On April 29th, 2011 Curtis Barlow delivered a speech to the Toronto Rotary Club at The Albany Club.

Following is the full transcript of that speech.

Fort York Invigorated: Why It Matters To Toronto


On the western edge of downtown Toronto sits a pristine jewel of a green space that has played an important role in the history and evolution of our city and yet is almost completely invisible to many of the people who live here.

Fort York is the site of a crucial historic battle that informed the nature of our city and is arguably, the birthplace of Toronto.

And it is the real thing. This is not a theme park nor is it a reconstruction. The site and the buildings that sit upon it are authentic and date from 1813, when the Fort began to be rebuilt following the Battle of York.

In fact, Fort York contains the largest collection of original buildings from the War of 1812 in Canada, likely in North America.

That makes it unique.

Many of you who grew up in Toronto will have visited Fort York in Grade 7 or 8 as part of an obligatory school trip. For some of you, that will have been the only time you ever visited the fort.

Many of those of you who did not grow up in Toronto may never have set foot on the grounds of this national historic site. That was certainly the case for me up until a short time ago.

Hopefully, all that is about to change. Fort York is undergoing revitalization; an invigoration, scheduled to commence with the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 next year.

This invigoration is designed to elevate the profile of the fort as a destination for Torontonians and other visitors and help to revitalize downtown Toronto itself.

It will open up vast new green spaces for the public and enable Fort York to realize its potential as THE place where the story of Toronto can be told to all Canadians, homegrown and newcomers alike.

We believe it will make Toronto a better place to live.


The origins of Fort York date back to 1793 when Col. John Graves Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers established a garrison at the entrance to Toronto Bay on the north shore of Lake Ontario.

This fortified camp protected the Town of York and defended its unique natural harbour.

The Queen’s York Rangers, one of the Primary Reserve regiments based at Fort York today, traces its lineage directly back to the Queen’s Rangers.

York’s garrison was destroyed during a US invasion on 27 April, 1813 during the War of 1812 (the battle of York), and the town was subsequently occupied by American forces.

During this battle, in which Mississauga warriors fought alongside British forces against the American invaders, the fort was blown up and was completely rebuilt during the remaining two years of the war. The result is what we have largely inherited – an authentic War of 1812 fort, not a reconstruction.

The fort continued to provide effective practical and psychological security to the town and indeed the country, in the aftermath of the War of 1812, and for much of the nineteenth century.

In 1870 Britain withdrew its regular regiments from all secondary North American garrisons, including Fort York, leaving the defence of Canada in the hands of a small regular Canadian army, which continued to garrison Toronto at Fort York until 1932.

In 1934 Fort York became the first museum owned and operated by the City of Toronto.

Today Fort York is a national historic site owned and operated by the City.

Fort York resonates with our political, military, social, constitutional, cultural and even scientific-engineering history in ways beyond its typical presentation as a War of 1812 fort – important ‘though that be.

This site, where urban Toronto was established in 1793, was also, at various times:

the seat of executive government (1800-1813);

the ground where the battle of York (1813) ended in the catastrophic Grand Magazine explosion;

a fort protecting both town and harbour;

a military hub serving in the coordinated defence of Canada;

a garrison accommodating and providing schooling for soldiers and their families throughout the nineteenth century;

a symbolic place for meetings with important Aboriginal representatives (1793-1812; 1828);

emergency housing for immigrants (1820s);

a hospital (1830s);

a stronghold and government vault in times of crisis (1837-40);

an armoury and arsenal in use as recently as the Second World War.


Interestingly, from as long ago as the 1880s, the fort has been viewed as “historic” – its buildings and earthworks “antiques” from a remote period. A bit like today.

But this appreciation of the picturesque qualities of Fort York did help to instil a sense of place among writers and artists in Toronto and, more broadly, a sense of heritage across Canada, contributing to the very idea of ‘Canadiana’, as was captured in drawings by artists such as C.W. Jefferys and Owen Staples.

And this galvanizing effect on citizens continued into the twentieth century.

As Stephen Otto once said, the fort may hold some kind of record for the number of times it has sustained enemy attack from foreign invading forces (only once) compared with how often parts of its own body politic have turned on it.

These threats to the fort’s existence, presented at different times by streetcar lines and in the 1950’s, by expressway routes (the Gardiner), were successfully opposed by ordinary citizens of Toronto, who organized around these issues and influenced media and public opinion to save the integrity of the site.

The 43-acre site includes Garrison Common, which is a remnant of the original military reserve lands, and Fort York Armoury, built in the 1930s and itself recognized for architectural merit.

In Garrison Common and in Victoria Square, of course, are hundreds of graves. The national historic site is one of Canada’s largest urban archaeological sites.


The bicentennial of the War of 1812 starting next year, in 2012 will present a once-in-a-century opportunity to revitalize Fort York National Historic Site.

And we are going to do it.

The commemoration is meant to recognize the nations that fought the War of 1812 but also to convey the message that Fort York is part of the social history of Toronto and of Canada.

It helped define who and what we are today as Canadians.

It will truly be an opportunity to engage the residents of this City, a hugely diverse population, in telling their stories and their experiences.

