It is a peculiarity of our city that its grandest monument was erected to honour a largely forgotten and misunderstood war. Yet, the life of the South African War Memorial—the tall granite column overlooking the intersection at Queen and University—reveals a great deal about how the city’s priorities and values have evolved over time.
Although University Avenue terminated at Queen Street at that time, it acted as a stately boulevard connecting the new government buildings with the commercial heart of the city. Commissioned in 1910, Walter Seymour Allward’s South African War Memorial reflected a time when commemoration still formed the focus of city plans. In an era of moral certainties and imperial jingoism, it was erected as a tribute to the first occasion in which large contingents of Canadian soldiers served overseas. Almost 9,000 enthusiastic Canadian volunteers travelled to South Africa between 1899 and 1902 to fight for the Crown against the Boers. Allward, who was by then well-known for his many pieces in Toronto, would become most famous for the massive Canadian National Vimy Memorial. The three figures at the base of Allward’s South African column, including two young soldiers with the steely-eyed gaze of a recruiting poster, perfectly encapsulate Allward’s skill in recreating the human form. The figure perched atop, with outstretched arms raising a gold-leaf crown, demonstrates a preference for allegorical interpretations.
It is certainly not Toronto’s only memorialization of past conflicts. There are dozens of monuments scattered throughout the city, including the Old Soldier at Victoria Square to mark the War of 1812; the tribute to the 1885 North-West Rebellion at Queen’s Park; and the First World War memorial in the Grand Library at Osgoode Hall.
What set the South African Memorial apart was its visibility and its proximity to the military heart of Toronto. For much of the twentieth century, the Armouries, which stood prominently on University north of Osgoode Hall, dominated the neighbourhood with a distinctly military presence. Until their demolition in 1963, the Armouries headquartered soldiers awaiting deployment, and the street in front became popular for parades. Celebrations for departing or returning contingents of troops from the two world wars and Korea, as well as Victory Bond and Armistice Day parades were held along that route. Marching past the South African War Memorial, the monument became a site of remembrance with a strong emotional pull with each twentieth-century conflict.
The South African War Memorial would be surpassed by the Cenotaph at Old City Hall as the site of important civic ceremonies, including Toronto’s main Remembrance Day ceremony this Sunday. In comparison, however, the cenotaph seems unromantic and incomplete, like it’s still waiting for a statue to be raised onto its stone pedestal. The reason is perhaps that, at the time of its unveiling in 1925, sorrow and grief for Canadians who’d given their lives in the Great War was still very fresh, and the city was contemplating a much more ambitious landmark.
As early as 1918, it was proposed that University Avenue become a “Hero Avenue.” By the late 1920s, a city-appointed commission finally began developing plans for the extension of University Avenue. The plans called for a monumental boulevard, one hundred feet wide, extending southward to a circular plaza—Vimy Circle—at Richmond Street, then continuing southeast to the corner of Front Street and York Street. To ensure uniform development, all nearby buildings were to be strictly regulated. The Great Depression halted the visionary project, and only the Reynolds Building and the Canada Life Building were constructed according to plan. Even today, if you look at the South African War Memorial at a certain angle, with the Canada Life Building in the background, you can see the unfulfilled promise of an alternate city.
Over the years, the character of University Avenue changed greatly. With the extension—minus Vimy Circle—built in 1931, the volume and speed of traffic grew. At the same time as the chestnut trees that originally crowded the roadside become fewer, uninspiring office towers and bland hospital blocks were erected. Forgotten in plain sight, the South African War Memorial is now an isolated public space. The median’s only pedestrian life are hobos, municipal workers attending to flower beds, or occasional lunchtime readers. Over the years, the monument’s bronze figures corroded to shades of black and light green, until conservation work in 2000-2001 finally restored their brilliance.
Despite the addition of the Canadian Airman’s Memorial at Dundas and the Veterans’ Memorial at Queen’s Park, the new monuments added to University Avenue—including statues of Adam Beck and Robert H. Saunders—were dedicated to industrialists. This signaled a change in the politics of public commemoration. Commemoration is no longer a simple matter. Nowadays, historical perspective has raised troubling new moral questions over how past conflicts are to be recalled. Canada’s role in contemporary conflicts, like Afghanistan, remains hotly debated. As recent debates in Toronto make clear, any municipal action (or inaction) is fraught with controversy. What appears to one person to be a symbolic gesture of emotional support is to another a sign of political advocacy. In our contemporary climate, the celebratory imperialism of the South African War Memorial is completely out of place. We can all agree on Remembrance Day, however, as a respectful occasion to wear a poppy and recognize the commitment and sacrifice of service personnel throughout the years.
Remembrance Day services take place Sunday morning at Old City Hall, Fort York, and each of the Civic Centres. The province’s ceremony takes place at the Veterans’ Memorial at Queen’s Park.
Top and bottom photos by David Topping. Illustration from William Dendy, Lost Toronto (Oxford University Press, 1978).