Oh, Canada

By David Turner in Places, Events, & History

In anticipation of Canada’s 150th birthday it seems every news and entertainment outlet has been compiling lists identifying contributions and outlining specific entities that make us unique. Reading through this media maze moved me to share a few of my own Canadian-flavoured observations.

Tim Hortons. Although now owned by Florida-based Burger-King, in turn owned by a capital investment firm who manages the financial affairs of mega-giant Kraft-Heinz among others, this restaurant empire remains a Canadian icon. However, there’s an entire generation familiar only with the double-double’s served each day rather than the husky defenceman who played eighteen years with the Toronto Maple leafs, and for whom the institution was named. I was watching “Hockey Night in Canada” on a Saturday evening in 1964, when during a between-period interview Horton announced the opening of a restaurant in Hamilton, specializing in the sale of coffee and doughnuts.

This wasn’t Horton’s first business venture. He’d operated both a hamburger establishment and a Studebaker dealership in downtown Toronto. I recall my father’s comment at the time, “I wish him luck but I’d hate to have to make a living selling just coffee and doughnuts!” In a way Dad was right, as through the years, the menu has exploded to include sandwiches, muffins, bagels, wraps, soup, chili etc., while doughnut varieties have dwindled. History would proclaim however, that my father’s misgivings concerning the coffee aspect have proved unwarranted.

Stompin’ Tom Connors. Who can forget the novelty when initially hearing this East Coaster’s songs and stories of events and people living in the small, mostly ignored, communities scattered across our country? Compositions such as “Bud the Spud,” “Big Joe Mufferaw,” “Tillsonburg” and “Sudbury Saturday Night” were as distant from the mainstream of popular music as one could get. He was known as “Tom Conners” until an appearance at the King George Tavern in Peterborough on Canada’s centennial in July 1, 1967. It was here the emcee assigned the “Stompin’” appendage to his name, in recognition of the chunk of plywood he carried with him so his boot wouldn’t damage the stage floor when keeping time to the beat. His stompin’ board and black cowboy hat became synonymous with grass roots Canadian music culture. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform a half-dozen times over the years and it was worth the price of admission just to hear his rendition of “Mule Skinner Blues.”

Standard Time. Although this phenomenon might not be considered “Canadian” in the true sense of the word, Sandford Fleming, the architect of this world-wide timekeeping system, arrived in Canada from Scotland in 1845. Although just eighteen, he wasn’t long in making his mark, but it had nothing to do with what would be his claim to fame. Fleming is credited with the design of Canada’s first postage stamp, a three-cent paper square depicting Canada’s national symbol, the beaver. It was in his capacity as director of the Canadian-Pacific Railroad and supervising the construction of a coast-to-coast railroad, that his idea of a standard system of timekeeping took root. In Europe, where countries tended to be small and distances manageable, time fluctuations due to the position of the sun weren’t a big deal. Fleming discovered however, that Canada’s wide-spread geography made train scheduling in particular, a nightmare. Noon in Toronto could mean 12:25 in Montreal and maybe 1:14 in Fredericton. Frustrated with such confluence in time schedules, Fleming chose to divide the world into 24 separate, roughly 500 mile-wide time zones.

As kids, we had a globe that featured a metal disc on its top, portraying the various time zones. Setting the disc timeline on a particular line of longitude would show the actual time anyplace in the world. “Okay,” we’d say, “it’s 4 pm in England, what time is it in Thailand? Alaska? Florida?” Our simple game not only helped pass the time on a day when confined indoors, but provided an important geographical image of the world in which we lived.

During World War One, daylight saving time (DST) was introduced, supposedly an attempt for factories to conserve energy by taking advantage of an extra hour of daylight. There has always been a degree of confusion surrounding the system as some provinces, Saskatchewan for instance, refuse to recognize the ritual. Then there were those who simply forgot about it. I recall neighbours who habitually appeared an hour late for church the morning following the spring time adjustment. At one point, my mother, not hiding her annoyance whispered to my father, “Daylight saving time has been around (at that point) for fifty years, you’d think they’d have figured out how to set their clocks by now!”

Skidooing. For decades, this generic term describing snowmobiling has been integral with Canadian vocabulary. Mechanic/inventor Quebec-native Joseph Bombardier built his first snow machine, a seven-passenger model (B-7), in the mid-1930s. A few years later, a 12-passenger (B-12) sled was added to the line. Bombardier designed both models for doctors, ambulance operators, trappers, ministers, land surveyors, anyone who regularly travelled in the northern remoteness of Ontario and Quebec. In 1959, he introduced his first recreational machine, the Ski-dog, and sold 200 units. A typographical error in the brochure transformed “Ski-dog” to “Ski-doo” and the rest is history.

Five years later, more than 8,000 machines were manufactured. Production didn’t peak until 1971, when nearly 50,000 Ski-doos were sold into the Canadian market. This was an era when we had what were known as “classic winters,” the first significant snowfall came in late November and generally remained until the end of March. Sanctioned snowmobile trails didn’t exist, thus public roads, highway ditches, laneways, farmers’ fields, woodlots, gravel pits, frozen lakes and rivers, were all fair territory, as were trees, stumps, buried machinery, hidden rocks, fence posts and barbed wire fences.

