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Toronto’s audacious ‘girl cyclist’ left riders — and stereotypes — in the dust

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To meet Nora Young was to remember her forever.

She was the kind of person who offered gin and tonics at her garage sale, awarded her cycling medals to neighbourhood children, and at 72, made radio star Stuart McLean wheeze on a 50-kilometre bicycle trek around Toronto.

Nora Young in 1936, at age 19 — the same year she competed in a women’s trial at the six-day bicycle race. Courtesy Nora Young Collection/UndeniablyYoung.ca
Nora Young in 1936, at age 19 — the same year she competed in a women’s trial at the six-day bicycle race. Courtesy Nora Young Collection/UndeniablyYoung.ca  (Young Collection/UndeniablyYoung.ca)

“I’m ashamed to say this,” McLean said on CBC’s Morningside in 1989. “I came to hate her … Not only is she older than my mother — Nora held back. She was being careful not to push me too hard.”

This Sunday, Nora Young, “starry girl cyclist” of the 1930s, is being inducted into the Canadian Cycling Hall of Fame. When she died in 2016, at age 98, she was fairly obscure beyond the realm of cycling history buffs. But her effervescent personality had charmed people for nearly a century.

Filmmaker Julia Morgan met Young when they lived on the same east end street in 2005. Young was moving to seniors housing and was having a garage sale. Morgan’s mother popped by, and in very typical Nora Young sociable style, she offered her guest a refreshing drink. She went home and told her daughter.

“I thought to myself, I have to meet this senior woman who is offering gin and tonics at 11 a.m. at her garage sale,” Morgan says.

Julia Morgan, director of the upcoming short film "Undeniably Young" holds a photo of Nora Young.
Julia Morgan, director of the upcoming short film « Undeniably Young » holds a photo of Nora Young.

When Morgan ventured over, she picked up on Young’s “amazing spirit” and energy right away. She saw the medals on the wall, and wondered about them. She did a little digging, and found a chapter dedicated to her neighbour in Great Girls: Profiles of Awesome Canadian Athletes. She was blown away. When Morgan had a chance to direct a film in 2012, she knew that Nora Young would be an incredible subject.

The youngest of eight children, Young grew up in Thunder Bay, playing hockey with the boys, often shoved in net as the goalie. The family moved to Toronto during the Great Depression. It was the first golden era of women’s sport, says William Humber, a sports historian and professor at Seneca College. The 1928 Olympics had been the first to include women, and Canadian women had been “sensational,” he says. Professional women’s teams were popping up across the country. Young was recruited to play women’s softball at the Sunnyside stadium when she was 11.

In the 19th century, female athletes had been seen as a freakish novelty. By the time Young was a teenager, female athletes drew corporate sponsors, big crowds, celebrity fans and travel opportunities. But there was still derision.

In 2007, Nora Young, about to turn 90, was honoured at the Boulevard Club's annual luncheon for the women who had played baseball at the Sunnyside Stadium, which used to be on the site. The home plate was unearthed in 1996 when the club was renovating its parking lot.
In 2007, Nora Young, about to turn 90, was honoured at the Boulevard Club’s annual luncheon for the women who had played baseball at the Sunnyside Stadium, which used to be on the site. The home plate was unearthed in 1996 when the club was renovating its parking lot.  (David Cooper*p66 x)

In 1938, Montreal sports journalist Elmer Ferguson wrote a column in Maclean’s called “I don’t like Amazon athletes.” Ferguson had no problem with figure skaters in “tightfitting” bodices, or divers whose physical perfection was “enhanced by a clinging one-piece bathing suit,” but he didn’t care for women in the “violent, face-straining, face-dirtying, body-bouncing, sweaty, graceless, stumbling, struggling, wrenching, racking, jarring, and floundering” sports.

“Would Elmer have us run races with a powder puff in one hand and a mirror in the other?” asked champion hurdler Roxy Atkins, in a rebuttal article called “Elmer, you’re goofy.”

In the 1930s, most of the Toronto papers had former athletes writing columns, or as Ferguson called them “girl sports columnists who have me continually on the pan, in the grease, out of the frying pan into the fire and vice versa.” At the Globe, it was Olympic track star Bobbie Rosenfeld’s “Feminine Sports Reel,” and the Star had Alexandrine Gibb’s “No Man’s Land of Sport — News and Views of Feminine Activities.”

Young was common fodder, playing hockey, basketball, and slugging homers at the Sunnyside stadium, but most of the ink recorded her feats as Ontario’s “leading feminine rider.” There was her 36-second quarter mile sprint; her 1:17 half-mile dash; and the 50-mile road race against men where she might have bested more of them had she not stopped for a cup of tea at the halfway mark, clocking in with a final time of 2:38:44. She rode on a single-speed coaster bike — not a professional bike, unless she could borrow one from the men.

Nora Young excelled at basketball, baseball, hockey, and track and field in addition to cycling. Here she is ready to swing for the fences in 1940. Courtesy Nora Young Collection/UndeniablyYoung.ca
Nora Young excelled at basketball, baseball, hockey, and track and field in addition to cycling. Here she is ready to swing for the fences in 1940. Courtesy Nora Young Collection/UndeniablyYoung.ca

In 1936, Young found herself at the centre of controversy. Toronto had been promised Thrills! Spills! and Continuous action! at a six-day bicycle race at Maple Leaf Gardens, a spectacle of endurance as male cyclists raced around a banked “pine-board saucer,” where the turns rose into the air like the side of a house. Promoters decided to amp up the excitement by allowing female cyclists to try the dangerous course for a half-mile race. A dozen women applied but only six were deemed good enough, including Young, then 19.

