“Decolonizing” History

Toronto’s Fort York is Under Attack Again. This Time it’s an Inside Job

Larry Ostola
June 27, 2022
History was once a collection of facts, relics and other evidence organized in ways that illuminated our past and explained our present. And museums were where we kept much of that history safe, accessible and easily enjoyed. But that’s so yesterday. Today, Canada’s museums are accused – often by their own staff and leaders – of perpetrating “Euro-centric ableist narratives of patriarchy, exploitation, colonization and heteronormativity” and must therefore be comprehensively dismantled. Larry Ostola examines the mysterious disappearance of Toronto’s popular Fort York Guard, a long-time tourist attraction, as museums across the country descend into identity politics madness.
“Decolonizing” History

Toronto’s Fort York is Under Attack Again. This Time it’s an Inside Job

Larry Ostola
June 27, 2022
History was once a collection of facts, relics and other evidence organized in ways that illuminated our past and explained our present. And museums were where we kept much of that history safe, accessible and easily enjoyed. But that’s so yesterday. Today, Canada’s museums are accused – often by their own staff and leaders – of perpetrating “Euro-centric ableist narratives of patriarchy, exploitation, colonization and heteronormativity” and must therefore be comprehensively dismantled. Larry Ostola examines the mysterious disappearance of Toronto’s popular Fort York Guard, a long-time tourist attraction, as museums across the country descend into identity politics madness.
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For nearly 70 years visitors to Toronto’s Fort York have been greeted by the trill of fifing, the beating of drums, the crash of muskets and the boom of cannon. These authentic 19th century sounds, along with the colourful sight of red-coated soldiers in the uniform of the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry performing military drills on the grounds of the meticulously preserved site have brought history to life for countless tourists and residents alike.

Fort York is often referred to as the birthplace of Toronto and was officially designated a National Historic Site in 1923. Beyond its outstanding collection of original buildings and priceless historical artifacts, the fort holds considerable significance for all Canadians thanks to its role in the Battle of York, which occurred on April 27, 1813 during the War of 1812.

A brave stand: At the Battle of York during the War of 1812, British and Canadian soldiers and native warriors battled an estimated 1,800 American invaders, before abandoning Fort York and blowing its gunpowder magazine.

On that date, a large American flotilla hove into sight on Lake Ontario near what is now Sunnyside Beach and disembarked an estimated 1,800 American troops under the command of Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. The invaders immediately moved on Fort York. Opposing them were several dozen Mississauga and Ojibway warriors and 500 to 600 British and Canadian troops. Despite putting up fierce resistance, the greatly outmanned defenders were eventually forced to abandon the fort. As they retreated, the defenders blew up the fort’s main gunpowder magazine – creating a massive explosion that killed Pike and 37 other American soldiers.

After taking the fort, the Americans occupied York – then the capital of Upper Canada, now Toronto – for five days. During this time they looted the town and burnt several public buildings, including Government House and the Legislative Assembly. As a war trophy, they took with them the parliamentary mace of Upper Canada. (It wasn’t returned until 1934, when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent it back as a gesture of goodwill when the fort opened as a museum.) The burning of York was a significant blow, but it eventually backfired on the Americans. Just a year later the British put Washington D.C. to the torch in revenge. Sir George Prevost, Governor-in-Chief of British North America, remarked that “…as a just retribution, the proud capital of Washington has experienced a similar fate.”

Welcome to your past: For nearly 70 years, the historical animators of the Fort York Guard have brought history to life for visitors to the Fort York National Historic Site in downtown Toronto. (Source of photo: The Fort York Foundation/ Facebook)

Today, Fort York is once again under attack. But it’s not a fleet of troop-laden American ships that its defenders need worry about. This time it appears Fort York is being attacked by “decolonizers” intent on discarding our country’s own history.

