The City as Archive

An Essay by Nadine Valcin

Audio Transcription

The Gladstone

In the summer of 2019, I was on the westbound legendary Queen streetcar heading home after work. An elderly gentleman asked me for the time, then sat down next to me. This was, of course, before the pandemic made this kind of proximity highly undesirable. He told me he was originally from Guyana and recounted numerous stories about the industrial past of the main artery. He had worked in what are now the posh and trendy Candy Factory Lofts when the building was still used to produce Rockets candies. He had later found another job at a shoe factory further down the street in a manufacturing building that has since been torn down to make room for yet more condominium towers.

Then we reached the Gladstone Hotel, and what he revealed about this Toronto landmark which is barely 5 blocks away from my house totally floored me. The hotel and the nearby street are named after British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, son of John Gladstone, who the man revealed, was the largest slaveholder not only in his home country, but in the entire British Empire. I was shocked, not only by the revelation, but by the fact that I was totally unaware of that history.

I immediately searched the Internet for verification upon arriving home. The Gladstone Hotel was built in 1889, close to what was then the Parkdale Railway station, a major travel hub. It takes its name from the adjacent eponymous street meant to honour William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), a career politician in Britain and the only person to have been prime minister of Britain on four separate occasions (from 1868 to 1894). His father, John Gladstone, was a wealthy merchant and politician based in Liverpool. In 1803, he started trading cotton and sugar in the West Indies and soon establish plantations in Jamaica and British Guyana, although he never set foot there. John was a strong defender of planter interests and an ardent anti-abolitionist. William was known as ultra conservative and used his position in the House of Commons to support his father's activities. Both father and son, once abolition seemed inevitable, lobbied for substantial compensation for slaveholders. In 1933, when slavery was abolished in the British empire, John Gladstone received more than £90,000, the equivalent of 9.5 million British pounds in today’s currency, the largest sum of any slaveholder. He subsequently became one of the instigators of the scheme that brought workers from India to work in the Caribbean as indentured servants to compensate for the loss of enslaved labour. The historical records do not indicate how the decision to name Gladstone Avenue occurred or who may have suggested it.

The streets and spaces that we habitually walk through and whose names invoke a certain geography are also permeated with historical allusions that roll off our tongues even as we are unaware of what they refer to. Toponymy (the study of place names) has become a great source of interest for me as I unearth more about those names and the complicated past that they allude to.

The Teiaiagon

You won’t find the Teiaiagon on Google maps or any other form of contemporary map of Toronto. It is, or more precisely was, along the Carrying Place Trail that you likely won’t be able to locate either. What you will be able to pinpoint are Baby Point and Étienne-Brûlé Park, on the western edge of the city.

For millennia, long before James Bâby and Étienne-Brûlé even knew of the area along the Humber River, Indigenous people travelled the Carrying Place Trail that linked what we now call Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario and later became an important route for European fur traders. Part of the trail has been transformed into a park, now bears the name of French explorer Étienne Brûlé who was said to have been the first European to journey beyond the St. Lawrence River, passing by the location in 1615.

On a high point adjacent to the trail, the Seneca and Huron-Wendat settled the Teiaiaigon between c. 1670 to 1688, although the site itself was likely occupied in a transient manner for thousands of years. Archaeological digs have revealed the existence of numerous burial plots on the point and there are conflicting accounts of what led to the settlement being vacated. Mainstream historians claim that it was the norm for these Indigenous settlements to last about a generation as they would move on when there was an accumulation of refuse, and the land they cultivated became less fertile. Indigenous oral history insists that there were increasing conflicts with the French who eventually burnt down the village, leaving the Seneca to return to their traditional territory in northern New York state.

In the 18th century, the location became the Magasin royal, a trading post founded by Sieur Douville. Various factors lead to its decline and it was eventually abandoned. The land was then acquired by Jacques, commonly known as James Bâby (1763-1833) son of wealthy fur merchant Jacques Bâby (dit Dupeyron). In 1792, he was nominated by John Graves Simcoe to the executive and legislative councils of Upper Canada and became the Western District Court Judge the following year. He moved to what was then called York in 1815, built a house and planted an orchard on 1,500 acres of land that he purchased.

The elder Bâby held 17 enslaved Africans in his household in Detroit, including a woman named Thérèse. She was given in 1785 at age 24 to James’s brother François, who eventually sold her to James. Not much is known of Thérèse, except that she was emancipated in 1803, but remained a servant in the Bâby household until her death in 1826. She had two children, Léon and Rose, both described as “mulatto” and of father unknown. At Baby Point, a small and very discreet metal plaque near the lawn and bowling club, mentions the fact that James Bâby held slaves. Over the summer of 2020, a large cardboard replica of the official Ontario historical markers appeared at Baby Point but was soon vandalized by a local resident who was disgruntled by its content, providing a vivid example of the ways in which some histories are actively suppressed, then forgotten.

Bâby’s sons sold the land in 1909 to the Canadian government who had plans to build a garrison on the strategic point which were later aborted. In 1911, Robert Home Smith purchased and progressively developed the site as an exclusive residential area with the arts and craft homes which still grace the point today. It is a poorly kept secret that the houses sit on the remnants of the Teiaiagon. Human remains and artefacts periodically resurface when renovations or maintenance are carried out. Notably in 2006, the intact remains of a Seneca woman along with a ceremonial comb were discovered during repairs to a gas line. Yet the Teiaiagon, aside from some historical plaques along the waterfront goes mainly unacknowledged as the names of explorers and settlers take precedence.

What’s in a name? Obviously, many layers of buried history.

Nadine Valcin is an award-winning filmmaker and media artist based in Toronto. She recently completed an MFA candidate in the Digital Futures program at OCAD University as well as an artist’s residency at Library and Archives Canada through Archive/Counter Archive. She holds a professional degree in a chitecture from McGill University and is a recipient of two Chalmers Arts Fellowships and a Drama Prize from the National Screen Institute.

Follow Nadine on Instagram @chiefmisfit and on Twitter @nadinev5. You can also follow her wonderful project Our Home and Haunter Land and other important ventures here.