The Saga of the Gardiner Expressway

This post merges several pieces I’ve written about the Gardiner Expressway over the years, along with additional material. 

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Gardiner Expressway, 1962. The caption was “Ready for ’67 Centenary if weather co-operates.” Photo by Dick Darrell. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115131f.

Frederick G. Gardiner was proud of the expressway named in his honour. “You know,” he noted in a 1964 interview, “I used to lie in bed dreaming in Technicolor, thinking it was too big. Now I know it isn’t. Maybe in 20 years time, they’ll be cursing me for making it too small. But I won’t be around to worry then. Right now, I’ve come up smelling of Chanel No. 5.”

When Gardiner died in 1983, few liked the scent of his expressway. They cursed him for pushing a crumbling roadway increasingly seen as a barrier between downtown and the waterfront. Decades of city reports have suggested demolishing some or all of the expressway, triggering debates that will turn anyone’s face blue. While its fate eternally hangs in the balance, millions are spent every year to keep it in service. Every time a major reconstruction project occurs that slows down traffic, you’d swear by the tone of the media that Armageddon is descending upon the city.

But there was a time when regional officials believed the Gardiner Expressway would solve bottlenecks plaguing a growing city in the early 1950s. Had it been built to its full extent via the Scarborough Expressway, drivers might have enjoyed views of Humber Bay, the downtown skyline, and the Scarborough Bluffs.

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Sketch based on suggestions by Etobicoke Reeve Clive Sinclair on bringing the Queen Elizabeth Way into Toronto. Toronto Star, September 14, 1949.

The combination of the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Way in 1939 and suburban growth had led to frequent traffic jams caused by commuters entering the city along the old Humber Bridge. Visions of a waterfront expressway were included in the city’s 1943 master plan, but it took time for plans to firm up. In 1949, Etobicoke Reeve Clive Sinclair suggested the plan shown here, which he felt would reduce congestion he feared would emerge when the Ontario Food Terminal opened on The Queensway. The key to Sinclair’s plan was cutting the link between The Queensway and the approach to the QEW. “We’ve already had too many pedestrians killed or injured trying to dodge express traffic at this corner,” he told the Star.

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Frederick G. Gardiner, taken during a photoshoot for Time magazine, April 5, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2262, Item 32745-3.

Enter Frederick Gardiner, chairman of the newly formed regional government of Metropolitan Toronto. As a Toronto Life article noted 40 years later, “Gardiner liked big solutions to big problems, and he brought an entrepreneurial flair to city government. He loved building things, loved to get plans pushed through and get the shovels in the ground.” As Gardiner once observed, “a municipality is no different from an industrial undertaking.” Fixing the bottlenecks at the bottom of the city was right up his alley.

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Toronto Star, July 8, 1953.

One of Metro’s first acts was to announce in July 1953 that its executive committee had unanimously approved a motion by Gardiner to meet with regional planning authorities to discuss what was soon dubbed the Lakeshore Expressway. The highway would run from the Humber Bridge to Woodbine Avenue. Two sections would be elevated (Humber Bridge to Bathurst Street, and Cherry Street to Woodbine), with surface streets handling the traffic flow through downtown. Toronto Mayor Allan Lamport urged caution with construction—“We can’t go too fast on this. It is absolutely essential.” One of the main questions was which side of the CNE grounds should the expressway be built: on the north side, along the rail corridor, or on the south via fill into the lake?

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Toronto Star, January 2, 1954.

As 1954 dawned, Gardiner and Scarborough Reeve Oliver Crockford supported a plan to extend the Lakeshore Expressway east to meet Highway 401 at Highland Creek. The route would have cut through east end neighbourhoods before proceeding along the bottom of the Scarborough Bluffs. Gardiner saw what was later known as the Scarborough Expressway as a solution to potential bottlenecks at Woodbine Avenue and Kingston Road, while Crockford felt it would help halt the erosion of the bluffs. The Scarborough Expressway remained in regional plans for decades before being scrapped.

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Toronto Star, May 3, 1954. Note the proposed interchange with Strachan Avenue in the upper right corner, which was never built, which would have provided “access to the north and to local destinations on Fleet Street” (primarily, I suspect, Exhibition Park and Maple Leaf Stadium).

On May 5, 1954, Metro Council received plans for the Lakeshore Expressway. The $49.8 million project would be elevated above Fleet Street (now Lake Shore Boulevard) from Bathurst Street to Cherry Street. To alleviate congestion in the core, a two-level parking facility with direct ramps would be built under the expressway between Yonge Street and Parliament Street.

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Globe and Mail, May 4, 1954. Click on image for larger version.

The route would run south of the CNE, and it was predicted the fairgrounds would receive 25 additional acres from the fill required for the expressway.

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Globe and Mail, May 4, 1954

A Globe and Mail editorial predicted that the new road “ought to eliminate the worst of the waterfront traffic problems, at least for some years to come.”

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Construction of Queen Street West extension, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 137, Item 13.

Two other road projects were rolled into the Lakeshore Expresseway. In the west end, Queen Street was extended westward to meet up with The Queensway via a new bridge across the Humber.

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Construction of Queen Street West extension, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 137, Item 10.

This stretch, which opened in December 1956, was eventually treated as an eastern extension of The Queensway.

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Construction of Woodbine Avenue extension, circa 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 115, Item 15.

In the east end, Keating Street (now Lake Shore Boulevard) was extended from Leslie Street to Woodbine Avenue to provide an eventual end to the expressway. Opened in December 1955, residents soon dubbed the tight curve leading Keating onto Woodbine a “death trap.” Eastbound drivers going 55 miles an hour often found themselves driving into the southbound lanes of Woodbine or climbing onto the northbound sidewalk. Local councillors received complaints from residents ranging from smashed fire hydrants to a car hitting one home’s veranda. Over 60 years later, this curve remains problematic.

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Globe and Mail, May 19, 1954.

One east-end vision which never materialize was a plan to build a ramp on the west side of Woodbine Racetrack, which would have connected the Lakeshore Expressway to Kingston Road and Dundas Street East (which was still being stitched together from local side streets).

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Empress Crescent, looking east from Dowling Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard West, 1956. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-912.

Construction on the Lakeshore Expressway began on April Fools Day 1955, concentrating on the stretch between the Humber and Jameson Avenue. Around 150 homes were demolished to make way for the expressway and its related projects, mostly in south Parkdale around Dowling Avenue and Jameson Avenue. Streets like Empress Crescent vanished from city maps. When the Globe and Mail printed pictures of the rubble left behind by demolitions in 1957, it described the scene as “ruins reminiscent of a Second World War bombing raid.”

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Gardiner Expressway, looking west from east of the foot of Roncesvalles Avenue, during construction, showing Lakeshore Road bridge over CNR tracks, south of King Street and Sunnyside Railway Station, July 21, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-934.

