The death penalty in Canada: 40 years on

The execution of Stanislaus Lacroix in  Hull, Quebec, in March, 1902. In the background onlookers can be seen standing on telephone poles. Credit: Library and Archives Canada

Forty years ago, Canada took the remarkable step of eliminating the death penalty from the criminal code. The move was a huge leap forward both for Canada, and for the world. At the time, the death penalty was a common feature on global criminal codes.

Canada was one of the first countries in the world to move to eliminate capital punishment. Today, according to Amnesty International, the number of counties that have eliminated the death penalty in law or practice has risen to 140 – nearly two-thirds of countries around the world.

The death penalty was a staple of the criminal code in Canada since its days as a British colony. From the time of Canadian Confederation in 1867 (the beginning of reliable record-keeping for executions) 710 people were executed under the death penalty. These figures include 697 men and 13 women.

Hanging was the primary method of execution used for civilians – those in the military were traditionally executed by firing squad. Hanging was seen as a humane form of execution. Various innovations in the process of hanging such as the 5 ft and 7ft drop from a raised platform ensured that the process was quicker and more effective than raising the person from the ground using a rope.

The bloodbath caused by the guillotine in the French revolution and in the Reign of Terror turned public opinion away from these more gruesome methods. There is only one recorded occasion where the guillotine was used in North America. Off the coast of Newfoundland are the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon; the only remaining French controlled territories in North America.

In 1889, a resident of Saint-Pierre convicted for the murder of another man on the island was sentenced to death. The guillotine, being the official method of execution in France, was to be used for the occasion. Not having access to the machine, a guillotine had to be shipped from France and according to records, it was not in good working conditions when it arrived. To this day, that guillotine remains in a museum in Saint-Pierre.

St Pierrie and Miquelon – the only remaining French controlled territories in North America. Credit:

In the 20th century, the death penalty was becoming less accepted by the public. The last execution in Canada was the double hanging of Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin on December 11, 1962, at Toronto’s Don Jail. Outside of the jail, protesters gathered and shouted outside the jail in the hours before the two men were hanged.

The move to finally abolish the death penalty came in 1976 when the Government of Prime Minister Pierre Treadau introduced Bill C-84. The legislation aimed to remove the death penalty from the criminal code (the death penalty was finally removed from military law in 1998) and was put to a free vote in House of Commons. It narrowly passed with the final tally of 130:124.

Today, the death penalty still remains in criminal codes around the world. Amnesty International reported that in 2014, at least 2,466 people were sentenced to death worldwide – up 28% on 2013.

Why settle in Calgary?

The Calgary skyline in a photo from 2011. Credit:

Human settlement always fascinates me. Why do we choose to live in the places that we do? On a recent trip to Calgary, Alberta, I was taken aback by the beauty of the place. The Rocky Mountains reaching to the sky on one side and thousands of miles of endless flatness on the other side.

Calgary is a bustling metropolis, with skyscrapers, high-end retail stores and major companies headquartered there. But, its past as rural outpost of civilization is still evident. While First Nations people had made the area their home for centuries, I wondered how European settlers reached this place.

I found out the answer in an Irishman named John Glenn.

Glenn is the first documented settler in Calgary. He was born in 1834 in County Mayo, Ireland.  As a young man, he left to seek his fortune in England.  Homesick, he returned to Ireland with the intention of going home, but within a few miles of his father’s farm, he changed his mind. He took the ferry back to Liverpool, England and from there, at the age of 16, he immigrated to New York City.

After arriving in New York, Glenn decided to travel west and eventually got a job working on a ranch near Waco, Texas. Years later, the American Civil War broke out engulfing the entire country into conflict. In 1862, Glenn was drafted into the Confederate Army as a conscript.

Glenn was opposed to slavery and managed to desert the Confederates. However, the Civil War was not over for Glenn. He continued to fight, but this time for the Northern Federal Army. Serving under General William Techumseh Sherman, Glenn fought with the North until the end of the American Civil War in 1865.

Following the war, he journeyed across America around the central and western states. He made a living working in the mines and in 1867, he decided to move on to Bakersville, British Columbia. At the time, Barkerville was the main town of the Cariboo Gold Rush in British Columbia. The population of the town exploded overnight as word spread about gold in the area. It became the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Chicago.

