His creator made him ferocious. He was cast as strong and defiant, facing his foes. When made he was given no name because, in those bygone days, anyone approaching him knew exactly what he stood for. Even in our time he remains known as “the king of beasts,” the lion. So, from whenever he first turned up in the King’s Town, this cast-iron creature was an unambiguously muscular expression of imperial power, an evocative symbol of the British Empire. Most certainly that is why he was planted on the Clergy Street lawn of Captain John Gaskin. Not only a devout Orangeman, that is an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jesuit bigot, Gaskin was also a long-serving alderman, businessman and even elected as Kingston’s mayor. Following his death, in 1908, his lion was gifted to the city. Ever since it has guarded the same green space that Gaskin helped set aside to honour his fellow Kingstonian: it remains known as Macdonald Park.
Of course the passage of time wears away at statues and stories. Not surprisingly, the “Gaskin Lion” (as we took to calling him) was showing his age by 2010 – a punctured paw, rust around the edges, a back worn shiny by visitors’ bottoms. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement in Kingston we resurrected Gaskin’s beastie. What you can see on the trilingual Kingston Remembers plaques nearby are photographs of the “Gaskin Lion” taken between 1910 and 2010. And the statue’s story is provided not only in English, French, and Ukrainian but in braille for all three languages, the only plaques of their kind in this world.
The other day something remarkable happened there. I don’t know who organized it (and admit I wish I’d thought of this) but the lion was decorated with a garland of paper sunflowers – the national flower of Ukraine – and adorned with stones painted in the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine’s flag, positioned around the statue’s base. Two were marked with a Ukrainian tryzub (trident) the others with the phrases Слава Україні! (Glory to Ukraine!) and Українці леви (Ukrainians are lions.) Watching Ukraine’s dogged resistance to Russia’s genocidal agenda confirms that Ukrainians are lions indeed. The world knows it. And even Putin has been taught this fact, the hard way.
Since Russia launched its war against Ukrainians, many Kingstonians have rallied in support of the underdog. There have been several well-attended demonstrations in front of City Hall. Funds have been raised for students from Ukraine studying at St Lawrence College and Queen’s University. Recently, Mayor Bryan Paterson moved, and Council unanimously approved, a Ukrainian flag being unfurled over City Hall. It will fly “for the duration” – Kingston stands with Kyiv! Other citizens privately organized an airlift bringing children suffering from cancer to Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital. And plans are afoot to help Ukrainian refugees resettle in Kingston, just as my parents were offered asylum here, 73 years ago.
I still remember being plunked onto the “Gaskin Lion” to have my photograph taken by my father. I had no inkling that someday I would study the historical geography of Ukrainians in Kingston or write about those given a chance to rebuild their lives in Canada following the Second World War, much less that I would be helping another wave of Ukrainian victims of war, fleeing yet another murderous thug, at the end of my career. Some of these displaced persons will settle in our region. Eventually, I’ll invite them to the “Gaskin Lion” and have photographs taken there, confirming their ties to Kingston. I’m fairly certain at least one departed Orangeman would not be amused. But I don’t care. This is our lion now. And our city.
Those last lines may appear unforgiving, even harsh. But understand me – we aren’t calling for Gaskin’s portrait to be removed from City Hall, nor that he be erased from Kingston’s history. He was here, he believed what he did, and we know what he was – amen. Instead of censuring unpalatable bits of history, we’d rather contribute to Kingston’s evolving story, shaping our shared future instead of wallowing in, much less wailing on about, an unalterable past. Ukrainians have lived in Kingston for many decades. We have seen the kind of city it has become. We know Canada has (almost always) been good. And now we are witnessing our fellow citizens support Ukraine, a nation fighting hard to secure the very same freedoms Canadians already enjoy. So, as I listen to those distant Ukrainians, roaring as one and defying the hyaena in the Kremlin, I take comfort in knowing my hometown stands with the lions. Thank you! Дякую!