Conservation and Construction in the Limestone City

Canada’s first capital is home to historic buildings and a housing crisis. How does this affect Kingston’s tourism and city planning?

By Daniel Rose

On a recent visit to Fort Henry, I struck up a conversation with two visitors from Philadelphia who were astonished by Kingston’s historic charm. From enclaves of private homes in the downtown core dating back to the early 19th century to historic sites such as Kingston Penitentiary, they were surprised that the changing needs of the city hadn’t led to more mishaps. One remarked that, “In Philly, we’d have bulldozed half the city fifty years ago for a freeway, so good on ya!”

The British Whig building, an amalgamation of the Ontario Bank Building (constructed in 1894) and the Daily British Whig Building (constructed in 1895). Photo: Daniel Rose

As Canada’s first capital and home to the highest concentration of museums per capita in the country, Kingstonians often take their immersion in the country’s history for granted. When my family moved to Kingston in 1998, we visited local museums to get a handle on the city. Once we settled in, I didn’t return to most of them for almost twenty years! Many historic areas are more commonly used as points of reference when giving direction to the visiting tourists (or “seeds” as some old-timers call them) that descend upon the city every year. 

For residents, the historic city brings a significant challenge: the lowest vacancy rate in Ontario. Sites along the waterfront, such as the old train yards on “block D”, remained vacant for decades for fear of stirring up industrial waste. Other swathes of the city cater to the need for university and college student housing. There is no easy fix – per municipal regulations, new downtown buildings must maintain Kingston’s skyline. As a result, iconic locations such as the S&R building incorporate their original façade with a modern interior. These changes have not come without drawbacks, as affordable businesses are replaced with upscale boutiques. Once home to a budget department store, the S&R building is now a posh mixed office and retail space, while block D is now luxury condos and hotels.

The Smith-Robinson Building, formerly home to S&R Department Store. Photo: Waymark

One place where concerns for housing and heritage preservation meet is the land around Kingston Pen and the Prison for Women (P4W). Kingston Pen, opened in 1835 as Canada’s first penitentiary, housed offenders of all ages, genders and backgrounds over its 178 years of operation, while P4W was the only prison for women doing sentences longer than two years in Canada from 1934-2000. Ironically, neither site was considered part of the City of Kingston until the 1960s!  

The North Gate of Kingston Penitentiary, 2018. Photo: Daniel Rose

Each site has changed since closing.  Queen’s University purchased P4W in 2008, demolishing the perimeter wall and additions to the original structure. In 2018, a private developer purchased P4W with the intent of building residential, office and commercial properties incorporating the prison. Meanwhile, Kingston Pen is still owned by Corrections Canada, with a partnership with a local parks commission bringing in thousands of visitors every year to attend guided tours featuring testimony from retired staff.

How can places of significant national heritage with a complicated legacy incorporate the memorializing nature of an historic site while accommodating the need for residential space? In some ways, the Kingston Pen tours acknowledge the difficult and dangerous work staff put in during the penitentiary’s operation. Without any inmate testimony, however, the tours can feel like an incomplete picture of operations. Some activists, such as the P4W Memorial Collective, have suggested establishing a memorial garden on the grounds of P4W to acknowledge the hardships encountered by the women incarcerated in the prison. While an intriguing suggestion that holds merit, this decision ultimately remains in the hands of the developer who purchased the site.  

The front entrance to Prison for Women (P4W), 2018. Photo: Daniel Rose

The fate of Kingston Pen and P4W remains in motion. The contract for tours at Kingston Pen is renewed on a year-to-year basis, while development plans for P4W are still in their infancy. The decisions taken on both sites will affect locals and tourists alike.

Operation Neptune: Remembering D-Day

75 years after the Normandy landings in 1944, this D-Day commemoration may be the final milestone at which World War II veterans are alive to tell the tale. How does remembrance change when we no longer have firsthand witnesses to uphold our historic memory?

By Serena Ypelaar

Historians, especially those working in public history, know that we have a responsibility to remember and learn from the past, lest past mistakes be repeated. This responsibility will loom larger in the forefront of our duties when the original veterans of World War II, the firsthand memory-keepers, are no longer with us.

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy. On the 6th of June, 1944, British, French, Canadian, and American troops carried out an amphibious assault on the coast of German-occupied France. Codenamed “Operation Neptune”, the Normandy landings constituted the largest seaborne invasion in history. D-Day therefore laid the foundations for Europe’s liberation and the end of the Second World War. Though there are veterans still living to recount their memories, soon that will no longer be the case.

