Camping in the City

Camping in Toronto seems a bit of an oxymoron. After all the whole point of sleeping in a tent is to get away from city life. Yet, camping at Rouge Park seems to combine the best of both worlds.

It’s far away enough for a nature break, but close enough to get that latte. And maybe even have pizza delivered to your tent door.

I strolled along the stream at the north edge of the camp-ground. Water gurgled over the cataracts neutralizing the buzz from the nearby highway. It felt like I was deep in the woods. No deer greeted me that day, though many live in Rouge National Urban Park, the vast wilderness sanctuary in the city.

camping in the city

Turning away from the peaceful stream I headed towards the main gate of the camp-ground. Trees lined the route. And tents and camper-vans too. Then I spotted it. Not a rare bird. Nor a coyote.

It was a satellite dish.

It was planted right in front of a camper-van, up turned to the sky, picking up films, crime shows and the shopping channel.

I smothered my inner Grinch. A camper-van is not my idea of camping in the woods. Still, a flush toilet is better than digging your own shit hole in the ground. A soft bed with fitted sheets is better than a sleeping bag on the ground. Even one with an air mattress. Yet…

It reminded me of the debate about technology access at campsites. Some purists fumed at electrical outlets at the sites. Internet access is surely an abomination to them. On this one, I think they are right.

The whole idea of camping is to disconnect from city life, and reconnect to nature. Sitting on a warm rock, surrounded by fresh air, trees and a river, is bliss for me. For others it is heaven only if the comforts of home are there, including a satellite dish. On which to watch nature shows…

I suppose camper-vans get people into the woods. The Pokémon Go craze got people outside, walking and exploring around, capturing imaginary monsters living in the area. It’s not my idea of things to do on a walk, but it got them off the couch.

The more facilities there are for camper-vans, the more infrastructure is needed to support them. The very woods people came to enjoy, is manicured and paved, to fit human needs. It counters the idea that humans are part of nature and not masters of it.

camping in the city, river

Back at the parking lot, two guys unloaded a canoe. I followed them to the river. As they paddled down towards the lake, my thoughts drifted to my own canoe trips and the long summer days of doing nothing but splashing along a bay or across a lake.

My cell phone pinged. It was an e-mail telling me that five strangers wanted to be by friends on the Internet.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

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Adventure Stories and Race

I was that kid curled up in a corner with my head buried in a book. Adventure stories were my favourite. By the time elementary school was done, I had read through the classics of British children’s literature. The books were birthday and Christmas presents from friends and family. The best came in in gift pack of three or more books.

I devoured Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson. And anything by Jules Vernes. I loved the stories, except the bits where they talked about the natives.

It was uneasy believing in the heroes of the story when they encountered the natives. Even as a skinny sapling I knew that the natives were connected to me. It was unfortunate. I wanted to be like the heroes of the stories.

Adventure stories were popular from roughly the 1700s to the 1900s. Those two centuries were the height of colonialism. In his book Imperialism and Culture, Edward Said argues that artists not only followed the flag, they also created a culture that celebrated the planting of the flag on foreign lands. Through this lens, adventure stories were a cultural and geographical guide to foreign places. And the right and might of the British Empire to conquer and rule.

The books promised the gift of foreignness, adventure and travel without the bother of leaving the armchair. Adventure stories created landscapes of distant, tropical islands. The heroes journeyed to the islands by sea. Battling storms and shipwrecks they learned to be brave and survival skills. Crossing the oceans signified crossing into a new world, leaving the rules and rituals of home behind. In the new found land, the heroes were free to create their own version of paradise.

We crossed the ocean too.

Chained up as cargo in the belly of a square rigger. The adventure ship and the slave ship passed each other in the night and in the daylight. They were the two sides of the same colonial project.

Shipwrecked on an island, the heroes had to create new rules. The first rule was conquest. In adventure stories, it was never possible for the heroes to share the island with the inhabitants already living there. Conquest was the right of the whites. It could be peaceful as in seducing, naming and subjugating Friday in Treasure Island. Usually it was more violent.

Guns. Bullets. Blood. Dead natives to the left. Dead natives to the right. White heroes in the centre, hugging victory.

Once conquests was completed, the next step was creating white civilization on the island. That civilization was a rough version of Little England. The resources of the island, whether crops, minerals or people, were harnessed to enrich the empire. The natives were taught to be good Christians, happy to find a new savior in exchange for their land, rights and culture. Smiling natives were the best advertising for the beneficence of colonial rule.

Adventure stories are complete only when the heroes find their way back home. Their mission accomplished the travellers return to a more comfortable life funded by the treasures acquired from the foreign islands.

The British Empire is long dead, but adventure stories live on. Travel literature is the latest reincarnation of the form. More on this later.

It was adventure stories that inspired my love of travel and outdoor recreation. This time, I, the Black native, is the hero of the story.

