Returning to Toronto

Toronto was a different place when I returned. Prohibition had just been passed which prompted a wave of law-breaking and unrest. Everyday there was yet another tenement on fire. The last thing we needed was another Great Fire of Toronto. The local business industrialists were accused of profiteering as food prices were spiralling out of control. Tea went up by 10 cents a pound. Biscuits and jam went up by 25 per cent. Fortunes were being made on bacon. We all tightened our belts and squeezed the extra cups as we best could from the tea we could afford.

Many were suspicious of German sympathizers and the witch-hunt had begun to eliminate people of German origin from positions of authority and influence. The University of Toronto bore the brunt of this sentiment which resulted in many of the faculty being let go. It was wrong, many claimed, to pay German subjects in time of war. Those accused of being German spies were thrown out into the street. ‘Go back to Berlin!’ Many did go to Berlin. But it was now called Kitchener after the referendum last May.

Others were accused of being spies sending valuable information to the enemy via New York. I’m not sure what valuable information we had here in Canada, other than the fact that we had the sweetest blueberries in the New World. To be honest, I too had my suspicions, of Germans. Due to the unpleasant exchanges I had with Martin Blecher in the Park, I couldn’t help believe there may be enemies in our midst.

The Massey-Harris company, owned by Lawren Harris’s family was hit hard by the War. Their branches in Germany were taken over. They shut down their Toronto works only to reopen shortly thereafter as a munitions factory. There was plenty of work for the ‘slackers’  as they were called – men who would rather work for $2.50 a day instead of fighting for their country at $1.10. Increasingly, I became uncomfortable in stating my vocation of artist. I could see the reaction in their eyes – ‘Artist? You should be fighting overseas instead of painting pretty pictures’’

And finally, strange as it might be, the piano makers were hiring. A sudden demand for pianos from New Zealand. The collapse of the German piano makers hadn’t dampened the Kiwis penchant for a piano ditty. You never knew how the War was going to upset the balance of things. Strange.