A Collection of Heroes and Villains

heroes and villains

For most of my time with Torontoist, the holiday season meant rounding up Toronto’s heroes and villains for the year. Some choices were obvious, others were hotly debated during staff meetings. Feeling drained by the time December rolled around, I usually stuck to my comfort zones (heritage matters, media), feeling that other writers were better at articulating hot button cultural and political issues.

It took time for me to grow comfortable with writing opinionated pieces. When I worked for the University of Guelph’s student newspaper, the section editors had the opportunity to write editorials. My lone contribution was one of the weakest, being little more than griping about aggressive PR people I had to deal with while handling the arts section (I was probably too afraid to write anything stronger, given the toxic atmosphere in that office). Later on, I always feared any opinions might come off as too trite, too weak, and too bland for anybody to care about. I can be a slow, deliberate thinker, and it has taken years to develop many of my viewpoints.

Let’s dive into my contributions to Heroes and Villains. I did not contribute during my first two years with the site (2007-2008) and certain I skipped 2009 (though it’s hard to say, given the individual entries have vanished from the interwebs – here’s the list). To replace the original artwork, I’ll use a mix of photos and appropriate vintage illustrations.


“The defendants before the court.” Illustration by Eugene Lampsonius. Oevres illustrées de Balzac, vol. 1-2 by Honoré de Balzac (Paris: Gustave Havard, Maresq et Companie, 1851). Old Book Illustrations.

2010 Villain: Rob Ford’s Campaign Team

Originally published on Torontoist on December 17, 2010.

Pundits and voters who held low opinions of Rob Ford during the municipal election campaign had to admit that his brain trust did a brilliant job of capitalizing on voter anger and the lacklustre campaigns of his opponents to win the mayor’s chair for the outspoken Etobicoke councillor. Beyond appeals to the “little guy” and catchphrases like the focus-grouped “gravy train,” tactics employed in the march to victory by now–Ford Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis and his associates at Campaign Research demonstrated a disconcerting willingness to achieve their goals by any means possible.

When the Ford camp learned the Star possessed the recording of a potentially damaging telephone conversation in which the candidate promised to find OxyContin for constituent Dieter Doneit-Henderson, Deputy Communications Officer Fraser Macdonald jumped into gear—and invented a person, Karen Philby (a.k.a. QueensQuayKaren), a George Smitherman supporter who spouted political views on Twitter. While Philby (whose last name, shared with a Cold War spy, might have tipped off her purpose in life) quickly achieved her intended goal—securing the Ford campaign its own copy of the conversation from Doneit-Henderson—she continued to post tasteful barbs directed at the other candidates (such as referring to Sarah Thomson as a “bitch”).

Philby also proved useful in undermining other candidacies. As “will he or won’t he” stories filled the press regarding John Tory’s intentions, the Ford campaign devised ways to keep him out of the fray, since they figured much of their support would gravitate to Tory if he ran. The methods ran from the mildly amusing (a YouTube video demonstrating Tory’s lack of superpowers when it came to stopping out-of-control gravy trains) to the deceptive: a Ford staffer called into Tory’s CFRB radio show as Philby to attack the host’s integrity.

Now that Ford occupies the mayor’s chair, we wonder what further shenanigans will be deployed to sway public opinion or neutralize opponents. Will a “Gloria Burgess” or “Donna MacLean” step forward to try to embarrass or derail Ford’s enemies? If the campaign was a preview of what’s to come, Ford’s key staff may score points among hardcore devotees and political junkies for the cunning of their tactics, but also further deepen cynicism about politicians in general and about City Hall in particular. We hope what we saw on the campaign trail does not foreshadow four years of dirty politics that use up energy that would be better expended solving the problems of the mayor’s cherished taxpayers.

UPDATE: The Rob Ford era…le sigh. When John Tory won the mayoralty in 2014, one of his campaign advisers was Nick Kouvalis.

ohq-pictures-s-r-6 william lyon mackenzie small

Portrait of William Lyon Mackenzie. Toronto Public Library.

2010 Hero: Shawn Micallef

Originally published on Torontoist on December 22, 2010.

In the foreword to his book, Stroll, Shawn Micallef notes that Torontonians have convinced themselves that our city is underwhelming compared to those world-class ones, such that “we don’t expect to turn the corner and see beauty or be amazed.” Yet Micallef, in an ever-growing number of media outlets (Eye WeeklySpacingYonge Street), uses his sharp observational skills to discover the city’s hidden treasures. In a year in which the media, politicians, and other naysayers suggested that everything in Toronto is broken, Micallef’s curiosity and keen interest in Toronto’s virtues injected a necessary and refreshing optimism.

Stroll, published this year, compiles stories drawn from Micallef’s psychogeographical walks across the city, ranging from the parking lots of Pearson Airport to the tip of the Leslie Spit. Readers gain a sense of the sheer size of the city and are taken to unexpected spots, like the middle of Highway 401 above Hogg’s Hollow. The stories he tells in the book, along with those featured in his Eye columns, weave together history and urbanism, and empathize with the residents of the locales he wanders through.
Micallef’s writing acknowledges the suburbs without denigrating them or deepening the divide between the inner and outer city. Instead, he creates connections between these geographies, mapping the relationships between all who inhabit the GTA. When he went to Etobicoke to cover one of Rob Ford’s campaign barbecues for Eye, Micallef did not mock or demonize those attending, as a journalist for a downtown-based alt-weekly might stereotypically be tempted to do, but portrayed the attendees as normal human beings enjoying their evening. While Micallef irritated several followers on Twitter for not etching those around him as illiterate cavemen, as though the writing were already on the wall, the piece demonstrated his ability to see beyond the echo chamber and understand why people might support somebody who most of his audience finds repulsive.

