A dream of the Toronto Islands
Ah, foolish me — imagining I could visit the beckoning, beautiful Toronto islands on a weekend afternoon to lounge on a hot beach by the cool waters of our great lake. The islands are such a blessing in the sweltering city, so close you can see them shimmering in the heat from the top of the building.
Such are the dreams that so often trump experience, which, if consulted, would have told me that the lineup for an islandbound ferry was going to be at least two hours long. As indeed it was: a horrendous crush of unhappy families billowing out of the terminal into a thick swarm that reached all the way back to Queens Quay.
The private-sector alternative was no more appealing, with commensurate crowds of irritated beachgoers lining the dockwalls and waiting almost as long for a ride in a water taxi.
You can learn a lot about a country by looking at its public finances, but the city throws its politics right in your face. In Toronto, the question of who gets to use the islands — the city’s most valued, contested commons — always punches above its weight.
Here are the sunburned masses consigned to a Communist time warp of infinitely long lineups in a concrete cattle pen to ride one of three century-old ferries so decrepit federal authorities have repeatedly threatened to decommission them in the name of public safety — and probably should. (Instead, Transport Canada has settled on the crude expedient of cutting the antique fleet’s permitted passenger loads, presumably to limit losses from the anticipated disaster.)
And there is the briefcase-toting Nomenklatura gliding off to the handsomely subsidized island airport, their almostnew ferry soon to be replaced by a brandnew pedestrian tunnel built by a public authority for more than $80 million.
Just imagine, for one fleeting moment, that Toronto was as progressive as it pretends to be, like some kind of northern European city. If actual democracy rather than naked political jobbery ruled these waves, the island airport would be long gone and the new pedestrian tunnel would open onto a sprawling Tivoli bordered by a mile-long beach.
No Torontonian would have to line up for hours both ways and pay to reach the city’s most important public park. It would be truly accessible again, fully part of the city and almost 100 hectares larger.
Our ancestors, native and settler alike, knew what the Toronto Islands were all about. The islands were a sacred place of refuge and healing to the Mississauga and their predecessors. Ferries to the islands carried two million fun-seekers a year a century ago — twice as many as they carry today, in a city exponentially larger.
But capital staked its claim, and the city turned its back. Today we wait in line while lobbyists fly smoothly back and forth to Ottawa using our resources in order to arrange for new charges to appear on our cable bills and bank statements.
The good news is that hey, there’s finally a tunnel, just like starchy old Sam McBride always wanted — and it will still be there when the airport finally disappears, as it is bound to do once Toronto finally decides to join the new century.
For evidence of that impending event, we have the tremendous success of recent mainland waterfront improvements. This is the other thing you see down there these days: the mass embrace of a revitalized waterfront. With this summer’s completion of the new Queens Quay, and after decades of disappointment, the city-side central waterfront is now officially terrific.
Maybe when the glamorous yet unfunded new Jack Layton Ferry Terminal gets built, Torontonians will once again remember the islands — and the fact that nobody thought to include even a single desperately needed new boat in the budget for that lovely bauble.
Or maybe the airport will have already gone bust by then and Torontonians will finally realize they don’t need any ferries to reclaim this precious stolen property. Such are the dreams that persist, despite experience, on a would-be lazy summer afternoon.