Today, with only four snowmobile manufacturers left in the game – Ski-doo, Polaris, Arctic Cat and Yamaha – it’s beyond perception for this generation to comprehend the selection that prevailed in the early 1970s. With worldwide sales approaching a half-million, everyone wanted a slice of the pie. Within a 10-mile radius of where I lived, there were probably two dozen dealers selling as many different brands. Moto-ski, Ski-Whiz, Snow-Cruiser, Evinrude, John Deere, Dauphin, Alouette, Johnson, Scorpion, Sno-jet and Skiroule, are but a few I recall. Some marques lasted only two or three years.

Eaton’s catalogue. This 32-page, all-text, mail-order catalogue debuted in 1884. In subsequent years, sketches, drawings, black-and-white photography and finally full colour would be integrated into the ever-expanding format. By the turn of the century, Timothy Eaton’s catalogue was being distributed to a quarter million homes throughout Canada. Early copies featured clothing only, but it grew throughout the years to encompass medicines, kitchen utensils and appliances, radios, hardware, fencing, books, farm machinery and equipment, lubricants, batteries, furniture, even pre-fab buildings.

The catalogue was a Canadian institution in the rural environment where I was raised. The spring and summer edition would arrive in March, its pages brimming with gardening tools, flower and vegetable seeds, insecticides, lawn mowers, watering cans, straw hats and running shoes. Its fall and winter counterpart, as well as back-to-school items, featured everything from rain coats, rubber boots, sweaters and gloves to tire chains, shovels, long underwear, anti-freeze and oil-burners. Toboggans, sleds, skates and hockey sticks, often autographed by the greats of the day, handled the lighter aspects of the season.

The arrival of the current catalogue meant as kids we were able to utilize the discarded one for personal entertainment. My sister received first choice, carefully cutting out her favourite catalogue models to enhance her paper doll collection. Pencilling mustaches or long beards to the faces of the distinguished gentlemen modelling suits and sport jackets, providing ties and scarves for those attired in shorts or swimwear, and adding hats and gloves to underwear-attired women, kept us entertained. The women’s undergarment section, tame as it was, was our introduction to sex education.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. If the Eaton’s catalogue brought urban department store selection to Canada’s rural side roads, the CBC did likewise with communication. Beginning in 1936, from the highly-populated centres of southern Ontario and Quebec, the wind-swept shores of Newfoundland, the broad Prairies, Vancouver Island, or the vast isolation of the Arctic, the CBC delivered world news to our door. Whether reporting on The London Blitz, Pearl Harbour, Dieppe, Normandy or Hiroshima, Canadian listeners through CBC radio had a front row seat on world happenings.

The CBC conducted station breaks every half hour to allow their cross-Canada affiliates to provide time for local news updates. And thirty seconds prior to the hour, a sombre voice announced, “At the tone it is exactly eleven o’clock, Eastern Standard Time.” This would be preceded by a series of beeps until the exact hour was reached. This message would be broadcast simultaneously across the country for each particular time zone. Weather was taken seriously, dispersed in deeply detailed forecasts for the different regions of the province. I looked forward to hearing of conditions in settlements with intriguing-sounding names such as Killaloe, Kapuskasing, Kirkland Lake and Kenora.

An entirely new medium was opened to us with the arrival of our first TV in 1957. Veteran broadcaster Earl Cameron was CBC’s news anchor at that point. Later he became a familiar face performing commercials for Crest and American Motors. This brought Cameron criticism from CBC management who complained these outside interests compromised the sincerity of his job at the network and would not be tolerated. Cameron, at the time earning more in a sixty second commercial than a full day at his news desk, opted for Ramblers and toothpaste.

Peter L. Robertson. Unfamiliar with the name? Back in 1908 the Milton, Ontario resident severely injured his hand while fastening some wood pieces together when the screwdriver he was using slipped. Seeking a better idea in screwdriver technology, Robertson developed and eventually patented a driver that worked in conjunction with an innovative metal fastener featuring an imbedded square instead of the conventional slot. Satisfied he had a winning product, Robertson opened a factory in Milton, Ontario, where Canadian manufacturers quickly embraced the inventor’s claims of safety, reduced product damage due to slipping, and increased production. In the late 1920’s, Henry Ford, searching for greater efficiency, began purchasing the revolutionary tool and fastener for automobile assembly in his Windsor Ontario plant. Sensing a bonanza, Robertson sought to secure a contract for Ford’s American factories. Henry’s insistence on iron-clad guarantees of quality and supply, penalties for non-compliance as well as manufacturing facilities in the United States, proved too restrictive for Robertson, who, despite the potential for financial fortune, declined.

Robertson may have regretted this decision when facing the brutal economic conditions of the 1930s, but managed to survive. During World War II, the company provided its distinctive fasteners to innumerable factory products. The most lucrative was Toronto-based De Havilland for its plywood-clad Mosquito fighter aircraft. At the time of his death in 1951, Robertson’s factory employed nearly 600 workers and its founder had reached millionaire status. The original building on Bronte Street in Milton continues to serve as head office and main distribution centre, but Robertson Inc., as it’s now known, is a global supplier with manufacturing facilities throughout the world. For a variety of reasons, foremost perhaps because it wasn’t their idea, Peter Robertson’s unique contribution to the hardware trade has been mostly ignored in the United States. I guess that’s their loss.