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The mystery of our enduring indifference to Fort York

David O'Hara, Museum Administrator, Fort York National Historic Site, left, and Sandra Shaul, head of the city's War of 1812 commemoration committee

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

It's a flash of green off the Gardiner Expressway, a hazy memory of a field trip most Torontonians took in elementary school.

Dump trucks rattle past on highway ramps overhead and joggers zip through it on their way to somewhere else. Many local dog owners don't even know the 43-acre expanse is there – one man who does revels in how "dead" the place is for his game of fetch.

A living reminder of Canadian history in the heart of Toronto, Fort York goes largely unnoticed, save for the moments when it is imperilled.

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"I think a lot of Torontonians don't even know it exists. If they missed that school trip in Grade 7, they didn't know about it," says Sandra Shaul, who is co-ordinating bicentennial festivities for the War of 1812 next summer, when Fort York will finally be fêted.

The latest attack on the fort isn't so much a threat as a step back: After spending three years and $1.3-million on planning, the city is halting work on a $22-million pedestrian bridge that would have linked the historic site to the communities that are sprouting up around it.

When the double-helix design ran $4.4-million over budget, the city's public works and infrastructure committee sent it back to the drawing board. Now, proponents are scrambling to trim the frill, get city council's approval on a new, tighter budget, and have the bridge erected ahead of celebrations next summer.

Critics say the resistance to the bridge and several earlier close calls for Fort York speak to a maddening apathy on the part of the city toward its heritage sites.

"We're always forgetting about preserving what has been important to us," says John Scott, a history teacher from Cornerstone Montessori Prep School who brought his Grade 7s and 8s to the fort last week.

"[Fort York]is the reason we are not Americans," Mr. Scott said as his charges played on the grassy ramparts.

The threats have been plentiful since Americans torched the fort in 1813. The British rebuilt the following year, a move that drew borders and was key to the development of a Canadian identity during the War of 1812 (which ended in 1814). But in 1905, the national historic site was threatened by a proposed streetcar line that would have sliced through its middle on the way to that other local attraction, the Canadian National Exhibition.

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A greater menace surfaced in 1959, when municipal backers of the Gardiner Expressway pushed to build a raised highway above the property, skewering the fort's historic ramparts with support beams. They later agitated to have the entire site relocated south of the Lake Shore Boulevard.

"It has been attacked more often by its own body politic than by the enemy," laments Stephen Otto, director of the Friends of Fort York, founded in 1994 to ward off more attacks.

In each case, citizens resisted the city's whims and won. So the fort still stands, welcoming grade school children who invariably climb atop its cannon, as well as history-bent tourists taking tours throughout the summer.

But while the site attracts students and history buffs in droves, to the average Torontonian, the slice of green is viewed ambivalently at best.

"I don't think it's the site. I think it's Toronto generally, which really doesn't have too much regard for its past. We treat it very casually," says archeologist Andrew Stewart, who chairs the Fort York Foundation.

Mr. Stewart is at the helm of an archeological dig beyond Fort York's gate to excavate musket balls and other relics from the vast battlefield before a modern visitor's centre is built on the site ahead of the bicentennial.

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"People are just too busy getting on with their lives. They're not reflecting or taking advantage of historical assets, which are a springboard for stories that can raise this city's profile internationally."

Organizers hope the bicentennial will properly introduce Torontonians to their city's birthplace.

"I wouldn't call Toronto a city that savours a military history," says Ms. Shaul. "It's one of my challenges with the bicentennial: How to engage people with an urban agenda. I'm dealing with a city of 2.6 million people, a city where 50 per cent were not born in Canada and are not of British or European origin and don't have long, long roots here."

Getting Torontonians to grasp the significance of Fort York is fraught with hurdles, the most obvious of them a formidable geographic blockade that includes railway tracks to the north, the Gardiner to the south, lake fill further south, as well as the decrepit former Molson's factory to the southeast.

"We've been very hard to find over the years," says David O'Hara, museum administrator at the fort.

Beyond geography, there are cultural factors: While Americans make pilgrimages to their historic sites, Mr. O'Hara believes "Torontonians are confused by what this place is." Never mind that Torontonians are generally wary of war – to say nothing of one that wasn't necessarily fought in their homeland by their ancestors.

"I had my epiphany when I was standing in the central pathway and looking towards the city," says Ms. Shaul, who's dubbed herself "Little Miss 1812."

"I just went, 'Oh my god – no fort, no city.' From that point onward, anyone who attacks my fort is attacking me."

Today, she envisions Fort York and tree-lined Garrison Common to the west as a meeting place for some 20,000 new condo and townhouse residents who will settle around the site in coming years.

"It's going to be the centre of something again. My dream for Fort York is that people in the neighbourhood start to cherish it the way people cherish Riverdale Farm."

Aside from connecting locals to the site, the pedestrian bridge was intended as a showpiece for next summer's bicentennial.

"The point was to make this a more open and inviting space so that when the eyes of North America are upon it – and trust me, there are many in the U.S. who are planning on coming up for the celebration – it's not just one of things that you pass by," says councillor Mike Layton, a key proponent of the bridge whose ward encompasses Fort York.

If city council does not approve the construction bid this week – a bid that Mr. Layton has now sweetened with several cost-saving ideas – the project may be dead in the water. Metrolinx, which operates the tracks beneath the would-be bridge, had granted the city a brief window for construction. New bridge plans would mean fresh negotiations with Metrolinx, a move that would delay the bridge's completion years past the bicentennial.

While heritage preservationists like Mr. Otto recognize council must be responsible with the public purse, he reminds them that they're "city building."

"You don't sell the fort simply as a quaint and curious place for Grade 7s to visit. On that basis, it would be very expensive. You sell it as the heart of the city."

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