John Glenn
A rendering of John Glenn based on his photograph. Credit: Elbow Museum

It was here, panning for gold in Barkerville, that Glenn, by chance, met two other original Calgarians.  James Votier and Sam Livingston, both also some of Calgary’s first settlers. Both were also seeking their fortune from the gold rush.

In 1873, after years of solitary wandering, the forty year old Glenn decided, that it was time to settle down. He married a woman called Adelaide Belcourt in Lac St. Anne, a small settlement west of Edmonton, Alberta.

Needing a farm and suitable land to settle, Glenn and his new wife headed south. After reaching a place called Fish Creek in Calgary district, they were impressed by the land that they saw and decided to make their home there. Thus, Glen became Calgary’s first settler.

In the following years, Fort Calgary was established, bringing law and order along with an influx of new settlers. Some of the first were the two people that Glenn met panning for gold in Bakersville, BC – James Votier and Sam Livingston.

Livingston, another Irish man, became a legend in Calgary. He was the first man to being mechanized farming equipment to Calgary and opened the first school in the area. It is said, that when he died, his funeral procession was 40 carriages long.

Calgary has its history rooted in adventure and resiliency. The people who first settled there were tough, adaptable and uncompromising. Much of that attitude can still be felt in the area today.


The oldest monument in Montreal, and a familiar face

Nelson’s Column and Notre Dame Street in Montreal in 1830.  Rebert Auchmunty Sproule (1799 – 1845) Credit: McCord Museum

On a recent trip to Montreal, I saw a familiar face. Admiral Horatio Nelson was an officer in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Famous for his bravery and gallantry in battle, he became a superstar throughout the British Empire after winning a string of victories against the French, Spanish and Danish navies.

However, I had a question: Why is a British naval commander who played a pivotal role in defeating French armies in the Napoleonic Wars celebrated in Montreal, Quebec?

On October 21, 1805, Nelson’s legacy as a strategic genius was immortalized after he secured the greatest victory in British naval history at the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of southwest Spain against the combined French and Spanish navies. Previously, he had secured a series of strategic victories against other European powers and had been active in the American War of Independence, off the coast of Africa and in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, during his most famous victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson was shot by a French sharpshooter and died a short time later. His body was taken back to London where he was given a state funeral. There was a huge outpouring of emotion across the British Empire.


Admiral Nelson pained by John Francis Rigaud in 1781. In the background is Fort San Juan, in present-day Nicaragua.

Nelson had a name that was known across the British Empire. His legacy and popularity transcended continents. After his death, he was regarded as a hero and his stature was only enhanced by tales of his victories. In terms of the early 19th Century, Nelson was as closest thing that the British Empire had to a Hollywood celebrity.

After his death, monuments to Nelson began appearing across the Empire and people rushed to celebrate his legacy. First, in 1806, monuments were erected in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Then, in 1808, Nelson’s Pillar was erected in Dublin, Ireland (this was eventually blown up by the IRA in 1966). In 1813, a monument to Nelson was erected in Barbados. Across Britain, monuments to Nelson began popping up in Liverpool, Birmingham, Portsmouth and famously in London at Trafalgar Square.

It seems odd that in a place with such strong French traditions as Montreal a monument should stand celebrating Nelson; the man who is credited with humiliating the French navy at Trafalgar. However, the monument to celebrate Nelson in Montreal was not a statement of imperial superiority to signify British dominance. In fact, Nelson was a hugely popular figure among French Canadians.

Both English and French Montrealers eagerly supported the erection of the monument in 1808. French Canadian’s were united by a common dislike of the French Revolution and did not support its then ruler, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The French Revolution led many conservative refugees to seek asylum in Canada and years of war had left Napoleon unpopular.

Nelson overlooking Montreal
Nelson overlooking Montreal today

Thus, Montreal’s oldest public monument was erected in 1809, just four years after the Battle of Trafalgar. It is a full thirty years older than London’s much larger and more grandiose imperial tribute in Trafalgar Square. After the monument in Dublin was blown up in 1966 by the IRA, Montreal now has the second oldest monument to Nelson in the world; just slightly younger than the monument in Glasgow.

