For over 4,000 years the Wyandot people, also called Huron, drove stakes in the waters at The Narrows, where what is now called Lake Simcoe feeds into Lake Couchiching. These stakes created underwater weirs that would guide the fish along certain channels where they could more easily be caught. The stakes could be seen above the water level and the Mohawk people, seeing this, called the place: “where there are trees standing in the water.” In their language: Tkaronto. The French mapmakers called Lake Simcoe “Lac de Taronto” and the name later moved south to become the name of the city of Toronto.
Train of Thought is a project of Jumblies, led by Ruth Howard, and now we have come to spend several days in their hometown of Toronto. The company’s name comes from a poem by Edward Lear—the one about the people who, against all odds and common sense, go to sea in a sieve. In Lear’s poem, these people have one grand adventure after another. Jumblies Theatre is a community arts theatre company that embodies this sense of whimsy and creativity in their work. Jumblies community artists have aspirations for pursuing outlandishly big dreams while finding delight all along the way.
Jumblies likes to use the image of the spiderplant when describing their work. The momma plant sends shoots out and these offshoots become their own plants while still receiving some nourishment from the source. Over the years, emerging practitioners who have cut their teeth working on Jumblies projects, have then gone on to lead offshoot arts organizations in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond. Ruth and the rest of the leadership team are available to them for support, but they sustain themselves and grow their own companies. On Saturday and Sunday, we visit two such offshoots: MAYBELLEarts where Leah Houston collaborates with neighbours in the Etobicoke area of western Toronto, and Community Arts Guild in East Scarborough where Beth Helmers stewards the Community Arts Guild. One of the travelers on the train, Liz Rucker, is the Artistic Director of Arts4All, another Jumblies offshoot in the Davenport West neighbourhood.
At MAYBELLEarts we are out in the park with a marvelous mix of people from the neighbourhood. There are choirs to sing songs, there is food to eat and speeches to listen to. Young Omar tells the tale of when he was young (he seems about 11 or 12 now) and he witnessed all sorts of people in the neighbourhood coming together to build a trellis—this one right here—in the park. It was the first time he’d seen such a thing and it had impressed him mightily.
I have to say that my favourite moment was when the kids were invited to knock on the door and walls of a little camper trailer in the park. The door opened and out came the watermelon lady, dressed in a green watermelon-coloured dress with a red watermelon hat and seeds. She had a white parasol and greeted the children. Then she called forth the watermelons. As we heard a chorus of deep gravelly voices from inside the trailer sing: “get the watermelon, get the watermelon, get the watermelon” a good sized watermelon was thrust out the door into the hands of some older kids who took it. These kids had been in the limelight themselves in previous years and now they took on the role of making sure the littlest kids were given the melon. As the song lyric changed to “Smash the watermelon, smash the watermelon, smash the watermelon” the little kid who had the melon climbed up onto a stump and threw it to the ground where it bounced and broke. Everyone dove in to get a piece. Then another melon was thrust out of the door (“get the watermelon, get the watermelon, get the watermelon”) and another kid took his turn. Several smashings later, there was watermelon for all. What a delightfully crafted ritual! It capitalized on the impulse of the (mostly little boys) who wanted to smash things and transformed it to an act of feeding friends and neighbours, all wrapped in ceremony and whimsy and fun. This is community arts, or at least one part of it.
Sunday afternoon we make our way to East Scarborough—Cedar Ridge Community Centre, and the lawns and gardens surrounding it: the home of Community Arts Guild. There is more food for all, there are weavers and potters and painters and photographers, and there are performers—singers and drummers and a remounting of the Trees story/ dance created as part of Train of Thought over a week ago in Nipissing under the direction of Penny and Sid at Aanmitaagzi, now performed with local youth and a few of our members. There is time this afternoon to chat with people, including some who will be joining us on the train from here on out.
I find myself talking with some weavers about words and the changes in how we think of things in the world when we learn the name of something we hadn’t known or better understand its meaning. I tell them about the word “hobo.” Perhaps we have an association of what that means or an attitude about hobos based on the picture we hold in our minds. Does that change when we learn about the possible origin of the word? Some say it comes from condensing “Homeward bound.” Hobos are people who are on their way home. Maybe home lies up ahead or maybe they hope to return to a home they once knew.
