An appreciation: David O’Hara’s many contributions to Fort York
by Andrew Stewart
David came to Fort York in 2005 with 12 years of experience as a planner and project manager in Parks & Recreation at the City of Toronto. Trained as a landscape architect and planner, he brought with him great skills and the knowledge of how work actually gets done at the City. He also brought a collegial work ethic, unrelenting energy, and an instinct for finding common ground.
David had already worked with the Friends and other stakeholders on the Open Space Design and Implementation Plan for Fort York that was completed in 2001. He was familiar with what was then the fort’s unique problem: it had no surrounding neighbourhood and it was separate from the larger city. This was changing, of course, with 15,000 units then being planned and under construction. David was just the right person to meet the challenge presented by this change.
Beginning in 2005, David identified Fort York as an “archaeological landscape” encompassing 43 acres. He worked to extend oversight and protection to all its cultural resources in the context of massive neighbourhood and municipal infrastructure development. He led the charge on many fronts: elevating the profile of Fort York in Toronto as well as nationally and even internationally; consolidating the site’s physical and historic assets under the control of the Economic Development & Culture Division; giving the fort a distinctive and unifying brand; providing a front door onto Fort York Boulevard; and helping to position it as a significant destination for Torontonians and visitors alike. All of these moves were careful, strategic and cooperative.
At the start of his term, the Fort York Visitor Centre had been a beckoning (but distant) goal for decades. The approaching War of 1812 bicentennial magnified its appeal. Planning in earnest began in 2008. With enormous good will and help from Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone, David ensured that the Visitor Centre design process met the highest standard: a professional jury was appointed to select the best design after an open competition. He consistently and persuasively argued for it to serve as a hub for the entire national historic site and for the larger, developing Fort York neighbourhood. Again, this advocacy elevated the fort’s profile, reinforcing the significance of the site as a one-of-a-kind civic common in downtown Toronto.
The city’s War of 1812 bicentennial was skillfully and passionately managed by Sandra Shaul, who worked closely with David (and many other key players, including the Canadian Army) as Fort York became the centrepiece of bicentennial events. New and talented staff combined with the deeply knowledgeable personnel already at the fort to support new programs aiming at an audience broader and more diverse than ever before. One of the bicentennial’s legacies is the annual Indigenous Arts Festival, which David was instrumental in supporting and expanding. The bicentennial also established a closer relationship with First Nations curators, historians and artists – Fort York serving as common ground.
As administrator, then manager, of the national historic site, David deftly challenged and, at the same time, made common cause with myriad departments and agencies of the City which all had a stake, one way or another, in this founding landscape. By necessity, he formed long working relationships with Planning; Parks, Forestry & Recreation; Waterfront Toronto; CreateTO; Toronto Parking Authority; the TTC; Engineering & Construction Services; and Toronto Hydro. And that’s just the City. On the federal side, the departments of Canadian Heritage and National Defence were both important to site planning, programming and management. Victoria Memorial Square came into the City’s fold, under the big wing of Parks, Forestry & Recreation, from the federal government – the last bit of land remaining from the Crown’s tenure of Garrison Common dating to the eighteenth century. A working relationship with the Department of National Defence is also important, given that the future of Fort York Armoury, part of the national historic site, remains undefined. And a strong relationship was forged with the Lieutenant Governor’s office, His Honour David Onley visiting the fort on several occasions and holding his New Year’s levee there in 2011.
In addition to all these, there were (and remain) community stakeholders, program partners, project managers (for the Visitor Centre construction and War of 1812 bicentennial), funders and granting agencies as well as many volunteers. David worked closely with the Friends and the Fort York Foundation and, despite his demanding schedule, found time to attend most of our monthly meetings. He also helped us plan (and then faithfully attended) countless joint events.