It is a reminder that in the early 19th Century the world was becoming a smaller place and is an interesting example of an early global superstar.


The Tollkeeper’s Cottage: A hidden Toronto history

Tollkeepers cottage
A painting from 1875 by Arthur Cox looking down on to Toronto shows the tollgate at Davenport and Bathurst.

A increasingly common trend in the industrialized world in the 19th Century centered around a spate of infrastructure projects being funded by private investors. Canals, railroads and roadways were being constructed in record numbers around the world. Journeys that had taken days were cut to hours, high speed communications became possible and the world was a more connected place.

Upper Canada, although a sparsely populated land, was no different. Since the end of the War of 1812, the population of Upper Canada was growing faster. To accommodate this growth, private companies were permitted to build, improve and maintain roads across the vast land. To pay for these expensive undertakings, these companies were allowed to collect tolls on these roads.

Tolls were collected a fixed point along the roadway and users were obliged to pay the “tollkeeper”, who lived along the way. It’s not often that you get an opportunity to see one of these structures, but at the corner of Davenport and Bathurst Street in Toronto is an unassuming little building that can claim to be the oldest such structure in Canada.

Tollkeepers cottage two
The Tollkeeper’s Cottage today at Davenport Road and Bathurst in Toronto.

It was not until 1993 that this historic gem was discovered. While the rest of the city was seemingly unaware of this piece of important history sitting under their noses, the story goes that a neighbor had some knowledge of age of the building and contacted a local group called the Community Housing Project. After some testing, the group confirmed the building’s age.

The tollgate sits along one of Canada’s most historic roadways. Davenport Road has a history of stretching back to the end of the Ice Ages and was an ancient pathway used by First Nations people. It has an important role in the hsitory of the settlement of Canada and was a trail used by French explorers throughout the 1700’s. Then, in 1833, the road was paved and the improvements were to be paid for by tolls.

To collect the tolls, five new tollgates were constructed on Davenport between the Humber and Don Rivers. They were small structures that would house the tollkeeper and his family. They were not glamorous residences, even by 1830’s standards. The jobs were notoriously badly paid and the tollkeepers would often have to find other employment to get by.



This site is an interesting window into another time from Toronto. The story it tells is one that is familiar for this time period in a world that was becoming increasingly industrialized and depended on private investment in public infrastructure.

Today, the Tollkeeper’s Cottage is a historic museum operated by the Community History Project. It’s open every Saturday from 11 am – 4 pm, and on the occasional Sunday from 1 pm to 4 pm.


Diamond rings: The history of why you’re forking out

A De Beers ad from the late 1940’s. The slogan a “A Diamond Is Forever” was first used in 1948.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when diamonds were not considered the norm for engagement rings, but it wasn’t very long ago. Up until the 1930’s, very few people proposed with diamond rings. In fact, figures from the BBC suggest that before 1930, only 10% of engagement rings contained diamonds. By the end of the 20th Century that figure was over 80%. How did we develop such an obsession with diamonds over such a short space of time?

Here are four reasons that you may be unaware of:

  1. The diamond invention

Bulfontein_Diamond_Mine_-_South_Africa 1880s
De Beers Bulfontein Diamond Mine, South Africa, 1880’s

In 1982, Atlantic Magazine published a famous investigative article called, Have you ever tried to sell a diamond? The article traced the roots of the diamond industry as we know it today back to the late 19th Century. In the 1880s, a deluge of diamond mines were being developed in South Africa flooding the market with diamonds. In 1888, investors in these mines consolidated their interests by forming De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd.

De Beers became the single entity controlling the world’s supply of diamonds and all aspects of production. Instead of allowing the market to be oversupplied with cheap diamonds, the formation of De Beers allowed the industry to control the supply of diamonds, propping up the price and creating an image that would “perpetuate the illusion of scarcity of diamonds”.

  1. Diamonds are forever

Frances Gerety, the copywriter behind the slogan, “A Diamond Is Forever”

The real turning point came with a clever marketing campaign that has become one of the most successful in history. Everyone is familiar with the line, “A Diamond Is Forever”. The slogan has appeared in every De Beers engagement ad since 1948.