And I win.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Putting Race in the Picture at Casa Loma

“Can my mom take a picture with your group?” said the woman as she smiled at me.

“No. We are not props,” I said.

I turned my back to her. Irritation rumbled in my belly. I took yet another photograph of our group posing in front of the Casa Loma museum. The place was filled with people visiting Toronto’s historic castle on a summer afternoon. They posed beside the fountain, the lush gardens and the tower of the castle.

Our group stood out from the crowds for one reason – we were Black.

Multiple languages and accents drifted in the air as people modelled for photographs. A young Chinese couple snapped selfies with their arms wrapped around each other. A Spanish-speaking dad hoisted his son on his shoulders as the rest of the family gathered around to pose in front of the roses. A French-speaking man asked me to take a photo of him and his family. I took three with his iPad, he was pleased with them.

Casa Loma was the terminus of our two-hour urban walk, along the parks and leafy neighbourhoods of mid-town Toronto. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, the castle has 98 rooms and was once the largest private house in Canada and the USA. It was built by one of the richest men in Canada in 1911. The castle was a list of firsts – it had home electricity, telephones and central vacuum. Today the castle is a museum, wedding venue and is used as a back-drop in many films and television shows.

Our walking group meets a once a month, on a Saturday afternoon, to talk, walk and explore the Black history of the city.  On this stroll we had meandered along on St. Clair Avenue, a street named after the hero in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

We did not know the white woman who wanted to pose with us. Her request made no sense – not in Toronto, not in 2017. We live in a city where people of colour are half of the population.

Her request got me thinking about race, art and the politics of images. There is a long tradition in American and European visual art of showing Black people as the ‘other.’ Curiosities. Exotics. Nameless. The white people are the focus of the picture, while the Black people are the small figures, in the margins. They are used to highlight the difference between the races and the implied superiority of one over the other.

The white woman’s request was a continuation of the tradition of portraying Blacks as curiosities.

Black History Walks Toronto

Murder at the Wedding

Their heavy breathing had stopped. Tom Smith reached over and kissed his wife’s eyes. She pulled him closer, her hands rubbing his nipple, his belly, reaching down… the log cabin door flew open.

Winter’s air sliced the room. Men’s voices screeched at Tom, rough hands yanked his shoulders. Tom fought as fists and boots and clubs smacked his body.

I am sure that this was not how Tom Smith wanted to spend his wedding night. He is just one of the many characters in Susanna Moodie’s classic memoir of pioneer life in Canada. Roughing it in the Bush, Or Life in Canada was published in 1852. Tom was Black. His wife was not.

Tom Smith appears half way through the book. The runaway slave from the USA had settled in the small Ontario town, setting himself up as a barber and laundry specialist. He was quiet, good-natured and successful. Tom was well liked, until the day he wed.

Marriage is a sacred act between two people who are free to choose each other. Or, so we like to believe in Canada. Here, love might be blind, but it is never colour blind. Mix-race marriages, then and still now, has a way of exposing the fault line of race in a society. Especially, marriage between a Black man and a white woman. This tends to wake up the sleeping dogs of race, sending them snarling, snapping or biting.

Moodie wrote that the small Ontario town had a quaint custom called charivari, a leftover from the days when French was the dominant European culture of Canada. Young men of the town held a charivari on some wedding nights. It was a chance to poke fun at the bride and groom with chants, bottles of wine, and an impromptu orchestra of banging pots and clashing sticks.

The charivari rabble disguised themselves with masks and hats, and blacked-up their faces. They turned up, uninvited, late at night at the newly-wed homes. On a deeper level the charming custom reinforced the norms and values of the small town. Couples who deviated from the norm were tried and judged by the charivari.

In one example the town did not approve of the May-October romance between a young bride and a middle-age groom. At the end of the charivari the groom was as stiff as a box. Another spring-autumn pairing had a different outcome. After a week of nightly charivari taunts, the autumnal bride outwitted the rabble. She found out the identity of the ringleader, a young lawyer, and invited him in for a handsome afternoon tea.

The wilderness was a wild and fearful place for Susanna Moodie. The menacing presence had to be conquered, cleared and farmed before English civilization could flourish in the backwoods colony. Moodie wrote Roughing it in the Bush specifically to encourage English immigration to Canada.

I don’t think Tom Smith shared Moodie’s pessimistic take on the Canadian wilderness. After all he had left the shackles and the whipping behind once he reached Canada’s shores. What he could not leave behind was his skin colour. And the perception of his blackness in the white imagination.

Tom Smith believed that his hard work was enough to grant him full citizenship in the pioneer town. Perhaps he felt that the right of citizenship included the right to marry the one you loved.

Moodie wrote that the town was sorry for what happened. The ringleaders of Tom Smith’s charivari fled the town to avoid jail. It did not matter to Tom Smith.

He was married and murdered on the same day.

Photo: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie Walmisley and their children, married in 1899.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love