Cop Out: Bill Blair Profile

Toronto Life, August 2011

How the G20—with its burning cars, broken storefronts, violent beatings and mass arrests—ruined Bill Blair’s popularity

On June 26, 2010, Bill Blair was in the middle of the most complicated week of his career. The G20 summit had transformed the peaceful city that Blair had spent most of his life protecting into something closer to a police state. Protesters filled the streets. Steel fences sliced through the downtown core, guarded by black-masked riot police. Busloads of officers had arrived from across the country—cops who didn’t know Toronto’s streets and were technically not even accountable to Blair. Decisions about G20 security were being made by the Integrated Security Unit, a coalition of police and armed forces. The RCMP was responsible for controlling the area within the summit fence. The Toronto Police Service, assisted by officers from 21 provincial police detachments, was left with the rest of the city. The division of responsibilities was so unclear that as the summit began, even the head of the police board was confused about exactly where the ISU’s job ended and the TPS’s began. Blair was worried. International summits like the G20 rarely ended well. The chief had studied recent summits in preparation for the event, and what he found wasn’t encouraging. In Genoa in 2001, police had shot a protester to death. In 2009, rioters looted stores in Pittsburgh. Blair hoped to learn from history’s mistakes, but with tens of thousands of protesters meeting thousands of police officers, there were plenty of opportunities to make new ones.

Before the G20, Blair was as popular as a police chief can be. Crime was down, there had been no major scandals during his five years in power, and Torontonians seemed to agree that his emphasis on putting uniformed officers out on the streets was what was needed. More than that, Blair was likeable. He was intelligent and articulate, and he radiated a kind of unostentatious decency. In an Ipsos-Reid poll from 2009, his approval rating was 88 per cent. That same year, the Toronto Police Services Board unanimously agreed to renew Blair’s contract ahead of schedule, the first time in recent history that Toronto’s chief had been granted a second term. When the National Post ran a profile headlined “The Most Popular Man in Toronto,” it was hard to disagree.

Until that June weekend. On the Saturday of the G20 meeting, Blair watched TV news and closed-circuit feeds at police headquarters of the first images of protesters burning police cars and smashing windows. By now the events that ensued have become well-known to Torontonians, though familiarity has made them no less disturbing and surreal. Over the next two days, police arrested 1,118 people, the largest mass arrest in the history of Canada. Among those taken into custody was a TTC employee walking to work in full uniform, who was tackled by police and spent the next 32 hours in a makeshift prison. A 57-year-old employee of Revenue Canada sitting on the grass at Queen’s Park with his daughter was pushed to the ground, his artificial leg torn from his body, before he was dragged to a paddy wagon. Nearly a hundred police officers removed their name tags, rendering themselves anonymous for purposes that are unsettling to consider. Of all the videos that have emerged since the summit—clips of protesters being shot with tear gas, beaten and bloodied—perhaps the most telling was a simple sound bite. When a young man objected to a search, protesting that he was not required to give up his backpack in Canada, an officer looked him in the eye and said: “This ain’t Canada right now.”

The chief stayed at headquarters all Saturday night, leaving for only 45 minutes to speak to reporters before returning and working through the next day. On Sunday evening, while police were holding hundreds of people in the rain at Queen and Spadina, Blair was summoned to the InterContinental hotel by President Barack Obama, who wanted to thank him personally for all of his work.

In the weeks after the motorcades left town and the G20 ended, the calls for Blair’s head began. Newspapers that had traditionally been sympathetic to the chief were suddenly demanding his resignation. A former head of the Special Investigations Unit also called for Blair to step down. The ombudsman of Ontario, André Marin, described the G20 as the “most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history” and singled Blair out for criticism.

A year later, as the results of various reviews, inquiries and lawsuits continue to trickle in, the G20 stands as the moment that changed the way many Torontonians think about their police force and its chief. Blair, once so easy to trust, has appeared defensive, evasive and dishonest. By the time he owned up to policing mistakes in June, the damage had been done.

*   *   *

Bill Blair grew up surrounded by cops. His late father, John Thomas Blair, was a 39-year veteran of the force, who filled the Blair family’s Scarborough home with his friends and co-workers—policemen hanging out, talking shop, leaving at strange hours to start their shifts. Today, a picture of John Blair hangs on the wall of the chief’s office. Taken from the front page of an old Toronto Telegram, it shows John next to a young Queen Elizabeth at a mall opening in 1959. It is one of the chief’s most prized possessions. When Bill Blair met the Queen during last year’s royal visit, his staff took a photo of the event and surprised him with a framed picture that combined the two portraits. In the composite image, which also hangs on the chief’s wall, the black and white face of John Blair hovers over his son’s shoulder.

Despite his upbringing, Blair didn’t always want to be a cop. After graduating from Sir John A. MacDonald Collegiate, where he played on just about every sports team, Blair began studying economics at the University of Toronto with the vague idea of continuing on to law school. To pay tuition, he took odd jobs, including work as a plainclothes security guard at Fairview Mall. Between shifts busting shoplifters, he met Susanne McMaster, who was working part-time at the information desk to supplement her job running the audio-visual department at the school of nursing at Seneca College. The two were married in 1977. They have three children, all grown, none of whom have followed their father into the police service.

In 1976, when he was in third-year university, Blair decided to take time away from his studies and try out the family business. He enrolled in police college in Aylmer, Ontario, where he met Kim Derry, another son of a policeman. The two became close friends. When they graduated, Derry volunteered them both to walk the beat in Regent Park. For a kid from the suburbs, working on the city streets was fascinating and thrilling. It didn’t take long for Blair to abandon the idea of law school, though he completed his bachelor’s degree in economics and criminology part-time over the next six years. As partners, Derry says, he and Blair seemed to share a psychic connection: “I would do something and he would automatically know what I was going to do, and vice versa.” The young Blair impressed the veterans of the division with his uncanny ability to recall the finer details of any arrest. “They’d say, ‘What about this guy here?’ and Bill would remember the name, the date of birth, the phone number,” Derry told me. They led the division in arrests and quickly climbed the ranks, moving through their careers in virtual synchronicity, with Derry often just a step behind his more polished friend. A year after Blair was promoted to sergeant and brought to 52 Division, Derry was made sergeant and joined him. When Blair bought a house in Malvern, Derry moved five doors down the street. When Blair became chief, Derry became one of his deputies.

After leaving Regent Park, Blair worked undercover for the drug squad. He investigated organized crime and led some of the biggest drug busts in Toronto history. In 1995, he agreed to return to Regent Park as staff inspector, the man in charge of the entire division. It was a curious decision. Located at the centre of what was then one of Canada’s most notorious housing developments, 51 Division was seen as a career killer, the place officers were shunted when they angered their superiors. The cops liked to call it “Fort Apache” after the John Wayne western about a U.S. Cavalry regiment isolated deep in Indian country. The nickname was telling. The police often acted as if they were fighting a losing war against a continent of savages, emerging from the safety of their vehicles only to chase down and arrest teenagers.

“It was horrible to think that these were the people who were serving and protecting my community,” says Pam McConnell, the city councillor who has represented the area since 1994. “The interactions between the police and the community were so confrontational that people felt unsafe.”

Just weeks after Blair arrived at Regent Park, a race riot erupted. Stories about how it began differ widely, but according to the accounts of residents at the time, cops were chasing a suspected drug dealer through the housing development when a young black resident shouted at them to slow down. “Go suck my dick, nigger,” the officer allegedly responded. When the resident grabbed his own crotch and returned the invitation, the chaos began. People streamed out of the low-rises and onto the streets, throwing bottles and yelling profanities at the officers. Forty-five police cruisers from across the city screamed into the area, officers leaping out to pepper-spray and restrain the residents. In the end, several officers were injured, and three people were arrested and brought to the police station, followed by a crowd that gathered around the brick headquarters, chanting angrily.

A day later, residents held a meeting at the Regent Park community centre. Against his staff’s warning, Blair decided to show up. The fluorescent-lit hall was over-capacity, crammed with people exasperated by years of ill treatment. When Blair entered the room, the din grew louder. “People were shouting and screaming, thumping their fists into their hands,” McConnell remembers. Blair took a chair and set it down in the centre of the linoleum floor. With the residents standing around him, he said he would answer their questions.

“The first question was the toughest one,” Blair told me recently. “They asked me, ‘Are there racists over at 51 Division?’ If you say no, everyone knows you’re lying. And if you say yes, it’s kind of tough to go back to the station and work with your people.” His response is a kind of model in miniature of the Blair approach to diplomacy. “What I told them was that racism is a problem in society and among all humans,” Blair recalls. “I recruit from the human race and we’re as human over there as we are in this room. So can police officers let bias affect their decision-making? Absolutely. And if racism is a problem in society, can it be a problem in my police department? Of course it can. But the only way to address that is to do it head-on. Let’s talk to each other and work through this. If police officers have done something wrong, I’m quite prepared to hold them accountable. But let’s not make the assumption that they’re all doing something wrong.”

According to people who were in the room, the speech was remarkably successful. “I don’t know how he did it, but he was able to calm things down,” says Gene Lincoln, a community health worker in the neighbourhood. Over the next three years, Blair followed up his words by making many changes at 51 Division. He took officers out of their cruisers and put them out on the street, where they would have to interact with residents; he held his officers accountable, suspending nine of them for the alleged abduction and beating of a suspect; and, to create a larger police presence, he convinced the mounted unit to exercise their horses in the back alleys of the neighbourhood. Crime went down, and community relations improved dramatically. When you talk to people from Regent Park today, they point to Blair’s time there as a turning point.

51 Division is at the centre of his personal narrative. A picture of the building hangs on his wall, and he continually returns to the topic in interviews, at public consultations and in his annual guest lecture to criminology students at U of T. His leadership in Regent Park was a big reason he was named chief.

It was on April 26, 2005, on the steps of police headquarters, that the 51-year-old Blair became the city’s youngest chief and its first with a university degree. Four former police chiefs attended a lavish swearing-in ceremony with Boy Scouts, Scottish bagpipers and Chinese cymbal players. After the tumultuous term of Julian Fantino, Blair’s appointment felt like a fresh start.

Blair told the crowd that policing “works best when the relationship with the community is strong and respectful.” This was hardly novel stuff, but he gave doubters reason to believe he wasn’t just paying lip service. In the same speech, he talked about racial profiling within the service. “There is no greater challenge to our relationship with diverse communities than the corrosive issues of racism and racial bias,” he said. “It will not be tolerated in the Toronto Police Service and must not be tolerated anywhere in our society.” It was a pointed remark. Just three years earlier, when the Toronto Star had printed an investigation on racial profiling, then-chief Fantino had emphatically denied that racism played any part in the TPS. The Police Association even sued the paper for $2.7 billion for libel on behalf of its 7,200 officers (the judge threw the case out). Blair’s admission was a deliberate attempt to mark the beginning of a new era. The Blair-led police would own up to their problems and earn the public’s trust.

*   *   *

It’s hard to believe Blair ever fooled anyone as an undercover cop. He looks like he was born wearing a uniform. His hair, mostly white now, with a slight widow’s peak, is cropped short in the nondescript style of police around the world. At six-foot-five, with a build that’s grown thicker over his years behind a desk, Blair is imposingly large. Normal-sized objects like mugs and pencils look small and weirdly delicate in his hands. He carries himself with the loose, easy confidence that comes with being the biggest man in the room. In public, the chief’s default listening expression is a pronounced frown, his down-turned lips creating grooves that neatly delineate his chin like the jawline of a marionette. Blair himself isn’t a naturally stern person—he has an easy sense of humour and is quick to find the absurdity in a situation—so more than anything the expression feels like a purposeful attempt to project sternness, the practised look of a man who has said he conducts himself as if his every action could appear on tomorrow’s front page.