This famous line was the brainchild of Frances Gerety, an employee of Philadelphia advertising agency N.W. Ayer & Son. Gerety wrote all of the company’s ads for 25 years. In the 1930’s, the agency was hired by De Beers to help to create demand for diamonds after the devastation of the Great Depression.

The line “A Diamond Is Forever” has come to define how we think about diamond rings. In 1999, two weeks before Ms. Gerety died at the age of 83, Advertising Age named it the slogan of the century.

  1. Piggybacking on celebrity culture
Marilyn Monroe Diamonds are a girls best friend 1950s
Marilyn Monroe in the 1950’s

A breakthrough for the diamond industry came when it began a close relationship with Hollywood. Celebrity culture has played a very strong role in how we think about diamonds. In the 1950s, N. W. Ayer started lending jewels to socialites and starlets for the Academy Awards and the Kentucky Derby. The campaign was a runaway success. The New York Times suggests that, “after just two years, the sale of diamonds in the United States increased by 55 percent.” The practice still continues to this day.

  1. One months’ salary? Two months’ salary?



When it comes to engagement rings, some people will tell you that there is an unwritten rule that you should spend two months’ salary. Again, this is not some old adage that was created centuries ago, but is another element of the De Beers advertising campaign.

In fact, at the beginning of the De Beers campaign in the 1930’s, it was suggested that one months’ salary is the perfect amount to spend on a diamond engagement ring. Then in the 1980’s, De Beers launched a campaign suggesting that two months’ salary is the appropriate amount. It was the same advertising agency, N. W. Ayer, which introduced a series of ads with the tagline: “Isn’t two months’ salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?”

Maybe in the future, we can look forward to campaigns asking for four months’ salary, or perhaps even six.


Edward Bernays and the “engineering of consent”

Edwards Bernays.jpg
Edward Bernays in the early 1920’s.

Whether are aware of it or not, we are exposed to hundreds of marketing and public relations messages every day. Each message is focused on persuading us to support a certain viewpoint, buy a certain product or support a particular group. The business of persuasion is a billion-dollar industry, with hundreds of thousands of professionals all over the world focusing on selling you their products and persuading you to support their viewpoints.

But, where did it all start? To understand the roots of the business of professional persuasion, we must define it. In 2012, the Public Relations Society of America offers a definition of the PR profession as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”Is this all there is to it?

Of course, public relations techniques are not new. There is evidence of public relations techniques being utilized all the way back to ancient societies such as the Roman Empire, through the settlement of the New World and on to the modern public relations procession we know today. One the great early practitioners and the man who we can thank for the public relations industry (along with other luminaries such as Ivy Lee) is Edward Bernays.

Edward Bernays, now known as the “father of public relations”, was born in November 1891 in Vienna, Austria, then in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bernays family immigrated to New York City soon after he was born in 1892. It was in the United States that Bernays would come to define what we know today as public relations.

As nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays was inspired by his uncle’s insights into the human mind to create campaigns designed to manipulate the preferences and desires of the greater public.

One of the early breakthroughs for Bernays came while he was working with the Committee on Public Information during World War One. The Committee on Public Information, also known the Creel Committee, was an independent agency of the government of the United States created to influence U.S. public opinion regarding American participation in World War I.

At the time, Bernays was influential in building support for the War by promoting the idea that America’s war efforts were primarily aimed at “bringing democracy to all of Europe”. The campaign was a runaway success. So successful in fact, that Bernays was invited to the Paris Peace Conference by then President Woodrow Wilson.

Destroy this Mad Brute: Enlist (Harry R. Hopps; 1917) A poster from the Creel Committee.

Impressed by the effectiveness of his formula, Bernays began to apply the same magic to the corporate world. In a career spanning through the 1920’s up to the late 1970’s, Bernays largely defined the industry of public relations as we know it today.

In 1928, Bernays outlined his theories in his landmark book, Propaganda. He wrote:

“If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.”

Propaganda is now a dirty word. This negativity stems from the fact that Germany’s Nazi party, along with other nefarious early 20th Century organizations, successfully utilized propaganda to glorify and build support for their missions. Bernays theories in Propaganda were actively studied implemented by these organizations, and in particular, famously by the Director of Propaganda for the Nazi Party, Joseph Goebbels.

