Post Your Opinion
Heritage Under Siege
by Heather Kirk

SCHOLARS REGARD him as a vital part of our cultural heritage. The place he wrote about makes a great deal of money from his image. Dedicated volunteers and professionals do their best to care for his memorabilia. Yet, the artefacts that help tell us about Stephen Butler Leacock are threatened. Some have already been lost.

Leacock's birthplace in Swanmore, Hampshire, England is empty and may soon be purchased by a developer who is planning to tear down the thatched cottage and build townhouses. Last year, his former residence in Montreal was seriously damaged by smoke from a fire that gutted the adjoining house. His grave in Sutton, Ontario, is difficult to find and easy to vandalize.

There is more. Much more.

Leacock's boyhood farmhouse near Sutton, which he later described as the "damnedest place" he "ever saw," burned down in the 1960s. A later family home in Sutton, the unique Bury Lodge, designed and built by Leacock's siblings for their mother, was still in good condition when it was razed without protest in 1987 to make way for a standard-issue "professional building."

Literarily speaking, the original, handwritten manuscript of Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town -arguably Canada's single most valuable literary manuscript - has no permanent and proper resting place. For years this and other vital manuscripts, first editions, letters, and documents related to Leacock's life and work, have been shunted twice annually between Orillia and Barrie, Ontario, in a private vehicle over 40 kilometres of busy highway. In both cities, the facilities for housing the Leacock archives are, according to Jay Cody, curator and director of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Home in Orillia, "very, very inadequate."

And the Stephen Leacock Memorial Home itself is in trouble. Two-thirds of the property has been sold to a private developer. The Home - originally a summer residence designed by Leacock and built in 1928 on property he owned from 1908 until his death in 1944, and at present a beautiful tourist attraction as well as a distinguished literary museum - is inadequately funded and severely stressed.

Let us focus here on the Leacock Memorial Home.

Two-thirds of what was once a 26-acre oasis in the midst of ugly, ever expanding, urban sprawl - run-down houses; the car wash; the rent-a-car place; the quick-food mart; the flea market; the fried-chicken outlet; the old factory; the railroad - has been sold to a private developer. The developer of "Leacock Point, " Versa-Care Limited of Cambridge, Ont., is hoping that 500 welloff seniors will want to live in a $23-million housing project on 17 acres of the Memorial Home's land that it bought for a reported $1.5 million from the city of Orillia in 1989.

Despite the objections of a number of Orillia residents, including members of the ad hoc Committee to Protect the Stephen Leacock Home, in hearings in 1989, Versa-Care managed to convince the Ontario Municipal Board that the 410-unit commercial and residential development would not damage the "heritage atmosphere" of the Memorial Home, "as long as an adequate buffer is provided and distance separations are imposed." (The hearings were given only cursory coverage in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.)

Arguments that such a development could damage the picturesque mansion and gardens, and the 30,000 letters, books, and manuscripts of Leacock's stored there during the tourist season, were overruled. This despite evidence such as the letter from Gillian Watts, a conservation expert from the provincial Ministry of Culture and Communications, which stated that "Books and archival material are easily damaged by the dust and fumes created by heavy machinery."

For now, the Versa-Care condominium project has been stalled by the recession. Hope that the 17 acres can be bought back somehow has not died altogether but is fading fast, since the land has been cleared of vegetation and four model homes constructed at the far side of the site, away from the Leacock museum. Another section of condominiums is under construction just across the driveway from the Home.

In the summer of 1991, extra costs were incurred to keep the museum free of blowing dirt from next door, and the entire filing system for the museum had to be encased in plastic. In the summer of 1992 blowing dirt was still a nuisance, but an even greater worry was the nightly threat of fire from teenagers and vagrants using the empty condominium units, which are unprotected by fire hydrants. Every winter there is also a problem with snowmobilers driving freely over the museum property.

This year the most valuable of the Leacock archives, including the original handwritten manuscript of Sunshine Sketches, was not moved from storage in the Simcoe County Archives in Barrie, where they are shut away in 22 cubic feet of blue bank boxes and various security-box holdings; they are virtually inaccessible to the public. The provincial ministry has advised the Leacock

Home not to display its most important archives at the Orillia site until conditions there improve.

But even if, by some miracle, the 17 acres can be reacquired, the Leacock legacy is still threatened.

In order to deal with the constant demands by the public to see the Stephen Leacock Memorial Home, and to qualify for more provincial funding, its curator and director has had to lengthen the Home's season. Now what Jay Cody calls a "steady stream" of visitors pours through the museum all year round, coming from every province of Canada and from as far away as Florida, California, Britain, Europe, and even China. In 1990, the number of visitors was about 6,500. That figure increased almost 100 per cent in 199 1, to about 12,000. This year, the 12,000-mark had been reached by mid-August, and the total number of visitors for 1992 is expected to be 16,000 to 18,000. So many visitors will eventually shorten the Home's life, unless proper provisions are made.