Construction also brought an end to Sunnyside Amusement Park, which would be revamped as a city beach. The nearby bridge connecting Lakeshore Road (now Lake Shore Boulevard) with the King/Queen/Roncesvalles intersection also met its demise. The Sunnyside train station survived the building of the expressway, but ceased passenger service in 1967.

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Parkside Drive, looking north from Lakeshore Road, July 21, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-1714.

A new bridge waiting for the Lakeshore Expressway to cross it.

A December 1956 front page story in the Globe and Mail predicted that by 1980 the city’s expressway system (then projected to include the Crosstown, Don Valley Parkway, Lakeshore, and Spadina) would be dominated by buses, as some Metro officials hoped to ease future congestion by banning parking downtown. The idea was that suburban commuters would leave their cars in giant lots next to the expressways, hopping on buses to finish their journey.

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Toronto Star, July 2, 1957.

As construction proceeded, there were concerns that the expressway might permanently stop at Jameson Avenue. Metro was having problems convincing higher levels of government to help fund the proposed subway line along Bloor Street. Gardiner believed Metro couldn’t raise enough money to fund its expressway and public transit plans. “You simply cannot provide sufficient highways and parking space to accommodate every person who desires to drive his motor vehicle downtown and back each day,” Gardiner noted in January 1956.”Additional rapid transit is the only answer. It is a snare and a delusion to keep on spending millions of dollars on highways because the province will subsidize them 50 per cent. We know that beyond a certain stage $1 spent on more arterial highways and parking facilities.”

Problem was that Metro council preferred spending money on roads than transit. Eventually, outside funding for the subway came through.

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Copy of a cartoon by Bert Grassick published in the Telegram, August 29, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1567. Series 648, File 26, Item 1.

On July 29, 1957, based on a suggestion from Weston Mayor Harry Clark, the Metro roads committee renamed the Lakeshore Expressway the Frederick G, Gardiner Expressway. Clark felt it was a gesture of appreciation for leading Metro through its formative years. The tribute pleased Gardiner.

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Aerial view of the Gardiner Expressway, August 14, 1958. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 37, Item 1.

At 3 p.m. on August 8, 1958, dignitaries including Gardiner, Ontario Premier Leslie Frost, and Toronto Mayor Nathan Phillips officially opened the first section of the expressway, which ran from the Humber to Jameson Avenue. Frost praised Gardiner for his leadership. “Fred, you were the obvious man to do the job.”

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Toronto Star, August 7, 1958. Note optimism about cutting driving time by 10 minutes.

The road experienced its first traffic jam that day, a mile-long backup which would seem mild compared to present-day gridlock. As the Globe and Mail’s Ron Haggart put it, “the traffic jam was the best tribute of the day to the need for the Frederick G, Gardiner Expressway.”

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East end of Gardiner Expressway at Jameson Avenue/Dunn Street, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 58, Item 3.

In an essay in the commemorative book published for Toronto’s 125th anniversary, Toronto ’59, Nathaniel A. Benson placed the Gardiner in the context of the evolution of Toronto’s shoreline.

The lakeshore once was open, save for a staunch little lighthouse and an old-fashioned yacht club. Today there rise the towers of a great Molson brewing plant, the imposing Tip Top Tailors Building, the head offices of Loblaw’s, and the multi-million dollar home of the Toronto Baseball Maple Leafs. The garish lights of the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway cut spectacularly along the railway tracks, with its day-and-night ceaseless whizz of traffic shaking the peace of the ancient graves in the old military cemetery on Strachan Avenue, grazing the heroic battlements of old Fort York.

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Plans considered for Fort York, Toronto Star, October 4, 1958.

After further study, the route of the Gardiner was switched to the north side of the CNE. This placed Fort York in the path of the expressway, which lead to protests throughout 1958 from groups ranging from historical societies the Toronto Women’s Progressive Conservative Association. The tide of voices against proposals to move the fort led to one of Gardiner’s few losses when it came to the expressway.

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Construction of the new Dufferin Gate, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 58, Item 8.

While Fort York was saved, the CNE’s Dufferin Gate wasn’t. Fairgoers passed under the old landmark for the last time in 1957. Two years later, construction was well-underway for its replacement.

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Construction of the elevated section of the Gardiner Expressway, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 37, Item 19.

By the end of the 1950s, some politicians and local media grew impatient with the slow pace of construction, which wasn’t scheduled to end until 1965. “At such a pace,” noted a December 1959 Globe and Mail editorial, “Metro might not bother at all. The growth of traffic will far outstrip the growth of the road, and at the end of 10 years congestion will be worse than when the work was started.” Part of the blame was placed on Frederick Gardiner’s refusal to borrow more than $100 million a year to fund all Metro capital works projects.

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Globe and Mail, November 3, 1960.

By the end of 1960, designs were close to being finalized for the expressway’s connection with the Don Valley Parkway. Hopefully Frederick Gardiner and Nathan Phillips didn’t collide into each other. This cartoon also shows the streets (Fleet and Keating) which soon became Lake Shore Boulevard East.

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Eastbound Spadina Avenue ramp, Globe and Mail, July 31, 1962.

The Jameson-Spadina section opened during morning rush hour on August 1, 1962. Despite the potential bottleneck at the eastbound Spadina ramp, one travelled noted that his evening rush journey on opening day from the Humber to Spadina and Front took 10 minutes.

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Jarvis Street, east side, looking northeast from Lake Shore Boulevard East, showing Gardiner Expressway under construction, 1963. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5603.

Note the billboards in the far background. The distraction provided by advertising was a growing safety concern, which led Metro’s transportation committee to recommend that no ads be placed within 150 feet of the Gardiner or the Don Valley Parkway.

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Lake Shore Boulevard East, looking west from Cherry Street, showing Gardiner Expressway under construction, between 1961 and 1964.  City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5619.

John Bentley Mays writing about the Gardiner (in this case, describing wandering underneath the expressway near Fort York):

Few sites more forsaken lie this close to Toronto’s busy, dense downtown mountain-range of glass. Overhead, the wide steel belly of the Gardiner’s traffic level lies like a flat green snake on a series of tall, water-stained concrete brackets. Underneath spreads the expanse of loose gravel, some of it used as a gathering place for trucks, some of it the dusty yard of a factory in which big cement blocks are fabricated.

One hesitates to use the word beautiful of such a forbidding place, though the word fits the hill. There is a strong visual surge and power here: in the dignified rhythms of the expressway’s tapered reinforced-concrete supports, marching away into the distance like an immense Baroque colonnade, in the tough muscularity, in the ensemble of cement factory and rumbling trucks. There is a gruff beauty here that swank towers nearby can’t touch.

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Constuction of the Gardiner Expressway, 1964. Photo by Frank Grant. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115133f.

The caption for this photo reads “Full speed ahead: Workmen are busy levelling the groun underneath the concrete arches which will carry the expressway in the York-Jarvis area. By 1967 the Gardiner is expected to be extended still further to Leslie St.; and by 1972 will stretch out across Scarboro to link with Highway 401.”

