It’s been nearly two years since the City of Toronto abruptly defunded a historic re-enactment at Fort York on vague decolonization claims and city officials have yet to provide any evidence of how the program violated reconciliation policies. 

Toronto’s inexplicable axing of Friends of Fort York by city officials who bill themselves as leaders of “inclusivity” comes as the city attempts to erase other elements of Canada’s colonial history, often based on false historical assumptions. 

For years, Fort York, a national historic site, would hire nearly two dozen high school and university students to don historical military uniforms for re-enactments using the $10,000 in funding provided by the city. 

New documents obtained via a freedom of information request show that City of Toronto officials had little evidence to support their suspicion that the Friends of Fort York had run afoul of reconciliation and inclusivity policies. 

Internal communications and emails indicate city officials were scrambling to patch together a flimsy narrative to justify their actions after abruptly ending the relationship before Friends of Fort York were informed that an internal “review of values” even began. 

The question remains: why was Fort York defunded? 

Fort York was built as a defensive structure to ward off American invaders who threatened to colonize the area where Toronto is now situated. Fort York housed British Upper Canadian and First Nations soldiers who stood together against American forces in the War of 1812.

The fort played virtually no role in expanding colonial holdings but rather ensured that Toronto would not become an American outpost – an outcome many First Nations warriors were willing to risk their lives to prevent from becoming reality. 

Additionally, it was the Ojibwe who joined the British in their war against the Americans and as historians have noted, the First Nation itself were colonizers originating from the Atlantic Coast and forcing the original inhabitants of the Great Lakes region to flee westward towards Manitoba.  

This history didn’t stop the City of Toronto’s general manager of economic development and culture, Cheryl Blackman, from axing the annual grant on vague decolonization grounds.

Blackman, whose pronouns are “she/her” has a “history of creating inclusive experiences” according to her LinkedIn profile

“What we’re talking about is colonial narratives, and to have colonial narratives that only speak to the experiences of one community, that is actually an oversight,” Blackman told the Globe and Mail in August 2022. 

The city originally claimed it was conducting a review of values that “may take several months.” In reality, Blackman cut the grant even before Friends of Fort York was informed such a review was taking place. 

As of 2024, there has been no news about the results of the review. 

In a written statement, a City of Toronto spokesperson told True North that it was currently discussing “alignment in any future collaboration” with the organization. 

“Toronto History Museums, which includes Fort York, continues to be part of a global movement that sees museums spaces around the world committing to dismantling museums’ ongoing colonial legacies and working towards fostering reconciliation and healing through broader perspectives and wider storytelling,” said the spokesperson.

“In late 2022, when the review was started, Friends of Fort York were invited to participate and eventually chose to contribute. The City remains committed to ongoing discussions with the Friends of Fort York on the results of the review and to discuss alignment in any future collaboration.”

No concrete reasons were given to Friends of Fort York concerning the grant’s cancellation. Additionally, one memo shows that the organization was not even asked to sign the City’s Declaration of Non-Discrimination Policy, which would have required it to align with the city’s values on reconciliation and decolonization. 

If the city had concerns that the organization was violating those values, a simple remedy would be to require the Friends of Fort York to oblige it would maintain Toronto’s policies in its conduct. As far as internal documents show, no such action was taken. 

Blackman’s cancellation of Fort York’s grant came as a surprise to the organization’s chairman Don Cranston, who asked the city why they had not received their usual funding. Although Blackman had already made the unilateral decision to axe the program, in an Apr. 4, 2022 email, City of Toronto communications manager Eric Holmes told Toronto’s supervisor of cultural assets Jo Ann Pynn to fend off Cranston and “buy some time.”

“This is new territory for me. When you say ‘general approach rather than full communications strategy.’ I’m not really sure what that means. I trust it is a simpler thing to prepare,” Pynn wrote to Holmes.

“Regarding Don, my suggestion is you reply as you’ve said but slightly more generally (to buy some time),” responded Holmes. 

The reply he crafted was as follows: “We are currently reviewing the program for 2022 and will be in touch soon with more information.” 

Yet earlier in the day, Pynn wrote to Holmes informing him that “Cheryl (Blackman) has decided that the 2022 Summer Guard youth employment program will not proceed.” No reason was provided. 

As questions began to mount about the grant’s cancellation, city officials were scrambling internally to come up with a coherent explanation. 

A day later on Apr. 5, 2022, Pynn revealed that the team handling the case expressed concerns that they didn’t give Friends of Fort York any chance to align with the city’s expectations. 

“If the reason is that (the group’s) values are not aligned with City values, Eric is concerned that we haven’t begun the work with them to give them a chance to move into alignment. That doesn’t mean that cannot be the City’s position, it just means that we’ll need a robust case supporting why we haven’t given them the chance to work with us before cancelling the guard,” wrote Pynn. 

Indeed the murky reasons to cancel the grant were hard to articulate and made little sense, least of all to Friends of Fort York stakeholder Scott Woodland, who wrote to Mayor John Tory on June 6 demanding an explanation. 

Woodland addressed a letter where staff said that the decision was part of a broader effort “to better understand its relationship with local community organizations, including with Friends of Fort York.” He further asked whether other activities were paused. 

“If this is the case, for the process to be fair and thorough, has the City established a formal review process that can be applied equally to all local community organizations?” Woodland wrote. 

Woodland raised a fair point, addressing the heart of the matter: was Friends of Fort York being individually targeted? 

“If the City has established a formal review process for local community organizations, why could it not be applied to the review of the Friends of Fort York,” asked Woodland.

The City of Toronto has provided few answers to these questions but the city’s leadership has a history of targeting Canadian history, particularly its British heritage, on spurious grounds. 

A recent instance is the Toronto City Council’s vote to rename Yonge-Dundas Square to “Sankofa Square” because of Henry Dundas’ supposed relationship to slavery.

Despite opposition from historians and descendants of Dundas who assert that Dundas was an abolitionist, the city decided to rename the square after an African tribe that, as True North reported, engaged in slavery.