Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Future at the Fair

Since 1879, a series of innovations have debuted at the Canadian National Exhibition, first called the Canadian Industrial Exhibition.  In 1883, an electric railway invention was on display at the fair.  In 1888, Thomas Edison's phonograph was demonstrated.  In 1890, the first wireless telephone was exhibited.  An early radio appeared in 1922.  The medium of television first appeared in 1939, displayed first at the New York World's Fair followed by the CNE.

Electronic television set with New York World's Fair on the screen circa 1939 courtesy

The first arcade game, called Bertie the Brain and measuring 4 metres high, was first played at the fair in 1950.  Plastics and synthetics debuted in the 1940's and 1950's.  In 1992, virtual reality was first demonstrated at the Ex.


Many of the new inventions were put on display in a magnificent building called the Electrical Engineering Building which was erected in 1928.  The structure had eight "Statues of Industry" perched on its roof. Everything from radios and refrigerators to cars and clocks to stoves and stereos could be found within its walls.  Sadly, the Electrical Engineering Building was torn down in 1972.  At least one of the statues, however, was preserved in the National Trade Centre's Heritage Court.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

S.S. Noronic Disaster

"When the sun set over the harbour Saturday evening, the five million dollar luxury liner was a hulking wreck of twisted metal." (

Horticultural building courtesy

Today we know it as the horticultural building at the Canadian National Exhibition.  Fair goers admire the roses, gladiolas and daisies as they walk up and down its aisles.  However, back in September of 1949, it housed not flowers, but dead bodies, serving as a temporary morgue for the victims of the S. S. Noronic fire.

On September 16, 1949, the S.S. Noronic sailed into the Toronto port, a cruise ship full of about 600 passengers, mainly Americans.  On a seven day cruise, the ship had departed Cleveland, Ohio a few days before and intended on stopping in Detroit the following day.  

The dining room on the Noronic's sister ship the S. S. Hamonic, which also suffered a fire in 1945.  While no one died, the Hamonic was scrapped following the blaze.  Photo courtesy

Early the next morning, plans changed.  Passenger Don Church spotted smoke billowing from a linen closet. Fetching a bellboy who unlocked the closet, the two of them tried to battle the blaze but to no avail.  Church ran back to his cabin to alert his wife and children and exited the ship.  Within eight minutes, half of the Noronic's decks were on fire.  

A police cruiser arrived at the scene.  One of the officers stripped out of his uniform and dove into the frigid oily water to rescue the passengers.  One of the first people on the scene, Donald Williamson, was a Goodyear employee who had just gotten off work.  Grabbing a raft, he rowed it alongside the ship to collect escaped passengers.  Only three minutes after the alarm was sounded the first fire truck arrived at Queen's Quay.  The ship was already completely engulfed in flames.

The scene was pandemonium on board the Noronic.  Crew members failed to wake the sleeping passengers.  The fire hoses did not work.  The only exits were located on E deck.  A ladder was raised to B deck; passengers swarmed the ladder which snapped in two.  Crew members smashed portholes to get passengers out.  Passengers screamed louder than the fire sirens.  Some, their bodies already ablaze, jumped overboard, plunging to their deaths on the dock.  A few lucky ones managed to shimmy down a rope over the side of the ship.

The firefighters worked feverishly until 5 am when the fire was finally extinguished.  The Noronic, once dubbed "The Queen of the Lakes" was a smoldering black shell.  Once inside, rescuers discovered a macabre scene:  embracing skeletons in the corridors and charred bodies still in their beds.  Only one had died from drowning; all the others had burnt or suffocated.  

Frantic family members were desperate to know the whereabouts of their loved ones.  The official passenger list had gone up in flames.  Fortunately a duplicate was located.  Newspapers kept a list of the Noronic's "Survivors & Injured", "Known Dead" and "Unable to Locate".  Identifying the bodies, however, was not easy as most were burnt beyond recognition.  Some were identified by their rings or watches.