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Globe and Mail, November 6, 1964.

Besides the link between the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway, November 6, 1964 also saw the opening of most of the Eastern Avenue flyover.

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Globe and Mail, May 5, 1966.

What proved to be the final stretch of the Gardiner, from the Don Valley Parkway to Leslie Street, was opened on July 15, 1966. Intended to be the first phase of the Scarborough Expressway, it would have intersected with Highway 401 at Highland Creek. Had a request to the Ontario Municipal Board from a citizen group inspired by the fight against the Spadina Expressway not delayed work, the next approved phase of the Scarborough Expressway would have extended it to Birchmount Road and Danforth Road. While Queen’s Park cancelled Spadina in June 1971, provincial officials were willing to fund a short extension of the Scarborough Expressway to Coxwell Avenue if the OMB approved. There was also the matter of purchasing homes (1,000 in the original plan, 500 after a revision) in the path of the projected route.

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Photo by Boris Spremo, originally published in the November 21, 1973 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0011711f.

The original caption for this photo:

Opponents of the proposed Scarborough Expressway arrive at The Star Forum by bus last night, practising what they preach on the desirability of transit over private cars. Members of action groups left their cars at home and chartered a double-decker bus and one from Toronto transit Commission. They brought signs proclaiming their beliefs but a policeman made them leave them outside.

The “Star Forum” was a session held at the St. Lawrence Centre on November 20, 1973 to discuss whether the Scarborough Expressway should be built. Metro chairman Paul Godfrey indicated he’d support the project based on what he knew up to that point, but wouldn’t commit himself to a position until a Metro report was issued in February 1974. TTC chairman Karl Mallette felt further development of public transit in Scarborough would make the expressway obsolete (if only he knew the battles and delays to come on that front…). “The plain fact is that expressways don’t solve urban transportation problems,” Mallette observed, “they create more of them. They’re becoming prohibitively expensive and are an intolerable intrusion in and near residential areas.”

The next year, Metro Council scrapped further construction.

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View of Gardiner Expressway looking west from the CN Tower, between 1976 and 1981. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 13, Item 2.

The first cracks in the Gardiner were observed in 1962. Metro roads commissioner George Grant blamed heavy traffic, while the province claimed a thinner-than-normal coat of asphalt was used while building the expressway’s first section. A year after Frederick Gardiner died in 1983, an ongoing repair program began to attack the effects of expansion and contraction on the concrete.

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View of Gardiner Expressway looking east from the CN Tower, between 1976 and 1981. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 13, Item 13.

Chaired by former mayor David Crombie, The Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront’s 1992 report provided a good summary of the issues many Torontonians have with the Gardiner Expressway: “The combination of the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway, Lake Shore Boulevard underneath it, and the rail corridor beside it has created a physical, visual, and psychological barrier to the Central Waterfront. It is a constant source of noise and air pollution, a hostile, dirty environment for thousands of people who walk under it daily, and a barrier to thousands of others who risk life and limb to get across or around it. The Gardiner/Lake Shore is not only a road; it is a structure. As it processes traffic, it stunts land use; meant to move us along, it limits our opportunities.” That commission recommended a mixed approach to the Gardiner, where some elevated sections remained, some were moved, and some were buried.

Speaking of burying the Gardiner…

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Construction on the Gardiner Expressway, 1996. Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115149f.

Like clockwork, every few years a plan to bury or replace the freeway emerges. Each plan is initially greeted with relief that the waterfront will soon be rid of what many people perceive as an eyesore and barrier. Just as predictable is the backlash, which usually involves fears about runaway costs and traffic Armageddon during construction.

One of the first serious proposals to knock it down was in the fall of 1983, when Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton asked city staff to investigate burying the Gardiner. Eggleton was supported by Godfrey, who saw a golden opportunity for a new route through the not-yet-redeveloped railways lands to the north. Godfrey feared that “with all the bureaucracy and red tape involved in putting a roadway of that magnitude through, I really wonder whether we’ll all be alive to see it, even if all the money is available.”

The opportunity to use the railway lands soon evaporated, but other ideas abounded. City planning commissioner Stephen McLaughlin described to the Star three plans submitted to the city: “modest” ($25 million to demolish the Jarvis and York ramps and build a new exit at an extended Simcoe Street); “grand” (place the Gardiner in a trench or tunnel between Bathurst and Jarvis); and “visionary” (for $1 billion or so, re-route the Gardiner into a tunnel under Lake Ontario).

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Sam Cass standing on the bridge over the Don Valley Parkway by Riverdale Park, 1971. Photo by Reg Innell. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0125807f.

Such plans were hooey to Sam Cass, Metro roads and traffic commissioner, and staunch defender of the Gardiner. Cass, who still promoted the completion of the Spadina Expressway in 1983, called the Gardiner “a beautiful structure that’s still doing what it was designed to do.” His contention that maintaining it wouldn’t cost much proved incorrect. Cass boasted that the Gardiner required no repair during its first decade-and-a-half and figured once a modestly priced five-year program to fix salt damage was completed, the elevated section wouldn’t require further repair for a quarter-century.

As annual repairs became a reality, calls for the Gardiner’s burial increased, especially as other cities contemplated demolishing their elevated highways. In a lengthy 1988 piece on why the Gardiner should come down, the Globe and Mail’s John Barber likened it to a Cadillac in a scrapyard. As chunks of concrete fell and its steel skeleton rusted, Barber declared “the highway that began life as a heroic symbol of the city’s progress is now just an overflowing traffic sewer.”

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Toronto Star, January 20, 1988.

Among those Barber spoke with about alternative options was developer William Teron, whose company was covering over a section of the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris. Bringing his plan to municipal officials in 1990, Teron proposed an eight-lane Gardiner buried along the waterfront and a revamped, landscaped Lake Shore Boulevard. He promised to deliver the highway in less than three years and cover the $1 billion cost in exchange for development rights for housing and offices along the Gardiner’s former route, which Teron figured would recoup his costs. Naysayers included Metro traffic officials, who warned of cost overruns, overstatement of green space, massive traffic tie-ups during construction, and disruptions to TTC service.

Teron’s plan went nowhere, as have numerous other proposals since then (such as this one from 2013).

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“Bumping the Humber Hump. Robert Balen works on 30 tonne steel beams for a new bridge over the Humber River, which will replace the westbound lanes of the notorious hump on the Gardiner Expressway.” Photo by Boris Spremo, 1998. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115144f.

Until 1998, one of the Gardiner’s distinguishing characteristics was the “Humber Hump.” Created by settling bridgework near the Humber River, it was a roller coaster ride that either thrilled or terrified. One of the best ways to experience the hump was riding near the back of a school bus, where the combination of position and speed would send you flying. During my university daze, I took a drama criticism class which included field trips into Toronto, and my classmates eagerly anticipated who’d hit their head on the roof when we rode over the hump.

