30 October 2008

History: Monuments of University Avenue, part one.

Because sometimes you have to remember the bad as well as the good...

Some weeks ago I took a few friends on a tour of some of Toronto's older churches. Whilst we were travelling around they asked me if I could tell them about some of the monuments that dot the middle of University Avenue. We planned a second trip, but never got around to it. So, in keeping with my intention of explaining a little bit of my city and nation's past I thought I would tell a little about the monuments here on the blog. I will say a little about the monuments themselves and a little of what I know of the history behind the monuments.

University Avenue, for those who have not seen it, is a wide road running north and south in the city. It ends rather grandly at Queen's Park, our provincial parliament. The center of the road is a large grassy and park-like median, and it is dotted with statues and memorials. Some of the monuments and memorials are relics of a time past, times rather unlike our own. From the very existence of these monuments we can see that these people believed that there were events and people of such significance their actions and lives deserved to be literally carved in stone or cast in bronze to last as a reminder for all ages. In short, they believed in heroes. Heroes like this criminal.

Meet Sir Adam Beck. His monument stands on the south side of the intersection of University and Queen. The inscription reads:

Erected by the Corporation of the City of Toronto and the Toronto Hydro Electric Commission in grateful commemoration of the public services of Sir Adam Beck, KT. LLD. MLA., whose labours have ensured that the citizens of his native province under co-operative municipal ownership shall enjoy the benefits of low cost electrical energy derived from water power resources to serve the industrial and domestic needs of the Province of Ontario. Nippigon, Trent, Eugenia, Severn, Muskoka, Rideau, Nipissing, Niagara, Queenston-Chippawa.

Sir Adam Beck is called the founder of the provincially owned and run power company. The monument is simplicity in itself. It features Beck himself standing over a water course down which would run the water that would turn the turbines that powered Ontario homes and businesses. In so doing the monument memorializes one of the greatest feats of legalized robbery in Ontario's history. In truth, Adam Beck did not found Ontario Hydro, he helped steal it.

From this man.

Now meet Sir Henry Pellatt, the real founder of Ontario Hydro.

If the people of Toronto have heard anything about Pellatt, it is generally about his home, Casa Loma, the castle on the hill. Sir Henry, I was told when I was young, Had once been the richest man in Canada but he blew all his vast fortune building the money pit to end all money pits and the largest private home built in in North America. The truth is a little more sordid. Casa Loma indeed played its part in ruining his fortunes, but there were other forces at work which served to ruin him.

Pellatt made his fortune as a financier. He had an uncanny knack for spotting a new trends into which he would invest heavily. He was known as "Pellatt the plunger" for his habit of heavily investing into his predictions. One day in the late 19th century Pellatt went to the World Fair looking for the Next Big Thing, looking for a new place to invest all the lovely money he made through investments in railways and land in the Canadian West, when he saw a display put on by Thomas Edison. Well, the light went on, so to speak, for Pellatt. This time he would plunge his money into electricity.

So he came back to Toronto and with the help of a few backers and partners set up the Toronto Electric Light Company. It was this company that first brought power to Toronto, and even started Toronto's streetcars running. The money was rolling in and things were going well, but the men soon realized they would need a larger source of electricity. Fortunately, there was a huge one not far from Toronto: Niagara Falls. The only problem was they needed to be granted a licence from the Provincial Government to set up a generating facility at the Falls, and to run the power from there to Toronto. But this problem was not much of a problem, for the Liberals were in power and Pellatt was a well known Liberal and generous donor to the party. The license was soon granted, and construction was underway shortly. All was well.

Until a year after the construction finished. It was time for an election, and the Conservatives claimed the licence should never have been granted to Pellatt and his friends. Even better, the Conservatives claimed that energy should be as free as the air, and promised to deliver free electricity to all of Ontario should they be elected. The people of Ontario thought that sounded just wonderful and elected the conservatives. Our friend, Sir Adam Beck, was put in charge of obtaining the power.

This was done by the stroke of a pen. The license was revoked, and all the holdings of the electric companies were confiscated. Pellatt and his backers got... nothing.

Before long, Pellatt's fortunes were beginning to sag. Before long he was getting desperate He looked again into his crystal ball for another big thing to plunge into and came up with... aeroplanes. He got a few of his old backers together and they built a factory and a pilot school. Then came an event that should have helped him recoup his fortunes: World War One.

It should have been simple, even rudimentary. It was war. Canada needed planes and pilots. Pellatt was making planes and training pilots. Simply write Pellatt a nice fat cheque and have him make planes and train pilots for Canada. What could be clearer?

Unfortunately for our friend, during World War One Canada was lead by a Conservative government, and their minister for war, the idiot Colonel Sam Hughes, was a profound believer of the patronage system, which in short meant he handed out government contracts to his friends, no matter how corrupt. And they were corrupt. How bad was it? Under Col. Sam, known as "Captain F*** Up" to the troops, winded half-dead horses were diverted from the glue factory and sent to the front. Canadian soldiers were issued uniforms made of tissue paper, boots made of cardboard, trucks that didn't drive, shovels that didn't dig and worst of all, guns that didn't shoot. And no, I did not make up any of that.

Still, he could let one competent man have a contract, let bygones be bygones, and allow a man they had nearly ruined recoup some of his losses, couldn't he? Unfortunately, no. Pellatt was still a Liberal, and had to be punished for not being a Conservative. And besides, the precedent had already been set. Why pay a man to work for you when you could simply confiscate his property? So, for the second time, Pellatt lost his company to the Conservatives. The aeroplane factory and pilot training school were appropriated for the war effort, and Pellatt was given nothing in return.

This time there was no bouncing back. He lost his home, declared bankruptcy. His house was taken over by the city and his property auctioned off. His summer home in King City became an Augustinian monastery, thus giving this whole affair a very tenuous Catholic connection and justifying its place on this blog. Before long his wife died and he was living in the house of his former chauffeur. Somehow he managed to show a brave face. He lived long enough to see his house was made a tourist attraction he was invited as a guest of honour. He signed the guestbook and declared himself content, knowing his house was in good hands and would be cared for.

He also lived long enough to see a monument raised to the man who robbed him.

Even so, thanks to Sir Adam Beck, we now have the power system we Ontarians know and love. His promise in that long ago election to provide all of Ontario with free electricity has born its fruit, and now no one in Ontario need ever pay for electricity.... as long as they're Amish. For the rest of us, if we want to use some of this stolen power, for which a decent man's fortunes were ruined, we need only follow a very simple procedure. We open our wallets and repeat the following words: "Help Yourself."

Thank you, Sir Adam Beck.

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