With the death toll reaching at least 118, the survivors families demanded answers.  The House of Commons ordered an inquiry.  The public reacted with outrage when it was revealed that all of the victims were passengers; none of the crew had perished.  Although it was reported that Captain Taylor was one of the last to leave the ship, and although he carried an unconscious woman off the ship, his licence was revoked for one year.  The inquiry ruled that a unextinguished cigarette in the linen closet caused the fire.

Friday, 29 August 2014

15000 American Troops Roll Down the Champs Elysees

"Why do you wish us to hide the emotion which seizes us all, men and women, who are here, at home, in Paris which stood up to liberate itself and that succeeded in doing this with its own hands.  No!  We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion.  These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives.  Paris!  Paris outraged!  Paris broken!  Paris martyred!  Paris liberated!" (General DeGaulle)

American soldier studies the Eiffel Tower, with the tricolour flag flying on top, courtesy

It had been over three years since Parisians fled the city...three years since they heard the approach of the German tanks...three years since their Maginot Line, seemingly indestructible, had been breached.  But on August 29, 1944, Parisians watched from the sidewalks as 15,000 American troops, accompanied by French forces. marched down the Champs Elysees.

On August 25, Charles DeGaulle's victory speech at the Hotel de Ville had roused the crowd.  The following day saw a victory parade march down the Champs Elysees.  Three days later, a second parade was organized.  Tanks rolled under the Arc de Triomphe.  The tricolour flag was front and centre once again. Thousands of spectators, standing under the leafy trees that lined the boulevard, cheered.  "Vive DeGaulle!  "Vive la France!"  

For France, the battle was over.  But for much of Europe, the Second World War would rage on for months.    

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Enemy Aliens Housed at CNE

The Canadian National Exhibition is the site of an historic building.  In recent years, it was home of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Toronto Maritime Museum (1958-1998).  But during the First World War, it housed dozens of "enemy aliens" of German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish descent.

Built on the shores of Lake Ontario in 1840 in response to the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, the New Fort York consisted of six limestone buildings.  It served as housing and a training ground for British and later Canadian troops, including the RCMP.  In 1893, the fort was renamed the Stanley Barracks after the governor Lord Stanley, sharing its name with the hockey trophy.  

Canadian troops circa 1918 courtesy

The First World War broke out in August of 1914.  By the following October, individuals of German, Austrian or Turkish background were being rounded up in Canada.  The reasons for incarceration were inconsistent.  "A German caught loitering in a suspicious manner" was brought in for questioning.  Rudolf Burnek followed "a wagon full of bricks" to Toronto Island and was apprehended.  One group of men was apprehended in Niagara Falls attempting to escape to the United States which was neutral at the time.  Another group, consisting of 120 Turks from Brantford, was turned away due at the Toronto fort due to lack of space.  In total 8759 internees would be held in Canada.


Internees courtesy

According to the Toronto Globe & Mail, the Stanley Barracks operators treated the internees well.  Each was given a cot, clothing and three blankets.  They were permitted only one family visit per month.  A 1914 article stated that the internees were given good food like "meat, milk, bread, pies, cake, cheese and butter." They bathed or showered regularly.  However, a Toronto Star article reported that a group at Stanley Barracks looked like they had gone "three weeks without tubbing' and needed to be hosed down. Apparently one individual lay face down on his cot and refused to get up, suffering from "melancholia".

By October of 1916, the internees at Stanley Barracks were either released or transferred to a work camp in Kapuskasing.  In 1953, all of the original New Fort York buildings were demolished except the Officers' Mess.  After serving as a Maritime Museum and Hockey Hall of Fame, it now sits vacant.  Some say that the building is haunted with the spirits of the internees.

Officers Mess courtesy

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

He La.  Two syllables.  To the average person, they mean nothing.  But to the average scientist they mean something.  And to Deborah Lacks, they meant everything.  These two syllables changed history.

He La is the world's first immortal cells.  Over the past six decades, scientists have studied them to research everything from cancer to polio to infertility.  They have travelled across the country, around the world, even to the moon.  He La spawned a multimillion dollar industry.  He La is big.  Yet its beginnings were small.

