December 12, 1916
I was getting low on paint supplies so I went to to the art shop on King Street. It’s a couple miles walk and I went south along Church Street. After picking up my paints and supplies I decided to walk through St John’s Ward then over to Spadina passing by the Military Hospital. I must confess that what drew me on this return route was the spectre of curiosity and intrigue. The Ward is teeming with new immigrants: Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, and Chinese. Unlike the other neighbourhoods in Toronto, there is no semblance of silence, reserve and order. Nothing like that exists here and the streets are abuzz with chaos activity.
Before the War, I would come down here with Lawren Harris. He was seized with the conditions of Ward. I can see why. It’s positively decrepit here. Broken steps, newspapers flying about, half-cocked doors not shut, and gaping window panes bereft of glass. The buildings, if I could call them that, are little more than broken bits of beaverboard hammered together with bent and rusty nails. Lawren couldn’t understand why there had to be such poor conditions. He wanted to change that.
Even more unsettling than the decrepit buildings were the abandoned children wandering about. I’m sure they weren’t abandoned by their parents, but they had to work all hours, and leave them to their own to gather up into ragtag gangs. It’s these gangs of children, staring at us, as if we were aliens that made me uncomfortable. We were aliens.
But being an alien didn’t bother Lawren. He would just get out his gear and sketch. It did make a queer site for the kids, and a crowd would gather. Lawren was quite happy to the amuse the kids at his expense. He said condition didn’t have to be that way, it could be better. The hardships of the War were being compounded by the profiteering. He had come down often times to sketch, I came with him once, but I didn’t like it. Not only did I not like the subject to sketch, I didn’t like being stared at. I understood what Lawren was feeling and what he wanted to do right, but I didn’t have the same feeling. I just wanted to get out of there, back to the Studio, or into the woods where human injustice was something beyond the horizon.
I continued to walk through St John’s Ward (I didn’t stop) and over to the Military Hospital on Spadina. After Somme, the veterans were coming back at a high rate. Upon return, they had to be checked out first at the hospital, before they were discharged. You could see the crowds of uniformed men milling about in a daze. The injured ones (with missing limbs or blinded) were whisked inside the hospital or whisked away in cars and carriages, but it was the able-bodied ones that were left milling about in the front grounds. No one was quite sure what to do with these men after their discharge except to point them to the employment office that opened for the munitions factories.
It was an unsettling sight, and I kept my pace to get back to the Shack. Each day, I felt, the world, especially in the City, was becoming a more desperate place. This War has defied everyone’s predictions but the cruelty and injustice left in its wake is now something can be predicted.
“Keep your mind off it, just focus on your canvases”, that’s what Dr. MacCallum keeps saying to me. Jim MacDonald is saying the same thing to me too. I know this is good advice, but I can’t help but think there is another reason, that is not to my benefit. I don’t like these thoughts, but I can’t help it.