Micallef’s impish sense of humour was comedic relief during the long, dreary municipal election campaign. For most of the year, he successfully disguised himself as the city’s firebrand first mayor on Twitter: @rebelmayor. While other observers defined the negative tone of the race, @rebelmayor defiantly functioned as a court jester whose mock campaign updates and serious barbs at candidates (those most voters would have also aimed muskets at if given the opportunity) provided a release for the frustrations of the electorate. Though @rebelmayor has been retired for the moment, Micallef’s commentary continues under his own handle on Twitter: after Ford officially assumed office, Micallef encouraged Torontonians to act on their libertarian impulses regardless of how silly they were.

Given how the next four years at City Hall are promising to shape up, we’ll need all the comic relief we can find. Toronto will also need more people like Micallef who are not afraid to defy the defeatists and express what they love about the city.

UPDATE: As of 2018, Micallef is a columnist with the Toronto Star. @rebelmayor pops up once in a while.

Here are the ultimate winners of the competition, along with links to all of the entries.


The Telegram, September 14, 1965.

2011 Hero: City Hall Deputants

Originally published on Torontoist on December 12, 2011.

One of Rob Ford’s major accomplishments during his first year in office has been to provoke greater engagement in civic government. The mayor’s zeal for cutting City services has energized citizens to defend programs they believe are vital to Toronto’s well-being. If there was a point when any honeymoon Ford had was over, it was during the deputations given at the marathon Executive Committee session in July. As we summed up at the time, “It was the most important slumber party held in Toronto in years.”

Over the course of almost 24 hours on July 28 and 29, 169 citizens commented on service cuts proposed in the Core Service Review report. Speakers were not the lazy, unemployed types that several executive committee members attempted to portray them to be. Many had never addressed city council before and endured insults and reductions in their speaking time. From teary-eyed teens to neurosurgeons, the deputants represented all corners and social strata of the city.

Among the highlights was a speech dripping in Swiftean satire from retired educator Mary Trapani Hines. Her performance quickly went viral, inspired the “yellygranny” tag on Twitter, and possibly encouraged more people to go to City Hall to witness the rest of the session. Other theatrics included a visit from Santa, and puppet show that caused Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti to declare that some deputants were disrespecting council.

But it was councillors like Mammoliti who were being disrespectful. While claiming it was a great exercise in democracy, Mayor Ford paid scant attention to the speakers. Attempts to thin the deputant ranks ranged from running an all-night session to Mammoliti’s insistence that City staff determine if disabled participants were faking their incapacities. These obstacles mattered little when the hardcore Fordites were shown for the fools they were as the testimonials rolled on and a celebratory spirit developed within City Hall.

In the months since these deputations, opposition to the Ford administration’s brain trust has gained momentum as other citizens gained the confidence to fight them—witness the success of CodeBlueTO in derailing a new vision for the waterfront. Another marathon Executive Committee session in September saw an almost equal number of people speak. Early indications are that the voting on proposed City budget cuts won’t go smoothly. Most importantly, the deputants showed that Torontonians aren’t accepting the Ford Nation vision of them as mere taxpayers but instead are citizens who care about the services that make this city their home.

UPDATE: Giorgio Mammoliti was defeated in the 2018 municipal election. It will be interesting to see if the repercussions of Premier Doug Ford’s downsizing of city council and other acts against the city will cause a similar cycle of public pushbacks in 2019 and beyond.


“Compositor at his case.” Illustrated by E. Bourdelin. Les grandes usines, volume 1 by Julien Turgan (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1875). Old Book Illustrations.

2011 Villain: Sun Media

Originally published on Torontoist on December 21, 2011.

When the Toronto Sun sought a new comment page editor in October (a job filled by former Rob Ford press secretary Adrienne Batra), one requirement was an understanding of the paper’s self-mythologized role as “an organization with edge and attitude that sticks up for the little guy.” Problem is, Sun Media’s shameless support of right-wing politicians who gut programs supporting the vulnerable and who distort facts to play to their ideological base is screwing the little guy.

Decisions to pull its papers out of the Ontario Press Council and to mercilessly attack the CBC reveal a desire to be accountable to no one, especially when Sun Media’s properties bully those they perceive as different or not aligned with their world view. Their refusal to apologize for running a transphobic ad during the Ontario provincial election reconfirmed the organization’s perennially poor relations with the queer community. April’s launch of the Sun News Network brought a Fox News mentality to Canada’s airwaves, complete with guest-haranguing anchors. Krista Erickson’s vicious attack on dancer Margie Gillis for receiving government grants, which Sun Media’s corporate parent Quebecor has been known to accept, prompted thousands of complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

The Gillis incident illustrates Sun Media’s desperation to grab attention by any means. Despite the Sun’s “Welcome to Hell” cover following Dalton McGuinty’s re-election, a ring of fire hasn’t encircled Ontario. While most of Jack Layton’s political opponents paid their respects during the public outpouring of grief following his death, Sun News Network outfitted provocateur Ezra Levant with a garish orange wig and cans of Orange Crush while he and Michael Coren mocked people’s genuine feelings.