As with the very best politicians, Blair has a knack for making personal connections. He is one of those rare people who seem to genuinely thrive on interactions with strangers. “Bill likes and cares about people,” explains Barbara Hall, the former mayor, who became friends with Blair during his time in Regent Park.

A few months ago, at the Etobicoke Civic Centre, I saw Blair in his element. The event was a public forum for citizens to talk about their concerns, but it seemed no one had received the invitation. As I walked in, the only person in the audience was exiting in disgust. “No one’s in there, it’s a joke,” he said. Eventually a handful of citizens filtered in, followed by a few dutiful journalists covering the event. We sat in awkward silence waiting for Blair, who had been held up by rush-hour traffic.

When the chief entered the room 15 minutes late, he immediately broke the tension. “Did you start without me?” he asked, shaking his fist in mock anger. Far from finding the situation uncomfortable, Blair greeted the sparse gathering as a happy opportunity for an intimate chat. Taking over the proceedings, he called on audience members one at a time like a grade-school teacher. An elderly man in a windbreaker stepped up to the microphone to complain about graffiti. The chief listened intently, his brow furrowed, his chin resting in his hands, before thanking the man for his question and launching into a virtuosic soliloquy. He began by attempting to give the questioner some context (“Some people actually consider graffiti desirable and view it as an art,” he said), then pivoted to an affirmation of the man’s feelings with what seemed to be a reference to the “broken windows” theory of crime (roughly: most graffiti isn’t gang-related, but people think it is, which can create fear and the appearance of lawlessness, which can lead people to avoid their streets and parks, which can in turn lead to a genuine uptick in criminal behaviour). Throughout the seven-minute speech, Blair offered up a series of comments that seemed designed to shrink the distance between chief and citizen: “I empathize…,” “As a fellow citizen…” and “I own a house and a fence too, and I know I’d be upset if someone spray-painted them.” The man’s original question about what exactly police were going to do in the neighbourhood wasn’t really answered, but he seemed satisfied. He had a chief who listened to him.

In much larger ways too, Blair has proven to be a skillful builder of alliances. To survive, a police chief needs to carefully balance the demands of a variety of groups: the Police Services Board, the mayor and the powerful Police Association, the union that represents the rank and file and is aggressive in defending the interests of its members. Blair has proven remarkably adept at reaching out to critics and finding ways to make them allies. If Fantino was a political brawler, attacking his critics and the media with zeal, Blair is a skillful conciliator, finding common ground with his adversaries and working to bring them into the fold.

Instead of meeting the Ontario Human Rights Commission in adversarial tribunals, for example, Blair began a partnership with the commission (led by Hall) to try to eliminate discrimination within the service. He became close allies with former mayor Miller and has been working hard to develop a relationship with Mayor Rob Ford. Rather than battling with the chair of the Police Services Board, as past chiefs have done, Blair has built a friendship with Alok Mukherjee, the soft-spoken human rights activist and board chair. Last winter, at the invitation of the Indian government, the two of them toured from Kashmir to Mumbai as a “relationship-building exercise” with India. The trip also served as a pleasant opportunity for Mukherjee to introduce Blair to his home country. When he announced that Blair would be given a second term, Mukherjee was effusive in his praise. “In the years of his leadership,” he said, “crime rates are down, community trust in the service is high, and the relationship between the police and the community is extremely positive.”

*   *   *

Last June, 15 years after that tense meeting in Regent Park, Blair was once again asked to get up in front of an angry public and speak for the police. Just like in 1995, Blair’s task was to acknowledge public anger while remaining credible to the men and women in uniform who work beneath him. But this time his public statements made an ugly situation worse.

On the Tuesday after the G20, with images of Torontonians being dragged away by the police still all over the news, Blair held a press conference to justify his officers’ use of force against violent protesters. “They came to commit crimes and to victimize people in this city. The evidence of their intent is on display before you today,” he said, gesturing to a table of weapons. Mixed in among a machete, golf balls and baseball bats were the kind of costume chain mail and foam-covered arrows that are used in live-action role-playing games, a chainsaw and crossbow from an arrest unrelated to the G20 and a set of decorative bamboo poles confiscated from a same-sex couple who intended to use them to hang a rainbow flag.

After the summit, the SIU announced that it was looking into six incidents in which protesters or onlookers were severely injured. (Less serious complaints are handled by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which received 357 complaints against the police; at press time, none had resulted in charges or official reprimands). The SIU’s mandate is to investigate police altercations that lead to serious injury or death, though it tends to decide in favour of the police. According to a 2010 Toronto Star analysis, between the SIU’s inception in 1990 and 2010, the agency conducted at least 3,400 investigations. Only three police officers have ever been sent to jail. In November, after reviewing the evidence, the SIU announced that it would not press charges in any of the six incidents. The agency noted, however, that there was “probably use of excessive force” against protester Adam Nobody, who had his nose broken and his cheekbone shattered. In a video posted to YouTube, Nobody is clearly tackled by police and punched repeatedly. The badge number on Nobody’s arrest sheet didn’t correspond to anyone believed to have policed the G20. Initially, the SIU couldn’t identify any of the officers involved.

When the SIU released its report, Blair attacked the agency for even musing about the possibility of excessive force. In an interview on CBC radio, he said that the video of Nobody had been “tampered with” and that it was “very likely that what has been removed sheds light on why the man was arrested and why force was used.” Blair apologized days later, when the man who shot the video signed an affidavit swearing that the video hadn’t been altered in any way. In response, the SIU reopened the investigation.

Days later, on December 7, Blair was in B.C., chairing the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, when his hotel room phone began ringing at four in the morning. Toronto journalists were looking for him. That day, the front page of the Star had featured a grainy picture of one of the officers who had arrested Nobody, taken from a new video obtained by the paper. The headline was a provocation: “What Now, Chief Blair?”

That same day, Marin released his report on the controversial Public Works Protection Act, the piece of wartime legislation that had been secretly resurrected before the G20 summit. Marin called Blair “ground zero” for the regulation. On the Friday before the G20, Blair had told the media that the regulation allowed police to arrest anyone who came within five metres of the summit fence. Provincial officials quickly notified Blair that no such rule existed, but the chief didn’t bother to inform the public until after the summit. He later said that he was “trying to keep the criminals out.”

According to Marin, the request for the regulation had come directly out of Blair’s office. (Blair says the idea was suggested by city hall lawyers who worked for all of the participants involved in policing the G20, and the request came through his office only because the law required that it come from the Police Service.) Marin’s report also contained a damning internal memo. Written in the days after the summit, the email from one OPP officer to another argued that the OPP shouldn’t participate in a joint press conference with the Toronto Police because the “TPS has made many public mistakes over the last 72 hours,” including misrepresenting G20 weapons. “If a joint press conference were to be held, the questions would be direct and we would either be forced to contradict TPS in front of the media or by silence tacitly endorse what they say,” the email continued. “The public has largely supported police security operations for G20. What is not supported is the actions by TPS and the inconsistencies of answers they continue to provide.”

The next day, while the papers in Toronto excoriated Blair for hiding out on the West Coast, he hastily organized a press conference in Victoria to try to explain himself. Blair spoke against a floral wallpaper backdrop in the lobby of the Empress Hotel as a piano tinkled light jazz. Wearing a suit and tie, shorn of his usual uniform, the chief looked uncharacteristically frazzled. He delivered the sound bites he had been repeating since the summer, only this time without the usual conviction. “We are pursuing all of those investigations with vigour,” he said, seeming to trip over the last word. Cameras flashed around him. “We are absolutely committed to getting to the truth.”

In interviews over the next few days, Blair waived off demands for his resignation and defended himself against Marin’s report. The photograph from the Star eventually led to a charge of assault against Constable Babak Andalib-Goortani—the first police officer to be charged for his actions during the G20.

When I interviewed Blair in late February of this year, nearly eight months after the G20 summit, he greeted me with a lopsided grin and an offer of coffee. “I go through a lot of this in a day,” he said, pouring a mug for himself before sitting down in one of the padded rose-coloured chairs in his office.

Across from him sat the police’s head of communications, Mark Pugash, a slim, grey-haired man who looks about half the size of Blair. After working together throughout Blair’s tenure, the two of them have a well-developed routine in which Blair plays the jocular boss and Pugash his put-upon assistant, weathering the bigger man’s ribbing with mock weariness.

“I have no short answers to even the shortest of questions,” Blair warned me as we began. “So what’ll happen is my people will get really mad at Mark, because this will go way over time. But I don’t mind people getting mad at Mark.”

“Oh, that’s very generous of you,” said Pugash.

Over the last year, talking about the G20 had become a regular part of Blair’s schedule. His responses have grown impenetrably smooth. Blair asks for the public’s patience and says that the police are still looking into possible misconduct. He talks about the complexity of policing such a massive event—“Trying to separate those who came with a peaceful intent and those who came with a non-peaceful intent was very, very difficult.” He says that he can’t just respond to a few pictures or a few moments of videotape—“I’ve got a responsibility to ensure that we get not just some information, but all the information. My process requires that we get not just the truth, but the whole truth.”

Blair says he has regrets about the G20, but they are limited to a few specific events. He regrets that police weren’t able to react faster when protesters began smashing windows on Queen Street. He regrets not communicating the details of the so-called “five-metre rule” more expeditiously. He regrets that protesters were held in the rain for so long at Queen and Spadina. Mostly, though, Blair seems to regret that the G20 was ever held in his city and that the event has cast such a long shadow over him personally and over the work he’s accomplished as police chief.

He claims to have learned a lot from the past year, particularly about the media and the way stories can take hold. “The impact of social media has been interesting,” he said. “This is a very interesting phenomenon. Citizen journalists…”

Pugash cut in. “What does that even mean, ‘citizen journalist?’ ”

“It means we no longer have to worry about sourcing, fairness, accuracy or editing,” said Blair.

“Or supervision,” added Pugash.

“Information doesn’t have to be verified,” Blair continued. “People can post opinion as fact. You can say anything. If it’s interesting—it doesn’t matter if it’s true—if it’s interesting, it goes viral.”

Blair brought up the example of “Officer Bubbles,” the cop who was made an international laughingstock when he was caught on video threatening to arrest a young woman who was blowing bubbles at a G20 protest.

Blair said the media had been missing the context completely. “They’d been throwing urine and feces at us all day, and bleach.” Not these specific protesters, he clarified when I asked, but protesters in general.

“And then a group of the activists, they come up and they’ve got their video camera, and it’s a little street theatre. She’s blowing detergent into the policewoman’s face. The policewoman’s probably being more than reasonably tolerant.”

In the YouTube clip, another police officer, a tall man with a shaved head and sunglasses, then tells the young woman: “If the bubbles touch me, you’re going to be arrested for assault.”

“People have actually asked me, ‘What are you going to do about this guy?’ Well, what do you think I should do about this guy?” Blair sounded incredulous. He ticked off the facts on his fingers, one by one. “He was civil. He was accurate. He provided information when asked. He didn’t hit anybody. So what are you going to do about it?” Blair shrugged his shoulders, as if stumped. “Not much. I can’t think of much to do under those circumstances.”

“There was a comment afterwards that this is ridiculous because bubble solution is harmless,” said Pugash. “Well, how do you know that’s what it is? How do you know it doesn’t have urine? How do you know it doesn’t have ammonia?”

To me, the idea that the baby-faced protester might have created an ammonia-laced bubble solution to try to injure some cops seems a little far-fetched. But perhaps it just illuminates the vast chasm between my way of thinking and that of the police. The police are trained to anticipate the improbable and look for danger in seemingly innocuous situations. It’s the kind of thinking that their jobs and even their lives depend on. It’s also the kind of thinking that might help explain some of the events of that weekend—rounding up citizens blocks from the summit site who just happened to be wearing black, arresting entire groups of protesters, treating mouthy university students as if they were international terrorists.

