Each Fall, my “Word from the Warden” message welcomes students, members, friends and supporters back to Hart House. This year—the year we learned what “social distancing” means, re-learned how to wash our hands properly, and grew to truly appreciate the importance of a strong wi-fi signal—my message is really no different. Nothing will be exactly as it has been in previous years at Hart House, but nothing has changed, either.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, Hart House closed its doors to all but a handful of essential workers who have kept our building clean and safe.  Dozen of colleagues from across Hart House and I have been working from home. Several have been kept busy, ensuring that key operational areas—such as human resources, finance, facilities, and information technology—are running smoothly. Some have been focused on outreach to clients and either planning or hosting “online” versions of meetings, conferences, and various life events. Others have been creating and disseminating messages across our multiple media platforms to reach and encourage students facing a host of challenges. And still, others pivoted almost instantaneously to create Virtual Hart House.  

Since April, Virtual Hart House has been where thousands of students and community members have flocked to engage either synchronously or asynchronously with roughly 130 hours each month of original content focused around the arts, dialogue, wellness and community engagement. Both Hart House staff and student leaders have created unique online experiences to help students stay physically and emotionally healthy, engage them intellectually, deepen their commitment to social justice, inspire them with stories of resiliency, stir their souls through music or live performance, and generally build a sense of togetherness in the midst of an unprecedented level of social isolation.  And, even as we have borne witness to the persistent evils of anti-Indigenous and anti-Black rhetoric and violence in Canada and the U.S., we have also been grateful to collaborate with and learn from a wide diversity of Indigenous and Racialized voices through our work together.

The success of Virtual Hart House proves something that we have long been saying about Hart House: that although our building at 7 Hart House Circle is a stunning architectural jewel, Hart House has never been about “just” the building. Rather, Hart House is a community of communities and a space where people who may otherwise never know each other come together, across their differences, to learn new and exciting things about themselves, one another, and the world we all share. The past six months have shown us incontrovertibly that Hart House cannot be confined to one location or even one time zone. As a model for engagement, it literally knows no geographic or temporal bounds.

Which is not to say that we are not looking forward to returning to our physical locations this Fall, because we are. Virtual Hart House will continue to welcome all comers, but we will also be physically re-opening very slowly and incrementally. Initially, we will only be opening a few key spaces, like our Fitness Centre, the Farm in Caledon, and some of our popular “hangout” spaces like the Reading Room, the Map Room and the Library. At first, we will limit access to current U of T students, and everyone who visits Hart House will have to pre-register to join a particular activity or occupy a certain space. If all goes well, we hope to welcome back other members and visitors later in the Fall. In every decision that we take, our highest priority will be the health and the safety of everyone.

In the meantime, thank you for your ongoing support and interest in our work, even in the midst of the unprecedented challenges and stresses that we—that you—are all having to confront. Hart House may be embarking on its 101st year of co-curricular life during these very strange times, but for thousands of students who are new to U of T, this year will be their first exposure to the wonders of Hart House. (Lest you be worried on their behalf, rest assured that the 2020 version of Explore Hart House, a “must attend” annual Orientation event for new and returning students, will take place online on September 15 and 16.)

Welcome to Hart House, Class of 2024, and welcome “back” to everyone else. Stay well.

John MonahanWarden of Hart House