Tag Archives: Canadian History

May 3rd – “In Flanders Fields”, by John McCrae, is written

A memorial located outside John McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario. The memorial features John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields", with two Canadian-style remembrance poppies laid on top.

A memorial located outside John McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario. The memorial features John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” poem, with two Canadian-style remembrance poppies laid on top. Lest we forget.

On this day in 1915, John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving in the battlefields of Belgium during the First World War, wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields”. One of the most popular and often-quoted poems from the First World War, “In Flanders Fields” invocation of the poppies growing over the graves of fallen soldiers has been adopted by Commonwealth countries through the “remembrance poppy” as a symbol of those soldiers who have died in conflict. Almost one hundred years after the poem was first written, “In Flanders Fields” is taught in classrooms throughout the Commonwealth, and in particular, Canada, John McCrae’s native land.

Born in Guelph, Ontario in 1872, John McCrae wrote poetry throughout his lifetime, alongside his medical work. Once the First World War began in the summer of 1914, McCrae quickly enlisted to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Despite McCrae’s medical training and expertise, he opted to join a fighting unit instead of the medical corps, and served as both a gunner and a medical officer. McCrae fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, where the Germans first used poison gas on the battlefield. For seventeen days, the Canadians were able to hold their position against the German assault, however conditions were nightmarish and casualties high. Amongst those that were killed in the battle was Alexis Helmer, a former student and close friend of McCrae’s. After performing the burial service of his friend, the next day, May 3rd 1915, McCrae sat down on the back of an ambulance, and noting how quickly the poppies grew over the graves of his fallen comrades, wrote the following poem:

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.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

It would be months before McCrae’s poem became published. On December 8th 1915, McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” was published in Punch magazine. It became an instant hit. McCrae’s poem soon became republished around the globe, and translated in several languages, and utilized to bolster support for the war effort in Europe. The words of “In Flanders Fields” were used to sell war bonds and promote soldier recruitment drives throughout the Allied countries.

Later in the war, McCrae was transferred out of his fighting unit (much to his chagrin) to a military hospital, and rose to the rank of colonel by 1918. On January 13th 1918, McCrae caught a case of pneumonia, and in light of the years of stress that war had placed on his body, fell ill with cerebral meningitis later on. On January 28th 1918, John McCrae passed away at a military hospital in Wimereux, France, where he was buried with full military honours.

The most well-known legacy of “In Flanders Fields” are the remembrance poppies worn throughout the Commonwealth during the weeks leading up to Remembrance/Armistice Day. First introduced by the American Legion in 1920, the Remembrance Poppy was then shortly adopted by the Royal British Legion with support from Field Marshall Douglas Haig. From there, the Remembrance Poppy was introduced throughout the Empire. Today, Legions associations are actively involved with the production and sale of poppies during the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, with funds going to support veterans and their families.

Here is a link to a Heritage Minute clip that was released by the Canadian government to commemorate John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”: https://www.historicacanada.ca/content/heritage-minutes/john-mccrae.

 

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March 6th – The city of Toronto is incorporated

Front Street in 1804. Today, the CN Tower, the Fairmont Royal York, and Union Station are found on modern-day Toronto. While Front Street was right next to Lake Ontario back in 1804, following late 19th and early 20th century land reclamation, the lake shore is now 800 metres south of Front Street.

Front Street, Toronto in 1804. The CN Tower, the Fairmont Royal York, and Union Station are found on modern-day Front Street. While Front Street was right next to Lake Ontario back in 1804, following late 19th and early 20th century land reclamations, the lake shore is now almost 800 metres south of Front Street.

On this day in 1834, 180 years ago, the city of Toronto was incorporated. Due to its key position on Lake Ontario and its access to many rivers (such as the Humber, Don, and Rouge), Toronto was a highly influential and important settlement throughout history and to this day. This post will largely cover Toronto’s history (albeit succinctly) up to the city’s incorporation.

Prior to English settlement, the area made up of present-day Toronto was inhabited by various First Nations peoples, including the Neutral, Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga, Wendat, and Mississauga (from which the Toronto suburb is named after) nations. By the mid-1750s, the French had began exploring the northern shore of Lake Ontario where Toronto is today located. The French would build a trading post in this area name Fort Rouillé, located around Exhibition Place (where the Canadian National Exhibition, or The Ex is held every August) in 1750. By the 1760s however, the French abandoned Fort Rouillé after their defeat by the British in the Seven Years War.

It would be another war that would greatly influence Toronto’s history pre-incorporation. During the American Revolutionary War, Loyalists (roughly, those American colonists loyal to the British crown and did not want to be part of America) from the Thirteen Colonies settled in large numbers in the lands constituting modern-day Toronto. In 1787, the British negotiated the purchase of the lands constituting Toronto (almost a quarter million acres) from the Mississaugas of New Credit. Two years later, John Graves Simcoe declared this area to be known as “York”, functioning as the capital of Upper Canada (modern-day Southern Ontario, contrast with Lower Canada being the area of the province of Quebec situated along the St. Lawrence River).

Previously, Newark (mind you, not the one in New Jersey, but on the Niagara Peninsula, present day Niagara-on-the-Lake) was the capital of Upper Canada, but due to the threat of an American attack, York became the colony’s new capital. At the time, York was largely a bay formed by the Toronto Islands, with Fort York defended the settlement from attack. Simcoe also ordered the construction of military service roads to allow easy communication between York and Kingston, and York and Newark. Kingston Road (still exists in some form today) formed the eastern route out of Toronto, Dundas Street the western route (also exists in some form today, moving all the way through southwestern Ontario, through London and towards Windsor), and Yonge Street northwards to Lake Simcoe. Yonge Street still exists to this day; at almost 1896 km in length (counting the portion of the street known as Highway 11), it was popularly known as ‘the longest street in the world’.

Yet another war would influence Toronto’s history in its early days. In 1813 during the War of 1812 (I know, confusing), York was attacked and burned by invading American forces. Despite the presence of Fort York, the garrison was lightly manned, therefore unable to adequately repulse the Americans. Following this defeat, a stronger fort was constructed west of the fort’s original position, easily turning back the Americans after another attack in 1814. While originally on the city’s coast, this newer fort (that which exists to this day) is now hundreds of meters inland, due to land reclamation.

After York’s “baptism by fire” during the War of 1812, it was decided to further elevate the status of this important community. On March 6th, 1834, the town of York was incorporated, changing its name to Toronto to distinguish it from New York City, as well as remove its negative image as ‘dirty little York’ by the local inhabitants. Toronto is derived from the original Mohawk name for the area, tkaronto, meaning ‘where there are trees standing in the water’. William Lyon Mackenzie would be Toronto’s first mayor. It was Toronto’s first mayor that was grandfather to William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s prime minister through the Great Depression and the Second World War (and also the prime minister featured on the Canadian fifty dollar bill). Happy 180th birthday Toronto!

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