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This Public Art Installation Packs Canada’s History into Stamps

The postmaster lives on.

ArtVenturist looks at the public art that fills the city around us.

Return to Centre by Joanne Tod and Jon Reed Photo: Beatrice Paez

Return to Centre by Joanne Tod and Jon Reed
Photo: Beatrice Paez

BY: Joanne Tod and Jon Reed
LOCATION: 234 Adelaide Street East
INSTALLATION: 2011

Return to Centre is a clever and insightful take on urban wayfinding, unexpectedly directing passers by to the First Post Office while packing in an abridged history of Canada.

It’s all told through a collection of stamps, handpicked by artists Joanne Tod and Jon Reed, who were enlisted to pay homage to the 1834 first post office, a historic fixture in Toronto’s St. Lawrence neighbourhood.

The duo has distilled Canada’s cultural memory down to 12 images (from 1897 to 1993), which, according to Tod, reflects both history and a few personal references. That stamps—which are essentially tiny canvases no bigger than an inch—can reveal much about a nation’s narrative and identity is not lost on Tod and Reed. Beyond referencing the post office’s existence, the ribbon of images ties pieces of a collective past from different corners of the country.

It serves a dual function: subtly prodding pedestrians out for a stroll to take a detour and indirectly, making us reflect on how we’d represent Canada’s history. What aspects would we leave out or privilege over others?

So which iconic figures and milestones made the cut?

Philatelists, or stamp-collecting enthusiasts, may be disappointed that the beloved beaver, which debuted on Canada’s first-ever stamp, doesn’t make an appearance. But perhaps it was more fitting to pay tribute to the woman who appeared on the world’s very first stamp, who also happened to be the former monarch: Queen Victoria. Our version commemorates her Diamond Jubilee and features two portraits.

Other noteworthy individuals in the mix include Idola Saint-Jean, a Quebec suffragette; the Fathers of Confederation; Vincent Massey, the first native-born Canadian to hold the governor-general post; and Louis Riel, who founded Manitoba and fought for the Métis people. Return to Centre digs up long-forgotten figures who have played pivotal roles in securing rights for Canadians

Other stamps that appear, decoded:

  • Greenland Mountains, Feb. 8, 1967: Lawren Harris’ 1930 painting, which is housed in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
  • White Trillium, June 30, 1964: Quebec’s provincial flower, the garden lily, was one among a series of stamps depicting all 10 provincial flowers.
  • Alouette II, Jan. 5, 1966: The backup research satellite, which extended the mission of Canada’s first foray into the space age. Its predecessor had been designed to study particles.

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