The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade disembarking onto Juno Beach at Normandy. Photo: Wikimedia

At the commemoration ceremonies at Normandy this past Thursday, Prince Charles referenced this sobering reality in his speech. It left me to ponder how quickly time is receding (as always) from our grasp – these changes will transform the historical memory of the Second World War. After all, we no longer have veterans of World War I (or earlier conflicts) to consult about their experiences. Historical interpretation of WWII will likewise rely on physically preserved records, which is going to change how we remember and reinterpret the conflict.

Remembrance in itself is an act – or series of acts – of interpretation. And those interpretations may change depending on contemporary international contexts. For instance, national leaders including outgoing British prime minister Theresa May, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and French president Emmanuel Macron, came together at the D-Day ceremonies in France yesterday to memorialize those who fought the Nazis at Normandy. Notably absent was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s unclear whether she was not invited or simply didn’t attend; she was present at the British ceremony in Portsmouth the day before. Of course, Germany’s role in World War II is the obvious point of contention in this kind of commemoration, and how the country engages with commemorations today sets the tone for reconciliation and reparation.

Britain was prominent among the Allied forces during World War II, and they likewise had a robust presence in the D-Day commemorations. With the mess that is Brexit, Britain’s current political situation places them at an interesting perspective. D-Day was a mobilization of Allied forces which relied upon the unity of major European nations like Britain and France. Now, however, Britain is stepping back from their long-term trade ties with France (as well as Germany) to leave the European Union. In a similar way, the United States was heavily involved in D-Day, yet diplomacy between the U.S. and European countries is particularly strained thanks to President Donald Trump. Having seen tension between certain political leaders, such as between Trump and Merkel, these commemoration events are like a strange family reunion: they reveal how relationships have changed over time.

“Into the Jaws of Death” by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard.
Photo: Wikimedia

The main priority of preserving history is remembering and honouring the past. To this end, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, read out the exact words of his great grandfather George VI, from his D-Day Broadcast:

“At this historic moment, surely not one of us is too busy, too young, or too old to play a part in a nationwide, worldwide vigil …”

King George VI, in a D-Day Broadcast aired 6 June 1944
King George VI of England’s D-Day Broadcast,
originally aired on the morning of 6 June 1944.

This touch was particularly notable because it acknowledges the importance of taking the past into account (something the British notoriously excel at!). One day, not only will the veterans be gone, but so will their children, grandchildren, and everyone who knew them. So what does this tell us about commemoration? We need to preserve the stories of those who lived through the experience, and we need to uphold their legacies as if they were our own while paying our respects to the great sacrifices they made for freedom.

“Only those who threw themselves against the walls of the fortress of Europe in Normandy know the full extent of what unfolded here 75 years ago. But it is the responsibility of all Canadians to ensure that their story and their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

Justin Trudeau, in a speech at Juno Beach on 6 June 2019
Juno Beach is the site where Canadian forces landed during the D-Day invasion. Photo: Joe de Sousa

Nationalism of course comes into play at these commemorations, as it always does. But if we think of commemoration on a purely human level – irrespective of politics – we can preserve history with greater integrity. Sure, we can argue about international relations and the current state of affairs worldwide, but that’s not what commemoration is about. When loss of life is concerned, politicizing memorials trivializes and distracts from the sacrifices of human beings. As shown by the world’s diplomatic leaders, public memory is a collaborative form of historical interpretation. There are many things we may differ on as people and as countries, but the human cost of war is universally significant to us.

D-Day teaches us the importance of balancing past interpretations with present-day ones in order to remember responsibly. In the end, preserving historical memory isn’t the sole responsibility of those who lived through an event in history – it’s our responsibility, as the ones who will carry their stories forward in years to come.

To learn more about the 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations, click here.

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

One hundred years after the World War I armistice, we continue to remember – and feel – the sacrifice of those who have served in armed conflict. 

By Serena Ypelaar

Trying in dismay to ignore the declining number of poppies I’ve seen on people’s lapels this year (all of theirs probably just fell off, right?), I of course wanted to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers, surviving veterans, and all those affected by war ahead of Remembrance Day.

And what better way to do so on a literary/historical blog than to revisit the famed rondeau poem In Flanders Fields (1915) by Canada’s very own John McCrae?

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Trenches and No-Man’s Land at Flander’s Fields. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From an interpretive perspective, the strength of the poem lies in its profound ability to foster empathy. Most of us probably haven’t been in the trenches or known what it’s like to fight in a thankless conflict while watching countless friends die. Those of us who haven’t are extremely lucky – yet In Flanders Fields paints such a visceral picture of sacrifice that we get an almost firsthand glimpse of the devastation.

