The Eglinton Subway We Almost Had

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid, which launched the series, was originally published online on March 20, 2012. As the original introduction put it, “introducing Retro T.O., a new series where we revisit key moments in recent Toronto history that still reverberate today.”

Sticklers may notice I’m not republishing these in any particular order. You may continue to stickle (which turns out to be a word!)

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Cartoon by Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star, July 21, 1995.

To those assembled at the corner of Black Creek Drive and Eglinton Avenue, August 25, 1994 was a great day for the future of Toronto transit. A group of shovel-wielding dignitaries led by Ontario Premier Bob Rae broke ground on the Eglinton subway, a project that had been discussed for nearly three decades. Rae, whose York South riding would be served by the 4.7-kilometre, five-station line running from Black Creek Drive to Allen Road, touted the thousands of construction jobs required to build the subway before its planned opening in 2001. City of York officials were all smiles, especially Mayor Fergy Brown, who told reporters he was “busting my buttons with pride” that the municipality finally had its own rapid-transit system. If all went well, the future promised an extension from Black Creek to Pearson International Airport.

Despite the enthusiasm of the line’s backers, opposition rose from the Eglinton West Subway Committee, a group of businesses dreading the impact of construction on their livelihoods. Their fears echoed those expressed in response to every large-scale transit project Toronto has ever built, such as the “St. Clair Disaster.” “We’ll have a loss of parking,” local resident Elaine Chee told the Star. Fearing “traffic jams, noise and dust,” Chee believed the disruption would create a “loss of business and loss of jobs.”

Though work moving utilities and digging Allen station caused some headaches, fears of a neighbourhood apocalypse were unfounded. On July 21, 1995, the new Progressive Conservative government announced $1.9 billion in cuts to education, infrastructure, job training, and social services. Among Minister of Finance Ernie Eves’ statements: “We will proceed with transit projects in a phased approach, beginning with the Sheppard line in Toronto. We are deferring the Eglinton West project until the province and Metro Toronto have sufficient funding to proceed.”

ts 95-07-22 tories cancel eglinton line

Toronto Star, July 22, 1995. Click on image for larger version.

The preservation of the more expensive Sheppard line struck some observers as purely political, as if the Tories gave Rae the finger and punished City of York voters for rejecting the party at the polls. By contrast, voters along the Sheppard line provided the new government with its attorney-general, Charles Harnick. It didn’t hurt that Sheppard’s loudest booster, North York Mayor Mel Lastman, was a longtime Tory. Provincial officials who insisted that the Eglinton line was merely hibernating sounded as convincing as a dead parrot pining for the fjords.

The deferral sat poorly with recently elected City of York Mayor Frances Nunziata, whose municipality was left with a $50-million hole in the ground. With the support of councillors she usually fought with, Nunziata pressed the province to honour all existing contracts for the subway before mothballing it. Local coalitions that fought the subway gave way to groups working to save it, led by businesses worried about the impact of growing traffic jams along Eglinton.

While officials in York were livid, next door in Etobicoke, Mayor Doug Holyday took the cut in stride. Believing the cuts in general were a positive thing, he felt slashing Eglinton was a fact of life necessary to compensate for NDP overspending. “There is a time when we will want to see the subway go all the way to the airport,” he told the Star, that time being when money was available.

Little did Holyday know he’d wait almost two decades for that money to appear.

Additional sources: the August 25, 1994, August 26, 1994, and July 22, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

ts 94-08-25 eglinton groundbreaking

Toronto Star, August 25, 1994.

Similar concerns have occurred over the course of the construction of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT line, especially through Little Jamaica.

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Toronto Sun, August 26, 1994.

ts 94-08-26 groundbreaking

Toronto Star, August 26, 1994.

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Toronto Sun, July 21, 1995.

gm 95-07-21 nunziata fears subway closure

Globe and Mail, July 21, 1995.

gm 95-07-22 eglinton deferred

Globe and Mail, July 22, 1995.

sun 95-07-22 editorial

You could play mad libs with this Toronto Sun editorial from July 22, 1995.

