Tom Longboat and Frank Brady, 1928 (Image Source: City of Toronto Archives)
How a popular Toronto venue holds a special place in First Nations and Canadian history.
N estled on the corner of Queen Street West and Dovercourt, The Great Hall remains a historical treasure trove among a flurry of new housing and commercial developments. Today, this popular venue hosts concerts, talks, parties, and of course, us, who will be launching our annual Intersections festival.
Longboat Hall, one of two concert spaces within the Great Hall facility, was once a YMCA gymnasium surrounded by an elevated track. You can still walk on it today. Its namesake, Tom Longboat (or Cogwagee), once ran laps around this track while training as a professional distance runner, and in doing so, rose above the competition to become an Olympian, war hero, Canadian icon and one of the most famous First Nations’ athletes in recorded history.
A. Meadows, Abbie E. Wood, Bill Queal, and Tom Longboat pose at Ebbets Field in Brookyln, NY (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A member of the Onondaga people, Longboat grew up in the Six Nations Grand River Reserve, and much to his dismay, attended the local Mohawk Institute Residential School. The Canadian Indian residential school system, which Stephen Harper formally apologized for in 2011, sought to assimilate First Nations youth by promoting a eurocentric, Judeo-Christian model of the ideal Canadian.
Longboat escaped the school and moved in with his uncle, who hid him from authorities. He eventually met Bill Davis, a Six Nations Mohawk who also competed as a distance runner. Though lacking formal training, Longboat immediately won races in Hamilton and Caledonia. In 1907, with the assistance of Davis and the West End YMCA, he entered the Boston Marathon. Not only did Longboat defeat his competition by half a mile, he shattered the race record by five minutes, too. In only his third competitive race, Longboat became one of the most famous athletes in the world.
A year later, Longboat represented Canada in the marathon at the 1908 Olympics in London. Though heavily favoured before the race, he struggled and ultimately collapsed in the final quarter. Despite the failure, the race turned distance racing into an international sensation, and in a highly-publicized 1909 competition, Longboat became a distance running world champion.
The outbreak of World War I marked a turning point in his life. Longboat enlisted in the 180th Sportsmen Battalion, a military unit rostered by dozens of current and former athletes. Longboat served, quite fittingly, as a dispatch runner, often communicating between units to establish trenches and relay marching orders. He also served as an important figure in Canadian propaganda operations, competing against French and British soldiers in occasional track meets. Still, after merging with the 107th Battalion, Longboat served at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, two of the most important battles in modern Canadian history.
Longboat survived World War I without any major injuries, but on multiple occasions, he became a victim of a rather modern weapon: fake news. For one, erroneous reports of his death prompted his wife to remarry before his return in 1918 (though he remarried as well). Secondly, a man from Rhode Island called Edgar LaPlante began touring the United States pretending to be Longboat, duping crowds and newspapers in the process. Following the war, Longboat threatened legal action against the grifter, who spent the 1920s pretending to be a Native American chief in Europe.
Tom Longboat (right) buys newspaper from French child while stationed on the Western Front in France during the First World War. (Image Source: thecanadianencyclopedia.net). Tom Longboat with two of his many trophies (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
While he continued to promote distance running, Longboat maintained a lower profile following the war and worked for the City of Toronto while raising four children with his wife. He is now a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.
As a world-famous distance runner, one cannot avoid likening him to Pheidippides, the mythical courier who ran to Sparta to seek reinforcements for the Athenians during the battle of Marathon. As someone who defied the forces of expectation, convention and assimilation, though, perhaps Longboat has no historical equivalent.
The Great Hall, 1908-1912, where Tom Longboat trained for his distance running. (Image Source: City of Toronto Archives)