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 is hard to believe that McCrae, a physician and Lieutenant-Colonel during World War I, was dissatisfied with his work and discarded it. He had to be convinced to submit the poem for publication. Yet he uses swift imagery to conjure a painstakingly forlorn scene of war and death, having written it after performing the funeral service for a fellow soldier and close friend, Alexis Helmer. No matter where we read this, we’re hit as though standing there in Belgium: poppies blowing in the wind on the burial site; guns booming in the distance; the keen sting of love and life, all extinguished by the horrors of war.

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Physician and poet Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I will freely admit that it’s almost impossible for me to read the poem without tearing up. What’s more, it has also been set to music, and the sombre melody combined with McCrae’s stark verse is even more emotional. I always cry when they sing it during the Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa, and I probably always will, because McCrae delivers empathy right to our doorstep. That is, of course the best storytelling – that which makes us feel things.

McCrae’s use of caesura in the second stanza, a halt with punctuation in the middle of a line, drives the point home: We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived … The dead speak to us in the poem, and we are accountable to them to live with honour and integrity as they no longer can. Those feelings of sadness are so well-preserved in the poem that they don’t dull down with time. Every reread reopens the wound – but justly so.

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A poppy field in Flanders. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, it’s painful to grieve, but it is necessary. Remembrance Day is an ongoing process of empathy and an enduring resolution to defend honour. That is, after all, why we wear the poppy every year. It’s a symbol of our commitment, gratitude, and respect. Perhaps in remembering the contributions of our fellow citizens, whether by sacrificing their lives or through tireless and laborious efforts, we’ll also be wary of the sorrow that accompanies war and conflict. Lest we forget.

“Canadian” is not a genre

As we near Canada Day, we question Canadian content standards and come up with some top playlist picks for the long weekend.

By Serena Ypelaar

I didn’t come up with the title for this post myself – it’s a slogan coined by Dine Alone Records, the Canadian independent record label based here in Toronto.

We can take some pointers from its message, as Canadian art is often dismissed – from literature, to visual arts, to music, and more. It’d be interesting to see what percentage of music in our libraries is Canadian – I’d wager most Canadians have 15% or less. But the fact is that there is so much Canadian music out there – and it’s good. 

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Canadian Indigenous singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photo: Flickr

What is it about being Canadian that automatically garners less attention? We even have poorer-quality versions of American reality TV shows, and a terrible Netflix selection compared to our southern neighbours to show for it.

In our current political climate, feat. a tariff war with the United States (which, let’s be honest, flares up every so often like a chronic wound), why not support Canadian musicians and invest in some local talent?

Here are some concise, but by no means comprehensive, top picks for quintessential Canadian listening. Enjoy my quick recs below.

A Tribe Called Red: Essential Indigenous electronic/hip-hop; mandatory listening. Songs to Start With: “R.E.D.,” “How I Feel”, “Bread & Cheese”

Billy Talent: Political commentary & punk rock all in one. Crisp guitars; crisper lyrics. Songs to Start With: “Try Honesty”, “Devil in a Midnight Mass”, “White Sparrows”

July Talk: Jarring juxtaposition of vocals – guttural/masculine vs. soft/feminine. Songs to Start With: “Headsick”, “Blood + Honey”, “Picturing Love”

Alexisonfire: “The sound of two Catholic high-school girls mid-knife-fight”.* Songs to Start With: “Boiled Frogs”, “Get Fighted”, “Midnight Regulations”

*I can’t describe it any better than they already have…

City and Colour: Mournful lamentations nursed by Dallas Green’s voice. Songs to Start With: “Casey’s Song”, “Waiting…”, “The Lonely Life”

Arkells: Anthemic, buoyant daytime rock with a touch of motown. Songs to Start With: “Where U Goin”, “Cynical Bastards”, “John Lennon”

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Mike DeAngelis and Max Kerman of Hamilton band Arkells, at WayHome Music and Arts Festival 2016. Photo: Flickr

Death From Above: Industrious duo at the junction of bass & drums. Songs to Start With: “All I C is U and Me”, “Crystal Ball”, “Romantic Rights”

Tanya Tagaq: Daring, innovative, and traditional Inuit throat-singing. Songs to Start With: “Uja”, “Sila”, “Retribution”

Mother Mother: Three-layered high-pitched vocals on a base of synth and strings. Songs to Start With: “Ghosting”, “The Stand”, “Infinitesimal”

Sum 41: Sprawling spitfire of classic punk rock with heavyweight choruses. Songs to Start With: “Still Waiting”, “Open Your Eyes”, “With Me”

