The Friends of Fort George. The War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee. Communities in Bloom. The Canada 150 Committee. The Heritage Trail. Solo Swims of Ontario. History in the Vineyard. The Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum. Niagara Falls Community Outreach Soup Kitchen. Thursday breakfasts for the homeless at the Third Space Cafe in Niagara Falls.
Every one of these organizations, events and programs has at least one thing in common. Tireless volunteer and Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Tony Chisholm has freely given of his time to their efforts.
The retired magazine executive can be considered among those Toronto transplants who have been in the news lately for some of the wrong reasons. His volunteerism since he moved here full time in 2010 is a shining example of the value many of those newcomers actually do bring to the local community.
Chisholm grew up in Toronto, where he graduated from all-boys school Upper Canada College in 1963. He looks back on the values he learned there, as well as at home with his supportive family, as the beginning of his commitment to his community. At UCC he competed in swimming and cricket, and was a member of the photography club. He also developed a love for history, often dragging his mother to all the historic forts when he was younger.
Following his time at UCC, Chisholm attended the University of Western Ontario (now Western University) where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics.
“After attending an all-boys school, I really came alive at university,” he says. “I became a fraternity member, I had a great group of friends there, some of whom I still keep in touch with today.”
After university, Chisholm was hired by publishing giant Maclean Hunter in Toronto. His role was in sales for their trade journals. After a few years there, he and two partners established their own company, Action Communications, to publish trade journals on their own.
“We built it up to quite a successful operation,” Chisholm says. “We published magazines on engineering design, woodworking, metal working and a general industrial publication in French for the province of Quebec. My territory was most of the U.S, and I travelled a lot. That eventually morphed into publishership.”
They sold the company in 2000 to Canada Law Book, which wanted to start a magazine division, and Chisholm became a group publisher for that organization until he retired in 2011.
In his thirties, at the urging of his son Shaun, Chisholm rekindled his love of swimming and also took up running. He ran his first marathon in 1981 in Ottawa, then moved quickly into triathlons. Ten years later he found himself in Australia for the World Triathlon Championships, competing alongside some of the best in the sport.
A highlight for Chisholm was the 2000 Iron Man Triathlon in Lake Placid at the age of 55.
“I did it with my son, my daughter-in-law and a couple of friends,” he tells The Local. “We all trained together. What an amazing experience, to spend six months concentrating on it. It was like a second job.”
The following day, he proposed to his now-wife Barb, whom he met when they were both members of a Toronto running club ingeniously dubbed the Roads Scholars.
“I often joke that I proposed to her the next day because I couldn’t get up off my knees,” he laughs.
Shaun, now a 53-year-old fireman in Toronto, later inspired one of Tony’s ongoing volunteer endeavours.
“He swam across the lake in 2008,” the proud father boasts. “He’s one of the few people to swim from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto. That’s when I got involved with these long-distance swimmers. I’m a bit of a contact here for these marathon swimmers. This location is known as one of the longest and coldest in the world for the marathon swimming fraternity.”
Shaun has since become a swim master for Solo Swims of Ontario, and he and his father have accompanied about 10 swimmers, both successful and unsuccessful, in their attempts to cross the lake.
Both Tony and Barb had travelled to Niagara-on-the-Lake in their younger days. They bought a second house here in 2003, and made the move here permanently just before he retired.
Chisholm’s love of history made NOTL the perfect spot for this new chapter in his life. He quickly became involved with the Friends of Fort George, where he met a number of like-minded volunteers who were all passionate about Niagara’s and Canada’s history. He currently serves as president of its board of directors.
This reporter first met Chisholm during the celebration of the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812. He was ubiquitous in his kilt, acting as an official spokesperson around town during the many events marking the milestone from 2010 to 2014.
“It was fun having the costume,” he says. “You could go into character, and not have to worry about your own self. You could be part of history by pretending you were a character from 200 years ago.”
Chisholm, in fact, was the main impetus behind the efforts to put together the movie Niagara on Fire, which commemorated the Americans’ burning of the town. Later, as part of the Canada 150 committee, he was instrumental in bringing the Tall Ships to NOTL. That ended up being one of the most popular of the Canada 150 events. For both of these flagship activities, Chisholm used his sales skills to help raise funds.
“I have developed a passion for doing good fundraising for important organizations,” he says. “I really admire people who can make things happen, who are willing to put their effort behind their ideas. This to me is the important thing, the effect that volunteers can accomplish.”
He is also involved in the Heritage Trail committee, a legacy project of Canada 150, and has enjoyed working with the town on Communities in Bloom for many years.
“I knew nothing about municipal works in my career,” Chisholm says. To see how empathetic the town was in encouraging volunteers to get involved in things like commemorating the bicentennial or attracting Communities in Bloom rewards was quite impressive. The parks department was 100 per cent behind everything we did.”
Chisholm is busy these days getting ready for the History in the Vineyard event coming up May 20. The fundraiser supports the Niagara Historical Society as well as the Friends of Fort George.
Before COVID-19 put a temporary stop to so many things, Chisholm could also be seen leading tours for the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum. As well, he and a few other local volunteers would travel to the Niagara Falls Outreach Soup Kitchen to wash dishes every Thursday afternoon. While that activity is currently on hold, he and NOTL native Rick Meloen, who has been involved in many of the same projects as Chisholm, have shifted to helping out every Thursday morning at the breakfast program run out of the Third Space Cafe on Queen Street in the honeymoon city.
The 76-year-old continues to follow the passion for photography he developed as a youngster attending UCC, as well. He has a collection of thousands of photographs he has taken through the years here that he is happy to share with anyone who needs them.
“I’m a believer in doing stuff, and I’m fortunate that I don’t have to continue earning money,” says Chisholm. “It’s so important, particularly in a town like this, where you can show up and inspire other volunteers.”
When asked about the reports of a lack of inclusivity and a possible backlash against Torontonians buying properties in town, Chisholm says he hasn’t experienced any of it.
“The influx of accomplished people coming in from areas of the GTA have brought a lot to this town,” he says. “There’s a depth of volunteerism that comes with it. Many of them have the time because they’re retired. My greatest gift to the community is the time that I can put into this.”
He does worry, however, about the effect the pandemic may be having on volunteerism in general.
“Last summer we were able to have a board of directors meeting outside, keeping a huge distance between us,” Chisholm fondly remembers. “It was great to see these people. Looking at them on a screen is frustrating. It’s harder to exchange ideas that way. It makes it very difficult to come up with concepts that you can work together on when you’re not in close contact with other people.”
“When you’re a person who leads other volunteers,” he adds, “getting together and thanking them is very important. None of that can happen, and that makes it very difficult to keep the enthusiasm up.”
Like so many others, Chisholm is hoping vaccines will soon bring an end to pandemic restrictions, to bring volunteers back together, but also so he can once again travel to the U.K. to visit his daughter Lisa and his four grandchildren. The 76-year-old also has two grandchildren living in Toronto.
Until that time comes, and of course beyond, he’ll continue doing what he does, in whatever way he can, contributing selflessly to the community he loves.