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Globe and Mail, August 4, 1995.

When Mel Freezes Over

As I no longer have a copy of this story as it originally appeared on The Grid’s website in early February 2013, this post is based on the draft I submitted for publication.

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Toronto Sun, January 15, 1999.

“It might have people across this country shaking their heads, even rolling their eyes,” Peter Mansbridge observed while introducing the January 13, 1999 edition of The National. To some Canadians, Mel Lastman’s plea for military assistance to help Toronto cope with a record-breaking month of snowfall confirmed their view of the country’s largest city as a magnet for spoiled, whiny wimps.

By the time Lastman requested help, Toronto had endured 84 cm of snowfall over the first two weeks of 1999, with 21 cm alone coming down on January 13. The deepening accumulation, combined with gusty winds and cold temperatures led to chaos. Clogged switches delayed GO service, drifting snow covered the third rail of exposed subway lines, and the Scarborough RT proved its uselessness in inclement weather. TTC chief general manager David Gunn recommended people stay home, as chances were “poor to nil” that closed subway sections would operate for several days. Snowplows barely made a dent on roads as the white stuff continued to fall.

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Toronto Star, January 14, 1999.

“I’m petrified of what could happen,” Lastman told the press. “You come to a point where you can’t push it back any more. Then no cars move. I want to have (the army) ready in case there’s 25 cm of snow.” Lastman had recent precedents: troops were called in for assistance during the Red River flood in Manitoba in 1997 and the ice storm that paralyzed eastern Ontario and Quebec in 1998.

The next morning, four Bison armoured personnel carriers arrived at the former Downsview military base from CFB Petawawa to await use as emergency ambulances. While reservists shoveled out bus shelters and fire hydrants, 420 regular troops were placed on standby. They spent most of their time relaxing around the old base by rehabbing an old gym basement bowling alley, playing cards, and practising snowmobile manoeuvres for a future Arctic posting. One officer who had assisted with the ice storm cleanup told the Star that “it’s kind of hard just sitting here when you want to help.” Lastman told the troops that “it’s better to be safe than sorry…I don’t believe you want to wait until people are possibly gonna die.”

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Cartoon by Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star, January 15, 1999.

Torontonians coped with the situation in varying ways. Commuters stuck downtown booked hotel rooms and made Eaton Centre merchants smile. Cotton Ginny reported a run on nightgowns, while Shoppers Drug Mart was packed with people stocking up on bathroom essentials. Rentals at the Yonge-Wellesley Rogers Video more than doubled. Meals on Wheels provided extra food to clients in case they were forced to close. Municipal and transit employees racked up overtime, with some snow removal employees sleeping in temporary trailer camps. There were the expected idiots: one man was charged after being caught drunk snowmobiling along the Don Valley Parkway.

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Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

As the city dug itself out, several city councillors questioned Lastman’s actions and lamented that he didn’t consult them. Lastman didn’t call an emergency council meeting out of fear of the speeches his colleagues might make. “The press would have been there, and what they would have been saying I don’t know. Some of them would have been absolutely out of it.” The mayor believed he was the only person who cared about the welfare of the entire city instead of specific wards, He never regretted his actions. “We arranged it so that senior citizens could go around the corner to get milk,” he boasted to the Star a decade later.

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Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

By the time the month was over, Toronto endured a record-breaking 118 cm of snowfall. Councillor Jack Layton found the storm “a teaching lesson in municipal arrogance” due to the city’s complacency. Eye Weekly noted that the previous fall, council’s urban environment committee voted against budgeting an extra $28 million to clear windrows. Up to $70 million was spent on clean-up, more than double the annual $32 million snow clearing budget.

Eye columnist Donna Lypchuk had fun with the charges that Torontonians were wusses when it came to snow. “Torontonians get a little touchy the minute they see a snowflake,” she observed. “Like little robots, they go outside, see their cars covered with snow, make a phone call and then drop back into bed with complete resignation.” She felt the exhaustion of those battling the storm could have been avoided by just letting the snow melt on its own.