As we finished the interview, Blair joked about whether or not I planned to dig up the usual police critics for the article. “Any article about the police has gotta have John Sewell,” he said, shooting an ironic grin at Pugash. Sewell is the former mayor and journalist who has become the city’s most outspoken critic of the police (a “smarmy, self-appointed watchdog of police conduct,” according to former chief Bill McCormack’s memoir, though Blair is far more diplomatic). “I doubt he’ll have anything too nasty to say about me personally,” Blair continued, explaining that the two of them know each other from years ago, when he and Sewell’s wife, Liz Rykert, served together on the board of the Children’s Aid Society. (True enough, Sewell had much to criticize about Blair’s handling of the police service, but called the chief himself “a very personable guy, a nice guy”).

By that point, Pugash was displaying subtle but undeniable let’s-wrap-this-up body language. As I gathered my notebook and recorder, Blair continued speaking. Once we were done talking about the G20, he was jovial again, back to the affable guy I’d seen in that meeting in Etobicoke. “You know, I once had lunch with him at Jane Jacobs’ house,” he said. We had since moved on to other topics, so it took me a moment to understand that he was still talking about Sewell. “I came to visit her and John was in the kitchen cooking,” he continued. “Do you know Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities? I take a lot of my inspiration for running the police from that book.”

It was a strange offering, an anecdote that seemed to come out of nowhere. It felt like Blair had sized me up, not incorrectly, as a young journalist who cared about urban issues, and he was presenting Jacobs and her work as a shared interest. A cynical move, perhaps, or maybe just an extension of his approach in Regent Park—find a point of commonality, build a dialogue, go from there.

*   *   *

Ask Blair’s many supporters about what happened the weekend of the G20 and an awkward silence fills the room, followed by a tentative, halting defence. They talk about the unfairness of holding an event like the G20 in downtown Toronto and giving the police chief just four months to organize it. They hint darkly about the other police organizations involved, like the ISU, which was formed for the G20 and then immediately dissolved. They talk about the Police Association and the kind of pressure the powerful union can bring to bear on a chief. “You can’t be a transformational leader and be so far ahead of everybody that when you turn around, nobody’s behind you,” says McConnell, the implication being that appeasing the rank and file is preventing Blair from leading as boldly as he would otherwise.

The police themselves don’t make any such excuses. Derry, the easygoing, mustachioed deputy chief who has always been less politic than his best friend, says he considers the G20 a policing success. No world leaders were harmed, the fence wasn’t breached, and the city’s economy was not significantly disrupted. “All in all, it would be nice if we hadn’t arrested 1,000 people,” he admits, but he thinks the arrests were justified and necessary to “subside the carnage.” Derry seems baffled and genuinely hurt by the criticism his friend has received. “The critics continue this sort of…I’ll call it a vendetta,” says Derry. “At what point do you sort of say, ‘That’s enough?’”

When I next met Blair in late April, he had other things on his mind. The police were in the middle of negotiating a new contract, which was preoccupying him. Our interview began late and was cut in half so that he could meet with the family of Liu Qian, the York University student who had been found dead in her apartment.

I wondered if he felt unfairly singled out. After all, Alphonse MacNeil—the senior RCMP officer who served as head of the coalition of RCMP, OPP and local forces that was ultimately in charge of security—had essentially disappeared, leaving Blair to stand up again and again and offer skeptical journalists the same handful of unsatisfying answers.

Blair spoke carefully.

“Listen, I am the chief of police in Toronto. When people have questions about policing in Toronto, it’s my responsibility. I can’t duck, I can’t leave town, I can’t not respond to those things.” He seemed fed up by the whole thing. “I can’t indulge in frustration and anger. I still have to speak for the Toronto Police Service.”

But the questions keep coming. Throughout May, the Toronto police and the SIU sparred back and forth over the case of Dorian Barton, a curious onlooker who had his arm broken by an officer while taking pictures at Queen’s Park. There are photos of Barton being attacked, and the perpetrator is clearly visible. And yet, 11 cops, including two of the suspected officer’s supervisors and a roommate of his, said they were unable to identify the officer. In June, after the Toronto Star revealed his identity as Constable Glenn Weddell of the Toronto force, he was finally charged with assault causing bodily harm. That same month, former judge John Morden began to hold public hearings as part of the Toronto Police Services Board’s independent civilian review of the G20. Morden hasn’t announced when his review will be completed, but once he’s done, a 1,000-person class-action suit will proceed.

At the end of June, Blair released his own report on the G20, in which he admitted that the force was insufficiently prepared and overwhelmed. There was no explanation for why police removed name tags or for the alleged beatings of Barton and Nobody. It’s safe to say that Blair will continue repeating his collection of talking points for the foreseeable future.

Blair’s father was a big fan of what he used to call “sage advice”—simple wisdom that could help a young officer find his way through the complex world of policing. “Be firm but be fair” was one of John Blair’s favourite sayings. “You’ve got two ears and one mouth—listen twice as much as you talk and you’ll fit in better” was another. Bill Blair has his own sage advice. He likes to tell his officers to act as if somebody’s watching. Know the rules, know the regulations, but at three in the morning when you’re out alone on a dark street and your conscience is your only witness, do what you know in your heart is right. “You’d be surprised how easy it is,” he told me.

At the end of that second meeting, Blair had gone over time yet again. Pugash hustled me out into the hallway, where men in their pressed wool uniforms stood waiting. I thought about Blair’s advice. Explained that way, good policing sounded so simple. The more I considered it, though, as I walked down into the vast marble interior of police headquarters, the more complicated it seemed. What’s in your heart isn’t necessarily what’s just. There can be many different versions of “what’s right.” Standing up for an unpopular employee who had been mocked around the world for losing his temper on the job is, in many ways, a thankless but fundamentally decent thing to do. And I can imagine nothing feeling more right than protecting your friends and co-workers. Siding with the public over his own officers could cause a chief to lose the respect of his force and ultimately his power, and what good would an out-of-work chief do? Then again, losing the public’s faith could yield the same outcome. As I thought about it, an infinite number of possible choices spread themselves out in front of me, and picking one seemed like murky business. Walking down the steps of police headquarters and out into a bustling Toronto—a city that Blair has helped make safer, if a little less trusting—it seemed murkier still.

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The Housekeepers Revolt

Toronto Life, April 2011

In an era of decline for organized labour, an aggressive hospitality workers’ union is determined to turn menial labour into middle-class employment. To do so, they need to galvanize the recent immigrants who overwhelmingly staff the service industry. First stop, the Royal York 


On a warm morning last September, the managers of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel had a PR problem. The Toronto International Film Festival had just begun, and celebrities were trickling into the city. The 1,365-room downtown hotel was booked solid, and the lush Library Bar stocked with the ingredients for $14 TIFF Tinis, but outside on the sidewalk, hundreds of unionized Royal York workers were on strike, angrily accusing the hotel of exploiting them. They pounded on overturned buckets and exchanged call-and-response chants: “What do we want?” “Contract!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” And they marched back and forth across the grand Front Street entrance singing “We want a contract” to the tune of K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag,” and hoisting red and black banners emblazoned with the logo of UNITE HERE, the aggressive international union that represents 8,000 hospitality workers across the GTA.

Outside the main doors, Martin Sheen stepped onto the pavement and was immediately mobbed by the crowd. He gave a thumbs-up to the strikers and began shaking hands and slapping backs, looking every bit the left-wing political hero he once played on television. The strikers eagerly linked arms with him and marched before the cameras and TV crews that were scrambling to get the best angle. Someone thrust a megaphone into Sheen’s hands, and he gamely improvised a few slogans. “When it gets tough in labour disputes like these, people say that it’s a lost cause,” he said, his voice rising passionately. “Well, I’m here to remind you that lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for!” The logic seemed a little shaky, but the crowd roared its approval anyway. “Stick to it like a stamp!” he shouted with a final wave, before he and his son Emilio Estevez were whisked off in a white Escalade.

Sheen’s appearance on the picket lines was on all the newscasts that night­—as the union knew it would be—adding a little flash and glam to the story of a labour dispute. For the Royal York, a hotel with a history of peaceful and relatively progressive labour relations, the one-day strike was an embarrassment, the first time workers had walked out in almost 50 years. For UNITE HERE, it was a successful media event—a protest shrewdly designed to gain public support for the workers and send hotel owners across the city a message.

The hospitality industry is bouncing back after a disastrous 2009. Though it may be a few years before hotels return to the record profits of 2007, Canadian occupancy levels and revenue have both nudged upward. As hospitality corporations grow, UNITE HERE wants to make sure that workers’ benefits and salaries grow, as well. What was at stake at the Royal York was job security: the hotel’s owners wanted more power to add and subtract shifts depending on daily demand, while the union wanted a stable schedule—and a stable living—for a group of workers who are mostly visible minorities and immigrant women.

The union’s leaders have an even bigger agenda. In 2010, there were contracts up for negotiation at close to 30 hotels across the GTA. “We want to do for the hospitality industry what organized labour did for the auto sector,” says J. J. Fueser, a research analyst at Local 75, the Toronto branch of UNITE HERE. “We want to turn menial labour into middle-class employment.” It’s a tall order: they’re up against powerful multinational corporations and a public largely unsympathetic to unions.

The Fairmont Royal York is a behemoth, a château-shaped slab of limestone that stretches out over a large city block. The hotel’s main-floor kitchen is an east-to-west airport runway of fluorescent lighting, ochre tiles and gas oven ranges. Each year, the hotel washes five million pounds of laundry, which workers pile into industrial machines the size of suburban garages. When it was first constructed in 1929, across the street from the newly inaugurated Union Station, the hotel was the tallest building in the British Empire and the ultimate symbol of modern opulence. Ads from the time called it “a city within a city block,” but it’s more like a medieval castle, with managers and cooks and maids all coexisting under an almost feudal hierarchy within the building’s thick stone walls.

At the top of the chain are the mostly white and decently paid front-of-house workers. Craig Reaume, the manager in charge of day-to-day operations, presides over the hotel’s 1,200 staff. Reaume is a tall, slender, seemingly unflappable man whose most animated facial expression, produced during moments of extreme stress, is a bemused knitting of the eyebrows. Like so many of the managers at the Royal York, Reaume is able to appear simultaneously aloof and attentive—the precise demeanour that you’d hope to find in an experienced butler. Like many of the managers, too, Reaume is a lifelong student of the science of Making People Feel Comfortable. Hospitality is something that everyone at a hotel takes extremely seriously, from the managers to the bellhops. All high-class hotels have beds and televisions and tiny bottles of complimentary shampoo, so the difference between a satisfied guest and a less-than-satisfied guest—and this is not a minor, touchy-feely difference, but a multimillion-dollar distinction empirically measured by market research firms and then endlessly analyzed and worried over by upper-level management—generally comes down to hospitality, that delicate mixture of servility and human warmth that hotel managers have done their best to systematically instill in their workers.

Near the bottom of the hierarchy are people like Cicely Phillips. When she first arrived in Toronto in 1992, Phillips had no idea what she was getting herself into. She flew in from Guyana in February wearing her finest clothes, shocked to discover that the Canadian winter had lingered so late into the new year. The city was a mystery to her. She found a job cleaning rooms at the Royal York through a friend who worked there as a housekeeper, and has been doing it ever since.

