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Photo of Robyn Yates Cameron.
Robyn Yates Cameron. Photo by Morgan Rose

Sleuthing Toronto’s Odd History

How a history degree led Cameron to a job designing scavenger hunts in downtown Toronto

A walk around Toronto with Robyn Yates Cameron (MA 2013) could be unnerving. You might discover that your favourite hairdresser is working beside a mass graveyard, your legislative buildings are haunted, or that the brownstone you’ve been thinking of buying was once the site of murder and mayhem. But Cameron is just as familiar with the bright moments in Toronto history, whether they pertain to music, food or hockey. As Historian and Sleuth (yes, that’s her official title) with a company called Urban Capers, Cameron designs historical scavenger hunts. Here, she travels back in time with Cynthia Macdonald.

Describe an Urban Capers adventure.

We give you a booklet, a map and some instructions. Players walk for about two hours around a historical neighbourhood, and stop at some 20 different locations. They have to answer a tricky question or riddle at each stop.

How does a Mississauga native become an expert on Kensington Market?

I used to work at bingo halls in Kingston, and found gambling was a really interesting subculture. So I combined that with my existing knowledge of Asian-Canadian history, and did my master’s degree at U of T on the history of gambling in Toronto’s Chinatowns. When Jodi Sinden (the founder of Urban Capers) wanted to write a tour of Chinatown, she advertised in the U of T job listings for students and hired me!

In fact, one of your tours involves U of T. I guess the story of Ivan Reznikoff, the cuckolded stonemason who haunts UC, is pretty popular with scavengers. Refresh our memories?

One night Reznikoff and his rival had an epic knife-fight inside the half-constructed University College, and Reznikoff was killed. His body was thrown into one of the half-completed stairwells and covered up. They didn’t find out about it until University College caught on fire in 1890. While they were setting up for a Valentine’s Day dance, the decorations caught fire and the building burned down. Going through the rubble they found the skeleton of this guy – still wearing his stonemason’s belt.

Everyone talks about how old Toronto used to be no fun at all, rolling up the sidewalks on Sundays and so forth. But your research shows it was actually full of scandal and mysterious secrets.

Interesting things have always happened here. And Urban Capers’ murder mysteries are our most popular tours.

Like the Circus Riot of 1855, in which firefighters and clowns brawled in a brothel on Front Street. Does Toronto do a good job of preserving its colourful history?

A pretty good job; the Toronto historical plaque series lets you visit things that used to be there, even if they aren’t any longer. But one of Toronto’s major failings is that we don’t have a historical museum dedicated to the city.

Do the winners of your hunts get prizes?

Yes – but those have to stay a secret!

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