Some adventures I have planned well in advance. Other times there’s a cancellation or procrastination and I have nothing until Friday at which point I search online for various events to see if something interesting is happening.
Today is just such a day and Sage and I are lucky enough to see that there’s a scavenger hunt happening in downtown Toronto! I’m a huge fan of watching shows loosely based on this idea: The Amazing Race and all its international permutations comes to mind as does the seemingly little-known “Lost” series from Channel Four in the UK in 2001 that I only just discovered this year, watched all the episodes I could find online and then learned that it was cancelled. If there’s running around and problem solving involved, I’m totally in!
We follow the link to learn more and are surprised to learn that instead of an event, this is a downloadable app. At first it’s a little disappointing but then I see that they have several different hunts all around the world. And so we decide that a scavenger hunt exploring a city we don’t know would be infinitely more fun.
And so it is that we find ourselves getting off a regional bus in Hamilton, Ontario. For those outside Ontario, a bit of background on Hamilton. Many people compare it to New Jersey in the US. There are a couple of steel mills (a bit down on their luck since steel exports reduced), and a bit of other heavy industry. But like other post-industrial cities in the US, there is a move toward gentrification with many people fleeing the high real estate prices in Toronto for the relatively low ones in Hamilton.
As we walk to a restaurant for lunch we wait with a small crowd of people waiting for the light to change. Out of the corner of my eye I notice a man looking dazed sitting on top of a pile of cardboard. When the light changes, we start across the street. The man on the cardboard suddenly leaps up and shouts at all of us.
“I am not here for you to look at! All of you mind your own business and stop looking at me!!!!” he shouts as the majority of us notice him for the very first time.
After grabbing a quick bite to eat, we fire up the application and we are given a clue that takes us to a sculpture garden a few hundred metres from where we start. We answer a few questions about our goal, the “Migration” sculpture, validating that we actually made it to the destination.
This sculpture commemorates 100 years of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. It didn’t start out so well, though. From 1914 to 1920 – from World War I until some time after its end, about 4,000 Ukrainian people were held in camps as “enemy aliens.” A plaque nearby mentions that black mark on our history. I knew of Canada’s putting Japanese-Canadians in internment camps, but hearing about this is a surprise.
We see several other interesting sculptures here.
When we finish exploring the park our next clue takes us east. We pass through City Hall where, like near our own city hall we can find a sign with the city name:
At the sign where a handful of protesters. We got closer and saw a few of the signs they’d set out.
We talked to one of the people protesting and she explained a bit about why they were there. Recently in the area there had been more fascist, homophobic, and white supremacist groups protesting. This year’s Hamilton Pride saw the arrival of extreme right-wing demonstrators that, according to eyewitnesses, started physical confrontations when people attempted to create a “Visual and auditory barrier” between the hateful protesters and those participating in and enjoying the parade.
Yellow vest protesters have been frequently seen at city hall along with other more radical white supremacist groups. According to the woman we spoke to, many feel that the police and city hall have been tolerating the hate and violence from these groups, often sitting back and watching when the right wing protesters resort to violence.
It is clear, as we talk to this woman, that living in Toronto, we have been in a bit of an ideological bubble. I’ve been aware of the increasing number of these sorts of events elsewhere but to hear of them right down the street, figuratively speaking, is a surprise.
Our walk takes us to the Whitehearn house, a heritage building with beautiful gardens outside. The person who made this house loved Hamilton so much that he gave it to the city when he died.
Our next stop is St. Paul’s Presbyterian church. Outside we pass a number of people gathered outside the church. Some are sitting staring blankly, others are asleep on benches, others smoking and sharing a bottle. We find our way to the back where the clue takes us to the cemetery.
Sage notices this last stone and points it out to me. Imagine: these two were married on the 11th of March. Just over two months later, the man was a widower. Such a sad story.
