I came across The Missing Plaque Project earlier this week in The Toronto Star. The article talked about how a Torontonian Time Groves was commemorating events in Toronto’s past through homemade posters. The Missing Plaque Project, now over 10 years old, is Groves’ brain child to share events from Toronto’s past that have been overlooked or omitted from the official historical narrative of the City. If you take a look at the Missing Plaque Project’s website you can see some of the posters already mounted by Groves throughout the city. They cover a wide range of important themes including anti-Semitism, racism, GLBTQ history and the Gay Pride Movement.
This public acknowledge and sharing of these moments is important. This creative and innovative project is an important reflective act for both historians and society. It also would appears that Groves’ mission to draw public attention to these overlooked moments in history has succeeded, not only through gaining the attention of The Toronto Star, but also by attracting the attention of Heritage Toronto who in 2008 mounted a plaque at Christie Pits park (the location of Groves’ first poster.)
However there are issues with Groves’ non-traditional plaques, primarily that the history conveyed on the posters is extremely politicized, with a “black or white” approach. In the description of the Missing Plaque Project Groves’ regrettably generalizes that people working in the promotion and preservation of Toronto’s history have purposefully excluded darker moments in Toronto’s history in order to promote tourism and increase property value. Groves’ furthermore infers that these individuals promote Toronto’s British upper class history because they belong to the descendants of these groups and therefore only care about “their” history. While examples can most likely be found to support Groves’ declarations, I believe this to be untrue. Historical scholarship is increasingly turning its focus towards the histories of previous overlooked groups. An excellent example of this new focus is the work of Patrizia Gentile who has authored a number of works on GLBTQ history in Canada, with specific focus on GLBTQ space in Ottawa during the Cold War Years. Another example is the work of Sean Purdy, which focuses on Toronto’s first and largest housing project Regent Park and it’s failure. Additionally Toronto Tourism has made specific steps towards attracting and including individuals identifying as GLBTQ to the City through events such as the Gay Pride Festival, and features a specific section of its website dedicated to the promotion of GLBTQ events, nightlife, and the Gay Village.
As someone who will one day be involved in the promotion and protection of history, I’d like to hope that academia has a brighter future than the repetition of British upper class history. I also find it regrettable that Groves’ insinuates that historians that do study Britain’s history in Canada are perpetuating oppression. I think it is fair to say that not all who work to promote and preserve history are the same. By painting all historians with the same brush Groves’ is regrettably coming close to imitating the class stereotyping and racism he deplores.
In closing, I applaud Groves’ work in creatively bringing overlooked Toronto history to the forefront, however caution him to be wary of constructing Toronto’s history as a story of “us” vs. “them.” Instead I encourage Groves’ to use his plaques to bring to empower and foster change.