Phillips is in her 50s now. She’s a charismatic grandmother with smooth, dark skin and a broad smile that reveals the flash of a gold tooth. She’s worked as a housekeeper for the past 18 years, but, like most people in the industry, hotel work wasn’t her first choice. In Guyana, Phillips served as a lance corporal in the army. For seven and a half years, she maintained army vehicles, commanding the soldiers beneath her in the Guyana Defence Force. The army toughened her. She trained in the jungle, dug trenches, learned to handle weapons. She spent anxious nights out in the bush with only a poncho for shelter, terrified by the sound of rattlesnakes. Still, when she first began work at the hotel, she cried almost every day. Hotel work was humiliating, and it was hard. Lifting mattresses and scrubbing tubs is physically demanding, and housekeepers get injured on the job far more often than the average service industry worker. By the end of her shift, her wrists and feet would be in agony from the strain.

A room attendant’s job is a series of discrete tasks: strip the bed, make the bed, dust the night tables and vacuum the carpet. Then move on to the bathroom to clear the used towels, scrub the sink and bathtub, clean the toilet, mop the floor, and make sure that the surface most visitors spend a disproportionate amount of time examining, the mirror, is absolutely spotless. Rooms are supposed to take about half an hour, but every room is different. Some are much quicker to clean (“When a visitor doesn’t use any of the amenities, the soaps and shampoos, that’s a good day for a room attendant,” says Phillips), and some take forever (“Sometimes it looks like a tornado has passed through. The furniture is knocked over, everything’s a mess. You just open the door and sigh”). Repeating that routine for 15 rooms a day can be gruelling. According to a 1999 study, 75 per cent of room cleaners said they suffered work-related pain, and 53 per cent had to take time off work due to pain. In 1992, as a newcomer, Phillips could barely keep up with her quota of rooms (16 a day, at that time). If she hadn’t finished by the end of her shift, she was expected to continue working until she was done.

Phillips and her husband, Egland, have three children. At first, she was making approximately $22,000 a year picking up as many shifts as she could. “When I got home, I would be so down,” she says. “Egland would ask me, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I would say, ‘I’m not going back to that place.’”

After a few years at the hotel, she began looking into her rights and reading her contract. She found that the collective bargaining agreement had always specified that housekeepers were paid by the hour, not the room, but housekeepers hadn’t challenged managers who pressured them to finish their quotas. What recent immigrant working in a strange new country would dare to question the boss? “I started educating myself, and I started educating the people behind me,” Phillips says. She became a shop steward with the union and began speaking out about conditions. “Finally, at a meeting with my manager, I told her, ‘As long as I’m here, anyone who comes after me must not go through what I went through. I am here to represent these people.’” The manager was shocked. “Before that, I had been very, very quiet.”

It’s no secret that organized labour is in decline. Over the past three decades, union membership has steadily dropped across North America, from 38 per cent to 31 per cent of the workforce in Canada and down to a mere 12 per cent in the U.S. More than that, labour is increasingly unpopular, blamed for everything from exacerbating the current recession to the collapse of the auto industry. When most people think of unions, they think of public-sector employees like the much-maligned TTC workers, or large industrial unions like the autoworkers. Today, however, the typical blue collar worker isn’t the man building SUVs at the Ford plant; it’s the Filipino woman working the counter at Tim Hortons or sweeping the floors in a downtown office building. According to a 2007 Toronto industry report, 93 per cent of the lowest earners in a hotel are immigrants, 82 per cent are visible minorities and 80 per cent are women. “People who work in consumer service industries are the new working class,” says Steven Tufts, an associate professor at York University who has studied local service unions extensively. “It’s where the most exploitative work happens and where the employment is most precarious.”

Ironically, the same factors that make private service work so uncertain, and therefore in need of the protections that organized labour can provide, also make it notoriously difficult to organize. Employers have been aggressive in keeping unions out of their sector—just look at how difficult it’s been for unions to break into Walmart. Consumer service jobs are low-paying and have high turnover; workers often see their jobs as stepping stones and aren’t inclined to battle owners for long-term gains. They often don’t come from cultures with strong labour movements. And, most fundamentally, the way that service jobs are distributed makes them difficult to unionize. Historically, unions have been successful in places like factories, where thousands of workers are under the same roof and can be organized at once. Unionizing a dozen servers at a McDonald’s, in contrast, is far less efficient. Hotels, particularly big hotels like the Royal York, are one of the few places in the service industry where large numbers of workers are available in one space. Consequently, they’ve become the focal point of intense battles with owners and even between rival unions looking for a foothold in a growing industry.

UNITE HERE has had a rocky recent history. The international union was formed in 2004, when HERE, a growing hospitality workers’ union without much money, merged with UNITE, an apparel and laundry workers’ union that was financially flush but was losing members as clothing manufacturers moved overseas. It seemed like the perfect marriage, but the merger quickly turned sour over rifts about strategy and clashes between the strong personalities at the head of each union. By 2009, the partnership had dissolved into a vicious civil war over money and territory, including UNITE’s Amalgamated Bank, a union-owned bank with $4 billion in assets. Accusations and lawsuits were thrown around by both sides, with leaders using the kind of inflammatory language they usually reserve for management. The merger ended in an embarrassing and acrimonious split. Most hotel workers stayed with UNITE HERE, while many of the original garment workers left to form Workers United.

The ugly divorce came at an inopportune time, in the middle of an international campaign to raise wages for North American workers. Over the past two decades, unions have had to evolve to match the changing hospitality industry. Originally, the Royal York was part of a chain of hotels owned by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which ran its own properties across Canada. Today, many large hotels are controlled by a dizzying mixture of management companies, real estate investment trusts, private equity companies and asset managers. The name on the building—Hyatt, Hilton or Travelodge—can have little to do with who is in control. Fairmont is the Royal York’s brand and the management company that controls the day-to-day operation of the hotel and employs people like Craig Reaume. The property itself is primarily owned by Caisse de dépôt et placement, the Quebec pension fund, but controlled by a minority owner, the Westmont Hospitality Group, an international giant that operates 500 properties across three continents.

Westmont was started by the Mangalji family in 1975, when they bought an apartment-hotel in Vancouver and transformed it into a profitable 80-room hotel. They quickly expanded, acquiring more properties in Vancouver and then across the United States. In 2007, Westmont partnered with Caisse de dépôt to buy Legacy Hotels, a real estate investment trust that controlled a bundle of highly coveted, first-class hotels including the Chatêau Laurier in Ottawa, the Chatêau Frontenac in Quebec City, the Queen Elizabeth in Montreal and the Fairmont Royal York. With 13 hotels in the GTA, from the Royal York to the tiny Holi­day Inn Express, Westmont sets the tone for hotel negotiations in the city. In 2007, a fight over job security for food and beverage employees at what was then called the Holiday Inn on King (now the Hyatt Regency) escalated into a standoff with management. According to UNITE HERE, the hotel locked out employees for a month; management said they were simply laid off due to declining business. For workers, the signal was clear: when it came to union negotiations, Westmont and its partners weren’t going to play nice.

With more and more hotels owned by massive multinational companies, unions have been forced to change their bargaining strategy. Threatening a strike at one hotel is no longer as effective an approach as it was in the past; a company like Westmont or Intercontinental can afford to bleed money at one location if its other properties remain profitable. In the early 2000s, UNITE HERE began slowly and quietly coordinating its contracts so that they would expire in the same year in cities across North America. If globalization was creating multi­national hotel owners, then the union’s response would have to go global, as well. In 2010, union contracts expired in Honolulu, Chicago and San Francisco, as well as at more than two dozen UNITE HERE hotels in Toronto.

Cicely Phillips and the rest of the hotel workers are proud of their role in a larger movement. “The Royal York is the leader for all the other Toronto hotels. We are the largest, and we are the strongest,” Phillips told me. “We want to send a very strong message. Don’t take us for granted. We are fighters, and we are not going to give up easily.”

After her years of dedication to the union, Phillips was appointed the vice-president of UNITE HERE Local 75. At the time the workers’ contract expired, she was paid the same hourly rate for her union duties—$17.64—as she made as a housekeeper. Her total annual income of $36,000 reflects the extra hours and shifts she’s entitled to because of her seniority. She and Egland, a car mechanic, own a modest, semi-detached home in Scarborough near Morningside and Sheppard. It often takes Phillips two hours to get to work via bus and subway. She returns home most nights at around nine. At that hour, she’s usually too exhausted to cook, so on her days off she prepares huge batches of food and divides it into Tupperware containers for the week.

Before it expired, the Royal York’s unionized workers had one of the best contracts in the city. The room attendants’ wage was one of the highest in Toronto, workers were allowed to take five personal days without a doctor’s note, and they were the first to receive a small subsidy on a TTC pass, something that has since become standard at other unionized Toronto hotels. Since Westmont took control of the property in 2007, however, Phillips and other union members have noticed the Royal York taking a new direction.

When the workers began negotiating a new agreement last July, the hotel took a hard line. Citing the recession, management wanted to freeze wages and demanded concessions across the board. The main sticking point was scheduling. The hotel announced it wanted to be able to cancel shifts without notice, based on how many paying guests are projected to be in the hotel from day to day. People are booking their hotel rooms later and later—a change that managers attribute to the recession, which has pushed people to wait for last-minute Internet deals—so being able to add or subtract shifts at the last-minute is a sensible idea. The union was apoplectic. Management already had the right to cancel a shift with as little as 24 hours’ notice. How can workers arrange childcare if they don’t know when they’ll be working? How can they survive without knowing how much they’ll earn from week to week?

Although the details differed from hotel to hotel, management was pushing to build recessionary measures into its labour contracts across the board. In the week following Martin Sheen’s appearance at the Royal York, UNITE HERE staged one-day strikes at Westmont’s other hotels. On September 11, they hit the Holiday Inn on Bloor. The next day, at a street party to cele­brate the opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Hyatt Regency workers created an “alternative red carpet” where passersby could have their photo taken with a Hyatt worker. While TIFF-goers buzzed around the hotel’s bar, across the road a mammoth inflatable rat with the word “Hyatt” printed on its chest rocked menacingly in the breeze.

In total, the union held one-day strikes at nine Westmont properties that month. As the year dragged on, however, and as the publicity began to fade, workers at most hotels still hadn’t signed agreements. By New Year’s, 3,000 hotel employees at 28 hotels were still working without new contracts. Some of them had been negotiating for a year.

For all their fiery rhetoric, union leaders were reluctant to start an outright fight, perhaps mindful of what happened the last time there was a prolonged strike at the Royal York, in 1961. Just like today, the conflict then was mainly about flexible scheduling. Workers rejected a contract that would give management the right to cancel shifts with just 48 hours’ notice, and on April 24, 1,200 union members walked off the job. The strike was big news—Laurence Olivier walked out of the hotel carrying his own luggage, as did Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas, who predicted a swift victory for the union. During the next few weeks, however, management hired scabs, the hotel remained near full occupancy, and it became increasingly clear that the union had badly misjudged its own strength. Over a bitter year, with limited strike pay, bellhops and chambermaids quickly ran out of money. Management, sensing weakness, pushed for more and more concessions. In April 1962, after nearly a year on the picket lines, desperate workers finally agreed to an offer that was virtually identical to the one they had rejected 12 months earlier. The union was crushed—indebted and demoralized—and didn’t really recover until decades later.

The defeat is a cautionary tale. Despite all the talk about union strength and solidarity, the fight remains grossly imbalanced: enormous multinational corporations against a group of relatively unskilled, poorly funded immigrant women.

The last time I saw Phillips, on a cold evening in January, she was recovering from surgery. Nearly 20 years of cleaning had taken a toll on her body, and doctors had recently removed a ganglion cyst—a marble-shaped lump that forms on the wrists due to repetitive strain, a common ailment among housekeepers. The thin scar was still visible, and sharp pain shot along her hand when she touched it, but Phillips had already returned to work. The army had made her tough, she explained. More than that, it had made her disciplined. “The way you think, the way you walk, the way you approach people in your everyday life—everything must be done with discipline,” she told me.

