‘There are places I remember all my life’

Prime Minister Stephen Harper “came home” to Leaside for the Leaside 100 Gala on April 27 at All Canadian Self-Storage on Laird. Here is his speech, after the thank you remarks. Audio of the speech is also available at YouTube.

PM Stephen Harper
Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Leaside 100 Gala

Now, friends, a couple of months ago, a couple of months back, my staff sent me the text of a proposed video that I’d been asked to make for tonight’s event. It began by quoting a song. The quote is “There are places I remember all my life.”

Many of you will recognize it as a Beatles song. In it, John Lennon reminisces about the neighbourhood of his youth, how some things have changed, how some things are the same, that some of the people he once knew there are now gone, and that some remain.

The song includes a baroque style piano solo, and it seems at times to hover almost between a major and a minor key, between fondness and sadness, as reminiscing tends to do. It was not one of the Beatles big hits, but it is one of their most subtle and most beautiful songs, and it is one of their first truly great artistic achievements. 

The song was written mid-1965, and that, of course, is the Leaside I remember. The great cultural changes of that period were only happening around the edges. All the parents still listened to very stodgy old CFRB. And the teenagers were tuning into CHUM.

And at Northlea Elementary School, we had completely segregated schoolyards, boys and girls, and you’re never supposed to go between them. A few of the older boys were starting to wear their hair a little bit over the ears, and a few of the older girls were wearing tighter clothes and shorter skirts, and most shocking of all for the Parent Teacher Association, there were stories about some of them actually kissing.

You might expect that some of my early memories of that time were political. The truth of the matter is not so much. But I can think of a couple of early political memories.

PM Harper, Lorna Krawchuk and John Parker
Prime Minister Harper, Leaside Life publisher Lorna Krawchuk and Councillor John Parker (in his old clothes).

In fact, my first real vivid political memory in Leaside around about that time is the debate over whether Canada should have a new flag. Those of you who were alive then will remember that emotions ran very high. Neighbours, many neighbours stopped speaking to one another, so intense were the differences.

As a five-year-old boy, I decided to plough right into this, insisting on asking everyone in the street what their position was on the flag, and why. I was just curious. I remember that about half the people wanted the old flag, but they actually fell into two camps.

For most of them, the old flag was the Canadian Red Ensign, but for a smaller and very passionate group, it meant the Union Jack. For the other half of the people on our street, which, by the way, included my parents, they wanted the new flag, but there was also a bit of division there, because some of you may remember, there were two principal designs for the new flag.

The Harpers liked the one with the blue borders and three maple leaves, and of course, our present flag that I wear today with the red borders and the one maple leaf also had many advocates.

I remember very well going outside Mrs. Fortier’s kindergarten class one day and watching the new flag go up the pole at the school, and very quickly, peace returned to the neighbourhood.

But if Leasiders were divided on that issue, there was one on which we were all united. In fact, it defined us. And that was that Leaside should be an independent municipality.

I have long told people who asked me – because I do get asked this question in different parts of the country – “So where exactly do you come from?” And I say to them that I grew up in a small town in Toronto.

Leasiders then – and I think, to this day – know what I mean. But back then, in the 1960s, we meant it literally. It also meant growing up here back then that you fully understood, as I have been taught, that one of the great wrongs of human history was the loss of Leaside’s status as a separate incorporated municipality in the amalgamation of 1967.

I’ve heard some people tell the story, tell a story that somehow when I was a boy, I met John Diefenbaker, and that’s what set me on my current path, my political journey. Actually, I never met John Diefenbaker. I never met him then; I never met him later.

I did, however, as a boy, one day, when I was out going around the town with my father, I did meet Mayor True Davidson.

Does anybody remember True Davidson? She was quite a character, and I remember, I was a very young boy. She spoke to me very nicely, and I remember my father thought that she was OK, she was all right. However, she was never going to be, to us or to anyone who knew her, or to anyone who I knew in this area, our mayor.

