Our head honcho Stephen J. Harper was in The Netherlands a couple weeks ago to honour the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands during World War II. The Netherlands gave Canada tens of thousands of tulip bulbs out of gratitude, and the Dutch royal family has contributed thousands more yearly ever since. While war, or the threat of war, can really dismantle and deeply colour negative relationships between nations, Canada also established some powerfully positive ones because of their role in WWII. The Netherlands have a cousin to the north that is another one of those countries, with direct ties to the very heart of the City of Toronto.
So there’s this park down near Billy Bishop Airport called Little Norway Park. I first went there last year to play some softball, and thought the name was a little odd. My first thought was that…maybe if you look at it from a bird’s eye view it’s shaped like Norway? Or maybe, I don’t know, it’s named after a heroic Jack Russell named Norway? Perhaps foolishly, I never considered that it would be analogous to calling the community I live in “Little Italy,” or to have a “Chinatown” or “Greektown”. But, where those communities developed from having an influx of immigrants from those nations settle in those areas, Little Norway came about in a very different way.
In April of 1940 the German Army really went all-in with their offensives in Europe, which included invading and eventually taking over Norway that same Spring. As this was happening, the Norwegian army had hoped that they could set up some training for their pilots in France to continue military operations despite being occupied by the Germans, but…France soon proved to be a not-so-great location for a home base those still looking to fight against the Nazis. So, in August of 1940, about 100 young men were shipped over to Canada where they were safe to train as servicemen for the RNAF (Royal Norwegian Air Force).
Of course, they needed to be proximate to an airport for training purposes, so a small site located right outside Maple Leaf Stadium was set aside to temporarily house these visiting army trainees. They built a camp and training ground fit for 500 people, complete with barracks, a mess hall, offices, classrooms, a hospital, a gymnasium. The camp began to be known as “Camp Little Norway,” and it officially opened on November 11, 1940. In a speech at the opening ceremony, a Norwegian officer is quoted as saying: “We Norwegians who are present have no more our homes … our dear ones who we left behind us in Norway live under tyrants. But we stand here today resolved to play our part in liberating Norway, and who know that this will happen.” (The Globe).
These guys were often called “The Norse” or even “Vikings” in the paper, which I didn’t realize was a thing as recent as the 40s. Many of them had escaped Norway individually just after the German occupation. There’s one story about a man who, as he was sneaking down to the shore in order to escape on a fishing boat, was stopped and asked some questions by a Nazi soldier. Apparently the Norwegian dude spoke no German and the German guy spoke no Norwegian, so they had to have a conversation in mostly broken English. Somehow he was let past, and him and two British soldiers took a fishing boat into the North Sea, and were picked up a few hours later by a British ship. Some of them escaped Norway by rowing all the way across the North Sea from Norway to England.
Once Little Norway got settled at the foot of Bathurst street, they got all kinds of involved in Torontonian society. A couple dudes married ladies from Toronto, they participated in (and won) a whole bunch of ski jump and track meets. There were some sad stories too. They were involved in a few bar brawls. One man crashed a plane on his way to Hamilton, where his wife had just passed away. One of those men that married a woman from Toronto also died tragically died in a crash less than a year later. I mean, I have no idea how prevalent deaths were in training at this time, but…too prevalent, it seems.
The first of the newly trained airmen got shipped back over to the war in February of 1941. There was always mention of their exploits in the paper and there seemed to be some shared sense of war-time pride for their success in battle. As time passed, fewer Norwegians escaped Norway and more and more soldiers were tied up in different areas of Europe, and so the numbers at Camp Little Norway began to dwindle. The camp soon became too big to be practical for the number of airmen there, so in March of 1942 they moved their base up to a site near Gravenhurst in Muskoka. They stayed there for a few more years before all peacing to England near the end of the war in 1945. Over the 5 years they were there, over 2,100 Norse troops were trained in Ontario.
As for the Little Norway site at the Toronto waterfront, it lived on for another decade or so as emergency, subsidized housing. They had separated the barracks into smaller apartments that had shared bathrooms. Unfortunately for most of that decade the conditions were pretty terrible. There were lots of complaints of unexplained rent hikes, lack of privacy as well as plenty of rats and cockroaches. In November of 1956 most families that were living there were moved to the new housing project at Regent Park.
In 1976 a monument was unveiled to Camp Little Norway, which still stands in the park today. Crown Prince Harald himself came for the occasion. Harald’s parents, Prince Olaf and Princess Martha (I, personally, was pulling for the new British Royal Baby to be called Olaf, whether a boy or girl), had visited the site during WWII, when Harald was just a kid.
So what remains of Little Norway today? Well, at the Gravenhurst site there was a short-lived “Little Norway Hotel” on the site of the camp, and in 2007 they built a memorial at the Muskoka airport. In Toronto, the area of the park has changed a lot since the 50s, of course. The land was transferred from the federal government to the City of Toronto in 1987, and while none of the camp buildings remain, the area has a few blocks of houses as well as a small city park, with a couple nice little walkways, gardens, a playground, and a baseball diamond. And of course a parking lot if you need to get on the ferry across to the airport. But don’t get your hopes up, you have to fly out of that airport as a passenger.