New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – “WHO WAS ILA BLANCHARD?”

Exactly one hundred years ago, a young woman entered Form 4 at Parkdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto. Her name was Ila Blanchard and I know nothing about her. In fact, that last statement is not precisely accurate; I am now looking at Ila’s “Ontario Standard Notebook” issued to the Province’s high school students in 1918, with a price tag of 17 cents.

I have forgotten where I found this fascinating piece of history. It was likely salvaged from some box of books I successfully bid on during a household auction sale back in the 1960s, somewhere west of Toronto. It had remained unnoticed, languishing for decades, ignored on my bookshelf until two years ago when I again came across it. Since then, I have patiently waited until this 100th anniversary of Ila’s writing to share her workbook with readers. I cling to an unlikely hope of finding out who she was.

I do know much more about the city and era in which she lived. By 1919, Toronto had a population of 547,371 according to that year’s City Directory. Its demographic was primarily British as evidenced by the Directory’s listing of church memberships. The Anglicans (Church of England) were numbered as 145,343, followed by the Presbyterians (Scottish heritage), Methodists and then Roman Catholics in that order.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, that horrendous Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19 claimed the lives of between 30,000 -50,000 Canadians, striking its victims primarily from the young and healthy. Was young Ila fearful for her own health?

Tommy Church was Toronto’s mayor, after winning his fifth consecutive election. The City’s hockey team, Toronto Pats, was not as successful; their season ended with 12 wins against 12 defeats and a third place finish (Leafs official Site.) Incidentally, I was intrigued by a statistic that the average weight of the team’s thirteen players was 175 pounds and their average height 5’9—quite a petite group compared to current NHLers.

On November 11th of that year, King George, the Fifth, would order a two minute silence across the Empire, the first service of remembrance to honour the fallen dead of the Great War. Did Ila’s father or brother perhaps serve as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force far away in those muddy fields of France?

Ila lived at 209 Simcoe Street, near the corner of Queen and University, just west of present day Nathan Phillips Square. The Directory lists a Mrs. Elizabeth Burns at that address, but no mention of a Blanchard family. Was Ila boarding with Mrs. Burns or were the Blanchards renting part of her home? Could some reader with access to the Canadian Census covering that year find out more about 209 Simcoe Street?

A hundred years ago, her neighbours included Dr. Beatty, MD, next door and then a mix of family units and social agencies like the Children’s Aid Society at 229 and the Jewish Orphan’s Home, across the road at 218 Simcoe. The Toronto Veterinarian’s College shared the block with the Men of England Synagogue. Further down Simcoe Street was the Toronto Musicians Club. Today, all this community has been long displaced by upscale hotels and restaurants.

What was Ila studying in her Form 4 year (grade twelve equivalent)? On opening the notebook, one is first of all staggered by the beauty of her penmanship. I can picture her daintily dipping that fountain pen into an inkwell situated at the upper right hand corner of her oak desk. (I used the same motion in elementary school, but with far less finesse; my left-handed scribble was more to be cursed than cursive.) But Ila was far more than a pretty pen.

Not surprisingly, this young woman dutifully filled page after page with precise notes about British and Canadian history. In the English literature section, her attempts to compose an imaginative short story was marked rather severely by her teacher, (67%) although I thought these creative efforts deserved better. Most strikingly, Ila’s diagrams in physics class are works of art; all hand-drawn, accurate illustrations of magnetic forces and electric motors. If Ila could have been born in a more progressive later time, I could envision her entering into a university engineering program.

Then what did happen to this young woman after Form 4? Did she marry and raise a large family as was the presumed custom of that era? Did she go on to prepare for a career in the professions most receptive to women: teaching, secretarial work or nursing? What happened to her family during the Great Depression? Did a child go off to war in 1939?

As mentioned earlier, I hold on to a vain hope that I might toss this column into cyberspace and some later generation of the Blanchard family will read it. What a wonderful gift it would be for a great grandchild to cherish. This year, “Isla” is the most popular name for girls in Britain. Is a much younger granddaughter “Ila” out there somewhere? In the interim, I promise Ila to give her manuscript a more prominent place on my bookshelf.