While the term “propaganda” has largely disappeared from professional usage, many of the tactics can still be found in public relations. It’s Bernay who we can thank for some of the most common strategies now implemented in public relations.

One his most famous campaigns was on behalf of Big Tobacco. In the early 1920’s, it was considered taboo for women to smoke in public and tobacco companies began to realize that they were missing out on a large chunk of revenue. Big Tobacco hired Bernays to change public opinion about the long-standing taboo and to persuade women to start smoking in public.

One of the revolutionary factors behind Bernays new approach was a reliance on the social sciences to build the foundations of a campaign of mass persuasion. Bernays leveraged psychoanalysis to get to the root of why women were discouraged from smoking.

He found that cigarettes could be associated with female liberation. They were seen by feminists as “torches of freedom”; a symbol of nonconformity and freedom from male oppression.

Carrying forward this theme, Bernays organized a group of women to march in the New York City Easter Parade and to light up simultaneously at a specified time. He contacted the media and informed them that a group of women’s rights marchers would light “Torches of Freedom” at a specified time.

A package of Lucky Strike cigarettes from the late 1920’s.

The group of women lit their Lucky Strike cigarettes in front of assembled photographers. The result was widespread publicity. Bernays managed to land a picture on the front page of the New York Times with the headline “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom’”. Untimely, the result was a massive uptake in cigarette sales and a total change in behavior with women now openly smoking outside.

Every day, each of us are exposed to similar tactics that are designed to make us take an action of some kind. It’s worth keeping in mind that there are hundreds of thousands of people employed all over the world trying to get us to take a particular course – whether you know it or not.

St Patrick’s Day: Why the celebration?

The St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City is one of the largest in the world and is first recorded in 1762.

A global celebration of Irish culture and heritage, St. Patrick’s Day is famous for its atmosphere, wild parties and spectacular parades held in major cities all over the world. But, why is the day celebrated so widely and how did it all start?

St. Patrick’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Patrick, is a cultural and religious celebration held on 17 March to commemorate the day that the saint supposedly died.

St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and was one of the early Christian missionaries to Ireland. He is credited with performing a number of miracles while in Ireland, including banishing snakes, but he is ultimately recognized as the person who brought Christianity to pagan Ireland.

Born in Wales, he was taken prisoner at age 16 by a group of Irish chieftains and taken to Ireland as a slave. After spending six years in captivity, he eventually escaped and made it back to Britain. From here, the story goes that God spoke to him in a dream, asking him to return to Ireland to bring Christianity to the country. He joined the church, studied for 15 years and was eventually selected as the church’s second missionary to Ireland. He arrived back in Ireland in 432 and by the time of his death in 461, Ireland was an entirely Christian county.

A global celebration 

St Patricks Day Boston
The first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737. New York was the second city to have a recorded annual march, beginning in 1762. Image by © Museum of the City of New York/CORBIS

St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated in Ireland for centuries, but in 18th century the first recorded parade took place in Boston in 1737.  Then in 1762, a parade began in New York City. While these are the first recorded parades held, with the high number of Irish immigrants in colonial America, it’s more likely that celebrations had been already taking place for decades earlier on an informal basis, but were not recorded.

Montreal is another example of a city that has a long-running tradition of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a parade without interruption since 1824. However, evidence can be found of the day being celebrated long before then and as far back as 1759 by Irish soldiers in the Montreal Garrison following the British conquest of New France.

The flag of Montreal still bears a shamrock in the bottom right to represent it’s strong Irish heritage.

Throughout the 18th century the number of Irish immigrants going to the American colonies was steadily increasing. Many Irish were arriving as indentured servants, a labour system in which people paid for their passage to the New World by working for an employer for a fixed term of years. Then, in the 19th century and particularly around the time of the Great Famine, Irish emigration to America exponentially increased.

With the dramatic increase in Irish immigrants arriving to North America, the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th became widespread. This trend was broadly the same in many other parts of the world where Irish immigrants went, but in particular for the North America where the majority of Irish immigrants went to in the 18th and 19th century.

Today, across the world, millions of people of Irish ancestry continue to celebrate their cultural identity and history while enjoying St. Patrick’s Day parades.

What’s so super about Super Tuesday?


