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Who is Jane Beecroft: Dragon of City Hall or First Nations Truth Speaker?

November 30th, 2010 · 1 Comment

The Tollkeeper's Cottage is the only restored and operational one of its kind. Matt James/ Gleaner News

By Susan Oppenheim

I met Jane Beecroft in 2008, when she brought flyers into my shop for the opening of a nearby historical restoration.

At the time I knew nothing of heritage work, the Community History Project (the group she founded), or the Tollkeeper’s Cottage, and I had little interest in the undertakings at the corner of Davenport and Bathurst.

From Jane, I have since learned that Davenport Road is one of the oldest and largest First Nations trails in the world, at over 10,000 years old. The tiny (20 by 30 feet) 19th century cottage on the northwest corner has been salvaged, moved five times and restored with over 1,500 volunteer hours of labour, fundraising, and lobbying.

This is a treasured feature of the Annex, and, as the only restored and operational tollkeeper’s cottage of its kind, it also holds an enormous significance on the world’s stage as well.

Jane was one of five children born to working class parents in Oshawa. “I was born in 1932 at the beginning of the depression, and there were lots of periods in my life when I went without, but that does not colour the way I look at the world,” she said. “I am able to think, and so I do not act as a deprived person. I learned things by osmosis; by being around people.”

At age 51 she was living alone, commuting to Toronto from on top of a mountain outside Bancroft, as an established freelance writer for the CBC. On those trips she sat listening to her short-wave radio, learning about global-issues.

Gazing down and seeing how progress was eroding the heritage of Canada’s largest city, she and seven others banded together to form the Community History Project (CHP).

After decades of lobbying city hall, she has earned the nickname the Dragon, but Mississauga First Nations, Toronto’s earliest residents, call her the Truth Speaker. “Without the help of the Indians, the settlers would never have even survived. You can’t possibly know where you are going until you know where you’ve been,” said Jane.

A quarter century later, the areas CHP services now include the Annex, Seaton Village, and Yorkville.

When they started out, they had no idea where to focus themselves, so they preserved and collected any historical assets and documents of heritage buildings, ravines, rivers,photos, letters, anything they could get their hands on. “I realized that history was not taught properly in the schools; it was compartmentalized, not fluid. Most people knowvery little about history—you have to delve deeper to understand the layers of communities.”

Today, I am sitting with Jane, who still chairs the CHP, surrounded by historical materials at their generously donated offices, which span the 2nd floor of the 97 year-old historical noted Bank of Nova Scotia (at Church and Queen).

Listening is not something many of us do often or well enough, but Jane holds my attention. She is not only very well informed but also generous with stories—stories that rarely begin with “I,” but rather with “they” or “we.”

Successful volunteer coordinators must possess the art of engagement, and Jane certainly does. “We are, all of us, volunteers,” said Jane, “[that] rely on the funds we must generate ourselves. We apply annually for a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Culture based on what was already spent. We receive only $1250 a year for maintenance and upkeep and the rest we have to raise ourselves.

“It is not about individuals, or me. It is about the responsibility felt to further our understanding of ourselves as a city and as a part of a nation, using history as the model.”

If this is of any interest you can:

1. Become a member for $20 annually.
2. Come to the cottage Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and meet the indomitable Jane. If you live in the Annex, I assure you she can tell you about the history of your street and community.
3. Arrange group visits on Tuesdays, and find out about collecting tolls—the lives lived, risks taken, and hardships endured in 1835.
4. Attend their events—invited speakers’ series, seasonal festivals.
5. Join the board of directors or volunteer; offering your expertise, fundraising abilities, and much appreciated hours of time.
6. Offer writing and computer skills.

When you visit, there are pamphlets outlining other projects, docents on hand (skilled volunteers), and authentic recipes and other small items for sale.

For more information visit the web site or phone (416) 515-7546.

Tags: People · General

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 The Weekly Wrap « West Annex News // Dec 7, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    […] Dragon of City Hall. Susan Oppenheim profiles local hero Jane Beecroft of the Community History Project.  [Annex […]