The Scarborough Chinese Baptist Church. The Vimy Oaks planted almost 100 years ago are in the forested area beside the church,  A deal has been worked out to preserve the trees should the church wish to expand.

The Scarborough Chinese Baptist Church (near Toronto Ontario). The Vimy Oaks planted almost 100 years ago are in the forested area beside the church, A deal has been worked out to preserve the trees should the church wish to expand.
Photo Credit: Google Earth

Saga of the historic WWI Vimy Oaks: France to Canada to France

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(note portions of the text have been modified as a result of new information received since the original story was published)

The historic and nation-building Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge during the Great War is a fairly well-known one.

Now a much smaller battle is being discussed in Toronto in relation to a legacy of that battle

Some 100 years ago Lieutenant Leslie H. Miller, a signaler with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France, recognized the significance of the terrible battle and sought some form of commemoration.   He found a blasted oak tree on the battlefield and gathered acorns which he brought home with him to plant on his family farm in Scarborough, Ontario (Toronto suburb).   That battle, as well as prior and subsequent fighting meant all the original trees around Vimy were destroyed.

Canadian machine gunners dug in shell holes in Vimy advance, April, 1917. This was taken after the Canadians had captured the ridge and were now digging and and consolidating against likely counter-attacks to come . Note how no trees or even bushes remain on the shattered landscape
Canadian machine gunners dug in shell holes in Vimy advance, April, 1917. This was taken after the Canadians had captured the ridge and were now digging in and consolidating against likely counter-attacks to come. Note how no trees or any vegetation remains on the shattered landscape. © Library and Archives Canada PA-1079

The acorns in Canada however grew into large majestic oak trees on his land which he later named ‘Vimy Oaks Farm”.  Now, some in the remaining forest grove are from the original acorns, and some are descendants of the ones Miller planted.

Miller died at age 90 in 1979. The land was left unattended for many years, but now belongs to the Scarborough Chinese Baptist Church. It is considering expansion and there were originally some concerns that might mean expansion into the small forest patch where the Vimy oaks are located.

Concern about the future of the Vimy trees as the 100th anniversary of the battle approaches in 1917, arose among some residents and city councillors.

An attempt by local citizens to have the grove declared an historic site was challenged by the Chinese church which didn’t want any restrictions on possible future expansion.

Lieutenant Leslie Miller (far left) with the Canadian Signal Corp
Lieutenant Leslie Miller (far left) with the Canadian Signal Corp © courtesy Miller family-Centenary News

However, in the end the Scarborough City Council voted against an official heritage designation and the church insists that the trees will be protected.

(**Update:  in a letter below, the church denies it ever had any intention to cut down the oaks, that they were never threatened, and in a submission to the Toronto Preservation Board, insist they have been good stewards of the trees since they learned of their historic significance)

Councillor Jim Karygiannis is quoted by CBC saying,  “One of the things we’re going to do is have some sort of a commemoration as well as designate this an area where people can go to celebrate the hundred years, and we’re trying to come up with some money to see what we can do with the place”.

Local historian Richard Schofield who had been among those calling for heritage status later said that although the trees seem protected now, “who knows 50 years from now who’ll own the property and whether the bylaws [protecting trees] will have changed”.

Meanwhile, a local organization called the Vimy Oaks Project has been active in collecting and growing saplings from the Vimy oaks in conjunction with some nurseries. Acorns from the trees have been grown in a nursery, while dozens of cuttings from the trees have also been grafted onto French-English oak root stock at a nursery in British Columbia.

One of the Vimy Oaks in Scarborough. Looking carefully one can see and arborist in the tree getting cuttings for later grafting. Acorns were also gathered. Together thes have been grown into dozens of saplings which will be rapatriated to the Vimy memorial site in France
One of the Vimy Oaks in Scarborough. Looking carefully one can see and arborist in the tree getting cuttings for later grafting. Acorns were also gathered. Together thes have been grown into dozens of saplings which will be rapatriated to the Vimy memorial site in France © Vimy Foundation

The seedlings are being grown as a project to return these descendants of the original oaks back to Vimy for the 100th anniversary in April 2017.

additional information- sources

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One comment on “Saga of the historic WWI Vimy Oaks: France to Canada to France
  1. Richard Leung says:

    You indicated in your article that our church SCBC is “is considering expansion into the small forest patch and possibly cutting down the trees.” This is nothing further from the truth, and we are gravely concerned about how irresponsible this report was, as it was done without communicating with us and without researching into the facts surrounding this issue. As a responsible corporate citizen and a faith group, SCBC is as passionate about preserving this part of the Canadian heritage as any preservation bodies and the local community. We have in fact taken numerous measures and proactive actions to preserve and protect the Vimy Oak trees, which are clearly documented in our recent submission to the Toronto Preservation Board.

    We object to the proposed designation motion by the Toronto Preservation Board as there are more effective ways of recognizing, preserving and propagating the trees but not at the expense of adversely affecting future expansion of the church. By expansion, we are referring to extending the church classrooms, chapel and parking spaces on other parts of the church property exclusive of the woodlot, which is already under protection by the Toronto Region and Conservation Authority (TRCA).

    We have assured the Toronto Preservation Board, the City Councillor Jim K and other concerned parties that SCBC would collaborate with them in all efforts to preserve the Vimy Oak trees, and support next year’s centennial commemoration of the Vimy Ridge Battle. However, we expect reputable media such as RCI to be responsible in reporting and provide the correct perspectives to this issue. The Canadian public are owed real facts behind the reports.