Searching for shoes and history
Footwear is one of Canada’s oldest industrial categories. Consolidation has also marked the modern industry. In 1950 the 292 footwear factories in Canada produced 33.9 million pairs of shoes.
Successful Canadian shoe manufacturers include Bastien Brothers Inc of St-Émile, Qué, who produce winter boots for the North American market; Santana Inc of Sherbooke, producers of women’s winter boots and casual footwear; Greb Industries, producers of Bauer skates, Hush Puppies and Kodiak work and hiking boots; Kaufman Footwear of Kitchener, producers of waterproof footwear, safety boots and Sorel winter footwear; Susan Shoe Industries Ltd, Hamilton, producers of Cougar casual footwear; and Tender Tootsies Ltd, Canada’s most successful and largest maker of popularly priced women’s footwear using man-made materials. Bata Ltd in Don Mills, Ontario, is the world headquarters of the Bata Shoe Organization, the largest shoe marketing and manufacturing enterprise in the world (The Canadian Encyclopedia).
We are going on a trip to discover the historic identity of this region as well as searching for shoes!
Take Off – Canada
City of Interest: Ontario, Kitchener-Waterloo region
Frequent Flyer Miles
The city of Waterloo is:
- 502 miles from New York City
- 28hr flight from Hong Kong
- 2,536 miles from Los Angeles.
Relax & Stay
If you are traveling from New York you get a treat because Ontario is so close and only a 4hr flight. Stay at the historic-style Parlour Inn (Ascend) – a historic boutique hotel in Stratford, Ontario that has offered refined accommodations to visitors since 1871. Cost is about $161/night. Travel back in time as the area offers many historic landmarks.
If you are into seeing the historic towns in style, stay at the Walper Hotel in downtown Kitchener. The Walper is of the Hyatt group so get your member cards out as rooms start at $163 USD/night.
Flight to Ontario from LAX is around $118 or less if planned early. From JFK around $184 for a same-day flight.
Expect to spend ALL of your money here (1 CAD=0.80 USD). Meals, entertainment and miscellaneous accommodations are on average comparable to a stint in New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
The climate here is pretty much like any other Nor-Eastern City; hot, humid summers and very cold winters with heavy snowfall. So plan ahead for these kinds of conditions when packing light.
Going to the AFA show? It was formerly named the Toronto Shoe Show. You can plan your trip around the show dates HERE. As with any business trip, make sure you are aware of the logistics of travel either by car service or local transportation. The AFA show takes place at the Congress Center near the airport so plan accordingly.
The Shoe Historian
When you take your trip to Canada, be sure to stop by the famous BATA SHOE MUSEUM. To become an official footwear historian, it would behoove you to discover shoes with the Footwear Through the Ages exhibit. Take a trip through time as you explore shoe beginnings leading up to modern innovation. From snow shoes to customization, the exhibit is the crown jewel of the industry. There is a new exhibit called All Dolled Up that explores shoes for dolls. Even Michael Jordan and his retro Jordans.
Some Back Story
Bata shoes have been in existence since 1894 and saw the launch of its iconic lace up style, The Batovka. Established by siblings Tomáš, Anna and Antonín Baťa in the rural town of Zlín, Czechoslovakia – Bata today is still a leading, global shoe industry giant. In its golden age, the Bata siblings built a fully sustainable industrial ecosystem.
By 1938, Bata had 65,000 full-time workers and produced 168,000 pairs of shoes every day. The Bata family of shoe makers had a wondrous dream to be the largest footwear manufacturer in the world. During the late 30’s the company was full fledged in sustainable and ethical practices. Tomáš Bata believed that business had a responsibility to its employees, the company provided its workers with housing, schools, hospitals, libraries, and recreational facilities.
Bata cities based on the Zlín model are built throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas. Many incorporate the company name, including Batawa in Canada (BATA). The original factory is now a residential marvel.
Ontario was first inhabited by Indigenous Peoples, primarily First Nations. There is also a rich indegionous culture series in this region that explores footwear, dress, history and heritage.
There is also African Fashion Week that takes place in this area, but you will have to check their updates to see if the show is still going on.
Where History Walks
I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Ms. Peggy Plet. I first became acquainted with her work as the author of Jan Ernst Matzeliger A Lasting Invention. Her love and enthusiasm for history and research is boundless. Not only did she pen a beautiful personal biography on Matzeliger, but also opened the doors to discovering black inventors and their impact in footwear’s history. Matzeliger invented a lasting machine that would forever change the way shoes in the modern world are made.