Fort York’s Latest Siege

As one of the City of Toronto’s ten history museums, Fort York is a popular tourist attraction and event venue. In 2014, thanks to substantial fundraising efforts by the volunteer group The Friends of Fort York, as well as the Fort York Foundation, an award-winning, $25 million Visitor Centre was opened, putting on display many of the city’s most historically-significant artifacts. But one of the most effective means of conveying the past to the fort’s present-day guests has long rested in the hands of a small contingent of historical animators operating as the Fort York Guard. Largely comprised of university students, the Guard welcomes and interacts with visitors while their Fife and Drum Corps brings the fort alive with sound, creating a tangible and colourful reminder of the important events that took place there. Of the hundreds of students who’ve served in the Guard over the years, many report the experience fostered an interest in Canadian history that’s lasted far longer than the itch of the woolen uniforms.

An award-winning visitor centre, located in the shadow of the Gardiner Expressway, has welcomed guests to the Fort York National Historic Site since 2014.

Fort York is certainly not unique in using costumed animators to interpret its history for the public’s benefit. Many historic forts across Canada and elsewhere in the world feature staff in period military dress. Other examples include the famous Fort Henry Guard in Kingston, Ontario and the Halifax Citadel’s 78th Highlanders in Nova Scotia. Both units regularly stage demonstrations for tourists and Halifax’s 78th also travels to international demonstrations and competitions. More than merely educational, they can also be considered significant branding assets and are often featured in travel ads promoting Canada to the world.

Non-military examples of the same thing include Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg, Ontario and the Village Historique Acadien in Bertrand, New Brunswick, both of which boast staff in period costume performing various civilian trades and portraying life as it was lived at the time. And there are numerous other examples at national, provincial and municipal sites all over the country.

The sights and sounds of history: Other examples of historical animators in Canada include (clockwise from top left) the Fort Henry Guard in Kingston, Ontario; the 78th Highlanders at the Citadel in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg, Ontario; and the Village Historique Acadien in Bertrand, New Brunswick. (Sources of bottom two photos: Facebook)

Despite ample evidence of its usefulness and popularity, however, the Fort York Guard has recently gone missing in action. In early May, the Friends of Fort York advised followers on its Facebook page that, “We very much regret to report that The Friends have not been able to obtain support from the City to operate the Fort York Guard this summer.” It added that, “We believe this will be the first time since 1955 that the Guard has not appeared at Fort York in the summer.” This prompted a brief news item in the online media outlet BlogTO which described the situation as “Toronto drops funding for something that’s been a summer tradition since 1955.” The impression left by this story is that the disappearance of the Fort York Guard is related to finances in some way.

When contacted by C2C Journal, Toronto communications staff tersely explained that the city is “undertaking a review of its long-time relationship with the Friends of Fort York” and that it has chosen to put “its relationship with Friends of Fort York on pause.” This includes cancelling “the City’s participation in the 2022 Fort York Guard and Drums summer program.”  When asked about a possible reinstatement in future years, the reply was that “All decisions related to the City’s future relationship with the Friends of Fort York, including any future joint programming, will be made following the review.” For anyone who enjoys Canadian history, or the sights and sounds of the Fort York Guard in particular, it seems a vague and slightly ominous statement.

Sad news: In May, the Friends of Fort York advised its followers on Facebook that Toronto would not be supporting the Fort York Guard in 2022; this despite the fact the modest financial costs of the operation are shared with the volunteer group. (Source of image: Facebook/ Friends of Fort York)

Such a lack of civic support for one of Toronto’s best-known tourist attractions is surprising for two reasons. First, there is no convincing budgetary argument for dropping the Guard. The annual cost of the Fort York Guard is estimated at slightly more than $100,000, with a substantial portion covered by The Friends of Fort York. The volunteer group also keeps the Guard’s aging equipment in working order. In short, the Guard costs Toronto a pittance. Second, it is unclear why the city would feel the need in 2022 to reassess its relationship with the Friends of Fort York after the group has consistently fulfilled its responsibilities – including ample fundraising – for the Guard since 1999. That such a successful, long-term partnership would suddenly be put “on pause” seems peculiar.