David’s professional background in planning and landscape served Fort York very well. Under his leadership, physical connections and the quality of those connections received close attention. They include a re-designed Garrison Road and the removal of an obsolete bridge; Garrison Common’s improved connection to the walled fort (including the historic field of fire, cleared with a $1 million gift from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation thanks largely to David’s advocacy); oversight of how Garrison Crossing would land on the Common; and new pathways with comprehensive wayfinding. A trail has been built along the north edge of the site that will eventually carry the West Toronto Railpath under the Bathurst bridge to CityPlace and downtown.
Starting with his arrival in 2005, David led the way in cleaning up the space under the Gardiner Expressway. This meant reclaiming this derelict brownfield as part of the national historic site, rezoning it as parkland, seeding the ground, building walkways, overseeing the art project Watertable and recognizing under-the-Gardiner’s cathedral-like scale and volume. All of this prepared the ground for the Bentway.
Shepherding disparate parts into a coherent whole is not an easy task and requires much patience, a knack for master planning, and a chess-player’s mind for how the parts relate in the long run and the opportunities afforded by their movements on the board. And they are wonderful parts: an elegant new Visitor Centre; a rehabilitated and expanded Garrison Common; the Strachan Avenue Military Burial Ground; Fort York Armoury; Garrison Crossing and its connection to a re-developed abattoir site in the Niagara neighbourhood; the coming Lower Garrison Creek Park; Fort York Toronto Public Library; and even more.
David demonstrated all these skills of foresight and we were fortunate to have his steady management of this complicated, historic piece of real estate – now surrounded on three sides by residential towers – through all the years of on-site construction and the extended 1812 bicentennial. The legacy of the bicentennial, and of David’s management, is one of vastly increased programming, diversity, attendance and profile of Fort York National Historic Site. We wish David well in his new endeavour overseeing the Rail Deck Park project – just next door! While we can say a heartfelt thank-you, we don’t, in fact, have to say goodbye. Our Precinct Advisory Committee continues to benefit from his participation and expert advice, as we hope it will for years to come.
Dr Andrew Stewart is an archaeologist, vice-chair of the Friends of Fort York & Garrison Common and Board Chair of the Fort York Foundation.
Manager’s Report (Fall 2019)
by Richard Haynes, Museum Site Co-ordinator
Fort York was particularly busy in the autumn, starting with our excellent Second World War event, A City Mobilizes. The weekend was a great success thanks to the hard work of so many of our staff and the contributions of our partners. The public was treated to a great range of demonstrations, displays and activities.
This was closely followed by a new, museums-wide event called The Big Draw, an arts-based festival encouraging visitors to join classes and workshops and, most of all, make drawings of their own. Despite the terrible weather on the Saturday it was well attended and we are excited to see how it evolves in the future. I should mention that the fort also hosted the annual Get Loud, Sick Kids event at the same time, as well as an overnight program. Well done to everyone for making this happen, especially the part-time staff who support all the site’s programs so admirably. We couldn’t do all of this without such a dedicated team.
October was equally busy. Fort York National Historic Site was an important venue for Nuit Blanche this year. Multiple installations and activities attracted some 30,000 people to the area and one of the pieces, “Stronghold,” extended into the next week. The fort was a polling station for the federal election and there were also advance polls here over the Thanksgiving weekend. After voting, many people took the opportunity to see the displays of the Visitor Centre, a great way to highlight our museum to the immediate neighbourhood. Finally, our culinary historians hosted the Canada’s Table cookbook festival, a day-long event featuring a terrific luncheon and talks, demonstrations and prizes.
Our Remembrance Day service at the Strachan Avenue Military Burial Ground was also well attended despite the snow that seemed to add to the solemn nature of the ceremony. The Reverend Jan Hieminga returned to lead the prayers, adding his own poignant memories of being a small boy during the war in Holland, liberated in 1945 by Canadian soldiers. Robert Divito added his trumpet, as he has for many years, and we deeply appreciate his contribution. Many people took advantage of the new Garrison Crossing, which opened early in October. Among those laying wreaths were the IODE – co-sponsor of the ceremony – and the Toronto fire and police services, Canadian and British service personnel, and Spadina–Fort York MPP Chris Glover.
