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A statue of Sir John Colborne, inside the courtyard of UCC, in Toronto on Jan. 22, 2014.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The stories of Toronto are all around us, just waiting to be noticed. Staring at our phones and living in the moment, we miss the possibilities of the city's historical monuments. But when you walk Toronto's streets with a more attentive eye, the past can look more vivid than the present. Here are six characters in search of a Toronto audience.

Robert Burns
On July 22, 1902, The Globe published an immense front-page story bearing the headline Honoring Their Poet – Toronto Scotchmen Unveil a Statue of Robert Burns. When you approach the northeast corner of Allan Gardens near Carlton and Sherbourne, you immediately catch the eye of the demotic poet who once beguiled the city and the world. Saturday is Robbie Burns Day, the 255th anniversary of his birth, and a dependable troupe of cold Scots in kilts will pay tribute at the statue before smartly retiring to a nearby pub. Burns is now such an icon of Scotland, rivalling single malts for symbolic potency, that it's hard to remember when he was regarded as the bard of all humanity. The statue in Allan Gardens, originally unveiled to the sounds of bagpipes played by the 48th Highlanders, was certainly meant to assert ethnic pride. But the lost message is how his rough, joyous verse once spoke to everyone – including Toronto's erstwhile People's Poet, Milton Acorn, who in 1962 was ticketed by police for leading a free-speech demonstration at the base of Burns's statue.

Alexander Dunn
Canada's first Victoria Cross recipient grew up near King and Spadina and is commemorated by a monument at the northwest corner of nearby Clarence Square. The discrepancy between the dog park's ordinariness and Dunn's outlandish heroics is extreme. This is a man raised in what we now call the entertainment district, who set the standard for bravery in the Crimean War's Charge of the Light Brigade. The bedroom-eyed Dunn was tall for his time and wielded a specially made sword that he used to cut down Russians who were attacking British soldiers isolated in the suicidal charge. Queen Victoria personally presented him with her newly created medal in 1857. Fearless in peace as in war, he ran off with the wife of a fellow officer, but never felt at home in low-adrenaline Toronto. And so he rejoined the army – only to be, as the plaque says, "accidentally killed while hunting in Abyssinia." Not everyone believed it was an accident – suicide, murder, whispers about romantic entanglements all surfaced. He's buried in what is now Eritrea, far from his condoland marker.

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Sir Adam Beck
His towering statue, sculpted in 1934 by Emanuel Hahn (who also designed the caribou on our quarters) shouldn't be so easy to miss. It's standing there in the very centre of University Avenue just south of Queen – glaring up the avenue toward the provincial legislature at Queen's Park. The traffic hurries by, and almost no one pauses in the median to study this pioneer of modernity rising above a triumphant list of Ontario rivers. Through sheer force of will, Adam Beck created the public hydroelectric system in Ontario and the brash sense of prosperity that came with it. A populist bully with a passion for horse breeding (he also outfitted Great War cavalries with their mounts), Beck had an astonishing talent for overcoming the kind of status-quo inertia that says it can't be done. Important people didn't like him, but you don't harness the force of Niagara without being a monumental pain to the powers that be.

Alexander Wood
The dashing figure seen striding along his pedestal at the corner of Church and Alexander since 2005 carries himself with a kind of effortless style. Alexander Wood, a merchant and magistrate in the rough early days of colonial Upper Canada, looks extremely debonair and confident with his top hat in one hand and his walking stick in the other. But the plaques below sculptor Del Newbigging's graceful statue flesh out a more complicated narrative. While investigating a rape allegation, magistrate Wood decided to examine the genitals of several young men for evidence of their involvement – you can see the naked buttocks of one suspect, which have been caressed by passers-by into a state of brazen shininess. A whispering campaign about Wood's homosexuality reached a mocking crescendo, and he exiled himself from uptight Old York in 1810. But just as the War of 1812 broke out, he returned. In 1826, he bought property northeast of Yonge and Carlton – now the heart of gay Toronto, where two streets honour his name.

Edith Cavell
The moody bronze bas-relief standing outside Toronto General Hospital clearly depicts a woman who's meant to be viewed with reverence. Edith Cavell was an English nurse working at a Red Cross hospital in occupied Belgium during the First World War when she was captured by the Germans. She was charged with treason for helping Allied soldiers escape and quickly executed in 1915. It was considered one of the greatest atrocities of the war – her death fuelled recruitment drives and reassured British Toronto of the war's necessity. But Florence Wyle's sculpture, commissioned in 1919, quietly rises above propaganda's noise. The calm, compassionate Cavell is linked with the Canadian nurses, "who gave their lives for humanity" and becomes a symbol of the caregiver's desire to comfort the weary and wounded.

Sir John Colborne, 1st Baron Seaton
The statue of the founder of Upper Canada College isn't all that easy to get at, which is as it should be. But talk your way into the inner quadrangle at the exclusive private school and you'll see one of those larger-than-life colonial potentates who tried to impose his proper values on our messy rough-hewn world. Sir John was a soldier first of all, working his way up through the Napoleonic Wars and leading one of the more successful charges at Waterloo. In 1828 he was made lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada and a year later he founded UCC in order to create an elite leadership class. As a member of the conservative, anti-democratic, staunchly Anglican Family Compact, he had a definite them-and-us approach to his fellow Torontonians, so maybe it makes sense that his stern visage is now sheltered from the rabble. But he was also a builder, the kind of tireless improver who transforms his province and leaves his name on streets and towns – he signed the charter of cityhood that turned sleepy York into booming Toronto.

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