But it wasn’t always fun. The hump witnessed several fatal accidents over the years, and going too fast could send your entire vehicle flying. After years of failing to remedy the settling, the bridge was replaced in 1998. The remnants were sent off to the Leslie Spit.

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Demolition of Leslie Street ramp viewed from north side of detour, looking south-east. Photo by Peter MacCallum, January 20, 2001, City of Toronto Archives, Series 572, File 77, Item 4.

By the late 1990s, poor maintenance of the section east of the Don Valley Parkway prompted calls for a teardown. Opposition to the demolition came from two groups: film studios concerned about dust and noise that was factored into the final demo process; and local residents who worried about traffic spilling onto side streets and into the Beaches, even though drivers would be able to follow essentially the same route into the lakeside community. City councillor Tom Jakobek resisted demolition, devising several compromise plans that would have preserved part of the stump. “Cars are an important necessity in this society,” Jakobek noted in 1999. “Why would anyone want to eliminate road capacity anywhere, when it’s located in the middle of an industrial area and people use it?”

But Jakobek was in the minority: most attendees at public deputations wanted it to go away. City council approved its demolition in 1999. Only a few pillars remain, while land opened up for a bike path, big box shopping, and the TTC’s Leslie Barns facility.

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Frederick G. Gardiner, 1961. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 175, Item 17.

“I’ve looked at this darn thing from one end to the other,” Frederick Gardiner observed in 1964, “and I can’t think of anything I would like to change.” Many Torontonians have and will continue to disagree. For years, the arguments over the Gardiner Expressway have boiled down to either maintaining it in some form to prevent excessive disruption to motorists, tear it down and redirect the traffic, or find creative uses to rehabilitate the existing structure.

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The Bentway, as used for exhibits during Nuit Blanche, October 2019. 

The latter has found favour in recent years, leading to artistic projects such as The Bentway. Housing and office towers have grown around the expressway in the core (but please, don’t throw your furniture toward the road!).

For as much as the Gardiner is maligned as a waste of money and an obstacle to the waterfront, I’ll admit it’s still thrilling to cruise into downtown at night along the elevated section, radio cranked to 11 to a song like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” and soak in the lights and cityscape unfolding around you.

As Toronto Life concluded in 1993, “No matter what Toronto decides to do, it will be a prodigiously difficult project, politically and financially. It sounds as if it might require the skills of a politician as powerful and shrewd as, say, Fred Gardiner.”

Sources: Regeneration: Toronto’s Waterfront and the Sustainable City (Toronto: Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, 1992); Toronto ’59 (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1959); Emerald City: Toronto Visited by John Bentley Mays (Toronto: Penguin, 1994); Unbuilt Toronto 2 by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011); the May 4, 1954, May 17, 1956, December 8, 1956, March 23, 1957, July 30, 1957, August 8, 1958, August 11, 1958, December 3, 1959, February 6, 1962, October 20, 1988, May 12, 1999, and May 15, 1999 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 14, 1949, July 8, 1953, January 2, 1954, May 3, 1954, July 2, 1957, November 21, 1973, September 30, 1983, September 13, 1989, April 24, 1990, May 18, 1999, April 28, 2000, May 6, 2000 and July 15, 2000 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 1993 edition of Toronto Life.

Articles I’ve written that were incorporated into this post were originally published by The Grid on March 17, 2012 and July 24, 2012 and Torontoist on February 7, 2014.

Halloween in Toronto, 1978

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Toronto Star, October 31, 1978.

Malabar’s, the costume people, have never been busier than they have during the past couple of weeks, and the reason may provide a dandy little summary of the times we’re in. These times, inarguably, are rotten. The dollar, the family, the nation, the Argos…everything’s falling apart. Hallowe’en, if we’ll let it, gives us a chance to get away from all that. To hide. Fantasize. Escape from reality. Turn into someone—or something—else. – Peter Gzowski, Toronto Star, October 31, 1978.

Talking to staff at Malabar, Gzowski discovered one of 1978’s most popular costumes was one that would be frowned upon for numerous reasons 40 years on: an Arab. “They want to rich,” noted Malabar’s Michael Schilders. “They could just put on a tea-towel, a rope and a tablecloth, but if they come to us they can have gold and silver cords and really looks as if they owned oil wells.”

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Globe and Mail, October 31, 1978.

Also popular that year: masks of Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque, anything Vatican related (the year had gone through three popes) and nun’s habits, especially among pregnant customers. Store staff noted that interest in costumes went up when the economy tumbled (the Great Depression had been especially good for rentals).

Best costume suggestion in the column: “the Blob Who Ate Etobicoke.”

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Toronto Star, October 25, 1978.

Over in the Globe and Mail, columnist Bruce West felt Halloween was going downhill, partly because nobody had the chance to tip over outhouses:

It is my personal theory that Hallowe’en started its downhill trend not long after the advent of inside plumbing brought about the demise of the outdoor privy. There was a time, I’ll have you know, when—particularly in the more rural areas—the humble outhouse was almost as import a symbol of Hallowe’en as the ghastly smile of a flickering pumpkin or even a witch flying by on a broom.

No one was really considered to have really won his spurs as a graduate Hallowe’en prankster until he had at least assisted in the overturning of one outhouse. The owners of these conveniences usually took this annual ordeal in fairly good humour—with the notable exception of one deceitful rascal in my home town who gained the undying hostility of a group of privy-tippers by craftily shifting back his outhouse a few feet, in the early hours of Hallowe’en, in such away that the raiding party, while later approaching their target in the deep darkness, suddenly encountered some mighty poor footing.

The scariest element of modern-day Halloween, according to West, came “when you are confronted by the horrible giant prices of a dwarf bag of hand-out chocolate bars or trick-or-treat apples.”

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Globe and Mail, November 1, 1978.

One candy kids wouldn’t get their hands on was Clikkers tobacco-flavoured gum. The Consumers Association of Canada (CAC) successfully lobbied Zellers to remove the product, which was offered as a seasonal special at some locations. Though it didn’t actually contain tobacco or nicotine, the CAC wondered what the chances were that “children who acquire a taste for tobacco-flavoured gum will be encouraged to try tobacco itself?” An official from Zellers’ head office in Montreal admitted that “based on the calls we’ve had, it just isn’t worth it.” Aspiring smokers had to settle for Popeye candy cigs.

Two Toronto-based animators, John Leach (later known as Jonathan Rogers) and Jean Rankin, created one of the season’s hottest new animated specials. Here’s how The Canadian magazine introduced Witch’s Night Out:

Winnifred, bless her black lace bloomers, is not your average witch. A grande dame with the Seventies style of a stand-up comic, a funky fairy godmother temporarily fallen on hard times, she worries because work isn’t coming in the way it used to; nobody seems to believe in magic anymore. But she still has class, wears expensive underwear, and puts on her makeup every morning. And she can make wishes come true.

