Now, Take Ontario

Rich but repressed, powerful but timid, disliked, but loved by her own—a native son explains his Ontario

E. K. BROWN June 15 1947

Now, Take Ontario

Rich but repressed, powerful but timid, disliked, but loved by her own—a native son explains his Ontario

E. K. BROWN June 15 1947

Now, Take Ontario

Rich but repressed, powerful but timid, disliked, but loved by her own—a native son explains his Ontario


THIS IS the last in the series of reports on the regions of Canada. If the report on Ontario could not come first., it should come last and crown the whole.

No Ontarian will ever concede that his province in on all fours with the others. Ontario is the apex, the present culmination of the national achievement. Because all we Ontarians believe this as a primary article of faith, we are widely disliked. This dislike is all the more acute because we either do not know it exists, or forget to remember it exists. When it is pointed out to us by some solitary exile from the indigent Maritimes or from the more

desolate parts of the prairies we are not perturbed.

“It. is not dislike at all,” says the typical citizen of Hamilton, or Ixmdon, or Smiths Falls, “it is just envy.”

For my part I think that other Canadians (the French Canadians, of course, excepted) would do much better to concede that Ontario is the heartland of the nation, and then blame us in Ontario for what goes wrong. Of course, we are blamed for that anyhow.

Ontario is the apex, the heartland. More than a third of the Canadian population lives within our borders; in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Windsor, and London we have five of the 11 largest Canadian cit ies. From Ontario comes more than 40% of the total production of Canada. Just less than a quar-

ter of the forest products, rather more than a quarter of the farm products, almost half the mineral products and more than half the manufactured products of Canada are the outcome of Ontario hands and Ontario skill.

Forty per cent of the national income goes into Ontario pockets and purses—more into the pockets; and a bit more than 40% of the retail sales made in Canada are exchanged for what comes out of those pockets and purses—a good deal more comes out of the purses.

In the cultural and religious life of Canada the record has long been equally impressive, and is today perhaps more impressive than ever.

The blue-ribbon distinction for a scientist who is a British subject is fellowship in the Royal Society; Ontario has and has long had the bulk of Canadian F. R. S.’s. The only Nobel prize that has ever come to Canada was awarded to professors in the University of Toronto for the discovery of insulin. The one really fully developed school of graduate studies in Canada, the focus for the greatest intellectual energies of the Canadian people, is in this university. Continued on page 30

Continued on page 30

Now, Take Ontario

Continued from page 12

Toronto has long been the centre of Canadian music. In Toronto, and in the wild Jandscape of the pre-Cambrian shield in northern Ontario, the Group of Seven had their roots, and it was by their daring that Canadian painting took its longest forward step. The two greatest Canadian poets of our time live in Ontario, Duncan Campbell Scott in Ottawa (where he was born and where he had his entire brilliant career in the department of Indian Affairs) and Edwin John Pratt in Toronto (where he has lived and taught since he first came to Canada from his native Newfoundland 40 years ago).

Toronto is the centre of the United Church of Canada and of the Church of England in Canada. In Toronto the Roman Catholic Church has the one English-speaking Canadian Cardinal and the centre of Catholic intellectual life, the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.

Yes, it is easy for the Ontarian to see that his province is the Canadian heartland. What he does not usually see at all is that Ontario, like every other part of Canada, is also a region with its own characterizing traits, some good, some bad, some comic, some pathetic, but all helping to mark it off, all leading it to diverge from the Canadian norm. The Ontarian simply believes that Ontario is the norm; the way Ontario does things and the way Ontario approves and disapproves are, he believes, exactly what the laws of Canada, of human nature and of God Himself ordain. I am not sure that the Ontarian would admit that the flickering light in a southern Ontario electric light bulb is a regional oddity. In Buffalo they have got rid of that flicker; but the flicker is already an Ontario tradition, and the Americans are generally supposed by Ontario to be a rashly innovating people.