Replacing History with Identity

The city’s inability to convincingly explain its decision to pause its relationship with the Friends of Fort York raises the possibility that something has changed within city policy rather than at the volunteer group itself. And there is substantial evidence this is the case, with Toronto embarking on a dramatic reformation in how it regards and values its historical assets.

Toronto’s ten history museums are currently guided by a three-year strategic plan entitled “Laying a New Foundation” that was adopted in 2020. This document is quite different from traditional museum strategic plans in that it has almost nothing to say about history or historical artifacts. Rather, it is obsessed with matters of racial, sexual and various other identity categories, the goals of “equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression” and of “decolonizing” Toronto’s museums. The document’s first page defines its task as “acknowledging and working to remove colonial elements” throughout the city’s museum system. The problem, the plan states, is that the stories the city’s museums currently tell “tend to privilege the white male experience and ultimately reinforce Euro-centric ableist narratives of patriarchy, exploitation, colonization and heteronormativity.” All this must change: “As museum professionals, it is essential that we share authority with communities to dismantle inequitable systems and build new ones with diverse communities in Toronto.”

A three-year plan to dismantle history: Toronto’s current strategic plan for its history museums is obsessed with issues of race, gender and sexual orientation while having almost nothing to say about actual history.

Elsewhere, the document describes the alleged inequalities inherent in how the city’s museums currently operate and are accessed. It then commits to working towards fuller participation by these diverse communities, defined as follows: “equity-seeking groups (persons with disabilities, women, racialized group(s), LGBTQ2S+, undocumented workers, immigrants and refugees, persons with low income, and youth), and vulnerable populations (seniors, victims of violence, persons with low literacy, persons who are homeless or under-housed, and residents in Neighbourhood Improvement Areas).”

Further clues regarding a new set of objectives at the city’s museums are revealed in the many public statements of Armando Perla, who was appointed chief curator of Toronto’s museum system earlier this year. Perla previously served as researcher and curator at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg and as head of human rights at the Montreal Holocaust Museum before relocating to Toronto. Notably, his training is not as an historian but as a human rights lawyer. And it appears his true passion is activism. During his time at the CMHR, Perla was embroiled in the public uproar amongst museum staff who claimed their human rights were being violated by the museum itself.

In a lengthy 2020 essay posted to the Canadian Museums Association’s website, Perla laid out his view on the state of Canada’s museums and what needs to change. To be brief, he is not a fan of Canadian history. Or Canadian museums. “Institutional racism and the upholding of white supremacy is…a structural problem that is pervasive in the museum sector across the country. Museums and universities, some of the whitest institutions in the western world, have been tools in the maintenance and dissemination of colonial thought,” Perla writes. “In Canada, the museum sector has deliberately chosen to ignore the prevalence of systemic racism and to actively uphold the status quo.” The solution, Perla says, is “grounding museum practice in anti-oppression, human right, and other social justice frameworks.” To this he adds, “For a long time, many of us BIPOC [ed: Black, Indigenous and People of Colour] museum professionals have felt isolated in our work dismantling a system that oppresses us and continues to uphold the status quo.”

Not a fan of Canadian history: Armando Perla, Toronto’s newly-appointed chief curator for its museum system, claims the Canadian museum sector “has deliberately chosen to ignore the prevalence of systemic racism and to actively uphold the status quo.” (Source of photo: Aaron Cohen)

Taken at face value, Toronto’s strategic plan for its museum system and the public statements of its chief curator offer a vision of the museum that is radically different from its traditional conception. Where once they were repositories of history as it actually occurred, or of art as it actually was created – to be appreciated and enjoyed for its beauty and meaning by every visitor in their own way – now they are to be tools for the dismantling of those very stories in the furtherance of a specific progressive identity ideology.