It’s a make-or-break day for U.S. Presidential hopefuls and one of the most important dates in any U.S. presidential race. So how did Super Tuesday start and why is it so important?

Every four years, Super Tuesday takes place on a Tuesday in either February or March during the U.S. Presidential race. Super Tuesday is the day when both Democrats and Republicans hold the most number of primaries of the election season.

This year, Super Tuesday takes place on March 1, 2016 and sees delegates from thirteen states and one territory casting their nomination for their preferred candidate to content the U.S. Presidential election.

Each state handles the voting process differently: some are primaries, which are run by the states; others are caucuses, which are typically put on by the state parties.

Due to the high number of primaries being held on one day, Super Tuesday can ultimately determine who each of the party’s nominees will be for the Presidential race. For instance, in 2016, a Republican candidate will need 1,237 delegates to secure the party’s nomination; Super Tuesday gives Republican candidates the opportunity to secure about half of that total amount. Similarly, Democratic candidates have the opportunity to secure roughly one third of the total nominations needed to be successfully selected.  It’s the candidates’ first real test of national electability.

New Hampshire and Iowa are always the first states in both the Democratic and Republican nomination process. This gives these two states disproportionate influence because candidates spend so much time there courting votes. Candidates who can’t prove themselves to be competitive in these two states often drop out early which helps to whittle down the field of presidential hopefuls. However, winning these primaries is not a guarantee of nomination.

While the term “Super Tuesday” had been in limited use from the mid-1970s, the name was first popularized when nine southern states banded together and held their primaries on the same day on March 8, 1988. The idea was the brainchild of southern democrats and in particular, Senator Chuck Robb of Virginia.

By joining forces to have all of their primaries on the same day, these states can help to counter the disproportionate influence of what had become known as the “Iowa Syndrome”. The scale of the undertaking that is Super Tuesday also forces candidates to start thinking about reaching the masses, rather than shaking hands and kissing babies.

The difference between the primaries in states like Iowa and New Hampshire and Super Tuesday boils down the style of politics it forces candidates to practice; retail politics (geared towards locals) versus wholesale politics (geared towards the masses). This was and continues to be one of the main motivating factors behind Super Tuesday. Super Tuesday is an opportunity to nationalize the debate and move away from isolated local issues and onto national issues such as foreign policy and the economy.

Historically, Super Tuesday has made always made a  big impact on the U.S. Presidential race. Going-forward it will continue to be an important  bellwether for the national viability of candidates and will be an important factor in determining who will be the next President of the United States.


From Rome to Dublin – St. Valentine’s unlikely final journey


Saint Valentine baptizing St. Lucilla by Jacopo Bassano  (c. 1575)

In 2016, Valentine’s Day consumers in the United States will reportedly spend an estimated $19.6bn on their better halves in the form of overpriced chocolates, elaborate flower arrangements, moderately priced jewelry, and decadent dining.

St. Valentine’s Day is now the ultimate “hallmark holiday”. Perhaps no other saintly figure in Christian culture has had their feast day hijacked by commercialism on such a global scale.

Each year, February 14 is considered to be a day to honor St. Valentine. St. Valentine was a third century Roman priest executed for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry under the reign of Claudius II in the third century.

Today St. Valentine, is known as the patron of friendship and lovers. However, prior to the Middle Ages, St. Valentine was largely unknown and was not associated with any of to the romantic customs that the we would associate with his feast today.

This transformation is thanks to the work of the famous English author, Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer was a fourteenth century literary superstar and his poem Parliament of Foules is largely the reason why St. Valentine’s Day is known as a special day for lovers.

Modern society has continued to redefine the legacy of St. Valentine. In his story, fiction has overtaken fact. There is very little documented evidence about his life in third century Rome and there are many variations on the story.

The most widely accepted narrative has been captured in this video:

One commonality in all stories is that St. Valentine was executed for his beliefs. But, the story of St. Valentine didn’t end with his execution in Rome in 236.

In an unlikely turn of events, Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, Ireland, is now home to his relics (remains) and it here where we may need to look to rediscover the true meaning behind the day.

The relics of the Saint arrived to their new home of Dublin in 1836 after Fr. John Spratt, a renowned public speaker and preacher, was conducting a mission in a Jesuit church in Rome. Pope Gregory XVI was aware of Fr. Spratt and impressed by his marvelous communication and oratorical abilities.