Discovery in Manitoba

I had my first real perception that Ontario was a region one day in the autumn of 1935. Just before the Dominion elections of that, year Mitchell Hepburn spoke in Winnipeg. I had taken my first job outside the boundaries of Ontario a month or so before, and with a homesickness that every exiled Ontarian will understand, whatever his polities, I made a point of finishing my dinner at Moore’s restaurant on Portage Avenue (where the lights do not flicker) in time to go and listen to him.

Nothing at all of what Mr. Hepburn said has stayed with me; but I shall always remember a comment in the Free Press on his “warm Ontario accent.” So Ontarians had an accent !

1 had supposed that every one else had, but not we. Perhaps—the destructive idea began to insinuate itself—we had not only an accent which sounded a little queer in the ears of other Canadians, but also our own ways of thinking and feeling, and could it be that

these might seem queer to the mind and heart of a man from Calgary or Fredericton?

Now, I am a hardened Ontarian. I was born in Toronto and my father and mother were born in rural Ontario. I went to school and to college in Toronto. I spent my vacations in Muskoka. At 21 I had scarcely been outside Ontario. I have been away a good deal in recent years, but more than three quarters of my life has been lived in Ontario, and there is no other place in the world where I feel freely and easily at home.

The central and northern parts of Toronto are where 1 am most at home. The narrowness of lower Yonge St., the rows of its shabby and sometimes seedy shops between College and Bloor, the huddling curves of South Rosedale, the vista from Casa Loma, the shadeless streets of that suburb so oddly named Forest Hill, they are all beautiful in my eyes.

Not Really Drab

When I meet any really grown-up Torontonian who claims to know the city well, I have a question for him, a test for his credentials. Did he know the whistler?

The whistler was a middle-aged man with a thick pepper-and-salt beard, strikingly red protrusive lips, and a bent back, who hurried along the streets with a loping stride, making indescribable birdlike sounds. I have met him in almost every part of Toronto, once and most memorably late on a belowzero night on the Main Street bridge; then, as always, he paid no attention as he hurried past whistling with an energy and volume which compensated for the lack of melody. There was a man with a life of his own, who lived it as he would. I should like to know what has become of the whistler. I hope that some one who reads these lines will tell me. It is a long time since I last saw him.

He may stand here for a fact of immense importance, which Ontarians almost always forget, or at least play down: that there is color in the life of Ontario. By the rest of the world we Ontarians are thought to be far over on the drab side; some of us even like to think that we are dull, thoroughly dull, for in thorough dullness is safety. But we really know better. The life of Ontario has far more color than we say.

Our Ontario history has color. The War of 1812, which was very much an Ontario war, had heroic episodes and grotesquely comic episodes, but it had no dull episodes at all. It may have been a small war, and our rebellion in 1837 was certainly a small rebellion. But it was a lively rebellion; there is not a really dull page in its history. Whatever may be said of our political leaders in Ontario, most of them have been, like George Drew and Mitch Hepburn, men of vivid and fiery personality. Their vividness has not prevented their re-election.

George Brown, probably our great-

est newspaper editor, dipped his pen in something at least as bitter as gall, and was assassinated in the building where he conducted the old Globe. Even to one who now lives in the same city with Colonel Robert R. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, the leading Ontario papers of today are anything but dull. They have a fine devotion to invective. When I sat a few weeks ago in the office of George McCullagh, the publisher of the Toronto Globe and Mail, and listened to his views on the state of the province, the nation and the world, I could not find a trace of timidity or dullness in the man or in what he said. To use an old American expression, Mr. McCullagh is about as intense as he can live. He sees life in intense oppositions and great urgencies. He gives the lie to many illusions we Ontario people have formed about ourselves. He has the mind of a prophet.

The murder of George Brown was not an exceptional event in the history of Ontario. Stewart Wallace’s fascinating record, “Murders and Mysteries,” can stand on the same shelf with William Roughead’s accounts of Scottish capital crimes. Ontario has been the scene of some of the purplest murders in the annals of passion. And since Mr. Wallace wrote a decade or so ago there has been no decline in the number or quality of our murders.