We were also at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair this year, with Bridget Wranich and Melissa Beynon demonstrating our foodways history. And they did more than share great recipes: their wonderful Ginger Ice Cream was declared the Grand Champion of the first-ever Royal Ice Cream Competition! Well done to Fort York’s culinary historians! This was a great outreach opportunity as we continue to look for partners to help make Fort York more popular than ever.
We also hosted a couple of film shoots in the Visitor Centre in October and November, really helping us reach our revenue targets. We have also had a great season for school visits, seeing increased bookings for many of our tours and workshops. Throughout the winter we’ll be working on new programs, particularly in Indigenous themes.
There have also been improvements to the site during the last few months. You may have noticed the new roof on the South Soldiers’ Barracks, and we’ve been able to secure more funding for the roof of the East Brick Magazine – it’s much needed work! We are also making some technology upgrades, including laying fibre optic cabling from the Visitor Centre to the fort itself.
As we reach the end of another year, I would like to thank again all the staff and volunteers for their tremendous efforts on behalf of the fort. A great deal of hard work and dedication goes into this site and every one of the staff has a part to play. We have an amazing team and we could not succeed without them. I extend these thanks also to the many people in the organization who are not based at the fort but who work to ensure our success, whether it’s in maintenance, exhibit support, capital projects, information technology or human resources. And thanks have also been earned by the Friends of Fort York & Garrison Common, whose ongoing support makes a big difference to Fort York National Historic Site.
Finally, we said goodbye to a long-term member of the team in October. Melanie Garrison, the fort’s support assistant, retired on October 18 after just over 30 years with the City of Toronto. Melanie started at Fort York in the summer of 1989, only shortly before a number of us started ourselves. She moved on to work at the 311 office in 2009 but, luckily for us, came back six years later to finish up her journey with the City. We all wish Melanie a fantastic, well deserved retirement.
Manager's Report (Summer 2019)
by Richard Haynes, Acting Site Manager
It has been another busy summer at Fort York. July kicked off as usual with Canada Day when the Fort York Summer Guard traditionally begin their demonstration season. What some of my friends still call Dominion Day was a huge success, with good weather and crowds to match. Considering the relatively tight turnaround for the new recruits, the Guard was up and running thanks to their NCOs and the efforts of our staff. All in all this made for a successful and safe demonstration season.
The highlight of the summer was Simcoe Day, when members of the Fort George Guard joined us to put on a spectacular show. The great weather helped to ensure record attendance. Well done to all the staff and volunteers! In particular, the careful and constant supervision by Kevin Hebib, Ewan Wardle, Colin Sedgwick-Pinn and Sam Horne was much appreciated.
Throughout the summer, the fort hosted many programs and activities – some familiar and some new. In particular, we offered the new Staycation Sunday events, free to the public with their admission. All of our people were involved in creating neighbourhood walking tours, an evening of campaign cooking, an entire day of historic music, the Great War Picnic event, and heritage garden and honey-making tours. Thanks to everyone here for making these happen; they introduced new people to the fort and gave us many ideas to work with. Summerlicious was also on the menu here this summer when Bridget Wranich and Melissa Beynon staged their Cool Tastings ice-cream workshop. Nothing tastes more like summer than the ginger ice cream made by the fort’s culinary historians!
Fort York and the open space of Garrison Common also hosted a series of third-party events: there was Vegandale, SOCA Brainwash, the Plantain festival, the musical happening called All Day I Dream, and the Caribbean-themed day called Flare. These events all diversify our audience and generate valuable revenue that helps sustain National Historic Site work.
The fort was also thoroughly involved with some Bentway initiatives this summer, notably the annual Block Party and their regular Sunday Socials. These were all well attended and brought many new faces down to the area. The highlight of the Bentway’s season came in mid-September: the Museum of the Moon, a spectacular installation that brought some 20,000 visitors down to the Strachan Gate.