To honour Fr. Spratt for the conviction with which he was preaching the Christian message, the Pope decided that Dubliner should be rewarded with a gift; the relics of St. Valentine.

These days, St. Valentine’s remains reside in a large metal casket in a special shrine in the Dublin church. Along with his remains is what is believed to be a vile of his blood.

Now, each year on February 14, people from all over Ireland, Europe and the world make the pilgrimage to Whitefrier Church to a special ‘Blessing of Rings’.

Couples who are about to get married or those who are already married and want to renew their vows are welcomed to the church to have their wedding or engagement rings blessed in the presence of St. Valentine.

Perhaps, this is justification that just because the day has been taken over by commercialism, that doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the values that it stands for.

Fort York – a battleground in downtown Toronto

Cannon looking out on to condos at Fort York Toronto
Cannons aiming out from the modern Fort York museum towards looming condo buildings surrounding the site.

Besieged by condos, expressionless buildings and the imposing Gardiner Expressway, is Fort York. The former military site was first constructed in the late 18th century as a way to help defend the then capital city of Upper Canada, York, against attack from any would-be invaders. Today, Fort York is a museum and an historic site; but more than that, it’s an important link between Toronto, the mega-city of today and York, the small colonial outpost of the past.

Fort York is an impressive site that has an interesting past. It hosts Canada’s largest collection of original ‘War of 1812’ buildings and was a battleground in that war in 1813. Located in downtown Toronto, near the shores of Lake Ontario, the Fort is open year-round and offers tours, exhibits, and demonstrations.

York, in the name Fort York, was originally bestowed upon the settlement of Toronto by the British. The British commander in the area at the time, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, had to relocate the capital away from Niagara for defensive reasons and didn’t like the sound of the native name of Toronto. Instead, Simcoe decided to name the settlement in honour of the young Duke of York in England.

In the early days, Canada and the U.S were anything but the friendly neighbors they are today. The North America of today was born out of gunpowder, steel and continually shifting borders.

Skirmishes and scares of all-out war were frequent over the years. Then in 1812, war finally erupted between the United States, Britain and by extension, Canada. The world was a tumultuous place at the time and the conflict is often associated with the Napoleonic wars that were engulfing Europe.

While there was a Fort York site since the late 18th century, the story really starts to come alive with the War of 1812. I won’t go into all the details here, but this great three minute video explains the causes:

As part of the war, on April 27, 1813, 1,700 U.S. soldiers sailed up Lake Ontario, landed near the Fort and began to make their way towards York. Notably, a force of Ojibwa warriors met the soldiers and battled bravery before the Americans advanced.

As the Americans advanced on the Fort and the battle raged, the cunning British and Canadian defenders retreated while lighting the gunpowder storehouse on fire behind them. The ensuing explosion wiped out 38 American troops, injured 200 and killed their commander, General Zebulon Pike (a storied and interesting character himself).

The victorious American invaders went on to occupy York for six days, loot buildings and burn the town, along with the Parliament Buildings of Upper Canada which were located at modern-day Parliament Street in Toronto.

Interestingly, this action by the Americans at York would later prompt the British to burn the White House after they successfully invaded Washington, D.C, in 1814.

YORK BARRACKS, LAKE ONTARIO, MAY 13, 1804 Lieut. Sempronius Stretton (1781–1842) Library & Archives Canada, C-14905

Fort York is an important part of Canadian history. The site is a strong link back to the country’s colonial past and has an interesting role to play in the formation of modern day North America.

The Fort itself remained in use for many years after the War of 1812 and has continued to be an important historic feature in the city of Toronto right up the present day.

I visited the Fort during winter and did not take a guided tour. I’d recommend calling in advance to ensure that you have a guided tour so you can get the full experience. During the summer months, the site is a lively place and “comes alive pageantry of the Fort York Guard”. Overall, the Fort offers an interesting insight into colonial history.

Entry: $9 (CAD) for adults; $5.50 for seniors (65+); $5.50 for youth (13–18 yrs.); $4.25 for Children (6–12 yrs.); and, free for children under 5 years.


Fort York

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