The Spell of the North

Color has run through our history and runs through it today. Today the greatest single source of color in the life of Ontario is in the northland. A remark of John W. Dafoe’s—like so many of the best Westerners he was Ontario born and Ontario bred—first brought home to me the unity of Ontario’s existence. The towering skyline of Toronto in the 1930’s, he said, depended on the mines in the northern ranges of Ontario. The height of the one was in balance with the depth of the other.

That northern country is the home of every Ontarian’s imagination, if he has any; I believe far more Ontarians have an imagination than will own, even a little sheepishly, to that unpredictable and therefore perilous power. In the best book written on Canada, André Siegfried said that the crucial factor in a country’s history is the particular dream that haunts the imagination of its people. The Ontario dream is of the north, the land of mines and lakes and forests, the margins of civilization, the approaches to the unknown. That is why so many Ontarians leave cool and comfortable houses, shaded by some of the most beautiful maples and elms in the world, to spend as much of the summer as they can in primitive and monstrously ugly summer hotels with a few scrubby jack pines scattered among dull rocky hillocks, or in even more primitive cottages. Nothing could entice me into one of them now or forevermore. But then I nourish my northern dream on other materials, on painting and poetry. Our Ontario folklore, the tales that are told but seldom written down, and yet linger from decade to decade and pass from town to town, are largely about the north. Before any one generalizes about Ontario, he must think about the mining towns, and the kind of people in many southern cities and farmhouses who are in touch with them either through their families or through their pocketbooks.

The north country is vividly present to the economist and to those whom the economist has taught, when they look at the Toronto or Hamilton skyline. Our painters too have seen it, and have loaned out their imaginations so that

when any of us goes to the art gallery in an Ontario city, or examines the Christmas cards in almost any Ontario store, he may bring the essence of the north before his mind.

To our painters we owe a debt that only a few of us fully realize and that we are never likely to pay. When I was a boy drawing-rooms, dens and dining rooms were hung with discouraging oils and grim engravings, the oils usually in sombre browns and greens, the engravings a moribund gray. Now it is different. Tom Thomson and his associates have brought the emphatic lines and the fierce and splendid colors of the northern landscape to the walls of our rooms—the reproductions are almost everywhere, at least when a young person has had a hand in decoration. To speak for myself, a little Tom Thomson reproduction in color, bought at the Art Gallery in Ottawa, is always on my desk. I should not care to work without it.

At first Ontario would have nothing to do with the wild new paintings. They were called, to choose one of the milder terms, the “products of a deranged mind.” The general opinion was that they were the outcomes of frantic duels between maniacs hurling gobs of paint at long distance. But before very long—it seemed long enough to the painters—something very deep in Ontarians began to respond. I have always thought that Mr. and Mrs. VinCent Massey made one of the most successful contributions toward the popularity of the Group of Seven by hanging many of their works on the walls of Hart House at the University of Toronto where, in the course of years, thousands upon thousands of still quite impressionable young Ontarians grew accustomed to them and slowly came to like them. The violent colors and decisive lines in which these painters presented our own landscape showed us something strong and decided in ourselves. Perhaps we did not at first like to be found out behind our drab defenses; but in the end we have admitted the truth and enjoyed having our painters tell it to us.

Snobbery and Timidity

We in Ontario are franker about ourselves and our circumstances than we used to be. There are still reticences which do us nothing but harm. The most unpleasant form of Ontario reticence is our unfriendliness. We are about as unfriendly as a people can be.

Just as an Englishman’s social reserve may make him appear rude to those to whom he has not been introduced, so does the reticence of the Ontarian make him unfriendly to those he does not know.

We in Ontario have not the expressive friendliness of people in the West, or of people in the United States. I do not ask for the high courtesy of Virginia, or for the warm-eyed neighborliness of Winnipeg, but we might perhaps get some of the ice out of our eyes and our voices.

It is this same reticence which ac counts for most of that insufferable toploftiness in so many of our Leading Citizens, and their sons and daughters. I know a little about the sons and daughters for I had them about me in the 10 years when I taught at the University of Toronto. Whether they come from London or Brantford or Ottawa or Toronto they hold apart. They hive together. They join the same few fraternities and sororities. They do not make very warm overtures to students from simpler backgrounds.