In an interview posted on the Art Gallery of Ontario’s website after he was appointed chief curator in January of this year, Perla elaborated more fully on how he sees “museum work as human rights work” and that his goal for the institution’s collections is to use them “as a tool to advance inclusion, equity and justice.” Nowhere does Perla display any apparent passion for telling Canada’s story or recognizing our historical traditions. (This despite the fact he told the AGO the first time he ever visited a museum was when he arrived in Canada after having fled his native El Salvador due to his sexual orientation.) Instead, his message is a monotonic indictment of the Canadian experience as a continuous and ongoing performance of white supremacy and systemic racism. From this perspective, it seems entirely logical to conclude that the demise of Fort York’s famous red-coated, Euro-centric, patriarchal, colonial-era Guard is just one more step in the dismantling of Toronto’s “racist” museums as the plan requires.

How Do You Decolonize Canada’s Colonial History?

The move to “decolonize” the museums of a country that began as a set of widely dispersed colonies (and whose history is twice as long as that of Canada itself) seems as bizarre as it is pernicious. But it is consistent with many other recent attacks on Canada’s history and heritage.

This is a movement that has rolled out in stages. First came demands for the renaming of public buildings when certain groups claimed to be offended by the original honoree. The removal of 19th century politician Sir Hector-Louis Langevin’s name from the Ottawa building that houses the Prime Minister’s Office in 2017 was a signal event in this process of defacement. The recent renaming of Ryerson University as Toronto Metropolitan University is the latest example, among a growing campaign that has spread across Canada to schools and other categories of public assets including roads, bridges, neighbourhoods and parks.

Step by step: Attacks on Canadian history began in earnest in 2017 with the renaming of the Langevin Building in Ottawa (top left) and have since moved on to further cancellations, vandalism and destruction; is the elimination of colonial-era historical animators the next antique shoe to drop? (Sources of photos clockwise, starting from top left: CBC; Richard Lautens/ Toronto Star; see.news.com; @murphesi/ Tweeter)

Once renaming was legitimized, then came the vandalization, destruction and removal of public monuments and statues across Canada. In most cases, this was accomplished by mobs acting illegally who have faced no legal consequences for their actions, leading participants to conclude that such efforts are not only permissible, but officially-sanctioned. While the early days of the first stage skipped over many of the most significant names in Canadian history, the statue removal stage has not. The rapid and violent cancellation of likenesses of colonial-era rulers such as Queen Victoria and Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and greatest statesman, from numerous locations around the country is ample testament of this particular urge. Lesser figures have also been targeted with equal enthusiasm.

With few contentious statues left to destroy, historical re-enactors and living history exhibits that seek to bring Canada’s past to life may be the next antique shoe to drop as museums dismantle themselves. This year, for example, it was announced that tour guides at the Burnaby Village Museum in Burnaby, B.C. will no longer dress up in 1920s garb. Also this year, the Royal B.C. Museum removed the popular exhibit of a replica European settler village called Old Town that took up a large part of its third floor, as part of its ongoing effort to “decolonize” its displays.

But beyond doing violence to the past, how does one conceptualize the decolonizing of Canadian history when so much of it was explicitly colonial? Not even its proponents have a precise definition or explanation. As a 2018 CBC report admitted, “The term decolonization can mean many different things, leaving the term’s meaning up to the person using it.” 

At its most benign, we might consider the term to reflect a desire to ensure that historical narratives are presented in a way that reflects events and places in all of their complexity and from varying perspectives. In the case of Fort York, an effective approach in this regard would be to ensure that the 1813 Battle of York is interpreted from multiple viewpoints – Indigenous, American, Canadian/British and so on. Further, other related and relevant themes, such as the changing demographics of Toronto or the evolution of the Lake Ontario shoreline, could be added and interpreted onsite. 

Decolonizing, or simply telling other stories? There are ways to introduce multiple perspectives into Canada’s history without having to eliminate all references to our colonial past; Fort York has long had a successful relationship with the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, shown here performing a traditional dance. (Source of photo: Fort York National Historic Site‎/ Facebook)

Broadening the view for museum visitors in this way is not an unreasonable proposition. In fact, Fort York’s staff and volunteers have a long track record of seeking out a wide variety of contributors; one example being a highly successful partnership with the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, which has created a richer and fuller experience for many guests. In fact, Toronto’s museums, along with others around the country, have been working hard to integrate multiple perspectives and different narratives for many years.

