From Leaside’s deep roots spring new shoots

St. Cuthberts' great oak - then and now. Courtesy of St. Cuthbert's Church.
St. Cuthberts’ great oak – then and now. Courtesy of St. Cuthbert’s Church.

On a cold, drizzly, late-March day, I came face to face with Leaside’s deep roots – literally. Let me explain.

It was Earth Day and St. Cuthbert’s Anglican Church on Bayview had organized a day of speakers and events. I was there to help officially recognize the church’s majestic white oak as the first of 150 Ontario Heritage Trees to be named in honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial. (An Ontario Heritage Tree is a tree that’s linked to significant figures or historical events.)

So there I was, bundled up in front of St. Cuthbert’s with local leaders and a great turnout from our community, thinking about just how much this towering, 200-year-old tree has seen as it has put its roots deeper and reached ever skyward. And not for the first time, it struck me what a special community Leaside is and has always been.

The story starts with the Indigenous people who first inhabited this land, by the banks of a river then teeming with fish. It starts again with the arrival of William Lea in 1820, and again with the octagonal house his son John built in the 1850s, which he called “Leaside.” It starts with the visionaries at Canadian Northern Railway, ambitiously planning to build a model community here.

And our story starts once more in 1890, when a member of the Lea family donated a half acre for a Leaside Mission, which would soon become St. Cuthbert’s.

When Leaside became a town in 1913, St. Cuthbert’s Church was the only public building around, so it became “city hall.” It was there, under the swaying branches of the white oak, that the early settlers of Leaside were married and laid to rest. It’s where the community came out to greet the soldiers returning from the Great War and where they prayed for the brave sons of Leaside fighting for Canada in the Second World War.

And when they came home after the war, Leaside again looked confidently to the future – reshaping our community and our country. I think of people like Agnes Macphail, who once called Leaside home. Macphail was the first woman elected to Canada’s parliament – a trailblazer who paved the way for women like me. Or the fact that literary legend Margaret Atwood graduated from Leaside High.

I think of the timeless traditions. The Leaside Baseball Association started back in 1946. Sixty years later it’s going strong. My daughters and I were lucky to have been part of this enduring community legacy. When they were growing up, we always looked forward to spring because it meant another swing of the bat in Leaside.

Leaside is shaped by its history, whether it’s the curving streets named for those railway visionaries whose dreams became our community, or the writers, scientists, businesspeople and politicians whose grounding in Leaside helped them make their mark on Canada, or the strong sense of place that you can still feel today – our little town within a city.

But on the 150th birthday of Canada, we shouldn’t only think about how our history has shaped us. We should celebrate the fact that we’re shaping our history, every day. Leaside is a place for fresh starts. A place to stand. A place to grow. St. Cuthbert’s, for example, is one of many groups in our community to have sponsored newcomers fleeing conflict. And this summer, how many Leaside kids will learn to ride a bike? Make a new friend with roots halfway around the world? Or hit their first home run? If Leaside’s past tells us one thing, it’s that our future will be what we make of it. And we always make the most. Happy 150th!

The Hon. Kathleen Wynne is the Premier of Ontario and MPP for Don Valley West.