"I am boggled at what happens to that jewel," says Peter Moran, the chief archivist of Simcoe County. "It is an incredible gold mine....Visitors now come by appointment all year round. In the winter, this means turning up the heat when a group is coming in, then letting the temperature drop after they've gone, which is not good for the Home or its contents, Then in the summer, the temperature on the porch at the back can reach 110'F ... That jewel is being lost. The Home is running down. It's terrible to think about. God, I hope we can do something."

Jay Cody is aware of the need for a master plan for the Leacock Memorial Home, in order to assure adequate funding. He is also aware of the need for increased recognition of and financial support for the Home and its contents from the federal government. In fact Christina Cameron, secretary general of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, visited the Home in May 1992. And Hillary Russell, a researcher appointed by Parks Canada, is drafting a paper on the Home to be presented this month. Cody comments that he is "truly encouraged by the interest shown by the federal government."

Both Cody and Moran support the building of a structure outside the Home but on the same property (the remaining nine acres) to house the Leacock archives. Funding for this structure could come in part from $360,000 committed by Versa-Care Limited in 1989. No funding is yet available, however, for staffing such a structure; though plans have been drawn up, the building's construction has been continually postponed.

Who is to blame for the plight of the Home?

One must ask why Orillia. divided the property of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Home and sold a large part of it. Was the motive just money? Or do Orillians still cling to the old ill will they apparently bore the man who made fun of "Mariposa" in Sunshine Sketches, first published in 1912? Do they still regard Leacock as a mere "reprobate and eccentric" with a "well-known fondness for the bottle"? That is how the radio broadcaster "Pete" McGarvey now describes the local attitude toward Leacock in 1954 when Orillia reluctantly bought the house and its contents from Leacock's son. Certainly informed observers today say that the city of Orillia supported the sale of the Leacock Memorial Home property to Versa-Care.

But whatever its reasons for selling, Orillia should not be blamed for the present situation. Expecting a city with a population of only 24,000 to carry the burden of maintaining a cultural treasure that belongs to all Canada is ludicrous.

If anything, Orillians are cultural heroes more than villains. They should be thanked by all Canadians for buying the Leacock house and its contents plus the "little footprint" of land on which the rundown house stood in the 1950s, and the rest of the property in the 1970s. Furthermore, there is a lesson to be learned from Orillians' far-sighted, entrepreneurial know-how, as well as their short-sighted mistake. Orillia provides a prime example of how promoting Canadian culture can create goodwill and at the same time generate revenue.

The single most important tourism draw in Orillia is a 10-day midsummer event, the annual Leacock Heritage Festival, operated by about 250 local volunteers and corporate sponsors. Festival events directly involving the Stephen Leacock Memorial Home include the "Historic Tour of Leacock's Mariposa" (a bus tour of 17 Orillia historic sites that ends with tea at the Home), the "Leacock Medal for Humour Readings" (leading Canadian humorists and writers, including present and past winners of the Leacock Medal for Humour, give readings at the Home), and the "Leacock Garden Party" (advertised as a "traditional garden party with entertainment, food, games, and lots of fun for the whole family").

Other events include sidewalk sales, a children's festival, an "old-fashioned picnic in the park," an antique and classic car and boat show, a "heritage farmers' market," boat cruises, a musical at the Orillia Opera House, a special exhibit at the Sir Sam Steele Art Gallery, various concerts in the Couchiching Park Aquatheatre, and several dances.

Two literary competitions are also associated with the festival: the Leacock Limerick Awards, with a first prize of $1,000, and the Humorous Short Story Competition, with a first prize of $500.

According to Doug Little, a spokesperson for the Downtown Orillia Management Board, in both 1991 and 1992 about 60,000 people attended the festival. The vast majority of this number were those taking in the sidewalk sale and the dances. The numbers attending the more literary events were far fewer, with readings attracting an audience of 40 to 90, six bus loads doing the "Historic Tour," and about 1,000 enjoying the Leacock Garden Party. Yet the Festival, which attempts to "create Leacock's Orillia," is promoted as a "nationally significant" cultural event, for which the "Leacock persona" is the "essence."

And this promotion strategy won three national awards for marketing in 1991 at the annual convention of the Canadian Association of Festivals and Events. This cultural event attracts more than one million tourism dollars annually to Orillia, Little estimates, adding that the festival's financial importance is attested to by the willingness with which local businesses participate.

So Orillia shows us that Leacock makes a great, if unreal and perhaps Disney-esque, corporate logo. A genteel Mickey Mouse in straw hat and cufflinks. A British-ified or Canadian-ized Mark Twain. So someone makes money; but what about the real man?