And September was an usually busy month: even as the school year got underway, our staff was working hard on a butter-tart workshop, an entire weekend of expanded displays and events on the mobilization of the city in 1939, and on the final weekend, the new concept of The Big Draw – an international festival of en plein air artistry. The last grand event of the season was the experience of Nuit Blanche, on October 5 involving our entire 43-acre site.
As the days lengthen in October, here at the fort we begin looking forward to the coming seasons. Our popular and totally spooky Fort York After Dark lantern tours resume on October 28 – you need a ticket, so do make a reservation (see Upcoming Events for details). Our culinary historians, meanwhile, are planning their new series for children in December: there’s going to be gingerbread galore for the cook’s apprentice!
Finally, as we approach another Remembrance Day, it would be remiss of me not to mention a very sad event. The Reverend Dr. John D. Hartley passed away in February. Many of you may know Dr. Hartley as the minister who presided over our Remembrance Day services, virtually uninterrupted, from 1992 until only recently. We had no idea he had been suffering from pancreatic cancer when he had to bow out of last year’s event. The last time I talked with him was a week before November 11 when he assured me that, if I could not find a replacement, he would not let me down. Dr. Hartley was a great servant of Fort York, a fine person and a perfect gentleman. He will be missed.
Manager's Report (Spring 2019)
by David O’Hara, Site Manager
We’ve just wrapped up one of our busiest times of the year here at Fort York. We were booking school groups from far and wide even as we ramped up our largest events of the year.
In addition to our usual cross-section of school visits from the Toronto boards, Peel, York, Simcoe, Durham and the Bluewater District – and these are just the biggest – we set up tours for the men’s soccer team from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania; a group from the University of Klagenfurt in Austria; and a school visit from the fly-in community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation (Big Trout First Nation). That’s an Oji-Cree First Nation reserve in Northwestern Ontario about 580 km north of Thunder Bay.
In May we were part of Jane’s Walks with our “Schooners to Skyscrapers” tour of the military, industrial and athletic history of the fort’s immediate neighbourhood; check Upcoming Events for opportunities to join this tour later in the summer. Some 3,000 participants landed at Fort York for the beginning of the annual Meagan’s Walk; our front door marked the end of the Sporting Life 10k Marathon on May 12; and on the following weekend fort staff led tours with a focus on Women in Fort York History to celebrate #WomenInCulture.
More than 2,800 people came here during Doors Open Toronto on May 25 and 26. We had displays, re-enactors and demonstrations from the present Canadian Army, our own staff and a host of historical organizations. Thanks to the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (from Petawawa) and 7th Toronto Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery (from Moss Park Armoury); the Limber Gunners Association; HMS Psyche Canadian Maritime Heritage Society; the 100th (Prince Regent’s County of Dublin) Regiment; the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry; and the Upper Canada Living History Association. Also here was Trevor Parkins-Sciberras (check Transit Bricks online) who built an amazing Fort York entirely of Lego. You can see CP24’s story about him .
I’m happy to report that Fort York and many of the other City-operated museums have had a chance to put a new idea into play: we’ve been hosting “Newcomer” visits in partnership with the city’s Newcomer Office. In a program to help improve their settlement, TTC tokens and free admission are offered to recently arrived immigrants to bring them into not just the city’s museums but Toronto’s present culture. The experience was the result of a generous sponsorship from Meridian. We hope to make this a regular program at Fort York, and thank Meridian again for their generous support.
We also helped The Bentway with Noemie Lafrance’s production of the contemporary dance piece Derives, which was workshopped at Fort York in the spring and performed in front of our Visitor Centre (largely on the Wharf) June 5-8. More than 1,200 people saw the show. We’re also an important venue of The Bentway’s New Monuments for New Cities project, which was launched on May 11 in co-operation with New York’s High Line Network. The art will be in place until the end of August.
