Toronto Star column – published November 8, 2014
“Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot him.” ~ Colonel Potter, M*A*S*H
This is Veterans week and it seems to me a good idea to hear a few good stories that illuminate the meaning of this special time of year. I have one such story. It is a gardening story and a war story but it is mostly a ‘character’ story that truly needs to be told. I hope that you agree.
Pioneer in Agincourt
Let me introduce you to Monty McDonald, a Torontonian who grew up in Agincourt in the north east corner of the city as we know it now, at a time when the landscape was dominated by fields of corn and livestock. In the early ‘50s his father was a high school shop teacher at Agincourt C.I. Monty begins this story, “We were out for a family drive and my Dad noticed the ‘Vimy Oaks Fruit and Vegetables’ sign on Kennedy Road, just north of Finch. We wheeled in and the owner, Leslie Miller, was on hand, a farmer in his sixties with a lot of common interests with my father.”
Leslie Miller had served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. The ridge was captured that day and [as many know] Canada became a nation with the victory. The French had tried on previous occasions to take Vimy but failed, with the inconceivable loss of over 150,000 men. The Canadians had 10,000 casualties that day. Monty explains Leslie’s experience during the day of battle, “Many soldiers realized that they had been part of something truly great. Leslie looked around for a souvenir on the ridge, which was completely devoid of structures or vegetation due to shell fire but he did find a half buried oak tree. He gathered up a handful of acorns nearby to bring home.”
Education Cut Short
When Mr. Miller came back to Canada he enrolled at the University of Toronto with a major in modern languages [he spoke fluent Spanish, German and French] but his formal education was cut short when he contracted scarlet fever. The cure at that time was plenty of bed rest and fresh air for five years. His father, taking pity on his son, gave him a twenty acre section of the family farm on Kennedy Road. With the help of his father and brother, Leslie built his own house and barn and transformed the property into a piece of ‘paradise’. He sectioned off parts of his farm into an orchard, beehives, market gardens, and hay and alfalfa fields. The lot included a section of mature hardwood bush and it was here that he planted his ‘Vimy Oaks’.
Vimy Oaks Alive Today
By some miracle the Oaks remain standing today, surrounded by urban development on the site of the Scarborough Chinese Baptist Church. I visited them the other day and they are so big that I can barely touch my fingers when I wrap my arms around them at chest height. They have nearly a two meter girth.
It is remarkable that these oaks still stand as a reminder of the Vimy experience for Canadians almost 100 years ago. It is equally remarkable that Mr. Miller brought these acorns home and grew them on the Toronto farm in the first place.
As Monty told me this story, it was dawning on me that Leslie Miller was indeed a renaissance man. When I gazed at a hand-rendered sketch of the farm and garden I noted that an area had been cordoned off as a ‘garden plot for new Canadians’. “What is this all about?” I asked
Toronto’s First Community Garden
“Well,” replied Monty, who spent 7 years working for Mr. Miller on his farm while in his teens, “during the early fifties many immigrants from Europe were moving into new subdivisions in the Agincourt area. Leslie had a long-term ambition to reach out to people from other nations. He would spot them while delivering vegetables in his neighbourhood and invite them to come to his farm.”
Many of the new immigrants to Toronto had very little money so Leslie offered the opportunity to grow food on his farm on a designated plot in return for helping with his fruit and vegetable crops.
It is quite possible that this was the first community garden in Toronto.
I contacted my friend Nick Saul, the president of Canadian Food Centres Canada to see if he knew of any community gardens that were older. He performed an informal survey of all of his peers in the community garden network and concluded that indeed the Vimy Oaks garden could well be the oldest one in the 416 area.
‘Remarkable’ would be one word to describe Leslie Miller. We have all heard the stories of WWI where German soldiers sang Christmas songs from their trenches which were returned in kind by the Allies from their opposing trenches. Evidently, Sergeant Miller interpreted the lyrics of the German songs for his English speaking brethren.
It is remarkable to think that one individual would sacrifice three and a half years of his life to fight in France for his country, return home to build one of the earliest forms of intensive farming, share his knowledge with a variety of kids from the neighbourhood, become a passionate birder, amateur arborist, bee keeper, orchardist, maple sugar maker, food retailer and classical music aficionado.
‘Generous’ would be another word that I use to describe him. He was a natural teacher who took time from his obviously busy schedule to explain how things worked to many young people.
He had no children of his own.
Monty MacDonald has very fond memories of Leslie Miller. After Monty lost his own father when he was 16, Mr. Miller became his ‘de facto’ dad and you could say that the rest is history. But not so fast. If Monty has his way, history will still be in the making come April 9, 2017, when the anniversary of the Vimy battle occurs on the ridge itself.
He plans to be there on that day, with 100 young English Oak trees in hand. His plan is to plant them where Canadian soldiers trod exactly 100 years to the day.
In the meantime, he is attempting to protect the existing Vimy Oaks in Agincourt by obtaining an official heritage designation for the bunch of them. Who would argue that that is a bad idea?
A Wealthy Man
It is interesting, I think, how we measure wealth in our society. For the most part the word is associated with money and all of the ‘good things’ that one can acquire with it. Seldom do most of us take the time to contemplate the real meaning of the word. Leslie Miller was one wealthy guy. He had the good fortune to have escaped serious harm while at war in Europe. Plus, he had friends, good health, a farm and the power to influence a generation of kids who did not have to go to war in order to preserve peace or their freedom. That he died penniless at the age of 90 is an entirely different matter.