To the surprise of few, the Sun emerged as an unofficial City Hall mouthpiece this year. The paper and its City Hall columnist Sue-Ann Levy share the Ford administration’s view of Torontonians as taxpayers first, citizens who appreciate social services, the arts, and fire protection second. Levy’s unwavering support of the gravy hunt and her sycophantic attacks on administration opponents make us wonder if secretly she’s a satirist pulling an elaborate joke on everyone.

But it’s Sun Media’s consumers who are being played for fools. By ratcheting up the outrage to appeal to those who hate to see anyone receive any (perceived) advantage over themselves, and creating resentment of any use of public funds for purposes that its readers feel provide no direct personal benefit, Sun Media’s properties appeal to the worst in human nature. They prey upon our anger and foster a fear of those who don’t share their views or fit into their preferred societal norms. Sun Media’s revered “little guy” would do better to educate himself elsewhere on the nuances of issues that affect him than be patronizingly urged to direct his frustrations in destructive ways.

UPDATE: Postmedia bought the Sun papers in 2014. Sun News Network folded in early 2015. As the Toronto Sun was the heir to the Telegram upon that newspaper’s demise, it can be argued The Rebel was SNN’s offspring. The outrage expressed by the Sun has only grown shriller since this article was written.

Roundups of 2011’s other heroes and villains.


Checking out the former location of centre ice in the Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaws, November 2012. 

2012 Hero: Maple Leaf Gardens

Originally published on Torontoist on December 9, 2012.

It probably comes as a relief to many hockey fans that Ryerson University has been using part of Maple Leaf Gardens as an arena since the Mattamy Athletic Centre opened in September. The reminders of the building’s past are all around you: from the recreation of the old marquee above the entrance, to the walls of photos of memorable moments, to the row of old seats lining the wall by the escalator.

At street level, the Loblaws store, which opened in November 2011, also mixes past and present. Beyond the wall of cheese and specialty food counters, the store’s pillars commemorate important dates in Gardens history. You can look at old newspaper wrestling ads while sitting down with a coffee. Centre ice is quietly marked with a red dot in the middle of aisle 25, though we hope staff haven’t been called too many times to clean up broken bottles of soy sauce from the adjoining shelf. There’s a hanging sculpture made from a jumble of salvaged arena seating. Even the parking garage is decorated with names of sports teams from the past.

The current state of Maple Leaf Gardens is a large-scale example of what can happen when a heritage building’s new owners embrace the structure’s past, rather than treat it with token recognition. Even future bookings, such as the upcoming Ontario Liberal leadership convention, harken back to the political events that regularly graced the Gardens. The site’s deep resonance with the public probably helped in its renewal. One can only imagine the outrage if the Gardens had suffered the fate of 81 Wellesley Street, which was suddenly knocked down in January before it could receive a heritage designation.

For years after the Toronto Rock played their last game there in 2000, we wondered if Maple Leaf Gardens was going to rot away. Former owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment might have been satisfied with that fate, given its reluctance to sell the Gardens to anyone who posed the remotest threat to the Air Canada Centre’s event bookings. As recently as last year, MLSE filed a lawsuit against Ryerson to prevent the university from using the name “Maple Leaf Gardens” for promotional purposes. Ultimately MLSE’s obsession with the bottom line won’t prevent the public from referring to the building by that name: we still call the Rogers Centre “SkyDome,” after all.

Besides, as long as the NHL lockout continues, the Gardens can boast it has hockey games. The Air Canada Centre can’t.

UPDATE: The NHL lockout ended the following month.


“The shriek of Timidity.” “The defendants before the court.” Illustration by Gustave Doré. The days of chivalry, or the legend of Croquemitane by Ernest L’Épine (New York: Cassell Petter and Galpin, c. 1866). Old Book Illustrations.

2012 Villain: Extreme NIMBYism

Originally published on Torontoist on December 10, 2012.

Condos will destroy neighbourhoods, blot out the sun, and reduce my property values. Rapid transit lines in the middle of wide suburban streets and bike lines on busy downtown arteries will cripple my commute by minutes. Change will kill my comfortable lifestyle and bring strange new people into my community.

Those are effectively the arguments provided by the loudest, NIMBYest opponents of building and transit projects around the city. While there are many people who offer reasoned, carefully thought-out arguments for and against new construction plans, they are often drowned out by those driven by fear, innuendo, and sound bites. The result over the past year has seen ugly battles in neighbourhoods stretching from Humbertown to the Beach.

There is little space left within the city to develop the classic single-family homes that characterized Toronto’s neighbourhoods until the middle of the 20th century. To cope with an ever-increasing population, the city needs to build up. This does not mean 45-storey towers everywhere: smaller-scale projects like the proposed six-storey condo causing havoc in the Beach provide one solution. Yet, to hear the loudest opponents of that project, even a small condo will destroy the community’s character.

What these people forget is that Toronto neighbourhoods have changed before: Jarvis and Sherbourne streets were once the preserve of the ultra-wealthy, Cabbagetown was a slum, Liberty Village was industrial, and the suburbs were farmland or small settlements. Even if they benefitted from a wave of gentrification that shaped their neighbourhood into the comfortable community they know now, these people expect things to remain static. Like it or not, the “villages” they live in are part of the city and cannot stay removed from its overall infrastructure issues.

The true ugliness of the loudest NIMBYs emerges when the economic homogeneity of their neighbourhood is challenged, prompting fear of what even a slightly more economically diverse neighbourhood might mean. At one community meeting regarding Humbertown recently, one proponent of a proposed residential development was told to “get a job” when he argued it would keep area prices affordable. That kind of fear is ugly, and unfair.

