Nathan Phillips had no idea (or did he?)


Toronto Dragon Festival – Nathan Philips Square

(As always – click the top photo, to see them all in more pleasing/screen-filling scale)

Every weekend that we go exploring, we find interesting things going on in the city. This weekend was no exception, first we took in a fantastic free screening at TIFF (because those who walk and take transit to work really do deserve a nice reward, now and then). Then, after the show, we ran into the second annual Dragon Festival in Nathan Phillips square.

There are other better established summer festivals in Chinatown proper – but this is a lovely addition – and we hope to see it return next year. Interestingly, the directors of this project are all local Chinese arts luminaries, but the funding partners include the Chinese consulate and the Canadian government.

Parting on the square

I’ve only seen one journalist say it clearly (Eric Margolis) – Canada never should have gone along with the US request to hold Meng Wanzhou on such ridiculous (and anyhow wildly extra-jurisdictional) charges. The right way to handle it was with a bit of finesse ‘bad timing’.

“Terribly sorry, but by the time we fully processed your request, she’d already boarded her aircraft and departed. Why not call her at home?”

Yes, the Chinese treatment of several Canadian citizens since is unjust and harsh without grounds – but we did that first – and to one of their new corporate royalty. Anyone who didn’t expect an angry response that damaged the relationship out of all proportion, hasn’t been paying attention. (Bolton is definitely giggling).
We absolutely do not want to be tricked into being part of Trump’s machine-gun yourself in the foot trade-war!

It is frustrating to see how such affairs can still be reliably manipulated. The way we generalize so easily broadly and emotionally these days makes a lot of subtle things harder to see than they used to be. This empowers outrageous liars far more than if we had a more skeptical mellow and modest approach.

The idea of “Teams” and especially the assertion that allegiances of one particular time can be seen as total descriptions of someone’s entire personality and intentions life-long, destroys valuable truth. The number of key leaders of change who would now be disqualified before they started, is truly disheartening. The understanding that wisdom comes most often through struggle with great difficulty, has been obscured by a search for unerring rightness – even though this definition itself, clearly drifts.

Dragon at rest

Here’s a hilarious example of teams telling half the story that I stumbled into, while looking into one of the best used and most widely loved public spaces in the city of Toronto – Nathan Philips Square – which is right in front of our (amazingly, still cool looking) modernist city hall. I have heard more than one lazy Torontonian speculate that like the embarrassing furniture salesman Mayor, Mel Lastman, Nathan Philips was probably a fellow of mediocre character who named the square for himself out of an abundance of vanity and a lack of respect for the public – but it really ain’t so. Stodgy as his picture looks, the guy was a change-agent.

“The Upper Canada Rebellion” was fought by Toronto’s first mayor William Lyon Mackenzie (just three years after his 1834 term) and many unhappy citizens, against a powerful governing elite known as “The family compact” and while it was ultimately put down with force by the British army (essentially pitchforks, versus infantry and light field artillery), governance was improved greatly afterward, to prevent a recurrence. Canada as an independent political entity (within the commonwealth) followed relatively soon after that.

Try some more, it’s not so hot!

The situation in Toronto politics in 1955, 121 years after Mackenzie’s inaugural stint as mayor, was nowhere near as dire – but Nathan Philips, who was Jewish, was the first non-Protestant mayor in the city’s history, and also the first mayor in more than a century who wasn’t an Orangeman. The fact that his opponent, the incumbent mayor Leslie Howard Saunders was actually making fiery speeches about the battle of the Boyne in his campaign, disgusted many – and Philips’ term as mayor (from 1955 to 1962) became a turning point for the city toward cosmopolitanism, from which it has not looked back since.

Back then, a big chunk of the West end was strictly ‘dry’ – no bars allowed for the mostly Irish Catholic “Junction” by mean-spirited downtown backroom Orangemen. This sort of repressive conservatism was reflected in many institutions across the city, as the dominant mindset. As a long serving city politician who was always outside of that network, Nathan Philips could represent himself as “the people’s mayor” instead of serving that old boys network, and was thus able to break its long established stranglehold on city politics. Many previously underrepresented voices would be heard in council in the years to follow. (though the dry zone persisted for decades)

Dragon Rampant (Despite appearances, almost certainly not Orangemen)

On the down-side, there is no one else in the history of the city who went on quite such an epic wrecking spree of our architectural heritage. Not only did he have the vast old University Armouries destroyed (site of the University courthouse), he also razed the old Jewish Ward and original Chinatown, and destroyed the most expensive federal building in Canadian history (The General post office – built in fabulous Beaux Arts style). He even tried to have exquisite Old City Hall demolished, and Fort York moved out to Coronation park!

He was stopped on those last two crazy projects – one wishes the restraining push-back had come sooner. All the same, the New City Hall he campaigned so hard for is still a fine structure – and the fact that he broke the stranglehold of the old (dare I say white-power) conservative elite on the city for good, and brought much new energy downtown makes some damage seem forgivable. And the square – named for, not by him – to be clear – really is a fantastic tribute to the more open and embracing spirit he unwittingly started rolling, by breaking down the ‘lets not change a thing’ fuddy-duddy power base.

Now – it is worth noting, for those who still suspect teams say everything important – that Phillips was a member of ‘the fraternal order of the eagles’ who claim credit for establishing “Mothers day” as a holiday, and also for being a primary impetus for social security.

So – team wise – we’ve got a lifelong “conservative” politician who was a key rebel – actually broke the firm historic grip of conservatism to allow more diverse representation, and also a Jewish politician who completely demolished a major downtown Jewish neighbourhood. No easy sums, right?

Full colour Dragon

And if all of that isn’t mixed-up and contra-intuitive enough – how about this bit of funny historical weirdness?

William Dennison, who first ran as the provincial CCF candidate in Rosedale, in 1935 (and was first elected in an east-end riding in 1948) later entered municipal politics – first as school trustee, then later as Alderman, and finally Mayor from 1967 to 1972. He took some extremely far-sighted positions as an MPP – opposing deHavilland polluting Black Creek as early the 1940s, and the construction of a paper mill (and the inevitable pollution) on the Spanish river, which has indeed been disastrous, with environmental consequences that will never be entirely erased.

On the other hand – this historically rare outright leftist Mayor ran against his opponent’s emphasis on development and then promoted it himself as best he could – he also complained regularly about all the hippies and draught dodgers (some of my favourite folks at the time). One sort of enlightenment does not necessarily go with another!

Plus (drumroll please) he was actually the last Toronto mayor who was an Orangeman! Just as well on that score, I much prefer his parallel green-streak, anyhow.

And I have to say I am still in awe of the joyous all-out use of colour in traditional Chinese festival art and decoration!

It’s really not that I’ve got anything against the skirl of the pipes, you understand (I’ve been known to get teary), but without all of the many other communities which are finally finding real voice and presence at the forefront of our urban life, we really would still be ‘dry’ – and missing (instead of hosting) some of the best parties in the world!

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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