recollection [n]: the act or power of calling to mind
Submitted by Don Cullen
In the late 1990’s, a vibrant American import name, Terri Hope, became coordinator of the Humanist Association of Toronto (HAT). Membership was growing and George Baker became a life member. George was a non-academic intellectual. Because of the Great Depression, he had left school in grade seven. Tests for air crew in the Royal Canadian Air Force proved George to be above average intelligence. It got him interested in great idea. He read, attended lectures.
At that time, HAT had no home base. There was a phone number and an answering machine, a fax number and a website. Many HAT members wanted a store-front, a gathering place….a home. Proposals were made. George Baker was more than interested. Hard work and good luck had brought serious financial rewards and he wished to do something for Humanism.
I had presided over four incarnations of the Bohemian Embassy coffee house where Margaret Atwood, Ian & Sylvia Tyson, Al Purdy, Gordie Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Bill Coshy and many more performed. I arranged a meeting with George. He and I had already become acquainted with the Centre For Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Paul Kurtz, the founder, Tom Flynn and Joe Nidde had spoken at HAT events. I had attended talks in Amherst and CFI presented a 2-day conference at the Ramada Inn on Jarvis Street. They indicated a desire for a Toronto location and sought cooperation from HAT. Nothing resulted. Some say it was apathy among HAT members, fear of American domination or was it that CFI Los Angeles had drained the exchequer!
HAT members Ron Burns and Jim Cranwell joined George and me. Using the CFI model, we envisioned an umbrella organization with HAT, HAC and the Toronto Skeptics sharing the same roof. We needed a location. Feeling a need for more youthful participation, we wanted to be close to the University of Toronto and consulted Neil Wright Real Estate. he found us a location on Harbord Street. It needed a lot of work. George hired an architect. Plans were drawn up. A strike at City Hall delayed approval month after month. George, in his 80s, couldn’t stand the delays. He sold Harbord Street and got out.
Robert Buckman, an internationally famous oncologist had come to Toronto. He had a lot of TV exposure in Great Britain, had partnered with Monty Python’s John Cleese in several projects. He did several programs on TV Ontario. He had a high profile and he replaced Henry Morgantaler as President of HAC. HAT and HAC presented some events under Rob’s direction. Membership at HAT soared well over 200.
Quite separately, things were happening at U of T. It was decided to create a multi-faith Centre. Two students objected. Independently, Jenny Fiddes and Justin Trottier felt that a university should be secular, supporting no religion. Religion might support colleges but not the university. Where did atheists fit !?
George Baker and I heard about it and gave them a couple of hundred bucks for stamps and envelopes. I was on the HAT Board of Directors and proposed for Jenny and Justin to make presentations on the U of T campus. They were successful with considerable interest in Humanism and Atheism. George and I arranged a lunch at Bumpkins Restaurant with Justin, Jenny and Rob Buckman. Rob imagined a Humanist Drop-in Centre near the university. A meeting with Henry Morgantaler, Rob, Ron Burns, Jim Cranwell and me occurred and we decided we would do it. I contacted Mr. Wright and he found 216 Beverly Street.
The umbrella organization idea began to unfold. The skeptics were skeptical and decided not to participate. The Humanist Association of Canada wanted their headquarters to stay in Ottawa. A vote of HAT members was 100% for moving in and the organization was set up. The student team at U of T was enthusiastic.
Our landlord was the Showmen’s League – a fraternal group of carnival workers. Rob Buckmn and George were to sign the lease. The Showmen didn’t know Baker – but Buckman was approved. At signing, Buckman had pneumonia and didn’t sign – only George. The Showman didn’t pursue Buckman so George felt a great sense of responsibility. He was concerned bout insurance, fire regulations and City by-laws.
Justin and Jenny, having sensed a lackluster HAT board, directed their energies to volunteers and events at 216 Beverly Street. Without approval, they arranged the interior. I couldn’t do anything. It had been pre-arranged for me to be in Vancouver to write a book commissions by Wolsak and Wynn Publishers. I felt very guilty about abandoning George. When I returned, Justin seemed to be in charge and in many ways he did an excellent job.
HAT had great success too. The Sunday discussions got so large that a Saturday equivalent was started to take off the pressure. George now well into his eighties was beginning to concern himself about the future of this venue after he was gone. I started to pressure the HAT Board about a fundraising campaign. Apathy seemed to be the order of the day. At one meeting I was attacked by a board member for bringing up the subject of fundraising yet again. He shouted that the HAT Board had no written agreement with George Baker for anything. I waited and got no support from any of the other members. I waited a month until the next meeting, told the man what I thought and resigned.
George gave HAT notice to leave and an appeal was made to Paul Kurtz and CFI in Amherst. He had indicated a Toronto branch years before, so why not now with George’s financial backing?
Justin Trottier was recruited and with his careful promotion, CFI branch organizations soon sprang up across Canada. Speaker events continued and he became one of the most articulate voice for Humanism after Rob Buckman died. George Baker’s health was deteriorating, the lease at Beverly Street was coming to an end and the Showmen’s League decided to sell the building. All of that plus jurisdictional problems led to CFI moving to rented space at 2 College Street – conveniently located but cramped and with limited access.