That evening, after six months of negotiations, workers finally ratified a new contract with the hotel. In a small office in the basement of the Royal York, with the slim pink ballots counted and collated, union organizers and hotel workers hugged one another and exchanged congratulations. The workers voted 89 per cent in favour of an agreement that gives them a modest two per cent wage increase a year and new protections against subcontracting. Most significantly, it doesn’t include a concession to flexible scheduling. They’ll continue to get their 24 hours’ notice. UNITE HERE expects the settlement will lead to favourable agreements at some of the city’s other hotels.

The small gains from this new contract will be added to the long list the union has won over the past 20 years: free supportive stockings to protect against varicose veins, access to podiatrists to help with all those hours on their feet, and all the other mundane and seemingly minor victories that, when eventually tallied up, Phillips hopes will one day amount to a secure and stable life. But for now, their goal of transforming the status of hospitality workers across the city, of changing the face of urban labour on a grand scale, seems as distant as ever.

Hell House

Toronto Life, December 2010

Last year, Jeff Munro was beaten to death at the Don Jail over a bag of chips. His fate was not unusual. The Don is a wretched, dangerous dungeon that should have been shut down ages ago. Instead, it’s where we send people who haven’t yet been convicted of anything


On a Sunday last November, Christine Munro was putting the Christmas tree up early, just like she does every year, when two police officers came to her door. Christine is a dental assistant and mother of four. She lives on a quiet cul-de-sac in Paris, Ontario, with her husband, Paul, who is a mechanic, and their 15-year-old son, Devon. She also has two grown daughters, Brittany and Melanie, who visit often. When Christine saw the officers on her front porch, however, her thoughts immediately jumped to her eldest child. “I opened my door and said, ‘Please don’t tell me it’s about Jeff.’”

It was. Five days before, the officers explained, Jeff, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had been spotted exposing himself on the street. He was arrested on Yonge near Davenport. It wasn’t Jeff’s first arrest. He was known to police, but in the past they’d usually delivered him to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. This time, they took him to the Toronto Jail—the red brick building at Broadview and Gerrard that, despite its official name, just about everyone still calls the Don. In the jail, three other prisoners—Troy Victor Campbell, Osman Sarikaya and Kevin Andre Veiro, all in their early 20s—accused Jeff of stealing a bag of chips and, in retaliation, allegedly punched and kicked him to death. When a guard found Jeff slumped in his cell, he had what the police report called “obvious signs of trauma to the face.”

Christine had been dreading the moment for years. As a teen, Jeff had often prank-called his mother, using funny accents to tell her wild stories, but as he grew older the stories grew darker and began to seem more like the inventions of a troubled mind. By the age of 24, he had developed an addiction to crystal meth, quit his job as a professional dancer for an American cruise line, and started moving from city to city. Christine can’t count the number of times she was woken up by the phone in the middle of the night—someone from a hospital telling her that they had her mentally unstable son, or a panicked Jeff himself, warning her of outlandish plots and powerful people out to get him.

In 2004, Jeff was arrested outside Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles for harassing executives who he claimed were threatening him. He was deported and settled in Toronto, where he bounced between homeless shelters and was admitted several times to CAMH. On a visit home in 2005, he brought a collection of stuffed animals that he wanted to give to Brittany and Devon. Before Jeff left, Christine remembers walking into the family room in the basement and finding him on the couch, clutching the toys with tears in his eyes. “He told me that he didn’t own his own life,” says Christine. “He was caught up in something that was more than he could handle.”

Christine’s biggest fear was that he would overdose or he’d forget her phone number and drift away like so many of the other men on Toronto’s streets. The news of his death knocked the wind out of her.

 

Why was Jeff Munro, with his history of mental illness, placed in the Don? Run by the province, the Don isn’t a prison for convicted criminals. It’s where prisoners, before either being sent home or shipped out to serve their sentence, await bail hearings or trials for everything from breach of probation to murder. Pressed up against the grey stone of the old Don Jail, which closed more than 30 years ago, the current facility, built in 1958, is a drab, anonymous building. A public library is nearby, and across the street a bar and grill runs a modest side business charging two bucks to hold people’s cellphones while they visit their loved ones in jail, where the devices are banned.

The Don has a capacity of 562 inmates, but on any given night it can hold more than 650 men. Despite federal directives that say single-bunking is the most “correctionally appropriate” policy, the jail often houses three prisoners to a cell—two in bunk beds and a third on a mattress on the floor wedged between the toilet and the wall.

The prison is a cement box, the floor, walls and steel bars all painted a neutral white caked with grime. It’s noisy, each of the units filled with the sounds of men shouting, banging the bars and arguing; wall-mounted TVs blare different channels. With hundreds of men living in cramped quarters, many of them taken directly off the streets, the smell is intense. The sound of the toilets is so loud, prisoners follow a self-imposed no-flushing policy throughout the night, and in the morning, the stench of human waste is unbearable. Drugs move freely through the Don, though correctional officers say that the odd whiff of pot is a welcome respite from the stink of urine, vomit and sweat. The jail is also overrun with mice, cockroaches and a generous variety of infectious diseases. The Don’s guards have one of the highest sick rates of any correctional officers in the province, not just because of the unhealthy conditions, but also because they hate going to work.

In 2003, while sentencing a man who had brought a gun to a crowded bar in search of revenge, Ontario Justice Richard Schneider called the Don “an embarrassment to the Canadian criminal justice system” and made the precedent-setting decision to award the gunman with three days for every day spent on remand, instead of the usual two-for-one sentencing. In a separate ruling later that year, Schneider said that the Don didn’t even comply with the UN’s minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners.

Jeff Munro’s death prompted a renewed spate of condemnations, which only grew more intense when the violent incidents continued. On November 11, just five days after Jeff’s murder, Kevin Pereira, a Don Jail prisoner held on drug charges that were later withdrawn, was found viciously beaten in a common area. He was taken to hospital with no vital signs but has since recovered. Two months later, on January 2, Kevon Phillip, a 24-year-old awaiting deportation to Trinidad, became the city’s first homicide of the year when he was beaten to death in his cellblock.

When Christine heard about Phillip, she realized her son’s death wasn’t an anomaly. There was something seriously wrong at the Don, and she wanted someone to be held responsible. Last May, the Munro family announced that they were suing the jail, the Toronto police, and the alleged murderers for the wrongful death of Jeff Munro. The family is represented by Barry Swadron, a defence lawyer and an expert on mental health issues who helped draft the 1967 Mental Health Act.

There is a method for determining compensation for a death—whether the victim has any dependants, his or her earning capacity, and so on. As Christine and Swadron went through the list, they realized that Jeff’s life was not worth much. They’re suing for a total of $170,000. But the money, all of which will likely go to legal fees, isn’t the point. Christine wants to know why Jeff, with his history of mental illness, was placed in a unit with dangerous criminals. She wants to know why her son was murdered under the watch of correctional officers who were unable to do anything about it. And she wants to know how the province allowed the Don to become the place it is today, a jail almost universally acknowledged as an inhumane, overcrowded tinderbox waiting to erupt.

 

Last July, I visited a dusty site near Islington and the Gardiner Expressway, where construction workers were building the future of Toronto incarceration. Toy box–yellow backhoes shifted dirt, while crews of men stooped in trenches, laying out thick green PVC pipes in parallel lines. At the centre of the site, people in orange safety vests clambered over the metal skeleton of a huge new structure that was rising from the gravel and dirt. A vinyl banner on the surrounding chain-link fence introduced the site to passersby: “Toronto South Detention Centre… Modern, state-of-the-art… Built to the highest technology and security standards.”

The Toronto South, according to the Ministry, will be a vast improvement over the Don. The new jail will include a large special needs unit for mentally ill prisoners, with full-time medical professionals on hand to deal with them. It will have 1,650 beds: not just enough to house all of the Don’s current prisoners, but enough to house criminals well into the future—criminals who haven’t yet committed their first crimes, criminals who haven’t yet been born.

The jail is scheduled to be completed in 2013, 17 years after it was first promised by the province. The Don, if all goes according to plan, will empty of prisoners and close its doors shortly thereafter. However, if the history of Toronto’s most notorious jail demonstrates anything, it’s that it’s wise to be wary of high-minded talk about prison reform.

For as long as there has been a country called Canada, there has been a Don Jail, and for as long as there has been a Don Jail, it has been infamous. The original Don Jail was designed as a modern institution built on advanced ideas about punitive justice. Based on a British model, it would have a central observation post from which guards could watch their prisoners, who would live in cells that had access to light and heat. On October 25, 1859, Mayor Adam Wilson presented a silver trowel to the head of the Masonic Order to lay the cornerstone of the Don in a lavish ceremony attended by politicians, firefighters, masons and other dignitaries.

When the jail opened its doors five years later, it became clear that it wasn’t the place of humane incarceration that had been promised. The cells were tiny, some just 86 centimetres wide. Within a few decades, conditions had deteriorated to the point where the Provincial Inspector of Prisons described it as “the worst jail on the Continent of America.” That kind of full-voiced criticism would become commonplace. Over the years, the old Don has been described as “an overcrowded dungeon” and “an insult to humanity,” and compared to the Black Hole of Calcutta. It was the site of 70 hangings, including the executions of Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas, the final hangings in Canada before capital punishment was abolished in 1976.

In 1977, the old Don was closed. Architectural preservationists saved the building itself from being demolished, but the gallows were destroyed before macabre souvenir seekers could get their hands on them. With the old building shuttered, the new Don became the primary jail for downtown Toronto. It, too, had initially been touted as the “ultimate in sanitation and health,” and it, too, became as notorious as its predecessor. In 1982, after severe criticism about the continual overcrowding of cells, the province made vague promises to remedy the situation. In the late ’90s, in its annual human rights reports on all UN members, the U.S. State Department singled out the Don, writing that conditions were “so depressing that some inmates purportedly pled guilty in order to be sent to other facilities and thus avoid awaiting trial in the jail.”

The condemnations go on and on. To study the history of the Don Jail is to experience an almost vertiginous feeling of déjà vu. Time after time, prison guards complain about the danger of stuffing that many men in a too-small box. Judges, inquests, commissions and political leaders call for its closure. Public officials vow to change things. New solutions are always just around the corner. The Don is always about to be fixed.

 

When Jeff Munro arrived at the Don last November, he was taken in through the gaping basement entrance and processed, just like all incoming inmates. At the Don, there are accused murder­ers and drug dealers, but also people like Jeff—the homeless, drug addicts and schizophrenics, who are routinely shuttled in and out because we’ve yet to figure out a better place to keep them.

More than a third of all inmates in Ontario’s prisons suffer from some form of mental illness, though the Don routinely houses a higher percentage than other Ontario jails. When the mentally ill are processed, the most extreme cases—people who are judged to be dangerous to themselves or other prisoners—are put into segregation units. Solitary confinement was designed to be punitive—the ultimate violence a state could inflict on one of its citizens—but today it’s used to hold the most vulnerable prisoners. After a tour of the Don’s segregation unit in 2009, NDP justice critic Peter Kormos reported seeing urine flowing out from underneath the door of a cell where a mentally ill patient howled ceaselessly.

If a prisoner is judged to have less severe mental problems, or if the segregation units happen to be full that day, he is sent to the special needs unit. Correctional officers dread working there because of the smell and the noise. Female officers tend to avoid it, put off by the frequent sight of prisoners masturbating in their cells. This was where Jeff Munro was placed.

