I was strolling by the south-west corner of Nathan Phillips Square a couple of weeks ago when I noticed something was conspicuously missing:
I recalled that on this very spot used to stand a podium dedicated to free speech. But was it just some weird mixed-up memory that was bubbling up to the surface?
I searched the web and discovered that I had, in fact, been correct. The podium was called Speakers’ Corner:
Yeah, that’s the one! It was a podium guarded over by the ghost of Winston Churchill, dedicated to free speech and public expression.
Except that now, it’s gone. All that’s left is a slab of concrete where it used to stand. And to be honest, I don’t remember the last time I’d seen it there anyways.
I visited City Hall and asked the information desk about its whereabouts.
At first they had no clue what I was talking about — a podium? Speakers’ Corner? Oh, wasn’t that at the old Citytv building further west on Queen Street?
Nope, I replied. It was in front of the old statue of Churchill.
Ask security, said the woman behind the desk. Maybe it’s been temporarily moved because of the construction.
Okay, I suppose (even though it wasn’t near the fence).
The guy at the security desk also had equally little idea of what I was talking about. He called the boss and was told that the podium can be found at the south-east end of the Square.
Umm, actually, I think it had been moved from there, I replied. And besides, it’s definitely not there. Not south-west either.
The security guy shrugged his shoulders and said he had no idea. But maybe I could call the City of Toronto information line?
Okay, I’ll do that.
3-1-1 … hello?
The guy on the other end responded courteously.
“Hi. Just a quick question for you…I’m looking to find out what happened to Speakers’ Corner. It was a dais at the south-west corner of Nathan Phillips Square where people could go to speak their mind.”
“Oh, well if you want information about Citytv…”
“No, no, not that Speakers’ Corner. I’m talking about the lectern that used to sit in front of the Winston Churchill statue at the south end of the square. It had a plaque on it that read that it was provided by the city for the people of Toronto. Dedicated to free speech.”
“Hmm, I’ve never heard of it. You should try to contact the City Hall staff…”
“Oh, I already did. I spoke to the receptionist as well as to security. Neither of them had even heard of it.”
“Well, I suppose Marguerite Reid might know something about it. She’s the special events coordinator at City Hall.”
Special events? Didn’t seem like a special event. Still, I let the 311 guy connect me to her extension which landed me in her voice mail. It told me that she’ll be on vacation until the 13th of August, at which point I have no doubt that she’ll try to refer me to Citytv to discover what happened to their vaunted corner.
Essentially, the tiny section of City Hall set aside for citizens to voice their opinions and express their free speech disappeared, and no one noticed. In fact, few people even remember it.
Okay, yeah, it might not have gotten much use over the years that it had been there, but then again no one “uses” the statue of Churchill just behind where it stood either. Yet the statue remains while the podium, a symbol of citizen freedoms, was quietly removed. And yeah, it’s fair to say that it was mostly symbolic. In the same way, the Canadian flag is merely a symbol of the country, even if it doesn’t really do anything. It could just as easily be replaced with something like a twisted Swastika or a sickle and hammer. A few years down the road, would anyone even remember what Canada had been?