She was the mayor of East York. How could anyone think that Leaside could be properly or fairly ruled by someone from as far away as East York? You know? This is how I grew up!

As a boy, I knew I could walk down to Sunnybrook Plaza, I could buy some snacks, help get groceries for my mother.

I could go another way. I could walk to my doctor’s office, maybe all the way to Sunnybrook Hospital to have Dr. Ross give me my allergy shots.

I could go another way to the wilds of Serena Gundy Park. I could walk to Howard Talbot or Trace Manes to play sports.

Beyond that, we could walk down to the arena, to the railway station, which we regularly did, my dad, my brothers and I, where we would watch the trains come in from out of town.

I could walk beyond those places to other parks. We could walk to the businesses along Eglinton and Bayview, and we could come here to Leaside’s industrial area, where back then many of my friends’ parents actually worked.

But I was told I could walk for days and days and still, I would never reach as far away as East York.

I know it all seems, now, a bit small and a bit surreal, but it went to a truth about Leaside. In Leaside, you were and I was part of a community in the most intimate and the very best sense of the term.

My mother, Margaret Harper, who, by the way, is living in Calgary now, is in great health… wants to say hello to anyone from her Leaside days. My mother, when we recently talked about this over breakfast in Calgary as I was preparing this speech, (talked about) what she remembers about Leaside.

What a community it truly was. And she told me a bunch of stories as an example. She remembers that once she scalded herself in the kitchen severely with hot water. With my father at work, and there were three small children running around, apparently making noise, and she was in some significant discomfort, she phoned the Leaside Pharmacy for advice. The pharmacist not only answered the phone personally, he insisted on driving up to the house himself to deliver the treatment.

That’s my mother’s Leaside, and that’s the Leaside I remember, too.

When I was a boy here, you felt safe, you knew people were looking out for you. You felt you could knock, and did in fact knock on any door at any time if you were in trouble or you needed something.

Of course, if you were doing something bad, you could be pretty certain your parents were going to find out about it. People were personally responsible and civically minded.

I can’t comment so much on what Leaside is like today. I know everything in our society is so different than it was five decades ago. But from what I hear from those I know who still live in or around here, it still is a pretty special place.

And I have to tell you, it has
aged pretty well. Leaside was never
a poor area, but its strength, its services and its location have brought changes and prices that have made it an affluent neighbourhood in a way unimaginable in 1971 when my parents sold the house I grew up in for $39,500. Probably not the wisest financial transaction they ever made.

Still, Leaside remains very, very recognizable.

A few years back, this was a time when I was out of politics and I was here on business. I got off the bus one day, just got off the bus at the corner of Bayview and Eglinton, and I decided to walk around, to go through all the places I frequented for the first 12 years of my life.

And I have to tell you, things were remarkably familiar, maybe a bit smaller, a bit closer together, of course, than they seemed when I was a small child, but most of it that I was seeing for the first time in a quarter of a century, was strangely, almost hauntingly, identical.

And it made me realize how hardwired Leaside really is in my consciousness: every street, every yard, every alley, every crack in the pavement, I can close my eyes and I can see these places as they were, and as, in fact, in many cases, they largely still are.

Except that many of the people I see are now gone. My father, my grandparents who would visit, aunts and uncles, family friends, our older neighbours.

As the song says, in my life, I loved them all. But all their love, and so much love, that I still carry with me.

That day I walked through Leaside a few years back, that’s what it brought back. In fact, I tell people I went to my old house at 324 Bessborough Dr., and I even saw a boy in front of that house.

He was about six years old. And as he turned and looked at me, I could have sworn it was me. And then when I looked again, he was gone. That was a lifetime ago.

In my life, it was several lifetimes ago.

That lifetime in Leaside I can never go back to, but I never can entirely leave it either, which is why I thought that on this, the centennial of this very special community, I should come here and convey these memories to you in person, and to thank you for the opportunity to do so, and to wish you another century of creating good memories for many more.

Thank you, merci.