Crystal Robbescheuten, a correctional officer, was working the day Jeff died. She describes him as a quiet guy, an easy prisoner. Robbescheuten is a 35-year-old single mother of two with a deep tan and a chirpy, cheerful voice she uses to deliver blunt truths about her place of employment. Over her 13 years at the institution as a CO and now acting president of Local 530, she has become intimately acquainted with the way the Don works. “I have seen more than my fair share of murders, beatings, sudden deaths and suicides,” she told me. She isn’t a bleeding-heart prisoners’ rights activist. When training new recruits, she likes to play something called “the no game,” designed to teach a rookie CO the necessary attitude for the job. The rules are simple: the two officers sit at their desks, write their names at the top of a sheet, and keep track of how many times they say “no” in the course of a day. “An inmate will come up and say, ‘Can I get my cell opened?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, absolutely not,’ ” Robbescheuten explained. At the end of the shift, whoever has the most “no’s” wins dinner. Still, Robbescheuten says that conditions for prisoners at the Don are appalling. “It’s a poor, poor environment. Dirty, dingy, just a disgusting place.”

On November 7, when staff found Munro in his cell, they immediately sounded a medical alert. By the time Robbescheuten arrived, guards and nurses were already inside Munro’s cell, trying to revive him. Robbescheuten says staff began taking Jeff out of his cell in order to transport him to hospital. When the paramedics arrived, however, they pronounced him dead, so his body remained at the jail for the police and the coroner to deal with, and the unit was shut down for an investigation.

She calls what happened to Jeff “a beating that went too far.” It’s a phrase that contains an important distinction: beatings are commonplace at the Don—it’s only the ones that get out of hand that are cause for alarm. Prisoner assaults happen every day, she says, sometimes in front of correctional officers. After 13 years, she’s developed a good enough ear to recognize a serious assault by the sound of the inmates’ provincially issued rubber shoes against the floor. “When there’s a lot of squeaking, you know something’s going on that you should check out,” she explains. Most of the time, though, she discovers a fight only after the fact, when she finds a bloodied, bruised prisoner who almost always declines to talk about the incident.

As I spoke to people about the Don, I frequently heard that the prisoners run the jail. Gangs allegedly operate from within the prison walls, and correctional officers have a hard time simply maintaining order. It’s a characterization the Ministry vigorously disputes, but Eduardo Almeida, chair of the corrections section of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, believes it has a kernel of truth. He says that one of the reasons it’s difficult for COs to control prisoners in the Don is that there’s no system of rewards or punishments. The segregation cells, which were once used to punish prisoners, are filled with the mentally ill (and in many cases, the private cells are preferable to being triple-bunked in the general population anyway). And in the cramped maximum-security facility, there aren’t any privileges you can take away from a prisoner. “There are no incentives,” says Almeida. “The only method officers have to maintain order is physical force, which no one likes to use.”

Guards believe that a larger staff would make the Don a safer place. Currently, two officers are in charge of up to 79 prisoners in a single unit. It’s a standard ratio across Ontario jails, but they feel it’s insufficient at the volatile Don. The Ministry doesn’t see it that way. Steven Small is the assistant deputy minister who oversees all 31 of Ontario’s provincial prisons. Just a year and a half ago, he was superintendent of the Don, so he knows the institution well. “I don’t think the jail is understaffed,” Small says. “The provision of additional staff doesn’t necessarily provide additional supervision. It depends on where they’re placed, what shift schedule they’re placed on, et cetera.”

Even if the province wanted to hire new correctional officers, it couldn’t. In December 2009, the Ministry suspended all recruitment programs for COs while it overhauls the entire vetting process. Apparently potential guards were lying on their applications. In some cases, girlfriends of gang members were enrolling to become COs. Even once the training program begins producing officers, however, it’s hard to find people willing to work at a place with the Don’s reputation. “We have a lot of vacancies,” says Robbescheuten. “Nobody wants to go to the Don.”

Some days, there aren’t enough officers to run the prison’s most basic programs. According to standard operating procedures, prisoners are entitled to 20 minutes of fresh air a day. When the Don lacks sufficient officers, and this happens a lot, that time is cut. Likewise, programs run by outside organizations like the Salvation Army and John Howard Society and even visiting hours are frequently cancelled, leaving hundreds of prisoners stuck in their crowded cellblocks for days at a time.

 

In the years since the original Don was first built, there has been much discussion among criminologists, public policy analysts and legal scholars about what corrections should do. Depriving a citizen of his or her freedom is a serious responsibility for the state. Theories of incarceration have come and gone. Should the primary aim be rehabilitation? Providing the prisoner with opportunity to reintegrate with society? Just punishment? The Don Jail does none of these things, not officially. Because prisoners are, in theory, supposed to spend no more than a few weeks at the Don, there is little attempt to rehabilitate. (In reality, prisoners can be locked up for months.) Because it houses people who are “presumed innocent,” the jail is not even intended to be punitive. It is a warehouse. And yet prisoners at the Don are treated worse than the most dangerous convicted criminals serving time in federal penitentiaries.

If the Don really is demolished in three years, a particularly dark corner of Toronto will finally be eliminated. Building a massive new jail to house more and more Torontonians is a simplistic solution to a complicated situation. “Alternatives to prisons could ease the overcrowding,” says Greg Rogers, the executive director of the John Howard Society’s Toronto branch. “Stop using it as a place to stick the homeless and mentally ill when you have no place else to stick them.” A recent report by John Howard showed that one in five prisoners going into Toronto jails is homeless. Unsurprisingly, an even higher percentage of prisoners, almost one in three, expect to be homeless when they get out.

When Christine Munro thinks about the Don finally closing, she feels nothing but relief. “No one deserves to be treated the way Jeff was,” she says. For the moment, her lawsuit is stalled. Her lawyer is insisting that police should have taken Jeff to CAMH. The police usually recommend a psychiatric assessment of incoming prisoners. That never happened. The police insist it isn’t their responsibility. The force’s statement of defence says that Jeff “seemed clearly capable of appreciating the circumstances” when he was arrested. They’re essentially saying any responsibility for Jeff’s death lies with the jail and with his murderers. The Ministry’s statement of defence, meanwhile, places the responsibility with the police.

The problems highlighted by Jeff Munro’s murder go well beyond a single institution and get at a more fundamental question. How do we want to treat our prisoners? Winston Churchill once said that “the mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.” In Canada, the past decades have seen a hardening of public opinion against prisoners. As crime rates across the country fall, the popularity of “tough on crime” policies only increases. The rights of victims are pitted against the rights of prisoners, as if the two somehow had an inverse relationship.

The Don Jail is a rare case of a public institution with no defenders—not the ministry that runs it, not the people who work there. It is a brick-and-mortar monument to civic and political indifference. The jail has been denounced so many times that the criticisms have lost their sting. Most Torontonians have become inured to the fact that their city’s primary jail is a dungeon.


Graphic Nostalgia: Today’s Cartoonists Draw the Past

Maisonneuve, 2005

Panel from "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" by Chris Ware

In the right hands, nostalgia, even unearned nostalgia, can be a powerful thing. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise is one of the most heartfelt laments about lost youth ever written. It was published when he was just twenty-three. More recently, in a song called “Happy Dayz,” seventeen-year-old British Grime artist Ears sang, “Do you remember that? Back in the days, when man was just bare happy? No worries, nothing to worry about? Those days were live, I miss them days, man.” When you’re seventeen, there is nothing sadder than the realization that the past can never be revisited. Time, at this very moment, is slipping away. You will never be sixteen again.

Of course, Fitzgerald and Ears aren’t alone in their affection for the past, but what separates them from the masses of university students crowding eighties nights across the continent is that they can take this pulsing nostalgia and turn it into something of artistic value.

The same can be said of graphic novelists. Today’s cartoonists are obsessed with the past. In the pages of the graphic novel, childhoods and adolescences are endlessly relived, past halcyon days constantly invoked. On the back cover of one of his comics, Guelph-born cartoonist Seth writes: “It is with a heavy heart that I face the grim fact that it is now the year 2000. Yes, with each passing day, that golden, imagined past I am so fond of grows further and further back in time.” Even the form of the comic, with its quaint ink-drawn pictures on paper, seems vaguely anachronistic in an increasingly digitalized world.

The past, nostalgia, and the history of comics were the main topics of conversation last Saturday afternoon at the Toronto International Festival of Authors when journalist and comics scholar Jeet Heer sat down with graphic designer Chip Kidd and cartoonists Chris Ware, Seth, and Charles Burns to discuss the influence of classic comics on their work. What emerged was not just a picture of which strips and comics most powerfully affected these artists, but of the way in that contemporary cartoonists seem to grow and thrive on a gloomy nostalgia and obsession with the past.

The most obvious way cartoonists relive the past, of course, is simply by drawing it. Much of Chris Ware’s masterpiece, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, is set in early 20th century Chicago, with beautifully-rendered and carefully researched architectural drawings, and in his comics and sketchbooks Seth lovingly reproduces mid-century small-town Ontario. Seth’s nostalgia also extends beyond his cartooning: he usually wears a classically-cut suit and round-framed glasses that look as if they were plucked from the nose of James Joyce.

Panel from "Black Hole" by Charles Burns

Even in the work Charles Burns, probably the artist least likely to be accused of sentimentalizing the past, shows a distinct historical obsession. His horror comic, Black Hole, is a meticulously researched recreation of suburban life in the seventies, full of throw-away glimpses of album covers, band posters. During his Toronto discussion, Burns talked about searching through old Sears catalogues for the ideal seventies-era bra and tolling the internet to find the perfect wall-hangings for a fifteen-year-old girl.

At times, this interest in historical reconstruction can seem like misty-eyed sentimentality or, worse, a kind of historical necrophilia. The pleasure that Seth and Ware take in recreating the feel and texture of the 1930s, or that Burns gets from accurately rendering the shape and label of a 1970s Olympia beer can, is not unlike the pleasure of the fourteen-year-old misfit who builds a to-scale model of the Battle of Midway in his basement. Despite the beauty and ingenuity of the recreation, it almost seems more fussy than creative, something that taps into our love of anthologizing and preserving rather than imagining.

But what makes the cartoonist different than, say, the civil war re-enactor or model-train enthusiast is the fact that graphic novels are not just attempts to collect the past but also meditations on the process of collection. There is a difference between simply being a nostalgic and taking nostalgia as the subject of your art.

Seth’s work in particular is all about memory, nostalgia, and the difficulty of living in the present with a mind so full of the past. In It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, Seth tells the pseudo-autobiographical story of his own obsession with a fictional New Yorker cartoonist named Kalo. Over the course of the book, the protagonist obsessively attempts to discover more about the near-anonymous artist, following clue after clue, all the while delivering monologues about his own dissatisfaction with the modern-age. By the end, it becomes clear just how damaging an obsession with the past can be for relationships in the present.

Where Seth explicitly takes on nostalgia as one of the major themes of his art, Chris Ware does so in the form of his work. With an intimate knowledge of the history of car

tooning at his disposal, Ware constantly evokes a swelling of nostalgia in his reader with a familiar trope or “retro” look before, inevitably, deflating it. His character Quimby the Mouse looks like a pleasant 20s-era Mickey until you realize he suffers wild lust, incredible violence, and, of course, emotional devastation. Throughout his comic books, Ware simultaneously parodies and pays homage to the naïvely enthusiastic prose and familiar design of fifties comic-book ads with his bold-lettered advertisements for IRONY, FEUDALISM, NUCLEAR WEAPONS, and THE ODOR OF CHILDHOOD (“Great for parties, feeling horrible and sad”).