Winnifred was named after Leach’s mother, who remarked “Fame at last!” The character was partly inspired by Gilda Radner, who provided her voice (other voices included Catherine O’Hara and Fiona Reid). The cartoon was originally intended for CBC, who sat on it for nearly a year before finally rejecting it. It ended up on NBC, where Radner was starring on Saturday Night Live.

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If you were running dry on costume ideas, you could always check the Star’s “Starship” page for inspiration via its ongoing “Costumes of the World” series. Who knows how many little fishermen from Flanders ran around the streets of Toronto! October 28, 1978.

Halloween night the Toronto tradition of egging drag performers attending balls on Yonge Street continued, which resulted in 90 arrests. “Most of the arrests,” the Star reported, “were for causing a disturbance, drunkenness and breach of the peace.” It was also noted that “one marijuana charge was laid.” Two years later, a crackdown by police and the community began winding down the hate-tinged mayhem.

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Art Eggleton would top the polls in Ward 4, which covered Trinity-Bellwoods and Little Italy. Two years later, he was mayor. Toronto Star, November 1, 1978.

Halloween 1978 also coincided with the municipal election campaign, resulting in some election sign pranks. A Globe and Mail editorial observed that householders were placed “in the position of being promised goodies as they hand goodies over. The trick is to tell the real hobgoblins from those in disguise and to beware of brochures with pins in them.”

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Toronto Star, October 26, 1978.

Fashion then, costumes now: the image above offers a sampling of the outfits one could put together from goods available at the 1978 edition of a long-running Toronto tradition, the Hadassah-WIZO Bazaar, which was promoted throughout the week of Halloween. Held on November 1 at the CNE’s Automotive Building, it was expected to draw 60,000 people looking to buy everything from high fashion to cantaloupe preserves.

Additional material from the October 28, 1978 edition of the Canadian; the October 27, 1978, October 30, 1978, October 31, 1978, and November 1, 1978 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the October 31, 1978 and November 1, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.

Toronto Sun Columnists on the Wrong Side of History Through the Ages

Originally published on Torontoist on February 3, 2017.

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Toronto Sun, November 9, 1980.

In a response to a reader question on Twitter earlier this week provoked by Toronto Sun columnist Tarek Fatah’s comments on the Quebec City mosque shooting, Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale described the Sun as publishing, beyond a decent sports section and solid tabloid-style news coverage, “the country’s worst opinion writers.” While readers can debate Dale’s use of “worst,” the current crop of Sun columnists continues a long tradition of deliberately provocative writing that has shaped the paper since its inception in 1971.

It’s a tradition that hasn’t always landed on the right side of history. To be fair, flipping through the back pages of any newspaper exhumes opinions which would be questionable today. Skeletons among the Toronto press range from George Brown’s attacks on Irish immigrants during the early days of the Globe to unflattering descriptions of minorities in the Star which matched the prejudices of the day.

But the Sun has always stood out for its unapologetic view of the world, which grew from cockiness as the new kid on the block and its ability to connect with its conservative readership. It played upon fears of outsiders, and earned its stripes as a dedicated Cold Warrior by labeling opponents as evil Communists/Marxists/socialists/bleeding hearts/etc.

During the 1970s and 1980s the Sun’s biases regarding anyone who wasn’t white provoked consternation among minority groups, which nearly caused the City to pull its advertising from the paper. An extensive report by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations published in 1987 pulled few punches in its analysis of the paper’s stances: “The sheer volume of racial stereotypes, racism, scapegoating, and the presence of statements that may elicit fear and hatred against racial minorities can leave little doubt that there is considerable prejudice and racism directed toward non-whites and ethnic minorities within the pages of the paper.”

Reading back issues of the Sun, and certain columnists in particular, can be a depressing experience. Beyond the posturing and vitriol, it’s eye-opening to witness the level of contempt writers express for their fellow human beings.

Here are some historic topics where the Sun’s views didn’t stand the test of time, or remain offensive.

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A more enlightened view of Desmond Tutu than some Sun columnists had. Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, June 1, 1986.

South Africa

As the fight against the apartheid regime grew stronger during the 1980s, the Sun was lukewarm on the idea of handing power to the Black majority before they were “ready” to assume control. Given the African National Congress’s ties to Communist organizations, and the track record of post-colonial Africa, Sun editorials conveyed fears that South Africa would become another Marxist hellhole. In the Sun‘s view, all that stood in the way of total chaos were the white Afrikaners. “The hundreds of blacks dying in South Africa are victims of racism, but not by the dominating whites,” a July 1985 editorial observed. “It’s the racism that is the by-product of the class warfare demanded by Marxists and liberals blinded by Marxism.

Barbara Amiel went further, suggesting that progressives couldn’t wait to see a long, bloody war unfold. “The struggle closest to them,” she wrote in August 1985, “actually seems to be their own effort to restrain an unseemly relief that, at last, South Africa might be in for a really good spell of what the rest of the unfortunate people on the African continent have known and are suffering: murder, mayhem and economic disaster.”

Columnist McKenzie Porter all too frequently defended the apartheid regime, seeing it as both the last hope against the Commies and as a benevolent, paternalistic means of looking after the backward Blacks, who “still consult witch doctors and rely on donkey power.” Porter criticized condemnation from the West as springing from “the illusion that all men are equal.”

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Toronto Sun, December 22, 1977.

In his July 24, 1985 column, Porter predicted that “if South Africa gave the vote to every black today it would bring about the destruction of the agriculture, industry, and commerce that are essential to the eventual emancipation of the supposedly oppressed majority.” He also thought that South African Blacks were dumber than their North American counterparts, who’d had the benefit of being in white educational systems for generations. “For reasons palpable to every reader of history,” he observed, “the average South African black, clad though he may be in a collar and tie, still embodies some vestiges of a recent Stone Age past.” Finally, he stated that Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu was “not very bright.”

That particular column was the final straw for Mayor Art Eggleton and his committee on community and race relations, which had noticed the Sun’s less than admirable stands on race in general. The committee threatened to pull city advertising from the paper, which provoked a heated response from Sun publisher Paul Godfrey. He defended the Sun’s writers on the grounds of freedom of the press, and taunted both the mayor and the committee in print. He also noted Porter had visited South Africa, though it was unclear if the trip had been paid for by the regime. Both sides soon cooled the conversation, with Eggleton suddenly declaring the Sun wasn’t so racist after all (a shift Godfrey, a former Metro Chairman, praised as a sign of the mayor’s conciliatory nature).

When Nelson Mandela toured North America in 1990, the Sun was not wowed by the praise showered upon the recently released icon. There was still suspicion of Communist links, along with the behaviour of Winnie Mandela and her bodyguards while he was imprisoned. As David Frum put it, “myth-making has transformed a man who might otherwise be just another African opposition leader into an international celebrity.”