In these cases all parties—tenants, homeowners, developers, designers, activists, and bureaucrats—need to put kneejerk, defensive, and reactionary responses aside and work together, to arrive solutions that benefit whole neighbourhoods in the long run. Painful as the process can be, it’s better to work the kinks out of a development proposal than obstinately block it, and better to accept that change is a healthy part of life in a healthy city than to reject even small alterations to the landscape as gross betrayals.

UPDATE: Roundups of 2012’s other heroes and villains.


2013 Hero: Church Street Parklets

Originally published on Torontoist on December 30, 2013.

A parklet is, as the name suggests, a teeny tiny baby park. Generally an extension or reuse of existing space, like a sidewalk or a parking spot, it’s a small sliver of the street that’s used to provide greenery and public enjoyment. As we observed earlier this year: “The idea isn’t to promote recreation. Instead, the goal is to reclaim space for pedestrians and idlers and bring vibrancy back to streets that have been dominated by automotive traffic. Building a parklet is a means of creating a sidewalk cafe atmosphere, even—especially—in places where there aren’t any sidewalk cafes.”

A series of parklets was installed this summer along Church Street, in Church-Wellesley Village, as a test run for similar street infrastructure initiatives planned for World Pride in 2014. Backed by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) and the local BIA because of its constructive use of public space and potential to boost local businesses, the project found sponsors in Home Depot and a carpenter’s union. They were installed in a flash, as well: to observers like the Star’s Christopher Hume, their speedy implementation marked a break from the city’s traditionally timid approach to such experimentation.

Beyond offering lounging space from which to watch the city pass by, the parklets offer a glimpse of how we can make streets more amenable to all. Traffic flow improves when fewer drivers block the road with complicated parallel-parking manoeuvres; friends running into each other can move into a parklet to talk without disrupting the pedestrian flow or inducing sidewalk rage.

We’d be happy if similar initiatives to reclaim public space spread across the city. While there’d inevitably be complaints that losing a handful of parking spots would provoke a disaster of St. Clair-ish proportions, we suspect most people would latch on to the parklets—perhaps then, most complaints would take the form of sighing over filled seats.

UPDATE: While parklets didn’t return to Church Street after 2013, they made summer appearances on Elm Street for several years.


Goad’s map of Corktown area, 1884. 

2013 Hero: Corktown Common

Originally published on Torontoist on December 31, 2013.

The appeal of Corktown Common is as simple as getting to hear the rhythm of frogs who live there. The chorus of croaks emerging from its marshes on a hot summer night temporarily transports you from a heavy construction zone to somewhere far from the city lights.

Though the park won’t be finished until 2014, the sneak preview we enjoyed this summer demonstrates how aesthetic, environmental, and recreational needs can be realized and met in a space Torontonians can be proud of. Adults appreciate the effort Waterfront Toronto made to create a varied green landscape; kids can run wild up and down the knolls, glide down the built-in slides, or go for relaxing swings; cyclists riding the Don or Martin Goodman trails are able to fill their water bottles or take a stretch. (We also recommend just lying on the grassy field and staring up at the clouds). When residents move into the condos rising to the west, we imagine the park will become a community gathering place, an oasis amid the desert of concrete and glass.

July’s intense downpour tested one of the park’s major purposes, which is to function as a berm by protecting downtown from the effects of flooding along the Don River. It passed the test, holding back the waters that trapped commuters and motorists in the lower Don Valley.

Corktown Common demonstrates the viability of Waterfront Toronto’s efforts to improve our lower shoreline, do so in a way that’s enjoyable as well as functional—and in the process, increases our excitement about the many other projects they still have in the works.

UPDATE: It’s still a great park.

I don’t remember the reason why I didn’t contribute a villain in 2013 – either I was nearing my fill of the City Hall gong show by that point, or felt it was better to stick to positive contributions.

Roundups of 2013’s other heroes and villains.


Grounds of Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Cultural Centre, May 2015.

2014 Hero: The Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Cultural Centre

Originally published on Torontoist on December 22, 2014.

The need for an institution such as the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre, which opened in September, was brought into relief during this year’s municipal election. Anti-Muslim incidents, including sign defacing and slurs, underlined the usefulness of a bridge-building complex. Though bigoted louts probably won’t venture near it, the complex’s role as a cultural centre has great potential to, according to its mission statement, “foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage. Through education, research, and collaboration, the Museum will foster dialogue and promote tolerance and mutual understanding among people.”

Though controversial in some circles for bringing about the destruction of John B. Parkin’s 1960s modernist Bata Shoes Head Office, the complex at the Eglinton Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway has the potential to become a new architectural landmark—much as Mies van der Rohe’s iconic steel and glass Toronto-Dominion Centre did after replacing the Beaux Arts–influenced Bank of Toronto headquarters 50 years ago. Like that project, the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre has architectural heavy hitters behind it, including Fumihiko Maki, Charles Correa, and Moriyama and Teshima.

“Don Mills once was a locus for innovation in architecture and planning,” Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic noted, “with offices and warehouse buildings designed by some of Canada’s top architects in the 1960s. That modernist legacy has been badly diluted by new buildings, but the absurdly fine quality of the museum and Ismaili Centre will set a new standard.”

The items displayed in the museum, which has been touted as the first in North America devoted solely to Islamic art, literally provide a colourful take on the culture. Among the most impressive items are painted, lavishly illustrated manuscripts. Cross-cultural influences stand out, whether through works inspired by local cultures or in Iranian paintings that would not have looked out of place in Renaissance Europe.

