Rooting through Toronto's past with a sleuthing history buff.
At the age of 24, Robyn Yates Cameron already knows more about the history of Toronto than most of us will learn in our entire lives. As chief historian and researcher at Urban Capers (“My business card actually says ‘Historian and Sleuth'”), she puts her knowledge to good use by designing scavenger hunts that challenge competitors to solve 18 to 25 riddles about Toronto’s landmarks, memorials, buildings, and parks. Current tours venture across Kensington Market and through the Royal Ontario Museum; Urban Capers is also developing tours of Leslieville, the Distillery District, and the St. Lawrence Market.
Cameron, who grew up in Mississauga, has been with Urban Capers for almost a year since finishing her master’s degree in Canadian history at the University of Toronto. “This is my first real-person job,” she says, a bit sheepishly. She’s looking forward to getting her PhD at some point, as “Urban Capers is a growing business and I’m not sure where I’m going to fit in in the future, but there will always be a need for a historian.”
Our interview with Cameron—about how Canada became a country, history in a city constantly under construction, and the toughest clowns in history—is below.
Torontoist: How did you find the chief historian job with a scavenger hunt organization?
Robyn Yates Cameron: I was working on my master’s at U of T. I’m actually an expert on historical Chinatowns in Toronto. My thesis topic was on Chinese-Canadian gambling in Toronto in the 1920s to 1940s. Jodi Sinden, who runs Urban Capers, had one or two scavenger hunts already built, but she was looking to do one in Chinatown. She put up an ad on the U of T website looking for students to help out part-time, and I answered. She didn’t hire me at first, but a few months later I got a phone call asking if I wanted to work with her.
I worked part time as we started to build the Chinatown hunt, and then I spent the summer studying in Japan. When I came back, I told Jodi I was looking for a full-time job, and she decided to take a big leap and hire me as the first full-time employee. Scavenger hunts combine my two loves: talking to people and leading on tours, and telling them why I love history so much—and also doing the research part, because a lot of it is putting together a booklet that we give to people who then go free-range on the hunt.
How do you build a scavenger hunt?
It starts by picking a historically significant neighbourhood or museum that we want to work in. My baby is Chinatown and Kensington, and we wanted to make a food tour. So much of the area has to do with immigration and multiculturalism, and a really good way to express that is through food. The first step is usually online, where we pick up the background story of the place. I write a historical background, and I pick out some of the main buildings that we want to talk about, or big pieces of art. The second step is going out and asking what speaks to us in that neighbourhood—what it is about this building or piece of art that people will be interested in? Then we spend about a month going out and looking at things. We’re staring at them, wondering how we could make it into a question.
For example, on the U of T campus there’s a memorial to the students who died fighting off an Irish invasion. Back in the 1860s, the Fenian Brotherhood was trying to promote Irish nationalism, and they thought a good way to do that was to put pressure on the British in Canada by attacking overland from the United States. One of the reasons that Canada became a country is that the provinces banded together to fight off an Irish invasion. Our question asks which hand these brave soldiers would be able to lend you, because both of the soldiers on the memorial statue are missing one of their hands. You have to figure out what the question is asking you, and then write down right or left. The questions all have an introductory part about why it’s significant and why we’re leading you to this place, and then we get people to engage with it and solve a riddle about it.
How do you identify neighbourhoods that have enough history to carry the weight of a scavenger hunt?
So far, we’ve been picking really obvious ones. The ROM is a pretty obvious place to start, for instance. Two tours are around the U of T campus area, where there’s such a high density of older buildings and memorials around that area that we have hundreds of extra questions that we’re not using. As we move further away from the obvious ones, it will be about what interests us and what themes we want to explore. We’ve had a bunch of requests to do Regent Park, which is around our office. Regent Park has such a story of change and neighbourhood revitalization, so we’ll have to talk about layers of people and experiences in that. We pick old buildings, new buildings—it’s easier with old buildings, because they tend to have more things for people to look at, and people don’t know their stories as well. For one of our tours, we branched out into Yorkville, and a lot of the hippie counterculture stuff that used to be there is just totally gone.
You’ve taken neighbourhoods that we think of as being quite narrow in their historical scope—here I’m thinking of the queer elements of the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood—and included sports and entertainment histories. You’ve also taken an area such as Kensington and really focused on the culinary aspects of its history. How do you handle building tours in a city that has so many narrative threads?
That’s a negotiation process every time we do a new hunt. With Church Street, we really wanted it to be all LGBTQ history, but there are so few physical remains of that. A lot of it has been obliterated, and the newer things are sometimes too stark to draw a question from. Also, that’s not the only part of the Church/Wellesley experience. When Maple Leaf Gardens is on the street, you can’t really pass that by on a historical tour. We also talk about the Allan Gardens, which has a couple different connections to the LGBTQ history. Oscar Wilde gave a speech there, and it used to be a very popular gay cruising spot. But it’s also been used for other things: we talk about the monuments that are in the park, and the murals that were done by First Nations artists. With Kensington, we really wanted to have a food tour, because that’s fun. Some of the questions are about Chinese good-luck rituals or textile workers unions, but you also need to eat at a bunch of restaurants.
What’s your favourite bit of Toronto history that you’ve discovered so far?
My all-time favourite is the Circus Riot, which took place in 1855 on Front Street close to the Distillery District. There was a big circus in one week, and at night time, the clowns decided to go to a local brothel. They were drinking, and they were going to visit some of the ladies of the night, but they skipped the line ahead of a group of firefighters. The firefighters didn’t take well to these clowns skipping the line, and they started a fight. The clowns beat them up so badly that they put two of the firefighters in the hospital. These were like rodeo clowns, not children’s party clowns. So, the next day, the firefighters burned down the circus. The police chief and a bunch of other firefighters just showed up and watched. The circus tried to pack up what they could and just fled into the countryside. The police chief was later investigated for letting a bank robbery suspect go, and he lost his job over that.