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Comment on John Sewell’s support of Toronto’s gay community during the 1980 municipal election. Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, September 28, 1980.

Homophobia

Let’s be blunt: the Sun was intolerant toward homosexuals during the 1970s and 1980s. From cartoonist Andy Donato’s frequent limp-wristed depictions of gays to editor Peter Worthington’s threat following the 1981 Bathhouse Raids to expose names of anyone rounded up in subsequent police scoops, there was no sympathy to anyone who wasn’t heterosexual.

Perhaps the most homophobic of the lot was Queen’s Park columnist Claire Hoy. In piece after piece, Hoy depicted homosexuals as sad, pathetic creatures. He was convinced that there was an agenda by homosexuals to gain access to classrooms to convert innocent children to their perverted lifestyle. “It is not true that homosexuals want simply to be left alone to do whatever it is they do to each other,” he wrote in January 1978. When a “Gaydays” celebration was held later that year, he wondered why “more Torontonians don’t let them know they’re not welcome here” and when people would “wake up and realize the danger of keeping silent in the face of this creeping, crawling sickness in our society?”

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Typical Claire Hoy column headline. Toronto Sun, October 30, 1979.

Hoy used his QP perch to step into the 1980 municipal election, a campaign the Sunhad no shortage of homophobic commentary on in the wake of mayor John Sewell’s support of the community and George Hislop’s council run. Following the Toronto Board of Education’s decision to allow a homosexual liaison committee to talk with students struggling with their own sexual identity, he listed all of the trustees who “voted to give homosexuals a beachhead.” He urged readers to register their indignation at the ballot box lest the radicals (who he referred to as “dingles”) win.

Hoy went on to serve as the paper’s Ottawa columnist and was forced out after writing one too many columns attacking Brian Mulroney for Godfrey’s taste. A subsequent stint at the Ottawa Citizen ended after he continued to attack the queer community.

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McKenzie Porter on the crapper, a reference to one of his most infamous columns. Globe and Mail, November 2, 1986.

Eugenics

One of the darkest corners of the Sun’s back pages is McKenzie Porter’s ongoing support of eugenics as a solution to society’s ills. While peers commented that his snobbish persona may have been a put-on, his repeated references to sterilization make one wonder how serious he was about other outrageously written columns.

The following excerpt from Porter’s October 25, 1982 column is as chilling an opinion piece as you’ll ever find in a Toronto newspaper. It’s absurd and frightening at the same time.

The only way to rid ourselves of poverty and its related diseases of insanity and crime is by embracing the science of eugenics. This science was held back 100 years because Hitler distorted and pursued its principles in a hideously cruel way. We must remember that Hitler was crazy. We must believe that eugenics may be practiced in a sane and civilized way.

It should not be difficult to persuade genetically unsound indigents to submit them to sterilization if it is pointed out to them that their new condition will permit them unlimited sexual pleasure without bringing upon them the burden of handicapped children. A properly mounted government publicity campaign would result in the submission of the vast majority of unfit people to voluntary sterilization. Some element of compulsion will have to be accepted once the practice of eugenics is adopted. Boards of control manned by doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, clergymen and others should be empowered to order certain people be sterilized.

Porter further suggests that anyone sent to prison for the second time be sterilized, and that all patients admitted to hospital “should be examined for severe hereditary handicaps.”

He continued to write for the Sun until 1990, by which time a column suggesting that no Canadian citizen born outside of the country should be allowed to vote because of a tendency to indulge in ethnic partisanship prompted city council to pull its ads from the paper.

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This Andy Donato cartoon, about the situation in southeast Asia, typifies the paper’s view of Communism, and ran next to a pro-Pinochet editorial. Toronto Sun, January 8, 1978.

Augusto Pinochet

The Sun’s hatred of any government with the faintest left-wing tinge had few bounds. The paper’s mad hate-on for Pierre Trudeau became something of a joke. Columnists like Lubor Zink forever warned about the dangers of Communism. While Zink exposed true atrocities committed by such regimes, his zealous fervour also became a joke.

One fight against the left the Sun really misfired on was its support of Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile. In a 1978 editorial, Chile’s status as a “whipping boy” nation alongside nations like Rhodesia and South Africa was criticized. “Chile’s great sin is to have violently ousted a Marxist government—a rare occurrence,” the paper noted. The piece went on to note how poor Chile was trying to earn a spot among respectable nations while it undid damage blamed on former president Salvador Allende, and how it was ironic China helped them when Canada didn’t. “It is an obscenity to concentrate on the sins of a minor offender while ignoring sins of a major offender.” To which we say it’s also ultimately a sin to brush aside the thousands who disappeared or were tortured during Pinochet’s regime.

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Toronto Sun, September 4, 1977.

After spending years sifting through these opinions, it’s disturbing how there’s been a steady market for this strain of journalism. What really grates, as a study done of depictions of immigration and racism in the Toronto press of the 1970s showed, was that unlike its competitors, the Sun often presented a single worldview, lacking diversity or nuances. Instead of promoting healthy debate around the above issues, or ongoing problems such as community-police relations and where immigrants fit into Canadian society, the Sun frequently promotes divisiveness at the expense of better understanding between people. It’s the easier, more sensational way to go, but it ignores the human cost of such thinking.

Ultimately, future historians will judge whether today’s Sun columnists and editorial writers reflect the beliefs of their readership, have a sense of where the world is heading, or live up to Dale’s criticism of their worth.

Additional material from Power Without Responsibility: The Press We Don’t Deserve by Effie Ginzberg (Toronto: Urban Alliance on Race Relations, 1987); The Little Paper That Grew by Jean Sonmor (Toronto: Toronto Sun, 1993); the October 31, 1985 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the February 4, 1977, January 6, 1978, January 8, 1978, August 25, 1978, September 3, 1980, September 25, 1981, October 25, 1982, July 24, 1985, August 4, 1985, and June 22, 1990 editions of the Toronto Sun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, October 31, 1985.

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Globe and Mail, December 13, 1985.

The report referred to, Power Without Responsibility: The Press We Don’t Deserve, is worth seeking out. Be prepared to be nauseated by some of the excerpted columns (unless your views align with those of the late 1970s/early 1980s Sun).

Godfrey spent the next two months listening to deputations, then wrote a conciliatory letter to the Urban Alliance. In March 1986, the Ontario Press Council dismissed complaints about Porter’s take on South Africa. “Those meetings went on for four, five, sometimes six hours,” Godfrey later recalled. “But I valued them. I always remember that wars are started by a failure to communicate. So I’d take them into the boardroom, give them muffins and coffee and invite them to tell me why they were unhappy with the Sun.”

I suspect present-day Sun management would throw the muffins and coffee at complainants.

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Toronto Sun, February 6, 1989.