For once, Toronto may have received just the kind of world-class institution it covets.

pictures-r-2911 fort york 1885 small

Fort York, 1885. Toronto Public Library.

2014 Hero: The Fort York Neighbourhood

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2014.

For years, it seemed as if Frederick Gardiner had had the last laugh. Though attempts to move Fort York to make way for the Gardiner Expressway failed during the 1950s, the historical site’s location, hemmed in by traffic jams in the middle of an industrial neighbourhood, did it few favours. But thanks to recent developments, the old military grounds now sit at the heart of a revitalized area of the city.

The big news from Fort York itself was the opening of its new visitor centre in September. Though still incomplete, the structure offers a visually stunning space for exhibits and other educational activities. The result of a partnership between Vancouver’s Patkau Architects and Toronto’s Kearns Mancini Architects, it has been described by the Globe and Mail as “part building, part landscape” due to its string of steel rectangular panels.

This year’s edition of Nuit Blanche took advantage of the space within the fort’s grounds (even if the entrances did create bottlenecks), as well as nearby parks such as Canoe Landing. These green spaces offer a place of respite for visitors and incoming residents amid the condo towers rising nearby—and more are in the works, including Mouth of the Creek Park. The chain of parks creates public space and pedestrian corridors, even if the Ford administration did manage to stymie progress through actions such as delaying the construction of a bridge to Garrison Common.

To serve the community’s creative, intellectual, and social needs, the Toronto Public Library opened a two-storey branch across from the fort in May. The branch offers amenities such as a digital innovation hub (complete with 3D printing) and architectural features such as wooden ceiling beams that honour the area’s historic wharves—and it has filled the large library desert that was created by the closure of the Urban Affairs Library in 2011.

While the neighbourhood emerging around Fort York will experience growing pains, it seems poised to integrate itself at last into the fabric of the city.

olivia chow cartoon donato

Cartoon of Olivia Chow by Andy Donato, originally published in the Toronto Sun.

2014 Villain: Not-So-Latent Bigotry on the Campaign Trail

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2014.

“Diversity Our Strength.” Toronto’s official motto reflects our idealized image of the city as a shining beacon of multiculturalism and tolerance. Yet, as Rob Ford’s mayoralty proved, a significant segment of the population finds bigotry and divisiveness palatable.

Public displays of intolerance marred the recent municipal election campaign. During the mayoral race, Olivia Chow faced a steady stream of slurs about her ethnicity. Some questioned her speaking ability, referencing her accent and the slow speed of her talking—the latter the result of partial facial paralysis. During a debate at York Memorial High School, a heckler told Chow to go back to China. The Sun lowered the conversation by publishing an Andy Donato cartoon depicting a Mao-suited Chow riding the coattails of her late husband Jack Layton (the paper lamely defended it by claiming it always depicted NDPers in the garb preferred by historic Chinese dictators). Whatever your opinion of Chow’s campaign, these attacks were despicable.

So too was the anti-Muslim bigotry that reared its head in ward races. Running in the heart of Ford Nation, Ward 2 candidate Munira Abukar saw her campaign signs defaced with messages such as “Go Back Home.” In Ward 10 (York Centre), TDSB trustee candidate Ausma Malik was targeted by opponents who tried to depict her as a supporter of fundamentalists. Candidates also reported car window smashings and garbage tossed on volunteers.

In the wake of these incidents, front-running candidates had little or nothing to add. As Torontoist’s Desmond Cole observed, “If diversity is our strength, why do political candidates believe they will lose ground for publicly condemning racism?” Pandering to the basest instincts of some voters encourages the ignorant and intolerant and demeans our public discourse—and so does remaining silent.

UPDATE: Roundups of 2014’s other heroes and villains.


The City, June 18, 1978.

2015 Villain: Paul Godfrey

Originally published on Torontoist on January 4, 2016.

Since debuting as a fresh-faced, twenty-something North York city councillor in 1964, Paul Godfrey has, for better or worse, played a key role in shaping modern Toronto. Since early crusades against “sip n’ sex” at fast food drive-ins, Godfrey has rarely shied away from controversy. During half-a-century in the public eye, he became a consummate networker and backroom operator, especially in local Conservative circles. He often jokes about a line his mother told him as youngster: “When you have your choice in life between smart and lucky, take lucky all the time.”

That luck produced an impressive string of top-level jobs: chairman of Metropolitan Toronto, publisher/CEO of the Toronto Sun, president/CEO of the Blue Jays, chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, chair of the board of trustees of RioCan, and now president/CEO of Postmedia. But his track record has sometimes raised questions regarding whose interests he works for. This is a guy who promoted amalgamation, Mel Lastman, and our desperate need for a casino.

This year was not one of Godfrey’s better ones. His ham-fisted support of the Conservatives during the federal election campaign made a laughingstock of the country’s largest newspaper for the Tories regardless of the opinions of local editorial staff. Andrew Coyne resigned as comment editor of the National Post after a column was spiked for his support of another party. Reeking of desperation, the front page of the chain’s papers bore a Tory attack ad during the final weekend of the campaign. Readers and employees were disgusted, while the competition (including Toronto Star chair of the board John Honderich) had a field day attacking Godfrey’s disregard for freedom of the press.

While Postmedia newsrooms were slashed and its papers hemorrhaged circulation, Godfrey and other officials didn’t exactly share in the pain. A total of $925,000 in bonuses was paid to its top six executives, some of which stemmed from the acquisition of Sun Media, which closed this spring. The optics of these payments, including the $400,000 given to Godfrey, did little to improve Postmedia’s optics in an industry in crisis. He was paid a total of $1.76 million for his trouble, thus living up to his mother’s adage about luck.

