The eternal flame in the Nathan Phillips Square Peace Garden. Michael Swan

City Hall’s eternal flame not so eternal

  • August 11, 2020

COVID-19 has put a damper on a lot of things the last few months. Add to that list eternity.

It turns out the eternal flame in the Nathan Phillips Square Peace Garden next to Toronto’s City Hall isn’t eternal at all. St. Pope John Paul II may have lit the flame for eternity back in 1984, but city staff regularly turn it off for construction, repairs or — in the COVID era — safety concerns.

In the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, precisely the event the peace garden was designed to commemorate, this reporter noticed the flame was off and a temporary fence surrounded the reflecting pool. 

Both the water and the flame are meant to connect Toronto to the two Japanese cities where Manhattan Project partners the United States, United Kingdom and Canada saw their terrible experiment to its finish. A vial of water from the fountain at the centre of the Nagasaki Peace Park was the starter for the reflecting pool at Toronto’s Peace Garden. Embers from the eternal flame in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park were entrusted to atom-bomb survivor and Toronto resident Setsuko Thurlow, who transported them from her hometown of Hiroshima in time for the opening of the Toronto Peace Garden.

An inquiry with city staff turned up an explanation that the flame had been turned off and the pool fenced off because of an encampment of homeless people and protesters in and around Nathan Phillips Square. The protesters were removed July 10.

A couple of follow up questions about Toronto’s commitment to Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted not an explanation of the covenant between cities but a terse, partial about face.

“I’ve been advised that the flame will be turned on for tomorrow (Aug. 6, anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing), however the pool will remain closed for maintenance,” said an email from City of Toronto media relations.

Having the flame turned on turned out to be good news for the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Day Coalition, which annually organizes a commemoration of the bombings at the Peace Garden on Aug. 6. This year, they were staging an online event from the Peace Garden, but had been denied a permit to film on the site.

Without the flame, coalition members were faced with an event minus its central symbol.

“It’s sad that the flame is turned off on this occasion,” coalition member Barbara Birkett told The Catholic Register in an email just before the city changed its mind.

Birkett was anxious not to blame city staff for killing the eternal flame, choosing to emphasize Mayor John Tory’s official proclamation of Hiroshima Day and the city’s participation in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons’ “cities campaign.”

“I guess I can understand the concern about safety from the flame,” Birkett wrote. “Hopefully, proper housing solutions will correct that problem.”

In the end, an Aug. 6 webcast event featuring the Indigenous drum crew Ogichidaa Kwe and drummers Kamisha Alexson, Folashade Meedewin Kortee and Cricket Guest was highlighted by the eternal flame. On Aug. 7 the flame was turned off again.

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