riots and escapes—successful or failed, go hand in hand with prisons. August 1954, saw an uprising at K.P. involving 900 inmates. Guards, reinforced with RCMP assistance got the situation under control within a few hours.

The inmate riot of April 1971 was more destructive. Two prisoners were killed during the 4-day rampage.  6 prison guards were held captive and much of the prison was heavily damaged.  

The 1971 riot is notable for its use of the media to publicize the prisoners’ grievances. Prison leaders used newspaper, radio and television to air their grievances.  A lack of recreational time and little meaningful work time were tops on their complaints . Too much time spent in cells was another “bone to pick.”

K.P.’s  “Walk of Fame”

Kingston Penitentiary has housed many of the most infamous of Canadian criminals. They include: James Donnelly of the murderous Black Donnelly gang who terrorized the London/Lucan area in the mid-19th century. Donnelly was awaiting hanging in Kingston but was spared the noose after his wife circulated a petition to spare his life.

The notorious bank robber, “Red” Ryan also called K.P. “home” in the 1920’s.  A personal story illustrates just how daring the flame-haired criminal was.


Several years ago my services as writer were requested to complete the biography of an elderly woman who was born and grew up in the Kingston area in the early 1920’s .

Then only a child, she was living with her family on an isolated farm outside of town. Suddenly they heard an unexpected pounding on the door. Fearful of who would be out on such a stormy night, the family held together as my client’s father answered the door.

On the step were two rough-looking men, one with flaming red hair. “They wanted food and shelter for the night,” my elderly friend recalled. “So my father told them they could sleep in the loft of the barn. And my mother gave them some bread and meat.”

By the morning the pair had gone. “It wasn’t till later that we realized that our visitors were the escaped bank robber Red Ryan and his accomplice,” she recalled. “It gave us the chills thinking about how it could have been much worse for us.’

Political prisoners such as Tim Buck, leader of the Communist Party of the 1930’s also “broke bread” with hardened murderers and rapists.

Modern day criminals and social deviants Paul Bernardo, serial child killer Clifford Olsen, Michael Rafferty (convicted of the death of 8-yer-old Victoria Stafford), former Canadian Armed Forces Colonel Russell Williams, and “honor killers” Mohammad and Hamed Shafia also resided at K.P

Through a Hole and Over the Wall

The stuff of Hollywood movies, escape attempts often catch the public’s attention when they occur. Prison records show 26 escape attempts from the the date of opening in 1835. Only a handful, including Red Ryan succeeded. None remained at large for long.

In 1999, one escape had a different outcome than most. Prisoner Ty Conn, on the loose for more than two weeks had been traced to a Toronto hotel room. Seeking to tell his story, Conn had contacted the CBC.  As Toronto police were surrounding the hotel, Conn was on the phone to a CBC reporter. Suddenly the reporter heard a deafening roar. Conn had put the gun to his head and fatally shot himself as she listened.

Despite its archaic conditions and dubious reputation, the end of the road for the Kingston Penitentiary didn’t come until 2013.  Prison reform advocates called K.P. “a dumping ground for bad guards.”   


Although the doors to Kingston’s Penitentiary remain closed, across the road Canada’s  Penitentiary  Museum allows a glimpse of life behind bars. The Museum houses prison artifacts such as leg irons, shackles, straight jackets, as well as escape equipment–knotted bed sheets, knives, spoons and small trowels .

The Curator of the Museum is Denis St. Onge who has written a book on the prison, “One Day Gone.”It is for sale in the gift shop.The book is dedicated to the 34 Corrections officials included guards who lost their lives on duty. li-kingston-pen-istock-620li-kingston-pen-istock-620