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Adam Bunch reframes the city's evolution through personal dramas and changing norms in The Toronto Book Of Love
Sandford Fleming revolutionized how we think about time, but made questionable romantic decisions.
Passion, scandal, heartache and longing – those words might not be the first that spring to mind upon laying eyes on the Toronto skyline.
Adam Bunch is working to change that with The Toronto Book Of Love (Dundurn, 501 pages, $21.99), an expansive city history that revisits the names behind many local landmarks and street signs through the lens of marriages, affairs, love letters and jealous rivalries.
A city of 19th- and 20th-century building facades propping up glass-encased condo towers, Toronto has a reputation as being dismissive toward its history. And on the surface, it’s not hard to understand why: The modern city was a stodgy, Protestant town with the legal codes governing private goings-on inherited from the colonialist British.
But then, as now, the elites who put our laws in place often do not apply the same rules to themselves. Like the story of a group of King East neighbours in the 1840s who were so sick of the noise coming from a brothel (masquerading as an oyster shop) that they publicly named the landlord – William Henry Boulton, the city’s mayor. He handily survived the scandal.
Bunch, a journalist, historian and author who has taught history at George Brown College, uses these historical tales of love to highlight the double standards and the personal stories that influenced the founding of the city, the development of neighbourhoods and legal codes.
Making clear connections between the city we know now and obscure or hidden history is Bunch’s way of sparking interest in a topic that is often taught as a dry list of dates, locations and names.
“I was very lucky to have amazing teachers in high school and university who saw the potential history has to be a visceral storytelling medium,” he explains in a phone interview. “A lot of my passion for history comes from growing up in a family that told stories that way and having teachers who tell stories that way.”
Bunch finished writing the book last summer, as protests calling for an end to anti-Black racism and police violence raged across North America and Europe. Police brutality, racism, Canada’s Residential School shame, sex workers and the rights of LGBTQ people all figure in The Toronto Book Of Love.
“It’s important to be telling stories that haven’t been told enough,” he says.
Most of the written records Bunch found are from the point of view of colonial authorities who filtered notions of love among different groups of people through their particular lens. So, The Toronto Book Of Love is as much about highlighting these blanks in the official record as it is about showing how personal dramas influenced official policies.
“Frankly, the city has always been much more multicultural than a lot of people have realized, especially the people in power historically,” Bunch says.
There are chapters devoted to the Wendat, who inhabited the northern shores of Lake Ontario prior to colonization; the French colonialist Samuel de Champlain; the first Toronto mayor William Lyon Mackenzie; Mohawk distance runner Tom Longboat; musician Joni Mitchell and the Yorkville scene; and the legalization of same-sex marriage.
We caught up with Bunch to chat about Toronto’s history of double standards, formative scandals and recent campaigns to rename city streets and tear down colonial monuments.
Many of characters in the book are familiar figures if you know Toronto history, but you’ve decided to come at the material through the lens of romantic relationships. Why take that approach to this particular history?
Toronto has really earned its reputation as a place where it can feel difficult to connect with history. We’ve not done a particularly good job of preserving our built heritage, or of taking our own history seriously, whether that’s because of an old colonial mentality or because we feel like the city is a new place. It’s got a rich history that stretches back more than 200 years to the city’s founding and thousands of years beyond that.
A lot of the people in the book are familiar names, but it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they were more than just a list of accomplishments. They were real, breathing human beings with similar feelings and passions to the ones we do today. Love stories are one of the most powerful ways we have of connecting with our past.
I get the sense that it was challenging to find information on people who would be considered secondary figures, like High Park founder John Howard’s mistress.
John Howard is a good example – he’s someone who we know quite a lot about. He’s the guy who gave the city High Park and Colborne Lodge. You can go visit his house and soak in those rooms and learn about his wife to Jemima, who is a fascinating figure. But he also had the secret second family that we know so much less about because that wasn’t something that you’d want to be put in the history books. People at Colborne Lodge and other historians have done a great job digging up as much as they can. But I was left highlight these blank spaces for the reader.
There’s a limit to what we know, which is certainly true of other histories. It’s really hard to find in-depth, accurate personal detail about early LGBTQ+ stuff because you can never be entirely sure when someone wasn’t open about their sexuality because they couldn’t be.
In the chapter on the Wendat, you describe their approach to relationships prior to colonization and then the influence of priests, who instilled more conservative attitudes. How easy is it to kind of grasp the attitudes of people who may subvert our notions of Toronto’s past as always being conservative when it comes to love and sex?
It’s much easier to find out what people in power thought, what their attitudes were and the official government line on what love should be. A lot of the written history for those early colonial attitudes toward Indigenous people and their own relationships are recorded by people like the Jesuits, who kept detailed records of their travels. But they have a very specific worldview and a very specific agenda. It’s incredibly important not to just listen to to their voices, even though their voices are the loudest and most readily available to a researcher in the 21st century as far as written records go. You have to make sure you’re adding that context for the reader, and to as much as possible, let the other people who don’t have as much power, whether it’s Indigenous people or the LGBTQ+, speak in their own words.