Godfrey has enjoyed a long run wielding the levers of power. It’s time to turn them over to somebody else.

UPDATE: As of 2018, Godfrey is still at Postmedia, where he continues to draw a healthy paycheque.

Roundups of 2015’s heroes and villains.

I declined to contribute to 2016’s batch, which proved to be the final edition. By that point I was only writing Historicist for the site, slowly edging toward my decision to leave Torontoist for good.

What would a 2018 edition of Heroes and Villains look like? A few candidates would be obvious. Doug Ford would be high on the villain side, for any number of reasons. I put out a call for suggestions via Facebook and Twitter, and here’s what came back:
2018 Heroes
Ulli Watkiss
Tanya Talaga
Kyle Lowry
Austin Matthews
Overdose prevention activists
Candidates in the 47-ward council race
Chanty Marostica
2018 Villains
Doug Ford
Ontario Proud
Dean French
Faith Goldy
Giorgio Mammoliti
Sidewalk Labs
Sky Gilbert

Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section.









Touring the Pan Am Athletes’ Village

Originally published on Torontoist on July 9, 2015.

It Takes a Village… from Giordano Ciampini on Vimeo.

 It’s easy to simultaneously feel impressed and cynical while wandering the CIBC Pan Am/Parapan Am Athletes’ Village. Impressed by the transformation of industrial land into what will hopefully become a thriving new neighbourhood. Cynical about elements of the presentation over 10,000 participants will experience, and why we rely on such events to speed up local improvements.

For those accessing the site in the West Don Lands, the journey begins at “Welcome Centre” on Trinity Street. In this case, “welcome” means entering a large white tent to be greeted by a re-enactment of the airport security experience. Once checked and registered, it’s a quick trip out the back door into the village proper.

The first attraction is the plaza at the southwest corner of Front and Cherry. Athletes can socialize with friends and family in this open space without leaving the confines of the village. As each country arrives on the grounds, a flag-raising ceremony will occur. Besides daily live entertainment, the plaza offers a mini strip mall. Lead sponsor CIBC will mix coffee and provide cash machines onsite. Peering into the window of the Loblaws pop-up store, we noticed familiar red discount stickers, making us wonder if the grocery giant will offer deeper discounts on President’s Choice goodies than usual. A fake bedroom will allow media to interview athletes in a homey setting, sparing the competitors from showing off the secrets of their private quarters.

There’s even a hair and nail salon, which isn’t as eye-rolling as it seems. “It sounds silly,” former Olympic swimmer and TO2015 organizing committee member Julia Wilkinson noted on the media tour, “but in order to perform at your best, the athletes want it to be like their regular routine.”

Kitty corner from the plaza is a venue which definitely fits into an athlete’s routine: the Cooper Koo Family Cherry Street YMCA. The 82,000 square foot facility offers workout equipment, a pool, and other facilities to prep the competitors. It also includes mysterious office spaces such as the “Incubator of Awesomeness” room. While that won’t stick around post-games, the Y’s impressive offerings should draw users from the new developments, along with residents of nearby areas like Corktown, Leslieville, and south Riverdale.

Heading east along Front Street, athletes will enjoy two public art installations overseen by Waterfront Toronto (a third will be ready next year). Tadashi Kawamata’s Toronto Lamp Posts was inspired by the artist’s observation of the different styles of street lamps across the city’s neighbourhoods. A bundle of posts are clustered together like a game of pick-up sticks. The other work, Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins’ Water Guardians, features giant blue figures with LED eyes standing atop bouncy playground surfacing kids of all ages will enjoy.

Tapping into one’s inner child, or fierce competitive spirit, will be displayed in the games tent. Participants will cut loose via air hockey, foosball, pinball, pool, and sit-down video game classics—what will be the record Pan Am high school for Ms. Pac-Man?

There will also be opportunities to goof around in the athlete’s lounge, whether it’s making faces in the instant photo booth or figuring out how to get in and out of the jumbo hammocks. Both of these activities may be accomplished with the help of a drink from a drink counter serving nothing but Glacéau Vitaminwater.

The lounge has been dubbed “The Cabin,” part of an overall village theme that evokes cottage country for participants—murals throughout the site reinforce the rustic theme. Adirondack/Muskoka chairs rule the landscape, from rows of them on the green across from the lounge, to the monster-sized one in the plaza. On the plus side, athletes will never experience the joy of weekend traffic to Muskoka. But it makes one wonder why, given all that Toronto has to offer, organizers of international events are addicted to bringing a touch of the cottage to the city. It’s also hard not to be reminded of the last time such an event tried to recreate cottage country: the fake lake at the G20 summit.

For those who can’t live without man-made bodies of water, participants will be the only people allowed into Corktown Common until late August. The decision to close one of the city’s best new parks to the public for most of the summer for exclusive, secure Pan Am use sends mixed messages about the relation between the games and ongoing city life. Commuters upset with dealing with games-spawned traffic chaos may be tempted to storm the park.

For village residents, experiencing the city might only extend as far as enjoying a great view of the downtown skyline, and studying banners within the main dining hall, which depict local landmarks like Honest Ed’s. With exception of the unending salad bar, which honours Niagara, the serving stations are named after Toronto neighbourhoods. Little Italy offers pasta and pizza, St. Lawrence specializes in grilled meats ranging from chorizo to lamb chops, and Spadina provides Asian fare. Anti-big box activists in Kensington Market may be disturbed to learn that their stomping grounds have been dubbed “Kensington Power Market.” The selection of food is impressive, catering to all diet types. The cottage country influence is less evident here than elsewhere in the village; as far as we can tell, Weber’s burgers aren’t on the menu.

