The history of the squirrel statues in Toronto
The debate over whether raccoons or squirrels are Toronto's true official mascot is fierce and polarizing, but all it takes is a look at the many ways we have paid homage to squirrels in this city to know the medium-sized rodents are this city's reigning wildlife treasure.
A closer look reveals that Toronto's squirrel statues have a history just as rich and mysterious as this city's passion for squirrels.
The legend of the white squirrels of Trinity Bellwoods is an epic of Homeric proportions. It begins with a handful of solo sightings of an albino squirrel, once believed to be the only one of its kind. The mythic squirrel quickly became a hot topic for residents, achieving local celebrity status.
On one fateful evening in August 2014, a white squirrel was spotted dangling by its teeth from a power line near Trinity Bellwoods Park, tiny paws stiffly outstretched.
A photo began circulating on social media leading many to believe that the legend of the white squirrel had ended in tragedy. We now know that there are more white squirrels in the city, but every time one is spotted (dead or alive) it’s a momentous event.
The special creature is a motif in Trinity Bellwoods' lore, so much so that the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Therapeutic Art Program commissioned a six-foot-tall sculpture of a white squirrel in the new TD Commons at Ossington and Queen.
When the monument's sculptor Brandon Vickerd moved to Toronto 15 years ago, he spent a lot of time in the Queen West neighbourhood, where everyone seemed to be talking about the white squirrel.
"The stories became a device of social connection, a way of engaging with a broader community beyond your own social circle," Vickerd said.
"The sculpture is a humorous ode to the legendary white squirrel of Queen West, but also a monument to the urban myths and stories that knit the neighbourhood together and define its identity."
His intent is that the sculpture provides a touchstone between all community members and facilitates social cohesion and conversation.
On each corner of a block of red granite, four squirrels stand on their hind legs, paws raised towards a massive acorn in a state of reverence and veneration.
But the bronze squirrels have not always been left alone to worship their giant nut in peace. First, one of the squirrels went missing. The thief seemed to be testing the vandalism waters, because a few months later in June 2019, the other three squirrels were stolen.
Sally Han, manager of cultural partnerships with the city's economic development division told the Toronto Star that the city was aware of the damage and was able to locate the stolen squirrel.
A professional art conservator was contracted to lengthen the posts of all four squirrels to make their removal more difficult.
The statue of the four squirrels is one-third of a public art installation in Joel Weeks Park. The installation also includes a beaver sitting on its tail with a boulder underneath near the children's playground. Fish and an otter are carved into the side.
Close to the northern entrance on Matilda Street, a lone fox with a thick tail stands on top of a boulder decorated with carvings of flowers and a bunny. The three artworks were designed by Mary Anne Barkhouse, an Indigenous artist, jeweler and sculptor.
In the 1920s, city officials decided to transform two lots at the intersection of Avenue Road and St. Clair Avenue into what is now known as Glenn Gould Park.
Local residents urged the officials to turn a portion of the new park into a children's garden. The College Heights Association of Ratepayers listened to the residents and built a fourteen-foot bronze statue of Peter Pan standing on a tree stump and playing the flute.
For some, the beloved literary character might be the highlight of the sculpture. But look closer and you’ll see two fairies fawning over a bushy-tailed squirrel, in true Toronto fashion.
Although the sculpture is an exact replica of one first erected in Kensington Gardens in London, the squirrels etched into the statue make it look right at home in Glenn Gould Park.
The 91-year old sculpture was erected to encourage imaginative play and has inspired generations of locals over the years.
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