Toronto Book Of Love author Adam Bunch
This kind of topic can be very gossipy – it recalls Hollywood Babylon. But how did you want to approach retelling the unseemly side of things that history likes to gloss over?
What the book tries to do is tell that story of evolving attitudes toward love over the history of the city and sometimes those stories are just scandalous, titillating, entertaining and interesting. But sometimes it was scandalous at the time because our attitudes have changed.
There’s the story about French colonialist Samuel de Champlain who, at age 40, married a 12-year-old girl.
That one we would still say is a morally abhorrent thing to do. It shows a dark side of the city’s history, but I’m certainly not trying to just share scandalous stories for the sake of scandal. That story in particular ended up serving as an engine for westward colonial expansion in that he used his marriage to push the French empire deeper into Indigenous lands.
Did you find any new perspective on any familiar names through researching their love life?
Sandford Fleming. He is probably the most famous Canadian engineer, helped build the railroad across Canada and Toronto’s first railroad. He was the big champion of time zones, which changed fundamentally how most people around the world think about time. He has his own crazy love story, having gotten to a point in a relationship where he needed to decide whether they were going to stay together and get married or break up. Even though he’s a scientific mind, he leaves it up to fate: in two weeks’ time he picks a particular night and tells her, “If the sunset is bright and clear, we’ll stay together and get married. And if it’s overcast, we’ll break up.” It’s overcast so he leaves her and she is super sad and returns all these love letters.
He’s someone with a lot of feelings who made questionable relationship decisions. The same can be said for the history of the city. You start to see that arc changing attitudes toward love over centuries and see the present moment as a point in a continuum.
How do you think Toronto stacks up to other cities when it comes to being a city of love?
I think every city is a city of love because it’s a pretty much a universal feeling. Every city ends up getting painted with everyone’s romantic histories – personal ones and more famous historical ones. In Toronto’s case, the history is about very conservative Protestant British attitudes that were brought here in the late 1700s and formed a legal basis for love at the moment of the modern city’s founding. A lot of the story of the last 200 years is about people challenging those old, out-of-date, very conservative ideas.
When you start digging into the history, it’s shocking just how mono-cultural the vision was in the early days. [The city’s founder John Graves] Simcoe really wanted Toronto to be somewhere so spectacularly British that only Anglican priests would be allowed to perform wedding ceremonies.
When you were writing, how much did it weigh on you that people look at this history through the lens of racism? There has been a push to rename Dundas Street and take down monuments. What’s your view of renaming streets and removing monuments?
People often seem to think that [renaming streets] is erasing history instead of making history. Part of the process of history is looking back at your stories, reassessing, retelling and coming to new conclusions. You’re not erasing history so much as choosing to put emphasis on a different story and highlight history in a different way. Even the debate ends up with people talking about history way more than they would have before.
More people in Toronto now know who Henry Dundas was, and have learned about the fact that Canada had slavery and there were people enslaved in Toronto, which is a history that hasn’t been talked about enough over the last 200 years. Having debates over renaming things and taking down statues reflect the city that we want to be in.
Who would you rename it after?
I would probably defer to people whose voices haven’t been heard from enough, but there are lots of great candidates. For instance, a family who was enslaved by the Jarvis family. They put up big resistance while also being one of the founding families of Toronto who didn’t have much of a voice at the time. People have been talking about Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who was the first Black woman to run a newspaper in Canada.
Did anyone you researched subvert your ideas about the attitudes love at the time?
Anne Murray Powell was sort of the matriarch of early Toronto when it was the little town of York. She saw herself as the grand old dame who would make sure that the top levels of society – at dances and balls – would all be prim and proper and following proper decorum. There’s a story about a duel in the city’s early days when the attorney general was shot. And Anne Murray Powell ostracized the woman the attorney general was supposedly having an affair with and made sure she was no longer welcome in society.
Meanwhile, Henry Powell, who is this towering figure of conservative social values, had one of the most scandalous families in all of Toronto history. She and her husband had eloped and were basically disowned by their families when they were teenagers. Her daughter ended up dying in a shipwreck while chasing the new attorney general across the ocean after he got married and broke her heart. Her granddaughter was the only woman to ever get divorced in the first 50 years of Toronto during the period of Upper Canada, after having fled her husband to go spend the night with a soldier who was stationed at Osgoode Hall and sparking this huge scandal. You have this conservative, prim-and-proper family who, behind the scenes, had these huge scandals.
Are they emblematic of Toronto’s attitude in general?
A running theme through the book is that you have to have a double standard for what public life declares love should be and what is actually happening on the ground.
Do you think there’s any love rules right now that we need to get rid of?
There are plenty of social norms and certainly plenty of discrimination around certain kinds of love. Some people are not allowed to donate blood. There are less formalized social norms – whether polyamory is accepted or not is something that differs for many people. I do try and end the book in the epilogue by talking about love as always an evolving force. It means something different to everyone and everyone sort of has their own romantic views of the city and their own romantic histories. That will and should keep changing into the future.