Why the Canadian Air and Space Museum Should be Saved

Building another hockey rink or preserving a unique aviation heritage site – which matters more to the Harper Government? In the federal government’s Downsview Park, the answer appears to be the additional hockey rink. Last September 20, Downsview Park gave a notice of eviction in six months to the Canadian Air and Space Museum. The historic 1929 de Havilland Aircraft of Canada building housing the museum is to be torn down to accommodate hockey rinks.

This decision flies in the face of the Harper Government’s ongoing initiative to build pride in our military heritage. While the government decided to restore the title “royal” to the navy and air force, it does not yet recognize that military heritage goes beyond titles to encompass the production of armaments. The Canadian Air and Space Museum is unique because it occupies the site of Canada’s most historically significant military (and civilian) aircraft production plant.

The public no longer remembers that during World War II Toronto was a veritable arsenal of democracy. Its major military production facilities included army materiel at the John Inglis factory near the Canadian National Exhibition, radar and optics at the top-secret Research Enterprises Ltd. facility in Leaside, and aircraft manufacturing in Downsview and Malton. Military production during World War II led to a major transformation of the Canadian economy to emphasize manufacturing. Unfortunately, there is no trace of the history of military production near the CNE or in Leaside, so the Downsview location alone remains – but, it appears, not for long.

The museum’s exhibits include the only full-size replica of the Avro Arrow (all the originals were destroyed by order of the Diefenbaker Government), a Silver Star jet trainer, a de Havilland Tiger Moth trainer, and a Lancaster bomber. The Lancaster was mounted on an outdoor plinth for several decades, and an army of volunteers is now painstakingly restoring its rusted body.

The Toronto museum’s collection is not as extensive as that of the federal government’s Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, but it has a focus on production that the federal facility lacks. It is unfortunate that the Toronto museum’s title – Canadian Air and Space Museum – is confusingly close to the federal museum’s title. The Toronto museum could also emphasize the history of production, so as to differentiate its mission and perspective from that of the federal museum. Finally, the Toronto museum did not take advantage of the Economic Action Plan for additional funding. It should have an application ready in the event there is an EAP II.

In addition to its collections, the museum is the focal point of a community of aviation enthusiasts. This community includes the volunteers who staff the museum itself, the technically adept volunteers who are restoring the Lancaster bomber, two Russian pilots who run two modern flight simulators at the museum, and an 89-year old World War II Lancaster pilot who is at the museum most weekends selling copies of his memoirs.

The museum also has a strong focus on children’s activities, and is the site of many birthday parties at which the Russian pilots provide hands-on tutorials on the simulator as well as an introductory aviation course during March break and Air Cadets training. (Personal disclosure: one of our kids had a birthday party at the museum and took the aviation course, and greatly enjoyed both.) If the museum closes its doors, this community of interest will lose its focal point and likely disappear. Our city will have lost an aspect of the cultural – in the broadest sense – diversity that makes it such an exciting place.

Finally, this eviction is entirely unnecessary. Downsview Park has a great deal of unused land and hockey rinks could be built elsewhere without destroying the heritage building and the Air and Space Museum.

I urge my readers to visit the Museum’s website, www.casmuseum.org, sign its petition, and write their elected representatives. I hope we can educate them about the historical and cultural significance of the museum and reverse this short-sighted decision.

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