Panel from "It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken" by Seth

In one of his early comics, entitled “Thrilling Adventure Stories,” Ware pits his comic’s form against its content. The cartoon’s images are an impressive recreation of a mid-century superhero comic book, complete with all of the clichéd characters of the genre: the masked hero, the voluptuous woman, the evil scientist. The comic’s text, meanwhile, is an entirely unrelated personal story about a troubled childhood, small-town racism, and a difficult relationship with a stepfather. Read together, the text and images tell the story of a child who escapes his troubled life through the fantasy of comics. It’s a formally brilliant piece that nostalgically evokes the past in order to tell a distinctly modern story.

You don’t need to look any farther than the constant barrage of “Remember the Eighties?” programming to realize that unconsidered nostalgia can be dangerous. In the hands of contemporary cartoonists, though, the past isn’t mindlessly sentimentalized, but constantly evoked in order to tell stories about the present. In forty years time, it’s not hard to see future cartoonists looking back on the early 20th century as the golden era of the graphic novel. Their nostalgia won’t be misplaced.

Parallel Lives: The Art of the Parking-Lot Attendant

Maisonneuve Magazine, 2005

There’s no official champion in the sport of parking. But if there were, I’d put my money on Greg Bozikis. He’s one of three attendants at the Park and Shine lot off Bishop Street and one of thousands across Montreal. During his ten years on the job, Greg’s learned to back up faster than most people go forward, he can nestle an SUV between two sedans with enviable tenderness, and his three-point-turn is a thing of beauty.

“People don’t believe the way I park,” Greg says, grinning. “The speed, the small spaces, everything. People say to me, ‘What did you do? Did you fold it in half?’”

I visit the Park and Shine on a disgusting day in the middle of the summer’s first heat wave. The air is hot and smoggy and thick with floating fluff from poplar trees—flecks of white that look cruelly like the flakes of a Montreal snowstorm. Grand Prix weekend, the biggest tourist weekend of the year, is in full swing. The Park and Shine is just one block away from the noisy epicentre of the weekend’s festivities, and from the lot you can hear the thump of a subwoofer and the sound of a bilingual MC urging the crowd to cheer for the middle-aged men that are competing in a pit-stop challenge. It’s only 2 p.m., but already the small lot is near capacity and there’s a steady stream of vehicles flowing past the booth.

I’m there for less than ninety seconds when Greg bellows, “Quick, grab that spot for me.” I look around dumbly. “There! Just stand there!” He points to an empty space on the street. I run over and stand in the spot, confused, and sheepishly wave off a few irritated drivers before Greg appears, backing a huge Chevy Suburban out of the parking lot—Greg backs-up faster than God—cutting off a Francophone man in an Audi who curses and honks his horn. Greg dismisses him with a wave, spins the hulking SUV into the slot, brings it to a bouncing stop, rushes back to the booth to get some quarters, sprints to ply the metre with change, then charges back to the lot where three drivers are waiting for him to take their keys. He leans casually into each window and smiles: “It’s $20 today. Grand Prix weekend,” he tells them.

I find out later that the Park and Shine, at about 75 by 50 feet, is a relatively small lot. Maximum business means maximum strategizing: attendants are constantly double and triple-parking, tactically shifting the vehicles between the few available spaces like pieces in a mosaic puzzle. When they can park an extra car on the road, it’s always worth a few quarters.

Watching the attendants—exacting, delicate, swift—I can’t help but think of On the Road. It’s in that novel that Jack Kerouac immortalizes his friend Neal Cassady (called Dean Moriarty in the book) as “the most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world.” He vividly describes Cassady’s prowess behind the wheel and in the lot, from his sprints to the ticket shack, to his inspired use of the emergency brake. The story of Cassady driving to work without touching the breaks or gas, using the natural inclines to speed up, rubbing the wheels against the curb to slow down, and bringing the car to a silent stop by gently rocking it back and forth between two shallow divots, has become one of the legends of the beat generation.

Since Kerouac, however, there have been few attempts to romanticize the parking lot attendant—perhaps because being an attendant isn’t particularly romantic. The pay is close to minimum wage and the tips are miniscule. “You want to write something about parking?” Greg says to me after a BMW rolls out with nothing more than a friendly wave. “I’ll tell you what to write. Write ‘Why the hell don’t people tip parkers?’ That’s what you write.”

In the winter, the job entails huddling against a space heater in a barely windproof booth, occasionally trudging out into the wet snow to park a car, before going back to the shack, by now wind-blasted cold from the open door, to listen to the radio or read a book. On slow days, it can be incredibly dull. James Fambois, a younger attendant who’s been at the Park and Shine six months, has finished Brian Lumley’s 13-novel Necroscope series.

But for Kerouac—and, one gets the sense, for people like Greg Bozikis—what makes parking cars more interesting than the average low-wage job is getting to be the caretaker of one of the most power metaphors in American life. Road movies, Indy racing, The Great Gatsby and about sixty percent of Bruce Springsteen’s oeuvre have all helped to turn the automobile into a colossal symbol of individualism, mobility and private freedom.

Unfortunately, the truth is that modern driving is less about freedom than constant compromise. Car commercials feature sleek vehicles flying down empty stretches of highway while actual driving means sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, being cut off by bike couriers and battling your way downtown only to have to pay twenty dollars to give the keys of your Explorer to a grinning Greg Bozikis.

And this, it seems, is a problem. The ideal of driving is constantly running up against the reality, and the parking lot, where drivers are forced to give up their cash and keys to strangers, is one place of convergence. There’s something about paying for parking that seems to inspire real anger. Harassed metre maids will tell you this, as will the street-parking attendants in England who are preemptively, and perhaps pessimistically, issued “anti-stabbing jackets.”

Twenty-year old Karim Elali, an attendant at the Impark lot just a few blocks away from the Park and Shine, tells me that most of the customers are great, and that he even gets to meet the occasional celebrity. “But sometimes there are problems.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. Ask a parking lot attendant for his best story and odds are it ends with a punch in the nose or a chase down an alley. People are aggressive about their cars. The general formula, though I wouldn’t say the rule, goes like this: the bigger the car, the bigger the asshole. At Impark alone, SUV drivers are responsible for a broken nose, at least one lawsuit, and a nightly parade of moderate belligerence. The day before I spoke to him, Karim spent hours in court testifying against a Hummer owner who got violent when an attendant told him it would cost $20 to park his modified tank. “The driver picked him up and threw him right through that window!” Karim says, pointing at cracked panel in the parking booth.

Ned Mahoney, a former parking lot attendant, thinks this aggression comes from the all stress of daily living compounded into a moment at the car park. “Parking becomes a medium for people’s happiness. It’s such a battle to get to work or to get anywhere that by the time they get there, finding a parking spot is incredibly important. It can be the difference between a good day and a bad day, right there.”

Karim has a simpler explanation: “A lot of people are kind of assholes about their cars.”

Let’s Put on a Show!

The creators of the hit Fringe musical Just East of Broadway are babes in arms no longer, thanks to Next Stage

by Chandler Levack

EYE WEEKLY, January 06, 2010

Part of the cast of "Just East of Broadway"

The musical about how-the-hell-are-we-going-to-put-on-a-musical is a time-honoured tradition. 42nd Street. The Producers. Summer Stock. In each, a team of ragtag artists comes together against all odds to knock ‘em dead. Sometimes it’s Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, mucking out the barn. Sometimes it’s a surefire dud that unexpectedly takes over Broadway.

And at this year’s Next Stage festival, the most anticipated show of the season is set in globalized China — as a has-been movie star falls for a small-town villager who just happens to be a kick-ass soprano. He’s stuck acting in a flop to promote his career; she wants to save her townspeople from the threat of the party. But in the end, the two leads kiss as the lights come down — a community united by song. Sound typical? The makers of Just East of Broadway wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s kind of like one of those classic fish-out-of-water musicals,” admits co-writer Nicholas Hune-Brown, who also performs in the play. “But we wanted to situate it in the 21st century.”
Known for their 2007 Fringe hit Lord of The Rings: The Musical: The Musical! in which a dancing David Miller faces off against an evil British producer in a fight for Toronto culture, writing team Hune-Brown and Ben King wanted to renew their creative partnership — officially chronicled in a CBC Outfront documentary about the recording of the Just East of Broadway song “The Cookie Never Lies” — for one more go at the Fringe.

Their inspiration? A New York Times article about intrepid theatre producers entering a new domestic market for musicals: the burgeoning free world of China, where works like Mamma Mia! are culturally altered for consumption by a new middle class. Remarks Hune-Brown, “In sort of a state-centric way, they’re building their own entertainment district.”

But King and Hune-Brown aren’t professionals. Until their first outing at the Fringe, they had never written a play, period. Yet with the help of Hune-Brown’s girlfriend Lorna Wright (who also sings with Hune-Brown in indie-pop collective Hooded Fang), they managed to turn their satirical take on SARS tourism into a bona fide Fringe success story. This summer, Just East of Broadway, directed by Wright, conquered again, winning Patron’s Pick and garnering four-star accolades. Still, the team wanted the opportunity to let someone other than the workers control the means of production. Enter Next Stage.

Part of the Fringe’s initiative to develop new artists after the summer gorge-fest, Next Stage puts its money where its mouth is. While the annual festival hosted around 150 companies this past season, it’s hard for its artists to expand on their vision after their run concludes. Next Stage selects eight productions by application and offers a professional venue for free, with funding going towards the cast and crew. For the three creators of Just East of Broadway, who did everything from painting sets to choreographing numbers, this offers a welcome respite from the gruelling responsibility of DIY. They hired former Red Barn artistic director Jordan Merkur to expand their vision, and he, in turn, hired a musical director and costume designer and welcomed into the fold accomplished actors like Ma-Anne Dionisio, the original Miss Saigon.

“There was definitely a time this summer when I was constantly holding something heavy in my arms,” recalls Wright. “[I was] walking from our rehearsal space back to my apartment to paint these giant set pieces. I definitely think [Next Stage] has allowed us to focus better on our particular tasks because we’re not wearing as many hats. We have a prop person, a set designer, 17 people involved and before that we didn’t have anyone to help us. Because it’s Next Stage we’re allowed to decide how we’re going to bring this show up a notch.”

“Last time, Nick and I had to figure out which friends to beg,” says co-writer King. “We were like, who can sew lobster claws and construct a newspaper stand? When it’s always you painting props and hammering things, it’s hard to focus on the show itself. So having professionals involved makes it easier for Lorna to just act, and for Nick to do whatever Nick does.”

With a cast comprised of both new actors and original stars from the Fringe production, Just East of Broadway is poised to benefit from the Fringe’s legacy as a musical-theatre hit-maker, as seen in the successes of The Drowsy Chaperone, Bash’d! and My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. But with days to go in a discipline defined by things always going wrong, how are the show’s makers feeling?

“Right now, it’s as if my life has become a musical within a musical within a musical,” says Wright. “Nick and I are constantly at home singing while doing the dishes, rehearsing our parts together, asking ourselves, ‘How will it ever work out? We only have a week left!’”

“It’s hard to write with your best friend and your girlfriend,” says King. “But given all situations — the band, the relationship, the musical — everything always comes together. I remember the last time we finished Lord of The Rings. A month later Nick was like, ‘Man that was the most fun ever!’ And I told him, ‘No you’re just forgetting everything….’

“It’s a very natural premise for a musical.”

As Measured in Feet: A trek across Toronto

by Nicholas Hune-Brown and J. Graham Lee

The Toronto Star, June 25, 2006

The authors, at the end of Toronto's sprawl

“You know, when you backpack in Toronto all you see is crap,” says one of the teenagers smoking cigarettes outside the Mac’s convenience store. It’s 10 at night on Victoria Day Sunday, and we’re standing in the rain in a dimly lit plaza north of Finch. With our travel knapsack and open map, we know we must look like particularly clueless tourists – the victims of some wildly inaccurate guidebook to Toronto’s charms – but we’re too tired and cowed to correct him. Besides, at this point, after a full day spent trudging through the GTA’s streets and subdivisions, we’re almost inclined to agree.

