As more and more of us gravitate towards major population centres around the world, the idea of being part of a small tight knit community becomes increasingly appealing. It’s easy to feel cold and isolated living in a city, particularly in winter. So I find it fascinating when I come across just such a community, so near to a major centre like Toronto.
The Toronto Islands are actually an archipelago formed by alluvial deposits from the erosion of the Scarborough Bluffs a few kilometers east of the city. They were originally a large sand spit peninsula, but in the 1850’s large storms created a channel that divided the spit and resulted in the island formation. Since then the islands have expanded through land reclamation and now form a protective harbour with a number of marinas existing on the islands and on the city side of the shore.
Prior to colonization the area was used by the local tribes (the Anishinaabeg and the Mississaugas) as a place of healing and recuperation. However, in 1787 the Toronto Purchase saw the surrender of a huge area of land including the area around Toronto to the British. As recently as 2010 a settlement (of $145 million) was made to the Mississaugas for the islands themselves, as whether the original agreement included the islands had been a matter of dispute for more than two centuries.
The current island community has a fascinating history going back almost 200 years. The City of Toronto purchased the Island land from the Federal Government in 1867 and divided it up into residential lots, allowing people to establish residences. But prior to this a man named David Ward had already settled on the western side of the peninsula (what is now Wards Island) in 1830 and later the Hanlan family made the island their year round home in the early 1860’s.
With the creation of designated lots, wealthy families began to establish stately homes on the Western side of the island, enjoying the cooler conditions close to the water in summer. On the eastern side (now Wards Island) the plots were used primarily as tent sites for summer family vacationing and were charged at $10 per site for the season. In the late 1880’s the school on the island was established and in late 1890’s a Stadium was built at Hanlan’s point which became the home of the Toronto Maple Leaf’s (the city’s professional baseball team). Babe Ruth is reported to have hit his first professional home run at that stadium.
By 1913 the tent sites were so heavily used that the city council set about creating streets on the island. The traffic was largely bike and pedestrian traffic, so the streets are only wide enough for this purpose, and the island is now considered to be the largest urban car-free community in North America. Some vehicle traffic is allowed, though mostly the only vehicles you’ll see are the school bus or shuttle van transporting people from time to time.
A ferry service and water taxi connects the islands with the mainland and the journey takes about 10 minutes from the quay at the southern end of the downtown Toronto area. Porter airport sits on the far western end of the island and provides flights to many cities across the eastern side of Canada and the US. The airport is restricted to the use of small Aircraft to minimize disturbance for the many apartment residents on the south of the city and the community living on the island.
By the mid 1900’s there were approximately 630 houses on the islands and facilities including a movie theatre, bowling alley, shops and hotels. The Toronto Council however was looking for land to use as parkland as much of the parkland along the mainland side of the water had been converted into a highway (the Gardiner Expressway). So the council transferred the rights to the land to Metro parks which began demolishing homes and cottages where leases had expired or where the leaseholders gave up their leases.
By the early 1960’s the islanders began to organize to fight for the right to stay, though demolitions proceeded through the decade. The community grew tighter through the organization of the Toronto Islands’ Residents Association and the demolitions all but stopped in the 70’s by which time only about 250 homes remained on the islands. In the early 70’s the Toronto City Council voted overwhelmingly to allow the islanders to remain however the Metro Council, which included surrounding areas, continued to push for the acquisition of the land for use as a city park. Legal struggles continued until the early 80’s when a showdown of the island residents and the deputy sheriff of Toronto took place on July 1980. On that day the local community led by David and Elizabeth Amer grouped together and confronted those coming to issue writs of possession, successfully dissuading them while waiting on the outcome of a court review of the writs. This was a turning point for the island community and in Dec 1981 the Ontario government granted the residents the right to stay until 2005. More than a decade later in 1993 the Toronto Islands Residential Community Stewardship Act was passed which enabled islanders to purchase 99 year leases through a Land Trust. Property sales on the island are now regulated through the trust and there is a limit on the increase in valuations and a waiting list for those who want to buy property.
The decades of struggle have served to bond the community on the island, many of whom remain long-term residents and have generations of history with the place. They know each other by name and their families grow up alongside each other in a microcosm of city life.
The island remains a popular summer spot with a number of beaches, parks and bridges connecting the islands. Winter is a quiet, picturesque time of year to visit with the ferry acting as ice breaker when the bay freezes. The island provides arguably the best views of Toronto, as you step back and take in the vista from across the water. If you do get the chance to visit, keep an eye out for one of the free libraries or take a bike and enjoy the serenity of cycling with no traffic.
Photos: Michael James McMahon
Have you ever been to the Toronto Islands? Share with us in the comments.