Fort York’s popularity with the directors of feature film and television is continuing. Episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale were filmed amid the award-winning architecture of the Visitor Centre in early May. Titans is filming Season 3 in Toronto and will feature a scene under the Gardiner at the Visitor Centre. Shooting for that was at the end of May. And Shazam! was partly filmed at Fort York last year; look for the big scene with the bus.
Dubbed “the ultimate cottage-in-the-city experience,” Spring Beerfest TO returned to Garrison Common on Saturday and Sunday of the Victoria Day weekend. More than 3,000 people enjoyed a wide selection of Ontario craft beers and great food, outdoor games and music (even as they unfurled their umbrellas).
During the last week of May we hosted a private event for the Royal Canadian Mint. As part of the launch of the mint’s D-Day 75th anniversary coin, fort staff explained displays of artifacts to put the commemoration into context. On the day of the invasion – June 6 – program officers Kevin Hebib and Bridget Wranich gave a great illustrated lecture for members of the public on the food of the troops in Normandy. The evening was enhanced by a delicious selection of period baking.
More than 250 people came to the movies at Fort York in the middle of June for screenings of Thelma and Louise (on Saturday night) and Misery (on Sunday). It was the opening weekend of the Toronto Outdoor Picture Show series – TOPS – happening in parks around the downtown; find the schedule here.
The opening of Garrison Crossing, the bicycle and pedestrian connection over the rail corridors, has been delayed again. The final link – across the tip of the Ordnance Triangle – is now promised for late summer. The graceful landing of the bridge onto the north bank of Garrison Common is essentially finished. The reconstruction of Garrison Road, turning off Fleet Street and north past the armoury, is actually finished.
There’s also a new trail there and a more sustainable landscape. It’s the result of the fort’s own staff working with Waterfront Toronto to prepare a better connection from Garrison Crossing through Fort York National Historical Site (and intersecting The Bentway) south to the water’s edge and the Martin Goodman Trail. Below the north side of the fort, meanwhile, a 600-metre stretch of multi-use trail in the lowlands is also essentially finished. It’s the future link under Bathurst to the coming Lower Garrison Creek Park and the towers of CityPlace beyond.
Finally, Fort York’s seventh annual Indigenous Arts Festival ran from Tuesday, June 18 to Sunday, June 23. We saw about 700 people a day throughout the week and then almost 3,000 more for National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21. The day began with Chief Laforme of the Mississaugas of the Credit raising their flag at the fort and launching the Moccasin Identifier Project, which is designed “to mark the traditional territory and enduring presence of Indigenous peoples. ” The entertainment that night included the Métis Jiggers, Fawn Big Canoe, Beatrice Deer and Quantum Tangle.
Saturday began with the Na Me Res Sunrise Ceremony and the Grand Entry for the big Pow Wow at noon. Joining us were the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, MPP Chris Glover, Councillors Cressy and Wong-Tam, and MoCFN Councillor Evan Sault. That night the stage on Garrison Common was lit up with Amanda Rheaume, Jah’kota and Midnight Shine.
The festival was widely covered by the media: we helped with CTV, CBC, TVO Kids, Element, The Weather Network, NOW online, the Daily Hive, BlogTO, OMNI (Russian), Fairchild (Chinese), The Toronto Star, CFTR-AM and CBLA-FM.
A huge thank you is in order to our key partners: the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, Na Me Res, and the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. The 2019 Festival Artistic Curator, Kim Wheatley (an Anishinaabe band member of Shawanaga First Nation) did a fantastic job and I can’t thank her enough. It was all made possible by the generous support of Tim Hortons (especially) and the Government of Canada, with sponsorships by CN, the OLG, Bell Canada and Stantec along with help from The Friends of Fort York and Garrison Common. With more than 20,000 people attending events of the 7th annual Indigenous Arts Festival, it was the largest yet seen, and proudly hosted by Fort York National Historic Site.