What Counts as History in Toronto? Digitally Exploring Toronto’s Heritage Plaques

The locations of Toronto’s heritage plaques

By Ian Milligan

When professional historians think of heritage plaques, some have knee-jerk reactions (“dead white man history!”) while others may see it as an engaging way to bring people into contact with the past in places they might otherwise not. On a leisurely stroll through the city, I enjoy checking out the few plaques that I pass: learning about the history of a building, somebody famous who lived there, or even just being reminded of a historical event such as a rebellion, skirmish, or maybe even a tavern. I thus had a few general thoughts about them: mostly 19th century, perhaps, concentrated in older parts of cities, and maybe yes, disproportionately about political, economic, and military leaders. But since the plural of anecdote isn’t data, I figured I’d try to find out some systematic things about plaques in the City of Toronto.

Luckily, they’re all digitized online. From these text files, we can learn a few things: where they’re located (and make an interactive map!), what they’re about (through topics), and what time periods they cover. From this, a few conclusions can come: that yes, there’s some truth to the fact that they do deal with topics of political, economic, and well, elite importance. They do skew towards the 19th century, although a surprising number of plaques discuss the late 20th century. Why? Read on! Read more