November 11th, 2010

[URBAN NOTE] Patrick Cain's map of Toronto's Second World War dead, by address

Toronto map blogger Patrick Cain came up with a map showing the street addresses that more than three thousand Torontonians called home.

Cain wrote in detail about the project here, at OpenFile.

In 1942, as losses among Canadian air crew mounted and the failed raid on Dieppe left hundreds of Toronto families with a loved one killed or in a German prison camp, officials started a formal effort to keep track of the city’s dead.

As the war ground on, a file of typed index cards at the city clerk’s office at what is now Old City Hall grew and grew, until there were thousands. Casualty lists were scoured for Toronto addresses as they appeared. After the war, the cards became the research tool for preparing the Book of Remembrance, which is now at Toronto City Hall.

Citizens answered newspaper ads asking for names that might have been missed, and the file grew larger. Eventually, the cards documented more than 3,300 people who were killed in the war and had next of kin in Toronto. They died over Germany on air raids, fighting in Normandy and Italy, or as their warships or merchant vessels were torpedoed. Many were killed in training accidents. One is buried in South Africa and one in Yukon.

In the modern city archives, the cards fill 12 boxes.

I was given access to the card file earlier this year after making an access-to-information request, and paid many visits to the city archives, entering the basic details on each card into a laptop. It turned out that I was committed to what ended up being 55 hours of data entry, working steadily through box after box. Letters and scraps of personal information were a helpful reminder that I was dealing with records of real people, and that the grief over their deaths had once been fresh, and in some cases life-destroying.

I then geocoded each address where possible and transferred the records to KML for display in an interactive map.

A map overlay joins two kinds of knowledge: our existing picture of the familiar city and some new knowledge superimposed on it. Overlays can take many forms but one of the most powerful, and sometimes disorienting, kinds has to do with history. (The author Simon Schama wrote that the attraction of history for him was in the intersection of the familiar and the unfamiliar.)

OpenFile’s map shows, where possible, the homes listed as the next-of-kin address of 3,224 Toronto residents killed in the war. The poppies designate addresses, rather than individual people, so where it is necessary to put two or more people in a household, multiple people share the poppy. Four addresses show three people each and 95 show two. This doesn't necessarily reflect a family relationship, though often it does.

The map is an exercise in recovered local memory. For example, it must have been well known in the neighbourhood west of Queen St. and Spadina Ave. that five local men had died at Dieppe but that experience is hard to reconstruct now except through this kind of project. One was from Cameron St., one from Vanauley St. and three from Augusta St., numbers 20, 26 and 44.

[BRIEF NOTE] On Remembrance Day's drift

As is usual whenever Remembrance Day comes around here in Canada, there's debate about making the day a statutory holiday, i.e. a holiday that would be observed throughout Canada and (perhaps not incidentally) qualify automatically as a day off work. The debate's going to taper out, perhaps because of the sentiment that the National Post's Matt Gurney expressed.

For all Canadians who enjoy the freedoms and safety secured for us by the sacrifice of over 100,000 lives and the suffering of millions more who served and lived, Remembrance Day is a rare opportunity for a united, collective thank you. At most work places and in all schools, at 11 a.m., work pauses and people can reflect. It provides an opportunity for organized displays, the reading of poems, the recounting of veterans’ tales of courage and pain, and most importantly, the solemn education of the youngest Canadians in the facts of war and how much our prosperous and free society has truly cost. For one day a year, for only a few minutes at a time, we take the steps needed to ensure that for at least one more year, the sacrifices made on our behalf will not be forgotten.

Making Nov. 11 a day off would not only make it harder for Canadians to share this time of contemplation and sobriety, but would also fundamentally change the meaning of the day. Even the best-intentioned Canadian, one fully mindful and respectful of the costs of war, would soon have to fight the urge to look forward to Remembrance Day. A day off with the kids, a chance to sleep in or take the dog for a long walk, are things rightly relished, and it would be wrong to deliberately associate Nov. 11 with relaxation and pleasure. If Remembrance Day were to become a holiday, it would virtually guarantee that millions of Ontarians would at some point in their lives think, “Wow, things have been rough at the office lately, but thank God Remembrance Day is coming up. I could really use the chance to relax!” Perhaps some would feel guilt at that passing thought, but before long, and particularly amidst the youngest Ontarians, such sentiments would become the meaning of Remembrance Day. Perhaps they’d know in the back of their minds that it had once meant more, but only in the abstract. The meaning of the day, something that we have maintained for 91 years, would be forever lost.

(The Toronto Star's editorialist agrees. If left and right agree ...)

The meaning's gping to be lost regardless, of course. Canada's last First World War veterans are gone, the Second World War veterans will be gone soon, and Canada has hopefully left the era of the sorts of sanguinary mass conflicts, where the total 157 dead in Afghanistan would count as a skrimish, perhaps a battle over a small town somewhere near the Rhine, or a tree by the Somme. With this gone, and without people knowing so many dead first hand--as a single example, in the Patrick Cain map I linked to previously two dead he found to be brothers in a single household, that coming from the less bloodier second world war--Remembrance Day's meaning is bound to mutate. Keeping it from being a statutory holiday for the reasons enunciated below might slow down the shift, as might another bloody conflict or series of conflicts, but that's it.