Lypchuk’s conclusion? “I think it’s time Torontonians familiarized themselves with important Canadian concepts, such as snow. During the winter, snow is going to fall from the sky. This is not a scary, unusual thing. It is normal. Respect the snow and be prepared.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, January 14, 1999.

Confession time: I’m drawing a blank as to what I did during the Snowmageddon of January 1999.

I definitely experienced it. I was living in Guelph, working at the campus paper. Given the regular dumpings Guelph received, the storm likely didn’t seem unusual. It was probably just another snowy day, albeit one with greater accumulation. My guess is that either I curled up with a pile of library books or headed over to the Ontarion office to work, surf the net, or play endless games of Civilization II. It was around this time that staff relations within the office settled into a permanent deep-freeze, sparked by deep disagreements about the cover of that week’s issue. The only story about the storm in the following week’s edition noted there were no plans to shut down the U of G campus, and that students were encouraged to take advantage of increased Guelph Transit service as parking lots turned into mountains of cleared snow.

As for Lastman’s call for the army—it was Mel. Given his bombastic style, it would have been hard not to expect anything else.

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Toronto Sun, January 16, 1999.

After hearing all the jokes made about the situation over the years, reading about the circumstances at the time makes it clear action was needed. The factor that seems to be forgotten is that Toronto was already buried under an unusually large amount of snow. The forecasts for the storm that prompted Lastman to call in the troops didn’t look promising, and city services were already strained. And he did have the examples of military involvement in other natural disaster over the previous two years. The laughs at Toronto’s expense seem partly a natural reaction against the centre of the universe, and partly out of little comprehension of how badly the city’s infrastructure, especially for commuters, was affected. I was really struck by CBC archival clip’s depiction of a Meals on Wheels run, where deliverers provided extra food to clients in case the service had to be suspended.

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Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

I also checked out the Sun’s coverage. The front page on January 14, 1999 bluntly echoed TTC chief general manager David Gunn’s advice: “STAY HOME.” It also introduced the paper’s method of measuring the snowfall: the “Mel freezes over” infographic, which used Lastman’s height as a yardstick for how much snow fell that month.

On the editorial page, a list of snow-related mottos was devised to replace the new official motto the paper loathed, “Diversity our strength.”

Toronto—The city under North York
Toronto—Home of the squeegee kid, until you need one.
Toronto—Our mayor shovels it better than your mayor.
Toronto—Beware of drive-by plowings.
Toronto—Don’t even think about parking here.
Toronto—Where snow melters go to die.
Toronto—Where snowballs have a chance.
Toronto—Apocalypse Snow.
Toronto—Home of the two-hour cab wait.
Toronto—It’s not as bad as Buffalo, but we’re working on it.
Toronto—Where “The Better Way” is walking.
Toronto—We’d rather be in Florida.
Toronto—The flake by the lake.
Toronto—As pure as the driven slush.
Toronto—Home of Pearson Airport—you can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Toronto—Plow me.

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Cartoon by Dusan Petricic, Toronto Star, January 17, 1999.

Meanwhile, back over in the Star, it was interesting to read how angry councillors were over the lack of consultation from Lastman. Among the miffed was Frances Nunziata. “I sent a letter to the Mayor January 6 with a number of recommendations,” she told the paper. “I didn’t get any response, or even an acknowledgement.” According to Michael Prue, who represented East York, councillors were “taking all the crap because Mel Lastman tells (the public) that everything’s wonderful and everything’s being fixed and I get phone call after phone call that it’s not that way.”

Sources: the January 21, 1999 edition of Eye Weekly, January 19, 1999 edition of the Ontarion, the January 14, 1999, January 15, 1999, January 16, 1999, January 17, 1999, and January 11, 2009 editions of the Toronto Star, and the January 14, 1999, January 15, 1999, and January 16, 1999 editions of the Toronto Sun.