Fort York’s guard program, in which high-school and university students don military uniforms and re-enact life during the War of 1812, was cancelled this year after the City of Toronto suspended its funding.
The city put its $10,000 annual grant to the Friends of Fort York, the non-profit organization that manages the site and uses the money to fund the program, on hold earlier this year. It also launched an external review that will look at how the group fits into a new museum policy that focuses on Indigenous reconciliation, inclusivity, equitable representation, accessibility and sustainability. The city declined to say which part of the policy triggered the review.
The Fort York Guard, which features actors dressed as soldiers from the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry, has staged re-enactments involving marching, drums and the firing of muskets every July and August since 1934. The program has operated with funding from the city since 1999.
City spokesperson Eric Holmes said in an e-mail that a third-party he declined to name has been appointed to conduct the review, using Toronto History Museums’ strategic plan as a framework for reference. The aim is to better understand the “overall relationship and alignment of shared values,” with the Friends of Fort York, and to determine whether the partnership is in line with new guidelines adopted two years ago, he said.
The strategic plan aims to modernize the 10 historic sites managed by the city, which also include Colborne Lodge, Mackenzie House and Todmorden Mills. It also calls for the creation of an 11th museum called the Museum of Toronto, which would serve as a hub for the city’s museums and celebrate “Toronto’s cultural heritage.”
Mr. Holmes said the review is not looking at whether the guard program specifically, or other programming at the site, fits into the strategic plan, although that could happen in the future.
Fort York is the only museum where the city has a funding arrangement with a non-profit group. The community-based Friends of Fort York was founded in 1994 to advocate for the preservation and maintenance of the colonial-era military fort.
Don Cranston, chair of the organization, called the city’s decision “extremely frustrating.” The city informed the group about the review in May, he said, but did not explain why it was happening.
“We’re kind of keen on finding out the reasons why the guard program was cut because it goes back for many, many years,” Mr. Cranston said, adding that the loss of funding forced the Friends of Fort York to let go 20 summer staff. “We believe it’s a very important part of the interpretation of the historic site, so it is disappointing.”
The group is aligned with the ideas of decolonization and has a “terrific relationship” with the local First Nations and Indigenous people, Mr. Cranston said. He noted that the group raised $90,000 in 2019 for a grant toward the Indigenous Art Festival, an event held annually at Fort York each June, which is National Indigenous Peoples Month.
“We’re actually quite interested in having a decolonization discussion,” Mr. Cranston said.
The city declined to put forward someone who could explain the rationale for the Fort York decision in detail.
Cheryl Blackman, general manager of economic development for the city, said the strategic plan is designed to make sure museums tell “a narrative that is more fulsome.” She cited the city’s recently introduced Awakenings program, a series of art projects created within Toronto History Museums by racialized artists, as an example of it in action. The plan is not designed to eliminate European history from the museums, she said, but rather to showcase a complete picture of Canadian history that includes people of all backgrounds.
“What we’re talking about is colonial narratives, and to have colonial narratives that only speak to the experiences of one community, that is actually an oversight,” Ms. Blackman said.
Fort York was attacked by 2,700 invading American soldiers on April 27, 1813. Defending British forces and Mississauga and Ojibwe warriors were outnumbered and defeated. Americans captured the site, completely razing it months later. The fort underwent significant reconstruction in the following years, and in 1903 the City of Toronto purchased Fort York with the condition it would maintain the structure. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1923, but did not open as a museum until 1934. A $25-million visitor centre opened in 2014 with financing from all three levels of government and developers.
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