Getting to the Archives of Ontario is a chore. When the province decided to relocate the reading room to the York University campus in northern Toronto in 2009, it was expected that the University/Spadina subway line would arrive there within a year of the move. The subway site is still a yawning pit, and even with a fleet of dedicated buses, it never takes fewer than 50 minutes to reach the archives from downtown Toronto. Everyone who attends York U. is quietly, Canadian-ly simmering with irritation over this, so the transit authority has set up a small public reception room with a friendly human to listen to complaints and a large stock of cardboard model subway cars to give away. I’m not sure it placates anyone, but the models make dandy souvenirs.
Being situated on a university campus has advantages. York U. is big, busy, and self-sufficient. There are two food courts, a pub, a well-stocked library, a bookstore, a pharmacy, bank machines, and an ice rink with public skate, all within two blocks of the Archives. From my perspective as a travelling grad student, the best perks on offer were the bank of microwaves in the student centre food court, perfect for reheating a packed lunch, and the Treats cafe, which sold the cheapest hot tea (to keep warm while waiting for the bus in -20 Celsius).
The thing I appreciate most about the Archives of Ontario is the temperature. This could sound odd, since it’s in Canada, but it’s by far the warmest archive I’ve used. My research has taken me to half a dozen archives around the Great Lakes and I always look forward to the AO because I don’t leave it with icy hands and numb toes. The reading room is bright and peaceful, barring the occasional outspoken genealogist. The building is less than ten years old, and the sheer number of windows (one whole wall) and plugs onsite almost reconciles me to the unavoidable commute.
If you need to get there:
- Take the University/Spadina subway to Downsview station. (NB: sometimes trains short-turn at St. Clair station during morning rush hour. Check the front of the train for ‘Downsview’ or risk losing your cozy seat.)
- From Downsview, take the Route 196 York University Rocket. The 196A and 196B are the effectively the same. The route 106 will get you there, but it’s much less direct.
- Get off at York University Common, also called York Blvd North. From there, the archives are only a block away.
The best apps for the Toronto transit system are:
- Rocketman (includes the bike sharing stops, works in real time)
- Transit App
- Transit Now Toronto (Android only, made for Toronto)
It’s important to know that many Ontario government documents have access restrictions and the declassification unit is badly understaffed (two positions out of five were filled when I visited). Fortunately, the online catalogue is complete and accurate, so it’s easy to see which records are restricted. In the fall of 2014, I requested a lot of fairly innocuous material on water quality, fisheries policy, and pollution monitoring, ranging from 1906-1972. It took about six months to get a ‘research agreement’ (i.e., permission to see them), and a few months more before I could get back to Toronto.
I study how Canada and the United States managed the Great Lakes during the twentieth century. At first glance, this would appear to be a story of two nations, but in fact the states and provinces are the governments most closely interested in water management. When it comes to transboundary water policy, diplomacy and local affairs are one and the same. My research at the Ontario Archives drew on records from several provincial premiers, the Ministry of the Environment and its predecessors, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, the Ontario Water Resources Commission, and the predecessors to Ontario Hydro.
My favourite sources from the A.O. deal with a court case from the early 1970s. These documents are well worth the wait for access and the commute. In 1969, a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario discovered high levels of mercury in ducks from Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. The levels were so high that he alerted the provincial government to the possibility that fish from those waters were dangerously contaminated. The province ran some tests, and closed the entire commercial and recreational fishery two days getting the results. The states around the Great Lakes followed suit and the fisheries were closed for two years.
My documents deal with the fallout from that decision: how to help fishermen weather the loss of their income, and how to assign responsibility for the problem. Ohio and Ontario both started lawsuits in their respective courts against Dow Chemical, arguing that it was the main culprit. Dow argued that it was impossible to tell which mercury had been released by which factory in the Detroit/Sarnia/Windsor area, and that in any case, transboundary litigation was not admissible. I find the legal arguments interesting, but the transboundary nature of the problem are the really compelling part. Though they were using exactly the same evidence and actively sharing data, Ohio and Ontario worked with different court systems. My dissertation chapter will explain the differing results in detail. To make a long story short, litigation seems to be an ineffective way to claim damages for environmental problems in the Great Lakes. Not because of the many jurisdictions, as I anticipated, but it is so difficult to produce adequate evidence for change over time when the biological processes in question are relatively newly discovered.
Articles written by students and faculty in environmental history at Georgetown University.