USS (Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker): Lucid, lively electronica fuelled by lyrical emotion. Songs to Start With: “Damini”, “Vulcan”, “Freakquency”

Arcade Fire: A convergence of 6+ hipsters producing indie rock with accordion and keyboard at the fore. Songs to Start With: “Ready to Start”, “The Suburbs”, “No Cars Go”

Monster Truck: 70s style blues rock backed by organs. Long hair & denim required.   Songs to Start With: “Don’t Tell Me How to Live”, “Old Train”, “For the People”

Hollerado: Personable indie rock with a genuine sound and hard-hitting beats. Songs to Start With: “Too Much to Handle”, “So It Goes”, “Got to Lose”

Drake: No description needed for Toronto’s resident rapper… Songs to Start With: “Passionfruit”, “Over”, “God’s Plan”

Our Lady Peace: Low, crooning vocals replete with reassuring lyrics. Songs to Start With: “Innocent”, “All You Did Was Save My Life”, “Angels/Losing/Sleep”

Avril Lavigne: Do I even need to explain this? Songs to Start With: “Complicated”, “Sk8er Boi”, “I’m With You”

Cancer Bats: Gritty underground metal; shredding, cymbal-smashing oblivion. Songs to Start With: “Hail Destroyer”, “Beelzebub”, “Gatekeeper”

Three Days Grace: Bass-heavy garage-rock with brutally honest insights. Songs to Start With: “Just Like You”, “Never Too Late”, “Last to Know”

Sam Roberts Band: Even-paced alternative rock with laid-back guitars. Songs to Start With: “Brother Down”, “Them Kids”, “If You Want It”

Half Moon Run: Serene assertions on the human condition, featuring folksy acoustics. Songs to Start With: “Nerve”, “Trust”, “Narrow Margins”

Wintersleep: Guitars, synth, and experimental riffs with a sprightly rhythm. Songs to Start With: “Lifting Cure”, “Metropolis”, “Santa Fe”

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Alanis Morissette. Photo: Wikimedia

Of course, there are also the Canadian classics, which you might consider revisiting for the long weekend. I’ve created a track-by-track vignette of essential Canadiana:

  • Rush – “YYZ”
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie – “Working for the Government”
  • Bryan Adams – “Summer of ’69”
  • The Guess Who – “American Woman”
  • Gordon Lightfoot – “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”
  • Shania Twain – “Man! I Feel Like A Woman”
  • Alanis Morissette – “Thank U”
  • Sarah McLachlan – “Building A Mystery”
  • Great Big Sea – “The Chemical Worker’s Song”
  • Neil Young – “Heart of Gold”
  • Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi”
  • Leonard Cohen – “Treaty”
  • k.d. lang – “Constant Craving”
  • Celine Dion – “My Heart Will Go On”
  • Barenaked Ladies – “Canada Dry”
  • The Tragically Hip – “Bobcaygeon”

Obviously I omitted a bunch of bands/artists, mainly because I don’t listen to them enough to consider myself worthy of making thoughtful recommendations. Other Canadian artists are included below.

Shad, Lights, The Dirty Nil, Anne Murray, The Jerry Cans, Shawn Mendes, Sloan, Tegan and Sara, Michael Buble, Metric, Simple Plan, Young Empires, Joni Mitchell, Nelly Furtado, Bruce Cockburn, Jann Arden, The Trews, Corey Hart, Alessia Cara, Ron Sexsmith, Diana Krall, Stan Rogers, BROS, Feist, The Beaches, Moneen, The Darcys, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Said the Whale, Constantines, Marianas Trench, Silverstein, Broken Social Scene, Big Wreck, Nickelback, PUP, Dear Rouge, Blue Rodeo, Hedley, Fucked Up, Toronto, Great Lake Swimmers, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Teenage Head, Down With Webster, Thousand Foot Krutch, Matt Good Band, The Tea Party, The Sheepdogs, Hey Rosetta!, The Elwins, IllScarlett, Prism, I Mother Earth, Black Lungs, Chromeo, Japandroids, Whitehorse, Protest the Hero, The New Pornographers, Joel Plaskett, Northern Voice, Serena Ryder, Lost Cousins, Moist, Neverending White Lights, Platinum Blonde, Stabilo, Saint Asonia, Finger Eleven, Templar, Theory of a Deadman, Wolf Parade, Yukon Blonde, Born Ruffians, Black Bear.

Over the years, so much of Canadian identity has been built on what we’re not (namely, American). Let’s talk about what we are, for a change. It’s something Canadian music does well, if we only listen.