The people in the park drift away home and some of us stay around to eat a sumptuous meal while sitting at the round tables in the Cedar Ridge Centre’s gallery. After a while, we drift away too. I won’t be home for a few more weeks yet.
I had planned to enjoy our Monday’s day off to go exploring Toronto—the Art Gallery of Ontario and also half a dozen university libraries to introduce them to my book, but the rain has dampened my enthusiasm and so I spend the whole day inside catching up on delinquent correspondence and work while lashed to my laptop. At least I feel a sense of accomplishment when I shut the lid that evening.
Tuesday, we converge at Jumblies’ home base near the city’s waterfront. It’s called “The Ground Floor” and the sun comes through big windows illuminating a long history of community arts work projects plastering the walls and suspended by fishline from the ceiling. This is a place where fun and good work meet.
After a brief review of where we’ve been so far and where we are going over the next several days, the travelers board a bus for a guided tour of the area. It is First Story Toronto. While our bus driver, Mr. T, navigates the streets of the city, our guides show us places and tell us stories about the history of this place. One of our guides is Philip Cote, an oral historian and artist. Phil has been creating a set of posters with images of Indigenous warriors and they are all striking. You can see them online as part of an article in Muskrat Magazine here. Our other guide is Jon Johnson, a professor at York University. It is on the tour that I learn about the origin of the name Toronto (described at the top of this post), which is actually disputed. Some speakers of Iroquois languages believe the name refers to reflection in the water of the enormous trees that grew on the banks of the lake here. The street name Spadina, which goes up to the top of a hill, comes from the Anishinabe word Ishpadinaa, meaning a sudden rise in the land. In the past few years, some activist artists have created magnetic signs to cover the city street signs, converting Spadina to Ishpadinaa. We take time at the banks of the Humber River, which the Anishinaabe called Cobechenonk, meaning “ leave the canoes and go back.” It was known as a tricky river to navigate. We stop and wander in Hyde Park and learn about the way the first peoples here regularly created open meadows through controlled burning of the trees in order to promote game to gather. We learned about the local medicines—the plants of this place, and about tree limbs that were bent and shaped when young so that they would grow big as markers, recognized by those who knew what to look for.
Back at Jumblies’ Ground Floor, I duck out for the afternoon to go see the fabulous Ingrid Hansen and her SNAFU theatre company in dress rehearsal for their show Snack Food which is leaving for the Montreal Fringe Festival tomorrow. Director Ginette Mohr has invited several people to see the rehearsal since there is a certain amount of audience participation built into the show. Elliot Loran and Andrew Young share the stage with Ingrid—all three are marvelous. See it if you can.
Wednesday June 10 is our final day in Toronto. Ange Loft, who has been on the train from the start and who works in Toronto, leads two workshops at Ground Floor on her project Talking Treaties. While some members of the group are engaging with people by doing arts activities on the sidewalk outside, Ange takes the rest of us through a guided collective creation process that engages with a recorded interview with Lee Maracle and some words associated with treaties. We work fast in small groups and the images we create are striking. There is a sense of reciprocity here as we are developing deeper understanding about the nuances of treaty while at the same time we are helping Ange develop her understanding of how to approach this material artistically. I am thrilled to have the chance to meet Gyllian Raby and her associate Sam MacAndrew (Algonquin Pikwikånagån) from Brock University in St. Catherines as well as Jill Carter (Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi), who teaches Aboriginal Theatre at the University of Toronto. We talk shop and both Gyllian and Jill buy copies of my book. I hope to continue the conversation with both of them and pursue the possibility that they may be able to contribute to promoting a university/community partnership to produce From the Heart in their respective cities and or incorporate the book into their curriculum.
In the evening, we gather upstairs for a series of performances with and by community members and our people—songs, presentations and stories. I have the honour of inviting the half dozen people who will be getting off the train in Toronto to come up and speak to what they will be taking with them. We will miss them all and yet, speaking for myself, I can say with certainty that I will be holding them in my heart as I travel on through the rest of our journey to Abegweit First Nation (Prince Edward Island) and beyond.
Tomorrow we leave for Kingston.