Monday, August 07, 2017

6 on the Humber: creative public history

Ars Musica's Michael Tobey, tenor (centre left, with cap) singing "Joshua" forWalk the 6 West participants
Saturday we went down to the Humber River in west Toronto to follow "Walk the 6 West: History on the Humber," a terrifically creative piece of public history produced by a consortium of local history societies: the Etobicoke Historical Society, the York Pioneer, Heritage York, West Toronto Junction HS, Swansea HS, etc.  In recent years these groups have grasped that working together they can leverage grant funding and deliver substantial audiences for all kinds of public events.

Saturday's was an ambitious walk on a beautiful afternoon: severla hundred people walking 3 kilometres along the Humber riverside trails (and often 3 kilometres back). The walkers encountered:

  • William Pearce Howland giving a bit of his political campaign speech, delivered locally in 1864
  • Artist Tom Thomson, dead 100 years this month, describing his early days in Toronto, when he took the train out from Toronto to sketch along the Humber shore. 
  • Anna Leung, a Chinese-Canadian who broke the colour bar in Toronto theatres and Mrs Brown, local African-Canadian shopkeeper, among a variety of characters from the local past.  
  • Ars Musica, the Toronto opera group, presenting a vignette from its opera-in-development about an African-American who took the underground railroad to Canada West and farmed locally. 
  • Cheri Maracle from the Six Nations of Oshweken with a bit of her one-woman show about Pauline Johnston,,
  • A moment from Mixed Company Theatre and playwright Rex Deverell's work-in-progress about local girl turned western and northern photographer Geraldine Moodie.

These might all have been little talks from a standard walking tour, I suppose, but the historical society organizers had partnered with theatre companies and musical groups to turn each into a brief musical or theatrical presentation.

It was a unique and dynamic event. The historical societies had used their membership mailing lists and a few public notices to generate an audience of some 500 people, carefully organized into four escorted groups at various times, half from the south end of the route, some from the north. Performers were paid, but their groups also got exposure -- and evidence for their own grant-getting efforts of public outreach and public support.

The whole event was a pleasure for the body and mind, and reminded me again of the vigour and creativity that comes from local historical societies all over the country, in all kinds of clever and imaginative ways -- and the appreciative audiences that come forth when they get the opportunity.
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