While this story didn’t make the final cut, it’s worth bringing it up within the context of the other issues discussed in my piece. This column proved the final straw when it came to McKenzie Porter writing provocatively outrageous things: suggesting that anyone born outside of Canada should be prevented from voting or running for office.

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Toronto Star, February 26, 1989. Note that the wrong date was provided for the offending column.

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Toronto Star, March 3, 1989.

The city’s ad ban lasted two months, before reconsidering after being accused of censorship. Porter was criticized in the Ontario Legislature for the column, and retired from the Sun the following year.

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Toronto Sun, November 13, 1977.

For contextual purposes, here is a typical example of a Claire Hoy column dripping with homophobia. The vitriol in his pieces, which ostensibly were supposed to cover goings-on at Queen’s Park but often degenerated into rants against people Hoy hated, is thick. The language is dehumanizing, referring to his opponents not as people but “creatures.” And yet it is not difficult to imagine these words being used in 2018 in discussions over Ontario’s sex education curriculum.

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Toronto Sun, January 8, 1978.

The pro-Pinochet editorial I referred to. Not unusual during the Cold War era but, given what we now know about the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup in 1973, an editorial that has not aged well.

BEHIND THE SCENES

This was my last non-Historicist piece published by Torontoist, though it could have easily fit within that column. It was a parting gift to outgoing EIC David Hains, who had suggested for some time that I write a piece on the past transgression of the “Little Paper that Grew.” Two more Historicist columns, and a look back at my time writing that particular column, would mark the end of my decade-long run at Torontoist.

I was first exposed to the Sun when my father picked up copies of the paper during m childhood trips to Toronto. It was the first tabloid-sized paper I was exposed to, and I loved the comic book format of the weekend funnies. Those papers made it into my father’s giant clipping collection–I recall photocopies of Douglas Fisher columns explaining the mechanics of parliament being passed around in the grade 9 history class Dad taught.

In university during the mid-1990s, I occasionally bought the Sunday Sun, partly as a joke, partly as a chance to see what the right side of the spectrum was saying, and partly for the Sunday funnies to hang on my dorm room. Two things brought this to an end: the incessant attacks against teachers and other public professionals, and a landlord who cheered on the paper’s taunts. While I have flipped through copies of the paper lying around, I have not paid for one since the end of the 20th century.

Its current incarnation is little more than a vehicle for populist outrage, reconfirming the biases of its readers instead of trying to broaden them, stoking divisions that aren’t necessary and do more harm than good. I ignore it and its writers as much as possible, since I can probably predict from a headline whatever the copy will read.

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Tale of Two Prides

Originally published on Torontoist on June 25, 2015.

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Xtra, June 21, 1991.

An indication of how much Toronto’s Pride celebrations grew during the 1990s: crowd estimates for the 1991 parade ranged from 25,000 (police, mainstream media) to 60,000 (Lesbian and Gay Pride Day Committee). By 1999, that figure rose to over 750,000.

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Globe and Mail, June 28, 1991.

The 1991 parade was the first to be officially proclaimed by the city. Over the ongoing objections of Mayor Art Eggleton, city council voted the previous fall to recognize the growing event. Its approval aligned with a growing sense that the LGBT movement was going mainstream. In a pre-parade profile of activists across the country, the Globe and Mail noted a joke making the rounds that provided a new definition for S&M: “Scarborough and Mississauga.”

Shortly before the parade, the Metro Toronto Police Services Board announced that it would recognize gays and lesbians as a community entitled to policing that was sensitive to its needs, a turnaround from treating such people as sources of drug abuse, sex work, and perversion. “It’s an important step,” declared board chair Susan Eng. “We have come of age and are starting to do what we should have been doing for a long time.”

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Xtra, June 21, 1991.

Eng was among the civic officials and politicians on hand when the proclamation was read prior to the start of the parade on June 30, 1991. Since Eggleton refused to read the document, the duty was performed by councillor Jack Layton. The parade was nearly derailed when it was discovered the permit indicated a 1 p.m. launch instead of 3 p.m. as scheduled. Police reportedly insisted on moving the time to 2 p.m. as a compromise, or else the event would be shut down. While the procession was only supposed to shut down the northbound lanes of Yonge Street, the crowd spilled onto the southbound lanes, effectively closing the entire road. Elsewhere, gay-centric businesses offered entertainment and free meals, and Ryerson’s CKLN debuted live radio coverage of events.

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eye, June 3, 1999.

Flash forward to 1999. Having exploded in size, the parade was now front page news. The Star depicted Mayor Mel Lastman, who’d expressed reservations about attending the year before, gleefully joining councillor Pam McConnell in super-soaking council colleague Kyle Rae. Even the Sun covered the festivities with a limited degree of respect, calling no-show Fred Phelps (who had threatened to disrupt Pride) “a hate-filled nutbar.” As eye put it, the party atmosphere surrounding Pride led to attendees “tripping on a two-day, non-stop, feel-good sensory overload” regardless of their sexual orientation. “If you’re not doing drugs, your face hurts on Monday from the perma-grin.”

Eye also published a suburbanite’s guide to the celebrations, offering advice such as “Woody’s is not a Cheers-themed bar owned by Woody Harrelson.” Some of those coming in from outside the core may have been teenagers drawn by the debut of youth-centric events, such as Fruit Loopz held at Buddies in Bad Times. Seeing teens march along didn’t impress some standing along the sidelines—the Star reported a 50-year-old parent from Peterborough who, when she saw 16-year-old Tina Mollison wander by, told the paper “Just look at that innocent child. What does she know about love and sex, about lesbianism? The parade glamourizes it.” The paper caught up with Mollison. “Parents should give us respect,” she noted. “We know what we want and we know how to go out and get it.”

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eye, June 17, 1999.

Not everything was rosy. A few weeks before Pride, police twice raided the Bijou “porn bar” at Gerrard and Church, leading to charges against 12 patrons. The arrests, along with undercover checks of bar operations, were a reminder that the attitudes which had fostered the bathhouse raids of 1981 were not dead. There were also complaints by some veteran activists that Pride had gone too corporate, diluting its political messages in the name of vendors and corporate sponsorships that offered mainstream respectability.

Additional material from the June 17, 1999 and June 24, 1999 editions of eye; the June 29, 1991 and July 1, 1991 editions of the Globe and Mail; the June 29, 1991 and June 28, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star; the June 27, 1999 edition of the Toronto Sun; and the July 12, 1991 and June 25, 1999 editions of Xtra.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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eye, June 24, 1999. Click on image for larger version.

sun 1999-06-27 editorial

Toronto Sun, June 27, 1999. On one hand, it called Fred Phelps a nutbar. On the other, it defended Mike Harris’s decision not to attend the Pride Parade. I’d expect something even shriller if the incoming premier decides not to attend the 2018 edition.

A History of Toronto’s Many Casino Proposals

Originally published on Torontoist on February 27, 2013.

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Ontario Government Building, September 3, 1928. Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 6196.

