Three York profs nominated for Heritage Toronto Awards

Two York academics are finalists for a Heritage Toronto Award for books – one on the city's sculptures, the other an imagined look at the city through the eyes of various writers. A third York professor is involved with the work of the Psychiatric Survivors Archives of Toronto, which was nominated under the Community Heritage Category.

York Professor Emeritus John Warkentin's book Creating Memory: A Guide to Outdoor Public Sculpture in Toronto (Becker Associates/The City Institute at York, 2010) is vying for the award in the book category along with Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press Inc., 2010) by Amy Lavender Harris of York's Department of Geography in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

Faculty of Health Professor Geoffrey Reaume, graduate program director of the Critical Disability Program in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, is the co-founder and chair of the Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto (PSAT). All three nominees deal with Toronto history one way or another and will be at tonight's awards announcement.

The idea for Creating Memory came some years ago when Warkentin was strolling main avenues and back streets of Paris, looking at buildings, street life and public sculpture. "Increasingly, as I walked it became apparent that I could read quite a bit of the history and geography of France, including its colonial associations, through its public sculpture," says Warkentin (Hon. LLD '11). He wondered if he could read the history of Canada or, more specifically, his home city of Toronto through its sculptures.

Left: John Warkentin

There are over 600 public sculptures and monuments in Toronto, says Warkentin. In the book, he divides them into 16 categories with two graphs showing the number of sculptures installed by year and decade since the mid-19th century and 20 maps indicating where the sculptures can be found.

"Many monuments are memorials to Canada's participation in various conflicts or commemorate important individuals in the history of the province or country," he says. "Some sculptors try to relate humans and nature, and some of early examples indicate environmental concerns well before they became an issue for the general public. Only a few sculptures commemorate the history of the city."

Imagining Toronto, which was also shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism, explores how Toronto's writers have represented the city's buildings, people, neighbourhoods and natural spaces, says Harris, a contract faculty member. "The list of authors and literary works mentioned in the book is extensive, ranging from the familiar – Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Hugh Garner – to the obscure 19th century novelist and founder of the Town of Galt, Bogle Corbet." Corbet's 1831 novel Bogle Corbet; or, The Emigrants is one of the first fictional works to feature Toronto as a setting, says Harris.

Her book traces more than three centuries of Toronto writing from Aboriginal oral narratives to contemporary graphic novels, tracing how Toronto's writers have represented ravines, islands, the lake, what it means to live in the "city of neighbourhoods" and how the people's faith in multiculturalism amounts to a kind of creation myth. "I also explored how class and work are represented, as well as sexuality and the changing suburbs," says Harris.

It was while creating a new geography course in 2005 that Harris realized "there was a huge body of Toronto literature that had not received any comprehensive study, and in fact was widely believed not to exist."

Right: Amy Lavender Harris

Out of this developed the Imagining Toronto project, a database of Toronto novels, poems and other literary works, which Harris still maintains and adds to regularly. The website's library is the largest curated list of Toronto literature currently in existence, says Harris. In 2007, Mansfield Press approached her about doing a book.

"I began writing the book, initially, to respond to claims that Toronto lacks a fully developed literature or that what literature it does have does not compare to the widely fictionalized cities of London, Paris, New York, Mumbai and so on," says Harris. "What I found was that Toronto is richly imagined and that its stories are widely appreciated elsewhere – winning international awards and being in high demand in translated editions – but are not as well appreciated here at home."

Left: Geoffrey Reaume

Through PSAT, Reaume was part of a collective that worked for years to save the 19th century psychiatric-patient-built boundary walls on the south, east and west side of what was once the Toronto Insane Asylum and is now the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAMH) on Queen Street West. Last year, PSAT, along with CAMH, unveiled nine memorial wall plaques at CAMH dedicated to patient labourers of the past (see YFile, Sept. 23, 2010).

"I'm thrilled we were nominated," says Reaume, adding that by recognizing the work of PSAT, the nomination also recognizes and values the people whose unpaid labour built the walls. CAMH Friends of the Archives was the nominator; it collaborated with PSAT in the wall preservation and memorial plaques campaign.

Saving the wall from being torn down and creating memorial plaques took a decade of effort. "There was a great deal of community support for the plaques, which really helped to get the word out," says Reaume. The project aims to connect past history with present issues. It helps to challenge discrimination which is still present today against people with a psychiatric diagnosis.

As of last month, Reaume says he has conducted exactly 100 tours of the walls since 2000. People can now also do self-guided tours thanks to the existence of nine memorial wall plaques and the many people who supported their creation, he says. To watch a video of Reaume talking about the wall, visit the York Institute for Health Research website.

The 37th annual Heritage Toronto Awards for architecture, book, media and community heritage will be announced at a ceremony tonight at Koerner Hall, the Royal Conservatory of Music.

For more information, visit the Heritage Toronto Awards website.

Originally published in YFile.