Today, Plet spends her time devoted to educating locals on the rich history of Kitchener’s (Ontario) first Black residents. Kitchner is Plet’s town of residence that she re-discovered while searching for relatability and connection to a place she calls home. Plet’s passion is an extension of the work of STROLL and its hyperlocal walking tours. The walking tour is aptly named Black Presence In Berlin (Onced called the City of Berlin/town of berlin in 1916 the name of the town was changed to Kitchener under British rule. More than likely to detach visitors and residents alike from association with the then German war and the Iron Curtain).
“Former Black residents walked the same streets I am walking on today and that is very exciting,” Plet said. “After all, this is part of local history. It’s not separate history.”Plet for CBC Canada
During the tour, strollers will hear about Berlin’s connection to the early Black settlers of the Queens Bush settlement. I had a chance to speak with both Plet and STROLL founder Juanita Metzger about the tour, and why it’s not only available during the month of February.
For Metzger, STROLL is more about connection rather than a check off list of tourist activities. It is hyperlocal. STROLL walking tours help people connect with neighborhoods that they may not be familiar with – outside the dominant narrative. These are stories that go beyond the white euro-centric stories that deserve to be told.
About the forgotten black history of Kitchener, Plet made sure to unearth as many identities and historical references for walkers to discover. Prior to 1960’s there was a large domestic scheme from the West Indies. This migration gave root to independent shop owners, and even lawyers. There were other people who came from further away. One such person was a mulatto teacher who had a German father and mother from Sierra Leone (last name Metzger as well).
The forgotten residents gave shape and form to the local economy producing watch makers and inventors. There were also multiple identities from the States. Religious backgrounds are also discussed as Plet found these residents converted to Judaism and Christianity as well. A famed butchery is also on the tour serving possibly the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Daniel Armstrong.
The tour reminds people of the richness that was once the heartbeat of the city in which they now live.
Is the tour something that is held all year round or seasonal?
Although the Black Presence In Berlin tour kicked off in February, Plet and Metzer would like people to know that this tour does not end and begin for only 28 or 29 days. Plet did express concern that perhaps the kick-off time gave the wrong impression. Black Presence In Berlin is not only for the month of February. This, as well as other notable community tours are yearlong events. Of course weather permitting as Onatrio can get quite a bit of snowfall and freezing temperatures.
Has Covid impacted the tours in a positive way?
Metzger: Covid was great and sold out! The reception was very encouraging, a great activity to be doing during the pandemic.
Plet: It was great to be comfortable and to be outside. With the small groups, it felt like they were traveling and there was a sense of community.
What To Wear?
I asked Peggy Plet what shoes she wears on her tours.
Rieker winter boots. “I always wear quality shoes, they’re a bit on the pricey side, but worth the investment.” She said. So I checked out what makes Rieker boots worth the stroll and found these Boho/Logger inspired lug bottoms (right up my alley) that just so happened to be named, “PEGGY”.
Even if you have no plans ever to visit Kitchener, Ontario or Canada in general – please check out STROLL’s website and get a glimpse of how important hyperlocal tours are to the community. Perhaps this would spark interest discovering and uncovering history in your own backyard.
Prepare For The Walk
Check out The Foot Collective Hard Goods to get up to speed on your foot health. Your feet need to be prepared to take walks, hikes, bike, etc. It is something we do not normally address. Working our bodies is one thing – but how about a workout for your feet too?
Get Shoes Made In Ontario
Ontario is home to many cobblers and bespoke artisans. Located in North Bay, Art & Sole Academy is the first shoemaking school in Canada to offer classes and consulting for those interested in learning the art of shoemaking.
Founder and shoemaker Jennifer Allison will lead you on a 2 day, 5 day or 10 day immersive on making the shoes of your dreams.
Discover more shoemakers and cobblers on this listing HERE
Today there are about 76 listed footwear manufacturers (brands, cobblers and facilities) in the Ontario region. Canada Goose is probably a well known favorite in the fashion world today. Probably one of the most renowned collaborations to date is the 90’s inspired NBA Collection by Salehe Bembury.
Canadian shoe brands to support while visiting the land of history and snow HERE.