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Burning Schoolhouse: Lessons in Remembering from York Memorial’s Fire of 2019

On May 6, 1929 Sir William Mulock laid the cornerstone for York Memorial Collegiate Institute. The Township of York saw an investment in the future as a fitting memorial to 47 local young people who had died so recently in the Great War. The Depression loomed; accessible higher education at a neighourhood school would help area students prepare for complex times.

Fire works in the shape of a house

Fireworks are fun, but real fire devastates.

On May 6, 2019 fire erupted in York’s heritage building about to celebrate ninety successful years. A second fire appeared the next day, and flared to six-alarm status.

The carefully designed war memorial school—military-style towers; 11 entrance steps to recall the significance of November 11; a stained-glass window depicting the Battle of Ypres, and much more—was quickly at risk in spite of firefighters’ modern equipment and strategies. On May 7, the fire still blazing, York Memorial contacted us asking for a digital copy of “the only known photograph of R.W. (Walter) Russell,” which was on our For King and Country website, but “sadly lost” in the fire. We sent the requested photo.

Canadians of a certain age recognize any reference to a “burning schoolhouse.” On Victoria Day, family fireworks traditionally ended with this popular item. Firecrackers were scary, rockets flashy, pinwheels breathtaking—but the humble red, white, and blue schoolhouse was the star. Kids cheered the flames.

Work crews and cranes deal with the ruins of York Memorial Collegiate Institute

A burning cardboard schoolhouse may be a cultural hit, but when a real school is lost, staff, students, and the whole neighbourhood suffer. York Memorial’s fire is a shocking and sad event.

Absorbing York’s loss, we are reminded of the importance of recording, while we can, the many irreplaceable memorials in Toronto institutions. Fire, water damage, age, and mould put our history at risk. Carelessness or indifference can be just as destructive.

Here are some memorials we know once existed, but cannot locate:

Central Technical School:
Two records of the First World War have gone missing. (i) In spite of a 2013 search of many unused classrooms and storage rooms, For King and Country has never seen the school’s World War I memorial. A photograph reproduced many times in histories and archives shows a bronze plaque listing 28 deaths; proof that the school once honoured its Great War dead. (ii) For King and Country fortunately photographed another memorial—a document printed in 1916, before the war’s end—of 174 staff and students who had volunteered for overseas service. The document had disappeared by the time Central Tech re-dedicated its war display in 2013.

Etobicoke Collegiate Institute:
As recently as October 2007, a display case in the main hall outside the school office held an illuminated Book of Remembrance, open to the title page, which read:

Etobicoke Collegiate / Institute / Honor Roll / To keep in everlasting / Remembrance / the students / of the Etobicoke Collegiate; who in the sacred cause of / Liberty, Justice and humanity / Served Canada / 1939-1945

When For King and Country applied to photograph and index the entire book, it could not be found. E-mails and phone calls stretched into July 2014, but the World War II book has not surfaced.

Silverthorn School:
Now “vanished” (demolished in 2013) this Keele and Eglinton Avenue West school proudly listed 335 who served in WWII on its one surviving A.J. Casson scroll. (Air, George C. to Lee, James.) Missing during our 2010 visit was the second A.J. Casson, which would have the remainder of the L names to the end of the alphabet. (Estimated: 300 names.) The memorial is not in the Toronto District School Board’s online digital archives.

Jarvis School for Boys memorial recorded in scrapbook of Pte. Donald Brown’s grieving family (Courtesy of Linda Aldridge)

Jarvis School for Boys (Jarvis Junior Vocational School):
This vanished school—near Allan Gardens—opened in 1928 on the former site of Jarvis Collegiate. It offered practical training in trades such as woodworking, shoemaking, printing, and farm work. An “illuminated and framed roll of honour” prepared by staff member John Pepper listed former students who had served in World War II, including Donald Brown, who died on active service in England. The whereabouts of the memorial—unveiled November 29, 1943—are unknown. The memorial is not in the Toronto District School Board’s online digital archives.

Academy of Medicine:
Once situated at Queen’s Park, Toronto, the Academy has existed only virtually since about 2007; its records and collections reportedly distributed to various centres. In 2016, For King and Country conducted a broad e-mail search of health archives and libraries, but could not locate this World War I bronze plaque which listed 158 names of Fellows who served overseas (with other names expected to be added later). Unveiled at Queen’s Park on January 31, 1922 at a gathering of many officials. The Mail and Empire listed the names and ranks of eight Academy members who died.

Please contact us if you know the location of any of the memorials described above. A sudden school fire reminds us that all memorials matter—on Remembrance Day 2019—and every other day

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