Stephen Leacock is "the Canadian who personifies the country in which he lived." So says James Doyle of Wilfrid Laurier University in his new biography, Stephen Leacock: The Sage of Orillia (ECW, 1992). This despite the fact that, as Doyle suggests, Leacock "often appears to personify some of the most negative values in middle-class British North American society, a society with more than its share of smugness, ethnic prejudices, greedy materialism, jingoism, and hypocrisy."

Leacock was his era's greatest and most prominent literary humorist, a figure who exercised enormous influence. Two of

Leacock's previous biographers, Albert and Theresa Moritz, sum him up thus in their thorough, well-balanced Leacock: A Biography (Stoddart, 1985). Leacock, according to the Moritzes, "belongs among public figures and social reformers such as Twain, G. B. Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells, George Orwell, and many more writers who defined their age as much through their opinions as through their creative works." Leacock influenced the "tone, setting and imagery of American movies in their golden age." He also influenced other great humorists such as S. J. Perelman, who wrote for the Marx Brothers, and Robert Benchley.

What's more, Leacock helped father not only the Canadian Authors' Association, Canadian literature, and Canadian nationalism - the Moritzes call Leacock's Canada: The Foundations of Its Future (1941), "the first modem presentation of Canadian nationalism" -but also the modem humorous newspaper column. All this as well as being "among the most gifted essayists of the English language."

Such sweeping claims for Leacock's importance are both supported and refined by the almost three dozen scholarly articles and one dozen books about Leacock and his own almost 60 books and numerous articles.

Of the publications about Leacock, perhaps the single most important is Stephen Leacock: A Reappraisal (University of Ottawa Press, 1986), edited by David Staines. This is primarily a collection of new articles by such Canadian scholars as Glenn Clever, Ed Jewinski, Gerald Lynch, Beverly Rasporich, and Malcolm Ross.

In Reappraisal, Glenn Clever argues that Leacock, who should be placed alongside the so-called "Confederation School" of Canadian writers (with Wilfred Campbell, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, Charles G. D. Roberts, and Duncan Campbell Scott), mapped the essentially 19th-century "outscapes" of Canadians, whereas later writers mapped the 20th-century "inscapes." Ed jewinski applies the vocabulary and vision of postmodernist critical theory to Sunshine Sketches and finds the book's "fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness" to be a "necessary feature" and a "supreme achievement." Gerald Lynch - the author of Stephen Leacock: Humour and Humanity, a full-length critical study of Leacock published in 1988 by McGill-Queen's University Press -argues that Sunshine Sketches is a "more highly organized and complex work than has hitherto been shown." Beverly Rasporich makes clear that while Leacock was profoundly influenced by 19th-century American humour techniques, his voice was distinctly "Anglo-Canadian," and thus part of a "conservative, literate" Canadian tradition that can be traced back to the likes of the 19th-century novelist Susanna Moodie, and forward to Robertson Davies.

Malcolm Ross relates that by reissuing one or two of Leacock's humour books each year, McClelland & Stewart managed to finance the pioneering New Canadian Library: the paperback series that, in the 1960s and '70s, helped establish Canadian literature as part of the Canadian university curriculum.

The lively, intelligent debate in Stephen Leacock: A Reappraisal and elsewhere shows why we should care. This man - like him or not -helped us define who we were, and therefore are. He is one of the big builders of Canada, a cultural Sir John A. Macdonald. If we do not preserve his artefacts, we will not understand ourselves - like us or not.

The Stephen Leacock Memorial Home in Orillia must be saved, as must Leacock's birthplace in England, his residence in Montreal, his grave in Sutton, and his manuscripts and other documents now homeless.

Leacock's birthplace was marked by a plaque in 1970 by the Ontario government. His long-time residence on Chemin de la C6te-des-Neiges in Montreal, a few blocks from McGill University, is unmarked and in private hands; its owners, who are proud of their house's association with the great man, renovated it after the fire without help from government funds.

His grave in St. George's churchyard, Sutton, is difficult to find, despite a provincial historical marker at the roadside. No arrows point to it, and on the tombstone Stephen is listed as merely one of five children buried with mother Agnes Leacock. What's more, since the cemetery is located beside busy Sibbald Point Provincial Park, the unprotected tombstone is vulnerable to vandalism.

(Contrast the writer Leacock's treatment with that of the politician Macdonald. Sir John A.'s grave in Kingston, Ontario, is well marked and protected by a wrought-iron fence. His Bellevue House residence is a national historic site.)

The lesson to be learned from this litany of oversights and omissions is that private individuals and small municipalities cannot be expected to protect priceless cultural treasures that belong to the entire country. The federal government must take some responsibility for the remaining Leacock artefacts, and soon. And so must we all.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us