When it comes to Toronto, the house odds have not favoured the gaming industry. Call it our deep-seated puritanism, the lingering traces of “Toronto the Good,” or a deeper concern for how gambling affects our community. The current debate over a permanent Toronto casino has roots in past battles, especially when it comes to allowing gambling at Exhibition Place.

Starting with the Western Fair in 1978, the province permitted licensing of gaming rooms at large fairs. CNE officials hoped a casino run during the Ex would fight declining attendance and revenue. The obstacle was persuading opponents that a small gaming room was not the start of a slippery slope towards the horrors associated with gambling.

The chief opponent was Art Eggleton, who, as both an alderman and as mayor, believed the idea tarnished the CNE. “There’s enough gambling, games of chance, that go on at the Exhibition,” he told the Globe and Mail in 1991. “We don’t need casino-type gambling down there. I think it detracts from the family-type atmosphere of the fair.” He feared a rise in crime, often citing Atlantic City’s experience—a bit of a stretch, given the proposals he fought were for a short-run, small-scale gaming room. Eggleton was a consistent opponent. He was eventually the only member of the Exhibition Place board of governors to vote against its 1984 application for a gaming area.

The CNE’s first pitch, made in 1980, involved a blackjack room in the Coliseum with one-dollar-maximum bets. City council’s executive committee rejected the proposal. “When we start basing our revenues on games of chance,” Mayor John Sewell noted, “I think we’re in trouble.” The province dismissed the application, but left the door open for future tries as long as there was general agreement at all levels that a casino would benefit the community.

Female croupiers, 100 blackjack tables, 10 wheels of fortune, and a tasteful country-and-western backdrop made up the CNE’s 1981 application. Metro Toronto council, chaired by current casino-pusher Paul Godfrey, backed the plan. When the City and province rejected this bid, Godfrey accused them of hypocrisy, noting the contradiction of dismissing a casino when few were bothered by the games of chance on the midway, which included crown and anchor games involving money. He claimed the province held two sets of values—puritanical for Toronto, relaxed everywhere else.

To improve its odds, the CNE focused its 1984 application on charity. The proposal called for 50 blackjack tables and eight wheels of fortune to be placed in a renovated annex of the Coliseum. A charity would operate the casino, with proceeds going to the City’s Sesquicentennial Committee. The proposal noted that casinos appealed “to singles, couples and families alike. As such, it fits in well with the CNE’s concept of offering something for everyone.” The City and province once again rejected the application. Godfrey accused the province of playing “a silly little game,” while Eggleton was quoted as saying, “enough is enough.”

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Toronto Star, August 31, 1993.

The CNE’s 1991 bid appeared as doomed as its previous attempts when the City’s executive committee dismissed it without debate. But CNE officials and charities that would benefit from a casino raised such a stink that the issue was reconsidered. Events like a mass rally of nearly 100 charitable organizations at Exhibition Place had the desired effect: on June 24, 1991, the executive committee supported the new application. “Well, whaddya know,” Sun city hall columnist Christina Blizzard declared. “Toronto finally outgrew its painful puberty and teen acne and grew up a whole lot.” The rest of council and the province gave their blessings. Forty charities were drawn out of a hat to be the beneficiaries of the casino, which set up shop that year in a room within Exhibition Stadium.

In early 1992, the province contemplated setting up six permanent casinos across Ontario. Metro Toronto was slated for two. Exhibition Place and Woodbine Racetrack were the frontrunners. After casino legislation was passed in 1993, Premier Bob Rae insisted that the priority was to see how the pilot project in Windsor went before considering proposals for casinos elsewhere. This didn’t do anything to stop the flow of schoarly and journalistic reports on the effects of casinos on Metro Toronto. Metro’s legal department felt Exhibition Place would accommodate a casino without requiring much tinkering with the City’s official plan. Community Services wanted half of the profits of a Toronto casino to go towards improving social programs. Metro Toronto Police didn’t want a third-party company to run any casino and feared a “steady and significant erosion of community standards and tolerances.”

A November 1993 open letter from Metropolitan Toronto Convention and Visitors Association president William M. Duron described a future where no city could afford to go without a gaming centre. “It is generally acknowledged by tourism experts that within 10 to 15 years,” Duron wrote, “cities that do not have casinos will be the exception. As casinos become more commonplace in North America, this unique selling proposition and tourist demand generator will be an expected attraction in a community.” How something that would eventually be ubiquitous could be considered a unique selling point is a good question. Duron also proposed Union Station and Old City Hall as casino sites.

In February 1994, Metro Council voted 18 to 15 against locating a casino here. While casino supporters like Howard Moscoe saw gambling as part of the “fabric of our society,” opponents like Derwyn Shea thought a casino offered little more than low-paying jobs. “What you’ve really found,” Shea noted, “is a way to enrich the hookers and pimps and junkies.” As North York Mayor Mel Lastman put it: “What do we need this headache for?”

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Toronto Star, September 10, 1994.

A $1 billion proposal backed by Las Vegas-based Mirage Resorts emerged during the summer of 1994. Dubbed “The Millenium,” the plan would have transformed land west of the SkyDome into a casino and family entertainment complex. The scheme was promoted by Broadview-Greenwood MP Dennis Mills, who compared the plan to Expo 67. Despite discussions with the federal government, the idea was rejected by the province, which wanted Niagara Falls as the site of its next casino.

This didn’t stop Mills, who regaled the press with his vision of a series of casino/entertainment complexes stretching along the waterfront from Exhibition Place to the eastern harbour. These would feature midways and 360-degree theatres. He was convinced casinos would draw more conventions to town. Among the skeptics was Metro Councillor Brian Ashton, who thought the City had given up enough lakeshore parkland already, to accommodate Harbourfront’s condo towers.

Until the current round of casino discussions, proposals involving Exhibition Place continued to emerge. An idea to move the charity casino into the Ontario Government Building (now the Liberty Grand) was seen as an attempt to impress the province. A 2001 CNE board casino proposal touted the use of profits to fund public transit and waterfront projects. And now we have all the current proposals. Given the lengthy battles Exhibition Place fought for a temporary casino, it would be crazy to rule it out as a possible site for a permanent one.

Additional material from Casino—A Proposal for the 1984 CNE (Toronto: Exhibition Place, 1984), Casino Gambling in Metropolitan Toronto (Toronto: Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, 1993), the December 13, 1979, February 1, 1980, February 5, 1980, January 27, 1981, May 28, 1981, June 12, 1991, July 16, 1994, and August 3, 1994 editions of the Globe and Mail, the May 25, 2001 edition of the National Post, the February 21, 1984, June 21, 1991, March 19, 1992, February 11, 1994, and September 10, 1994 editions of the Toronto Star, and the June 25, 1991 edition of the Toronto Sun.

UPDATE

In May 2013, Toronto City Council voted 40-4 against allowing any new gaming sites in the city.