It will also be a heritage festival in undertaking important legacy projects that will last far beyond the bicentennial.

These include the invigoration of Fort York National Historic Site of which the construction of a brand new Visitor Centre is a part, a network of Heritage Trails, and the beginning of exciting new public programming at Fort York.


At the heart of the revitalization effort, the main legacy project for the bicentennial will be the Fort York Visitor Centre.

Designed by Patkau Architects of Vancouver with the firm of Kearns Mancini in Toronto, the Visitor Centre will anchor the national historic site to a prominent entrance on Fort York Boulevard. It will give, literally, profile to the entire 43-acre site and serve as a hub, enabling the visitor to understand the history, nature and layout of the fort.

The Visitor Centre will provide a comprehensive and meaningful experience of the battle.

The building will, for the first time, give Fort York the capacity to exhibit powerful artefacts in the City of Toronto collections relating to the history and mythology of this site – – such as the colours of the Third York Militia from 1813, Elizabeth Simcoe sketches and William Jarvis’s Queen’s Rangers uniform jacket.

They include artefacts that tell the story of First Nations involvement as allies with the British Crown.

The Visitor Centre will also mount changing exhibits – the first will be about the War of 1812 and its wider relevance to us.

It will enable educational programming at a much higher level than has been possible to date.

It will also free up, from administrative uses, all of the rooms within historic buildings, making them open to the public for the first time.

Revitalization plans also call for the rehabilitation of Garrison Common.

A goal is to program the Common consistent with its historic values. Visitors will be made aware, for the first time, that this was a battleground.

In the immediate neighbourhood, 20,000 new condominium unit residents stand to benefit from this rehabilitation of green space.

The Visitor Centre alone is a $23 million project of the City of Toronto. With the support of three levels of government, it requires a further $6 million investment by the private sector. The Fort York Foundation is leading this private-sector campaign.

The campaign for the invigoration of Fort York and the new Visitor Centre got a high profile launch in 2009 when, at the annual Heritage Toronto Awards Kilbourne Lecture, Stephen Otto, who was being honoured, announced a personal pledge of $250,000 toward the costs of the Visitor Centre.

Since that date, further gifts have been made so that a total of more than $800,000 has been received by the Foundation, and we will officially launch the next phase of the campaign with The Garrison Dinner on June 1st.

The dinner, chaired by Andy and Valerie Pringle and Earle and Janice O’Born, will feature the culinary talents of five of Toronto’s top chefs utilizing virtually all the public spaces at fort York, which are, as you know, the real thing. These include the Officers’ Mess Kitchen, the Soldiers’ Barracks, one of two of the Blockhouses and the Blue Barracks.

There is another reason why the invigoration of Fort York is important to all of us.


Toronto is Canada’s most dynamic and diverse city.

In my last job as CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, I had the opportunity on a regular basis, to come into meaningful contact with the vast communities of immigrants who come to Canada seek better lives. In my case, the majority of those whom I got to meet and converse with were immigrants who were poised to take that final step of commitment to our country: full citizenship.

This is the Canadian study guide, which was created by CIC as a means for immigrants to learn about our history and our culture as preparation for the citizenship test, which they must pass in order to become full citizens. This is the second edition of the new guide, which was re-vamped and re-written a couple of years ago, to enormous attention from the country.

The ICC does not advocate a policy of assimilation for new Canadians; it supports the idea of integration whereby new Canadians do not sacrifice all they have brought to this country – their cultures, their religions, their experiences and memories and professional qualifications. But they are expected to take on what we as a country represent – our own cultures and laws and belief systems such as gender equality and freedom of expression.

When addressing groups of new Canadians at their swearing-in ceremonies, I used to say (as do The Hon. Jason Kenney and The Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson to this day) that our history is now their history, the good and the bad of it. New citizens cannot refuse to take responsibility for the darker days of our past such as the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII or the Chinese Head Tax by saying that these events happened before they got here. We have a collective responsibility for our history.

Yet how do we expect new Canadians to know our history if they have no ready means for learning it? The Study Guide is virtually the only readily available way for adult immigrants to gain the knowledge that they need to know in order to make the full and informed commitment to Canada that we expect of them.

Fort York and the new Visitor Centre have the potential to be one of the central places where newcomers to Canada have the opportunity to learn our history and gain an appreciation of the events and personalities that informed our evolution as a city and as a nation.


Arguably, the War of 1812 marked the last time, before the modern era, that people seriously tried to mediate and accommodate a diversity of interests, languages and ways of life that prevailed in the 18th century in the Great Lakes region.

This is the reason why the War of 1812 and Fort York, should have resonance for all Torontonians and indeed, all Canadians, today.

Fort York, the birthplace of urban Toronto, defended a community that grew into Canada’s most dynamic and diverse city.

The alliances and partnerships between First Nations and newcomers to Canada during the War of 1812, some of them forged at Fort York, are echoed in our broad vision of an inclusive Canadian society today.

The fort is a symbol of the distinct nation that we became in the aftermath of the War of 1812.

Fort York is a provincial and national treasure and has been central to the story of Toronto.

Its story belongs to all Canadians.