Our next clue takes us to another part of town to see some historic buildings. On the way we pass another gathering of protesters. These are anti-LGBTQ+ protesters. I am definitely out of my Toronto bubble. It’s not that there aren’t ignorant people in our city but mostly they don’t feel comfortable protesting regularly. There are exceptions, though.
We are happy to see that there are a few counter-protesters, some displaying the transgender pride flag.
We get to our destination – a collection of historic buildings. As we walk I’m struck by how much heritage architecture there is in Hamilton. So much of Toronto has gentrified, many of the smaller buildings replaced with condo towers and simple bungalows replaced with massive McMansions. Thankfully that hasn’t really hit Hamilton yet.
But one look at the buildings above shows that the days may be numbered for Hamilton’s character-filled days. Gentrification is clearly happening with many galleries, fancy boutiques and high end coffee bars and pubs settling in to take advantage of the Toronto exodus.
Near the end of our hunt we find ourselves at one more stop: the Harmony Apartments. A plaque detailing a sad story sits outside.
In 1935, upset to see Fascism taking hold in Italy, Dr. Vincenzo Agro emigrated to Canada. He was distressed to see the fascism becoming popular among Italians in Hamilton also. He built this building in the hope that other Italians in Hamilton would bring them together to have dances and social events and help them enjoy and become loyal to their new country. And it operated until June of 1940 when Mussolini declared war on the allies. And just like that, the police and RCMP took to the streets, rounding up Italians and sending them to internment camps. Fearing that they would be caught, many people put their Italian books including their children’s Italian schoolbooks in to their fireplaces and burned them.
By late 1943, most people were released but that was over three years of life and livelihood lost. After the internment, the building never operated as a community centre again, having been converted to apartments.
As we ride home on the bus I’m struck by the stories we tell ourselves. Many Canadians pride themselves on living in a country that values diversity of all kinds, taking in those in need from around the world. And yet, that’s only part of the story. We placed many people in internment camps from Lithuanians to Germans to Italians and even suspected communists. We separated indigenous children from their families and communities and placed them in residential schools, some of which operated until as recently as 1996 and many indigenous people in Canada still live without necessities such as clean, drinkable water.
It would be easy to despair and think that everything we think is potentially a lie. However, it would be giving up to think that the nature of humanity is to be greedy and xenophobic.
Instead, I think a more realistic way to think is that this is a constant struggle. As communities we do a number of different things, both good and bad because we’re collections of individuals. Yes, some may don a yellow vest and shout words of hate. However, I’ve been among hundreds of people from age 16 to their 70’s, leaving Toronto by bicycle and riding 600 kilometres to raise millions of dollars to help people with HIV and AIDS. I’ve seen Facebook groups light up with offers for strangers to stay overnight to stay warm when a massive ice storm bring power outages and with it heating outages on -20C nights in Toronto. I’ve joined others sorting mountains of clothes in a donated storefront when one woman’s post asking for a few clothes to help newly-arrived Syrian refugees turned in to donations of enough clothing to give hundreds of people free clothes and a nonprofit initiative. I’ve watched another Facebook request and project by two friends to bring warm clothes to homeless people on the winter streets of Toronto turn in to a project that helped over 600 people directly and inspired others to go out and help others on their own. I’ve participated in these and many other similar initiatives. I say this not to brag but to say that even with just looking and being open to seeing good things happening, I have seen tons of good happening. I’ve seen many more things than I’ve shared here, and I know there are so many more things happening that I’m not even aware of.
All of which is to say: in these days when the news is filled with enough despair and negativity to make one think that humanity has taken a downturn and we are headed for a new dark age, look harder. Seek out the good news in your community and support it how you can. Seek out good news outside your area and take encouragement from it.
The world has always been going to hell. The world has always been heading for utopia. We will always have to work for the good in the world we want to see. And sometimes, at some points in history, the darker side will come out. And that’s the time for all of us to shine just a little bit brighter and do everything we can – not just to fight against the darkness, but to bring more light in to drown it out.
Please feel free to share any good news or initiatives you know that give you encouragement below. I have readers from all over the world who would love to hear about them.