Snobbery is a very ugly word, one of the ugliest in the language. A snob, said Thackeray who wrote a “Book of Snobs,” Is one who meanly admires

mean things. That definition does not seem to fit the Ontario species of snobbery. Ontario snobbery is timidity, another form of the reticence which underlies so much of what is wrong with us. Our Leading Citizens are not really sure of themselves; they don’t quite know what has made them leading citizens, or what will keep them leading citizens. They have wealth, most of them, hut they are intelligent and they know that wealth by itself is not a real superiority, and cannot form a recognized class. They have power of one sort or another, but they know too well how they or their ancestors acquired the power to rest very secure in a belief that power argues a real superiority and makes a recognized class. In their insecurity they crowd together. So do sheep.

The Fear of Self-Reliance

This reticence underlies another unfortunate trait. Since teaching is my trade 1 shall illustrate it from the classroom, but it is just as often present in the factory or the office. When you ask an American or a western Canadian student a complicated question, his main wish is to crow over what he knows. The whole class would like to talk, and the student you single out would like to talk as long as you will let him. Your problem is to save some time for yourself to say something.

But when you ask the same sort of question in an Ontario classroom, what tne student you single out wants above all is not to give himself away, not to reveal any ignorance or misinformation, or any impolite excess of information. He will say as little as he can. He does not trust himself. From his point of view it is a breach of the code to trust yourself conspicuously. He writhes when some outlander or some Ontarian who is unfaithful to the customs of the tribe (and there are such, quite a number of them, affectionately recalled at this moment) speaks out frankly, cheerfully and at serene and happy length. That man, the rest of the class appears to be reflecting, as they look at their books, or at their fingernails or ostentatiously out the window, is dangerous.

It is just the same when you ask an Ontario student to read a report. True, he will read it; that is the bargain, and an Ontarian will normally keep the letter of a bargain grimly. But he will gabble it as fast as he can and with as little expression as possible so that all his fellows will know that he does not really wish to impose his thoughts upon them, that he only does so because he is obliged to, and that at least he is making the exhibition of himself as brief and as colorless as the vocal

chords will allow. Thus he expects to be pardoned; and he is.

And yet 1 could tell him that he has at least as much to say as the Western student or the American, perhaps much more. For there is nothing wrong with his mind judged as a machine, and in its recesses ideas are turning over which have originality and value. A German poet has said: “It is certain my conviction gains infinitely the moment another soul will believe in it.” The conviction of an Ontarian would gain infinitely the moment he would fully believe in it himself. And he would gain as a personality, he would become more generous in his judgments on others, more friendly in his responses to the lesser breeds without the law.

1 should like to see every high school student in Ontario reading Emerson’s great essay on “Self-Reliance.” “Trust thyself,” says Emerson, “every heart vibrates to that iron string.” And again: “Nothing can bring you peace

but yourself.”

If we in Ontario could acquire a decent measure of self-reliance, if would be more valuable to us than even the discovery somewhere in the province of an inexhaustible deposit of anthracite. For, until we acquire that self-reliance, we cannot make the full and right use of the great resources we already have—the land, and the metals, and the lumber, the roads and rails and planes, and all the other bases for a flourishing civilization.

If we people of Ontario had that self-reliance, people elsewhere in Canada would be powerfully drawn towards the heartland, would trust our leadership and work with us. No lesson in algebra, or in Latin grammar, or in any of those odd newfangled subjects which have been introduced since I last sat at a desk in a Toronto school, and are credited with the magical power to make whole men and whole women, would have as much persistent influence as the enthusiastic and effective teaching of that essay of Emerson’s written just a little over a hundred years ago. The Americans have absorbed its doctrine; you cannot live among them without seeing that. We have shied away from it; you cannot live among us without seeing that.

The choice that lies before us, so far as we have a choice, is between the set of values which are represented by the north country-—the qualities of vividness, strength and self-reliance which are latent in us-—and the set of values represented by too many Leading Citizens and their admirers—timidity, dullness and caution. The war shook us up, and gave the first and better set a temporary triumph. What we have to do now is to shake ourselves up and make that triumph lasting, it