But this is clearly not what the aggressive practitioners of decolonization have in mind. Judging by Perla’s public statements, the goal appears to be less about broadening the narrative and more about the near-erasure of Canada’s traditional story. All this in order to rectify a perception of past systemic racism or white supremacy. The ultimate goals may be even more sweeping than that. If the history of a country can be proven to be illegitimate and unsavory, then all the current institutions and traditions that spring from that past are also indicted.

Inconvenient Historical Truths

The march of history: Canada has changed dramatically over the years, but understanding how that transformation occurred requires an appreciation for the historical legacy that made it possible. (Pictured, Dominion Day celebrations in Ottawa in 1927 (top) and the 2017 Canada Day Festival in Peterborough, Ontario (bottom); Sources of photos: (top) WikiCommons; (bottom) Ciprian Mazare/ Facebook)

It is plainly impossible to tell the story of the Battle of York from the perspective of our modern era’s fixation on identity. The War of 1812 was inarguably a very significant event in Canadian history at a time when what is now Canada was a mere set of colonies and trading concessions. It originated in American politics which were in turn shaped by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. As for the war itself, it was the “lived experience” of the people who found themselves along the border the time. From the Canadian perspective, this consisted mostly of settlers of European origin, soldiers of European origin and Indigenous peoples. The hard truth is that the vast bulk of the history of a colonial country such as Canada cannot be told without leaning heavily on colonial voices. Canada was once a very white, very British country. According to Canada’s first census in 1871, our population of 3.5 million was 60 percent British and 31 percent French, with the Indigenous population estimated at less than one percent.

Canada today is a very different and far more diverse country compared to what it was in 1813. But we should be capable of accepting and celebrating our new reality without feeling the need to destroy all evidence of what came before, including ample good news. In fact, it is impossible to fully comprehend the wonderfully accepting nature of modern Canada without an appreciation for the rich historical legacy from which it sprang. Further, had the outcome of the War of 1812 been different, Canada today would likely be a constituent part of the U.S. Surely that alone is an aspect of our history worthy of celebration by all, even among this country’s most progressive voices? Instead, the operative instinct appears to be to eliminate the past. With the apparent cancellation of the Fort York Guard standing as the latest example of this disappointingly ideological effort.

Standing on guard for thee: Fort York has survived its share of assaults over the centuries, can it withstand the “decolonizers” who now run Toronto’s museum system? (Source of photo: The Fort York Foundation/ Facebook)

Proper history is the record of what actually happened at the time in question. And it can only be understood through an honest appreciation for the context of that past. This was the role museums once played. And in doing so they revealed the many triumphs and tragedies that made Canada. Today, it seems the goal is to tell an entirely different story, one that seeks to delegitimate the entire progress of our country. And it is being told by radical activists who display no sense of passion or interest in the remarkably complicated and resilient story of this great land of ours.

If nothing else, however, history has staying power. Two hundred and nine years ago, Fort York survived an American invasion and a massive gunpowder explosion. More recently it survived the construction of the Gardiner Expressway encroaching on its property line and blocking its sunshine. There is every reason to believe it will survive this latest assault by its own museum officials. And if so, then perhaps the sound of fifes, drums, shouted commands and marching feet will once again echo across the grounds of this hallowed National Historic Site.

Larry Ostola served as Vice-President of Heritage Conservation and Commemoration at Parks Canada and Director of Museums and Heritage Services at the City of Toronto; he is the editor of a 2021 collection of James Wolfe’s personal correspondence Your Most Obedient and Affectionate Son and co-author of the 2008 book Military History of Quebec City 1608-2008.

Source of main image: Sid Calzavara/ fortyork.ca.

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