Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments. Brought to you by Heritage Toronto’s Plaques and Markers Program.
You probably see a few plaques every day in the city, commemorating events or people. Toronto has a long history and many interesting historical anecdotes to share.
But what you may not think about when reading these plaques is who puts in the work to write them.
The plaque team at Heritage Toronto has two core members, Camille Bégin and Chris Bateman, who work with members of different communities around the city to develop, pitch, research, write, and install plaques.
They came to plaque-writing from different backgrounds: Bégin is an historian of urban North America and Bateman is a journalist (and a Torontoist contributor). But they both agree that historical plaques have helped them learn about their adopted city (neither is originally from Toronto) and to appreciate community involvement in history.
Heritage Toronto works on four different kinds of plaques: commemorative plaques (the big enamel ones), heritage property plaques (bronze plaques about a building on the heritage registry), legacy plaques (blue plaques made in partnership with the Toronto Legacy Society), and century home plaques (small plaques that go on houses that are at least 100 years old).
For a century home plaque, anyone with an old house can apply and Bateman or Bégin will look at old maps and tax records to see if it’s over 100.
Although the plaque team sometimes suggests topics for plaques, most of the ideas come from community groups or individuals who apply to Heritage Toronto. They usually come to the organization with some research already done and pay a fee. Then, Bégin and Bateman take the application to the Historical Plaques Committee, which decides which plaques will proceed (most of them get approved, according to Bégin and Bateman).
When they do suggest topics for plaques, Bégin says it’s usually because it’s something a community group wouldn’t think of or something that has been under-covered.
“It’s a mix of people coming to us with a topic and staff suggesting topics,” she says. “And when we suggest topics, we make a point of making sure that groups or aspects of history that haven’t been covered with other plaques are covered. So, for instance, if we get to choose topics, we often make a point of telling an Indigenous history. Or the [the plaques] committee mentioned that cholera in the early 19th century was really important to the beginning of the city. It’s not a topic that a lot of community groups are going to push for, but it’s really key to understanding the beginning of the city of Toronto in 1834.
“So, it’s also a balance between community interest and things that are really key but may not come out through other channels.”
Once the plaque is approved, the heavy research starts. Bateman, Bégin, and their research assistants (often history graduate students from nearby universities) begin with the preliminary research done by the group or person who submitted the application. From there, they get to work in the archives. They search old newspapers and records at the City of Toronto Archives.
For the legacy plaques, the Legacy Society has groups of volunteers that do the research that the committee then looks at.
Sometimes, if the topic is something recent or personal, they reach out to do interviews. Bateman says working on the plaque for English’s Boathouse on Toronto Island required talking with the English family.
“You couldn’t write that plaque by just going to the archives or just searching the newspaper for references to English’s Boathouse,” Bateman said. “It was owned by one family and sort of passed down through the generations, and they’ve all got their own stories there. So that was a situation where we spoke with the family a lot.”
And Bégin went searching for someone who knew the exact closing date of the Eastern Sun music studio, which wasn’t clear in the newspaper articles of the day. She ended up finding someone who explained how the studio closed but it took time to sell all the equipment.
“It’s also the case with Indigenous history,” Bégin said. “It wasn’t necessarily well covered in the newspapers of the time… We’ve been working a lot with First Story [First Story Toronto] on Indigenous history because it wasn’t covered in 19th century newspapers.”
“And a lot of the time it predates newspapers,” Bateman added.
They also have to find pictures for the large enamel plaques, which can be a difficult process. They have even asked people selling historical items on eBay to scan and email them a high-resolution image to use.
Once they finish a draft, it goes back to the plaques committee, which makes suggestions for edits. Bateman says one of the challenges with writing the plaques is achieving the right tone—the writing has to be fairly flat and objective, but still engaging to someone who might just be passing by and glance down at the story.
“You also want to make sure you set the record right,” Bégin said. “If there’s been a debate about a topic, you consider both aspects and then draw your own conclusions.”
The second draft also goes to the committee and then to the group or person that first applied for the plaque. They make suggestions, the draft is amended, and then it goes to a copy editor before either being cast in bronze—molten bronze is poured into a mould—or, on an enamel plaque, layering coats of varnish, which takes time to set and dry. Because the story on a plaque is so short, even small edits can send Bégin and Bateman back to their notes to make sure it hasn’t changed the meaning.
Posts for some plaques are sunk quite deep into the ground (which means they can’t be installed in the winter when the ground is frozen) and ironworkers make special long posts for the plaques.
Heritage Toronto requires plaques, including those for century homes, to be installed at eye level or lower, so everyone can read them. They also require them to be installed somewhere with 24-hour access (although some plaques get stuck behind fences).
From start to finish, making a plaque can take a year—and that’s if the group or person who applied is able to stay involved and pay for the process. Some plaques have had to be dropped when fundraising didn’t meet a goal, although Bégin says sometimes those projects come back when a group has the funding to make it happen.
They love to see community groups passionate about local history—and they love to get new applications.
“You’re discovering new things all the time,” Bégin said. “So the pilot of the first flight over Toronto, Jacques de Lesseps, is the son of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who’s really well-known for building the Suez Canal and being involved in the Panama Canal, so it’s really interesting to see. All of a sudden, the world lights up… [For instance] we’re doing a plaque on the Junction neighbourhood and that part of the city lights up for you. So, for me, that aspect of it is what I really enjoy.”
“The connections are kind of incredible sometimes as well,” Bateman said. “I don’t know if that’s a quirk of Toronto or any city of its size, but when you start going to its history, these names will come up often in very different subjects. There will be incredible crossover sometimes. It won’t always be reflected on the final plaque, but when you’re doing the research you realize how interconnected things are.”
This article is brought to you by Heritage Toronto.