The athletes will sleep in future condos whose current décor would warm an IKEA designer’s heart. Everything so screams IKEA that only the Swedish product names are missing. We can’t wait to get our hands on “Atlet” green comforters illustrated with outlines of sporty types. George Brown College might be tempted to keep some around for its new student residence on the grounds.

While the atmosphere in the athletes’ residences may be relaxed, we suspect the trailers housing the polyclinic will be buzzing as injured competitors are brought in. A full range of onsite medical services, from a family pharmacy to a mobile MRI unit, will relieve city hospitals of the need to care for participants.

During a dining hall press conference on media day, Mayor John Tory was asked why it takes major events such as Pan Am to push forward projects like the West Don Lands and the Union Pearson Express. Tory replied that when he was asked why he backed previous Olympic or exposition bids, his answer was “deadlines.” “It is human nature,” the mayor noted, “to put off these things until you can no longer put them off.”

But why should we rely on these spectacles to rouse politicians out of their inertia? Just because glamour, especially athletic glory, isn’t attached to a transit line or land redevelopment doesn’t make those projects less vital to the functioning of the city. An international spotlight shouldn’t be the only reason we put aside the eternal arguments which slow down major city improvements.

The athletes’ village is a nice way to break in a new neighbourhood. We just shouldn’t wait for the next international event to rehearse similar areas in the future.

The Don Runneth Over

Originally published on Torontoist on July 10, 2013.


Flooding along the Don River, north of the Wilton Avenue Bridge (present-day Dundas Street), February 26, 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 32.

From cars marooned on the Don Valley Parkway to passengers stranded on a GO train near Bayview Avenue and Pottery Road, Monday night’s storm reminded Torontonians of the Don Valley’s susceptibility to flooding. Enacting preventative measures for sudden onslaughts of water along the Don River has a mixed track record, though a few projects offer hope for the future.

Since the mid-19th century Torontonians have dealt with flooding along the Don and its branches. During that time period, ice jams and spring thaws overflowed onto the river’s flood plain, making businesses and residents along it miserable. Adding rainfall to either of those conditions had a way of aggravating these problems. Take the flood that occurred on February 25, 1918. Following a heavy thunderstorm, a strong gale sent water and ice spilling over the Don’s banks. The Canadian Northern Railway yards were quickly buried under three feet of water. “Hundreds of freight cars are standing in the flood,” the Star reported the following day, “in most cases submerged only up to the floor, but in a number of cases fully half underwater.” Employees caught in the flood spent the night in stranded passenger cars before being rescued.

Flooding wasn’t helped by the drainage of the marsh at the bottom of the river during the early 20th century to create the Port Lands. The rerouting of the river through the Keating Channel didn’t account for the volume of silt deposits flowing down the Don. As the silt was no longer easily absorbed into the harbour, annual dredging was required to maintain a proper depth for shipping vessels. The practice continued until 1974, when concerns from environmentalists about dumping toxic sludge in the lake brought it to a halt.

Despite the periodic floods, little thought was given to methods of mitigating their effect apart from hoping rebuilt structures could withstand them. Not until the fatal fury of Hurricane Hazel in 1954 were flood control measures seriously considered. In 1959, the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (MTRCA) produced a plan calling for the acquisition of flood plains, improvements to river channels, the creation of a flood warning system, and the construction of a series of dams and reservoirs across Metro Toronto. Under the plan, the Don and its branches would receive four dams, two of which could be used to create recreational lakes.


G. Ross Lord Dam, after 1966. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 20.

The plan was never fully realized because of cost and political squabbling. Along the Don, only the Finch Dam, soon renamed after MTRCA chair G. Ross Lord, was built. Scheduled to be built during the 1970s, work began in 1965 to protect construction on the Ontario Science Centre, downstream. As the dam neared completion in 1973, MTRCA officials admitted that while deaths would be reduced, the structure wouldn’t prevent flooding if a Hazel-type storm hit.


A decade of fighting over resuming dredging of the Keating Channel exploded in 1986 when three floods closed the Don Valley Parkway, a road intended to sit above the maximum flood line. Mayor Art Eggleton demanded swift action from the province to revive dredging. The MTRCA soon received final approval for a four-year clear-out of 400,000 cubic metres of sludge.

Around that time, the City expropriated the future West Don Lands for development. Then known as Ataratiri, the plan included a dyke for flood protection. When the project was cancelled in 1992, the MTRCA withheld approval for nearby developments without adequate flood-proofing. When the development plans for the West Don Lands were revived in the 21st century, designs and environmental assessments accounted for flood control. In 2007, construction crews started work on an 8.5-metre berm, to be integrated into Corktown Common park.


Sketch of the proposed naturalization of the mouth of the Don River, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. Image: Waterfront Toronto.

While the berm is ready to go, other flood control projects along the Don remain in development. One project stemming from the Wet Weather Flow Master Plan adopted by City Council in 2003 is an effort to upgrade the Don Sanitary Trunk Sewer system to reduce the amount of sewage and other nasty stuff dumped into the river during major storms. Though a staff report was approved by council in September 2011, the project awaits approval from the provincial Ministry of the Environment. The age-old problem of the Keating Channel is to be fixed by naturalization of the mouth of the Don. The naturalization is supposed to tie in with Waterfront Toronto’s plans for the Port Lands, which are now being amended in the aftermath of 2011’s political turmoil over the future of the district.