The race — and what happens during and afterward — is a big part of Morgan’s film Undeniably Young: Nora Young and the Six-Day Race. She is animating the race using details from her research and interviews with Young. It was a revolutionary moment in women’s sport, but Young was suspended for 30 days from her amateur sports federation for the unsanctioned appearance.

In that era, there were no women’s cycling events at the Olympic Games. (The first women’s cycling event would not appear until 1984.) Researching her film, Morgan learned that Young was a world-class athlete in many sports. She played hockey and baseball at Madison Square Garden, and in 1948, her basketball team, the Montgomery Maids, won the national championship. She was also a national javelin champion. Her peak competitive years were the Olympics in 1940 and 1944, which were never held because of the Second World War.

“If she’d competed and won something we’d be talking about her to this day,” Humber says.

During the war she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, serving overseas in the latter part of the war and its aftermath. She was trained as a jeep mechanic, and ran a gift shop and canteen, Morgan says. She spent a good deal of time driving military officials in jeeps.

“The general would almost be shaking when he got out of the car because she drove so fast and so efficiently in terms of getting around obstacles,” Humber says.

A look at Nora Young and her cycling legacy put together by the makers of the upcoming animated film « Undeniably Young, » which focuses on the cycling pioneer and her role in a historic six-day race at Maple Leaf Gardens. Evoke Films/UndeniablyYoung.ca

After her parents died, Young bought a home near the Danforth in 1959. She worked as a lab technician. She liked to say that she “didn’t have time to get married,” or that she “ran too fast” for marriage. (An unconventional woman for her time, Morgan imagines that Young had quips ready for a lot of the things she was questioned about.)

Arthritis in her hands forced her to retire early in the 1970s. Bored at home, she went back to her bike and realized it didn’t bother her so she kept going. By the ’80s and ’90s she was travelling the world, winning gold medals and setting records at the Masters Games, an international competition for seniors. Those accomplishments were “lost in the mix,” in a society that mostly measures sports achievements in youth, Humber notes.

It was during her 1980s comeback that journalist Stuart McLean went for a ride with her. Young was 72 then, he was 41.

“Come on Stuart, you can do it, push, push, we’re almost there, push, push, dig in!” Young yelled from the top of a hill which she had already vanquished.

Afterward, they had a beer in her kitchen. She told McLean she would have liked to have competed the Olympics. She was very reassuring when she said those hills were “awful hard” for her, too, when she started cycling after decades away from the sport, but every day it got easier. She liked defying expectations. When a young guy raced past her at a stop sign, thinking she’d be slow, she threw it into “high gear” and tore after him.

“You should see the surprise and astonishment on their face when they look back and see this old gal that’s been pedalling along right on their back wheel,” she told McLean, laughing.

In her neighbourhood, Morgan says, children were always knocking on her door. “Miss Young, can you come out to play?”

She organized them into hockey tournaments, bicycle races and sprints.

The wall of Nora Young's trophy room in 2012 when Julia Morgan interviewed her for her upcoming film Undeniably Young. Courtesy of Nora Young Collection/UndeniablyYoung.ca
The wall of Nora Young’s trophy room in 2012 when Julia Morgan interviewed her for her upcoming film Undeniably Young. Courtesy of Nora Young Collection/UndeniablyYoung.ca

“She had so many medals and trophies from her time, literally far many more than she ever knew what to do with, and she would give some of the smaller ones out,” Morgan says. “She would just give one to every kid who placed.”

Young also pushed for more women to try cycling, and for more gender equality in the sport. She was seen as an “elder statesman” who guided the younger generation of female racers and activists, Morgan notes. She always wanted to bike until she was no longer able, and balance issues finally forced her to quit when she was 94. By then, she had moved to a smaller home in Newcastle. Morgan began filming her documentary when Young was no longer riding. But she told her she had always dreamed about cycling, and the dreams hadn’t stopped.

“That really struck me as something quite profound, this amazing former athlete, at 94 and 95, still right back there riding her bike in her dreams,” Morgan writes in an email.

When the TTC announced that bike racks were coming to the front of their buses on selected routes in 2005, Nora Young, then 87, was there to test them out.
When the TTC announced that bike racks were coming to the front of their buses on selected routes in 2005, Nora Young, then 87, was there to test them out.  (Ron Bull*p66 Robert Camara)

Morgan and her film crew spent a lot of time with Young, talking about her past and recording as she played shuffleboard, euchre and poker: “You can’t give me anything better than that?” she’d rib her partner. Six months after filming wrapped, Young had a stroke, which largely took away her speech.

Morgan has been making documentaries since the early 2000s, but Undeniably Young is her first film as a director. She is fundraising on Indiegogo for the final stages of production. The film, a mix of live action, archival images and animation, will be finished in 2019, when she’ll submit it to festivals.

Young often told Morgan that she “never thought about” being a pioneer.

But Morgan always thought that Young was remarkable. During her research, she and Humber nominated her for the Hall of Fame honour.

While Young loved cycling for the rush of wind in her hair, Morgan thinks she would be pleased at this development.

“I think there was a part of her that never was fully recognized for what she did,” she says, “and would have appreciated that.”

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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