I wrote a while back about the controversy surrounding the white poppy, a label decoration founded in explicit contrast to the red. That was a conscious effort to change the holiday. In a decade's time, Afghanistan notwithstanding, the white poppy might be interchangeable with the red.

[H&F] "Armistice Day and a Strasbourg Monument"

History and Futility co-blogger The Oberamtmann writes from Strasbourg where he takes a look at the way in which the French perspective on the 11th of November differs from the American.

In World War Two, France lost about 567,600 people in total, 1.35 percent of the population, of which just under half were military personnel (and 83,000 Jews lost in the Holocaust, with a role played by Vichy that has still not been completely dealt with). The United States lost 418,500, the vast majority military casualties, and an even smaller 0.32% of the total population. Does not seem that different. The United States proper was never invaded, too. France surrendered, suffering the indignity of having a puppet regime set up run by a hero of the Great War. So why would the USA add veterans of the Second World War to its holiday and France not?

The answer lies in the
other world war. In World War One, America lost 117,465, 0.13% of the population, and fought only at the end. The standard narrative of the war is fresh American troops coming and making the difference because they had not already been fighting for four straight years. France lost 1,697,800 soldiers and civilians, making up 4.29% of the population, a much bigger blow. The vast majority of World War One’s Western Front was on French soil. France’s early defeat in World War Two spared it from many of the human losses, in terms of body count, that it suffered in World War One. World War Two was America’s second-bloodiest war after the Civil War. I think France limiting November 11 to the First World War is a sensible decision.

Canadian casualties, incidentally, were 0.93% for the Dominion of Canada proper, and 0.6% for then-independent Newfoundland, roughly midway between the American and French casualties rates. Canada, unlike France, was thankfully spared entirely conflict in its homeland.

Want to know what might be sketchy about the dates memorialized as Strasbourg, a sort of category error?

I won't spoil that for you. Go, read the post in full.

[LINK] "How Canada became an open data and data journalism powerhouse"

The Guardian's Simon Rogers surprised me with the news that Canada's a great place if you want to map publicly available information. He started by interviewing Patrick Cain, author of the project mapping Toronto's Second World War casualties that I remarked about today.

Patrick Cain works by doggedly pursuing datasets, often from official sources which don't want to know – but bolstered by a powerful freedom of information system:

If something is uncontroversial (like dog licences by postal code) there are often no issues about releasing it. On the other side, we have the sex offender database, which I've been trying to get access to since the spring in 2008. Sometimes there is ineffective resistance, like the landlord and tenant appeal board that tried to get me to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Mostly I get things in the mail as the law demands … Everybody (including me) likes the rage-against-the-machine stories, but in the majority of cases the system works more or less as intended.

Cain is one of the most established of the new breed. Names mentioned by those in the know include Chad Skelton on the Vancouver Sun, Rob Cribb at the Toronto Star; David McKie at CBC and Glen McGregor at the Ottawa Citizen.

Toronto's open data intitiative is run by a small team of enthusiasts in the city authority's web department. Led by Trish Garner, the unit updates the site every day with raw datasets from local election results to detailed boundary mapping. And all in addition to their day job of keeping the city's tech running. She's inspired by the worldwide open data movement.

I think there's a large community of developers in Toronto and across Canada which is inspired by what's going on in the UK and in the US under the Obama administration and want to see change here at home. A good majority have registered with us and are quite avidly following what we're doing.

Politically, she says support is growing:

There has been solid support from the very top - our Mayor - and from the City Clerk and the CIO. Indications are that the mayor-elect [Rob Ford was elected earlier this month] will also be a champion. This is key for us. I have to say, too, that it wouldn't be possible to carry on without the constructive feedback and support we've received from the developer community and the dedication and enthusiasm of a bright, highly motivated, energetic team. They love what they do and they have fun.

[LINK] "A glimpse of the future of Remembrance Day in Toronto"

blogTO's Rick McGinnis had a moving photo post

This morning's ceremonies saw a landmark, which newspapers noted in chorus - it was the first Remembrance Day in over 90 years where no Canadian veteran of the First World War was alive to bear witness. Second World War veterans are also in ever shorter supply; the Globe & Mail pointed out that 1,700 are dying every month, and the day will come soon enough when they will be rare, then absent, from cenotaph ceremonies.

I had this in mind at Prospect Cemetery's dawn Remembrance, annually held at the Edward Luytens-designed memorial in the veteran's section of the cemetery just behind the back wall of my own garden. There was still frost on the grass at this intimate ceremony, held by Earlscourt Branch 65 of the Legion, and a tradition since 1928.

Aging, McGinnis

While the Remembrance ceremonies at Old City Hall are the major attraction - four yellow Harvard trainers buzz overhead at Fort York, on their way to a flypast by the Bay St. cenotaph - I can't help but suspect that ceremonies like Fort York's might be the future, as veterans of the two World Wars start to disappear, and more roles for soldiers and volunteers in historical uniforms become necessary to stand in for all those missing men and women. While smaller ceremonies like Prospect Cemetery's will linger as long as families gather to keep their memories alive, the future of Remembrance Day will likely show the gradual transformation of history into pageantry.