Henrietta & David Lacks courtesy

He La stands for a real person, Henrietta Lacks.  A Black American woman, she was born and raised in the 1920's in Clover, Virginia.  Still a teenager, she married her first cousin.  The couple had five children.

Henrietta's husband, however, was a philanderer, infecting his wife with both gonorrhea and syphillis (and likely HPV, the human papilloma virus, an unidentified condition in the 1950's).  Offered treatment at the local hospital, she turned it down, likely because she couldn't afford it.

After the birth of her youngest child, Henrietta said she had a "knot" inside her.  Her husband took her to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland where she was diagnosed with a tumor on her cervix. Henrietta underwent an operation where the surgeon removed part of her cervix, and stored some of her cancer cells.  Doctors treated her with radiation, but the cancer continued to spread.  At the tender age of 31, Henrietta Lacks passed away, leaving five young children motherless.

Unknown to her husband or children, doctors at Johns Hopkins started experimenting with her cancer cells. While previous cells had only survived for a short time, Henrietta's cells continued to regenerate.  It became apparent that her cells were immortal.  While the original doctor who took her cells seemed content to use them for research alone, other recipients of the cells started to use them for profit.

As the cells continued to multiply, their identity was kept top secret.  At one point, someone mistakenly claimed that He La stood for Helen Lane, a mistake that many mistook for the truth.  Others suggested that He La stood for Helga Larsen.  Will the real He La please stand up?

He La cells courtesy

Finally, in the early 1970's, when the original scientist to work with He La, George Guy, passed away, his colleagues published an article about the cells and revealed their true origin, Henrietta Lacks.  The following decade, an Illinois high school science student, Rebecca Skloot, first heard about He La.  Her teacher planted a seed which would grow like the cells and eventually lead to a book, The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks.

Ms. Skloot poured over documents, surfed the Internet and made connections to find out as much as she could about He La.  Then on day she hit the jackpot -- she tracked down Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter.  While Deborah was dubious that Rebecca might want to profit from her mother's cells, she slowly came to the realization that she simply wanted to get to the bottom of her mother's story.  Deborah, a young child when her mother died, shared the same desire.  The two women bonded over the issue, forging an almost decade long friendship.

Today, He La cells continue to grow.  If measured on a scale, scientists estimate their weight to be 50 million metric tons.  Rebecca Skloot's book is a #1 New York Times Bestseller and has been translated into 25 languages.  Oprah Winfrey is producing a movie about He La.  Two syllables that changed history.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

God's Perfect Timing

"Stress makes you believe that everything has to happen right now.  Faith reassures you that everything will happen in God's timing." (Unknown)

Thank you to my friend Julie for posting this truth on Facebook.  I needed to be reminded.  It's so easy to want everything in our timing.  But God's timing is perfect.

Sixteen years ago we completed our home study and were waiting for a baby to adopt.  Everybody had a horror story to tell us:  "We waited ten years on a waiting list and still didn't get a baby."  "I haven't seen a healthy baby adopted in my medical practice in 25 years."  The stories went on and on.  However, we held on to a couple of positive adoption stories and, seven months later, we had a bouncing baby boy.  

It was the same situation when Rob entered the PhD program at Western.  "Only half of PhD students ever complete the program."  "Why is Rob wasting his time getting his doctorate?  He'll just end up working at McDonald's."  Times were tough.  We had a little baby.   Deadlines loomed.  Rob was writing and re-writing his thesis, a document the size of our phone book.   Today as I write this Rob's Doctor of Philosophy degree hangs on the wall just above me.  Rob was one of two students to complete the program in a class of five. He is the best paid McDonald's employee I've ever met!  

Now I am at a crossroads in my life.  I would love to go back to school and get my Masters, an item that has always been on my bucket list.  But how can we afford the tuition when we have two children in private schools?  This is where my faith comes into play.  God knows.  He is the one that put the desire in my heart. And He will provide the means.

"Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!" (Psalm 27:14)