Additional material from HTO: Toronto’s Water from Lake Iroquois to Lost Rovers to Low-flow Toilets, Wayne Reeves and Christine Palassio, editors (Toronto: Coach House Press, 2008), the February 5, 1960, June 17, 1965, May 10, 1973, and June 29, 2013 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the February 26, 1918, September 16, 1986, and March 18, 1992 editions of the Toronto Star.



Don River flood, looking south from Wilton Avenue (now Dundas Street) bridge, March 27, 1916. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1170.

The City of Toronto Archives’ online treasure chest of images includes plenty of pictures of floods along the Don River between 1916 and 1920. A few stories about those shots, starting with the March 28, 1916 edition of the Globe:

Swelling of the Don, Humber, and Credit Rivers by the heavy rain of yesterday put much land around Toronto beneath a tide of ice and rushing water, while the flooding of the Canadian Northern Railway yards at Rosedale to a depth of four feet suspended traffic to and from Toronto over their lines for some hours, the eastbound afternoon trains being cancelled…So far as the Don is concerned, this is the worst flood since 1897. One of the remarkable features was the flight of thousands of rats driven from their homes in the garbage-made land at the foot of the Winchester street hill.

The crisis in the Don Valley arose when ice cakes piled up at the lower bridges and the water could not escape as rapidly as it poured down from the upper reaches of the river.

So rapidly did the Don rise and flood the flats and yards that it was impossible for the CNR to draw passenger coaches in the coach yard on the east side of the river to the main line over a trestle. Heavy coal cars were placed on the light bridge to hold it down and prevent it from being swept from its light fastenings…At four in the afternoon the course of the river was hardly distinguishable in the lake of water which spread from the hills on the east side of the river to the CPR railway embankment on the east side.

Railway employees who returned from repairing the damage done by a washout just north of the yards found that they could not reach their cars and were forced to spend the night on dry ground, awaiting an opportunity to reach their clothes and food by means of light engines, which were keeping the mainline open…Cellars in factories along the Esplanade were filled with water.


The Globe’s account also demonstrated some people were determined to carry out their duties, even if it seemed absurd under the circumstances:

A civic garbage collector ventured into the dump, which was then under water to the extent of several inches, to deposit his load. Before he could back out he was forced to wade in water five feet deep to unhitch his horse and then to struggle to the Winchester Street subway. He narrowly escaped drowning.

(If anybody knows what or where the Winchester Street “subway” was, I’d love to know – I’m assuming it was some sort of railway crossing?) 

That day’s edition of the World observed that the Don rose eight feet over the course of two hours. “Old timers have been predicting such a state of affairs, and their warnings have come true.” Spectators lined along the Gerrard Street, Queen Street and Wilton Avenue (present-day Dundas Street) bridges to watch the river spill out.

Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41 - Miscellaneous photographs

Don River flood, south from Wilton Avenue (now Dundas Street) bridge, February 26, 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41, Item 65a.

I used the February 1918 flood over others from the period because of the parallel story with this week’s storm of people trapped on trains, even if it was only Canadian Northern employees. The World’s account from February 26, 1918 offered more details. Besides those who fled the scene or sought refuge in cars, several employees were forced to climb to the roof of a nearby roundhouse. Fire crews were sent from Rose Avenue and Yorkville to rescue the men, but “owing to the insecure footing and the lack of apparatus, the firemen were unable to reach the men.”

Captain Chapman, of the life-saving crew stationed at the Island, was then notified, and men were dispatched to bring rockets and a firing tube from the Island in order that a line could be shot across the river to the roundhouse on which the men were isolated, it being the intention of the life-saving crew and the firemen to rig a breeches buoy if possible. Arrangements were made by the police to have a patrol wagon stationed at the foot of Yonge Street to meet the life-saving crew and to assist them in moving the apparatus with the greatest of speed.

For some time the residents in the vicinity of the Don have been alarmed at the rapid rise of the water, but no great excitement prevailed until early this morning when wild rumours to the effect that an avalanche of water was sweeping down the valley alarmed all who had property there. Speaking to the press this morning, J. McCarthur, who lives on Park Drove, said that he was cut off from his cattle sheds and that he expected to lose about five head of cattle.

Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41 - Miscellaneous photographs

Don Valley flood, north of the Bloor Viaduct, March 12, 1920. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41, Item 113.

Railway workers marooned during one flood took their situation in stride. The March 13, 1920 edition of the World depicted plenty of jokes coming from 12 of them stuck on a freight train, while their wives watched anxiously from the bank:

One satisfaction remains to the castaways, they have food in plenty in the store, now an island, beside which the train drawn up; drink is all too plentiful, tho mud replaces alcohol, and they have golden hopes of full pay with overtime for their hours of inaction and anxiety…

Anxious wives stand impotently on the banks. From across the seething waters come the cheery voices of the men bidding them have no fear. No raft built by the hands of man could withstand the angry onslaught of that rushing stream; no swimmer could battle against the angry currents.

Whatever the wives may be thinking, the men themselves seem to be taking the situation (several illegible words) cheerfully. “How many teaspoons of tea ought I to put in?” shouted one to the World, putting his head out of the caboose, where was acting as cook. Sing-songs were also the order of the day…An offer of rubber boots to walk ashore in provoked a laugh.