We had started our trek more than 12 hours and 50,000 steps earlier, at eight in the morning on the edge of Lake Ontario. Our plan was simple: to walk across the city, starting from the harbour and winding our way north to the first stretch of completely undeveloped land nearly 60 kilometres away.

The question, of course, is why? Our stock answer was a macho echo of Mallory’s response when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. Why spend two days trekking across the city, wearing out our sneakers on 60 kilometres of Toronto-area cement? Because it’s there.

The real hope, though, was to get a tangible sense of the city’s sprawl. Toronto’s growth is either impressive or depressing, depending on your attitude. Since 1989, the city has approved the development of 9,100 acres a year (compare this to Portland, Oregon’s 1,700). The Greater Golden Horseshoe is the third-fastest-growing area in North America, with over four million people expected to move here in the next 25 years. Toronto isn’t just going the same route as sprawling American cities, it’s leading the pack.

But learning statistics about sprawl can’t possibly provide a real sense of Toronto’s enormity. How can you really understand the scale of Toronto’s vast suburbs, we reasoned, without doing something as foolish as trying to walk through them?

Step 1

At eight in the morning, Queen’s Quay Terminal is completely empty. The weather is grey and drizzly, but we’re full of energy and enthusiasm. We are two determined young men uniquely suited to this task: Nicholas Hune-Brown, who recently completed his thesis on suburbia, and Graham Lee, who has been walking since before the age of 5. With us, in addition to our youth and vigour, are all the necessary supplies: raingear, a tent, two sleeping bags, some apples, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and a Kellogg’s Special K pedometer that we carefully set to zero as we take our first step north.

There’s a somewhat surreal feel to the near-empty city as we stroll away from the lake, past the glass skyscrapers and stone buildings of Front Street. Down here, the skyline seems to change hourly. More than 17,000 condos were sold in the Toronto area last year, and more pop up every day.

We head east on Queen, past closed restaurants and shops, and then turn up Parliament, skirting the edge of Regent Park and the community housing buildings that are in rubble in the first step of the city’s massive revitalization program.

Ahead of us, we can see the grey apartment towers of St. Jamestown. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s “Towers in the Park” concept, the huge apartment buildings were built in the 1950s with the hope of attracting young, middle-class couples. Today, the neighbourhood is mostly made up of new immigrants and is one of the poorest parts of Toronto. With about 18,000 people living in 18 towers, it’s also the densest area in the country – the antithesis of so many of the sprawling subdivisions we see later in our walk and also, one suspects, a symbol of the kind of urban living so many people go to the suburbs to avoid.

Heading east, we pass through the quiet, leafy streets of Cabbagetown – a neighbourhood named for the poor, cabbage-eating Irish immigrants who moved here in the 19th century and have since been displaced by affluent urban professionals – before quickly passing through Riverdale Farm and onto the Don Valley trail.

Toronto’s extensive ravine system, including the trail up the Don River, is possibly the city’s most distinctive characteristic, and we have a natural disaster to thank for it.

After 1954, when Hurricane Hazel caused major flooding in the city’s river valleys and killed 81 people, the government placed major limitations on construction in the flood plains, and they became parkland. By 1966 Metro Parks controlled nearly 5,500 acres, two-thirds of which were in the outer suburbs.

Walking north up the trail, we see dozens of birds: red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, even a heron. It’s a gorgeous walk, and if we ignore the roar of the highway we can almost convince ourselves we’re in the country. The hours and steps pass like lightning and, by lunchtime, 21,264 steps, we’re ready to head off the trail and into suburbia.

Our next stop is at Flemingdon Park, a collection of red-brick “garden” apartment buildings and windswept greenspaces. This was one of the city’s first high-rise suburbs and a model for the countless other apartment buildings for low-income families that dot the outskirts of Toronto.

The park itself is just a strip of green that runs under a series of power lines, more of a default creation than a preplanned piece of public space, but when we’re there we find an entire Sri Lankan cricket league on three makeshift cricket pitches. The 35 teams come from as far away as Montreal and converge beneath the lines each weekend to compete. We take a few moments to enjoy the game and chat with the players.

Before heading north to Don Mills, we walk over to the old IBM building at Eglinton. IBM was in the avant garde of the corporate-suburban movement – one of the first companies to move out to the suburbs and stake their claim to a huge plot of land. Buildings like these marked a shift from transit commuting to car commuting. Like Flemingdon Park, it is one of the many underwhelming historical landmarks of suburbia we seek out on our trek.

Don Mills is another. As the first fully planned subdivision in postwar North America, it will undoubtedly be made a UNESCO world heritage site one day. But even though it’s arguably the first North-American suburb, wandering through the subdivision’s cul-de-sacs and crescents makes it clear that, with Don Mills, developer E.P. Taylor and company got the formula bang-on: The place looks like any other subdivision. It has comfortable-looking bungalows, expansive lawns, and the ubiquitous basketball hoops that seem to sprout like weeds in suburbia. Throughout our walk we see variations on this simple bungalow-lawn-carport design stamped across the outskirts of Toronto.

Step 41,592

By the middle of the afternoon, it is becoming clear that the cliche is entirely true: The suburbs just aren’t made for walking.

After a quick lunch at Don Mills Mall, we find ourselves turning in circles on crescents and cul-de-sacs that don’t lead anywhere. When we decide to stick to the major arteries, we’re forced to trudge up faceless corridors where tall wooden fences cut us off from the neighbourhoods on either side.

At seven o’clock, after more than 50,000 steps, we have reached Sheppard Ave., the midpoint of our trek and the end of our rope. Even though we’re exhausted, it’s way too early to pitch our tent, so we head to Fairview Mall to enjoy some discount sushi and catch a movie.

Skipping the line for The Da Vinci Code, we go to Over the Hedge and are pleasantly surprised. In our weary, slightly disoriented state, the animated feature about a group of forest animals that wake up from their hibernation to find themselves surrounded by the ominous and mysterious suburbs resonates with us deeply. The turtle, we feel, is a kindred spirit. We can relate to his mixed feelings about suburbia: confusion and disorientation, a love of the fruits of development (like cineplexes and discount sushi) combined with a perhaps irrational fear of what it may bring.

As we leave the movie, the sun is setting and the gentle drizzle of the afternoon has returned. The temperature is dropping and our bag seems to be getting heavier with every step. Despite the familiarity of the area, a strange sense of alienation has settled over us. We are just a phone call or a bus ride away from dozens of friendly homes where we could happily spend the night; by looking at Toronto all day with analytical eyes, we have been cut off from it.

It is in this state, walking along Finch toward our campsite, that we come under attack. We hear a bang and look at the embankment above to see a figure shooting a Roman candle out over the street while another runs down the stairs carrying a baseball bat over his shoulder. For a brief moment – before we realize our attackers are just a couple of 14-year-old practical jokers – their intent is devilishly clear: to blind us using their fireworks before bludgeoning us to death.

By the time we reach our destination, we’re wet, frozen, and paranoid. With clumsy fingers we pitch our tent in a power-line green space similar to the one at Flemingdon Park. The scrubby grasslands gently slope into a valley, and we can see downtown North York in one direction and apartment buildings in the other. There is no one around; the only sign of movement is the occasional passing car on Bayview. The rain picks up, so we scramble into the tent, burrow into our sleeping bags and break out the Jack Daniels, hoping for an untroubled sleep.

Around 1 a.m., the sound of an enormous explosion jolts us both upright. We stare through the nylon window of our tent and watch the side of the apartment building across from us explode into flames. It’s only some more kids firing fireworks off a balcony, and no doubt the red and green sparks showering off the building could be seen as beautiful. But to us it just seems sinister. We zip up our tent and try to fall asleep with the roar of thunder and the bang of fireworks in the distance.

Step 58,578

In the morning, we’re woken up by a golden retriever sniffing outside our tent. The rain has stopped, and in the light of day the green space that had seemed so menacing the night before looks like a perfectly pleasant park.

We stick our heads out and meet a troupe of early morning dog-walkers looking at our tent with understandable suspicion. Stumbling out, we smile in a way we hope is ingratiating and try to explain that we’re not vagrants, but journalists. In the filthy state we’re in, camping at the edge of their subdivision, this hardly sounds credible, so we quickly pack up camp and hit the road.

The morning is bad. Really bad. Because of an overly ambitious route that zig-zagged us from the Bridle Path to Fairview Mall and back, we covered almost 40 kilometres yesterday. Today every step counts double. The weather has improved, but our blisters and weariness make the going much slower. It takes us forever to walk up Bayview to Steeles Ave., the official boundary between Toronto and York Region, and we look enviously at the groups of cyclists in spandex whizzing past us.

This far north, the blocks are enormous but not without interest. On one particularly religious stretch of Bayview, we pass a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a synagogue and a Zoroastrian temple. It’s obvious that the conventional wisdom about suburbia as a world of white, Leave it to Beaver-type families is outdated. Between 1991 and 2001, 42 per cent of people who moved here were immigrants, and it shows. The squat grey plazas that dot the major suburban arteries aren’t just big-box outlets but centres of multicultural variety, with kebab shops squeezed between dim sum restaurants and Jewish delis.

By the time we reach Highway 7 and Bayview, development is patchy, so we head west to Yonge. Although Toronto is spreading outwards in all directions, this spread is by no means uniform. Housing developments creep along the major arteries before eventually filling in the gaps. It’s a pattern that happens again and again; many of the major intersections we’ve passed while moving north – Bloor, St. Clair, Eglinton and Lawrence – were all once part of suburbia before being transformed by a population influx.

After some half-priced fish and chips and a couple pints of ale at the scrupulously recreated London Pub, we head into Richmond Hill, a pretty little 19th-century town that has been caught by Toronto’s sprawl. Its main drag, with actual shops and restaurants, is the final stretch of urban coherence before the chaotic free-for-all of development to the north. The fact that the street is lined with storefronts we can actually use means that we don’t feel quite so much like unwanted visitors or trespassers. Further north, when the sidewalk disappears entirely, this feeling is unavoidable.

Step 77,001

The final leg of the trip, straight up Yonge St., is gruelling. By 70,000 steps, all that’s left of a once dynamic city is strip malls, subdivisions, and dozens of car dealerships. The cliche about North America being built on the car rings ever truer. In a single block, we pass three dealerships, a parking lot hawking used cars, and a garage offering a “tint sale” and a special deal on rims. Somewhere near 16th Ave., a Mercedes SUV cruises past with a vanity license plate that reads “MERGERS.”

As we crest the hill at Stouffville Rd. we’re able to see the Oak Ridges Moraine ahead of us – the end of our trek.

The moraine is both a unique ecosystem and the site of several enormous developments. One of the ironies of subdivisions like these is that they’re always marketed based on whatever has just been paved over. Walking up this final stretch of Yonge, we pass billboards with pictures of red cardinals and rabbits advertising “beautiful homes in a natural paradise” and inviting us to “explore nature’s lifestyle up close and personal.” As the kind woman at a sales office tells us, the major selling point for her subdivision is the fact that it’s “built right on a unique ecosystem.”

Macleod’s Landing, the subdivision-in-progress, looks like a war zone. The enormous, muddy field is littered with backhoes and the skeletons of monster homes. We climb over a fence and walk through empty streets, past incomplete houses and front yards that are little more than construction rubbish heaps. When the wind picks up, the dust blows into our eyes and it feels like we’ve stumbled into some surreal mash-up of affluent suburbia and war-torn Afghanistan. On streets with names like Silver Maple Lane – where there isn’t a blade of grass, let alone a full-grown tree – we’re amazed to find that eager families have already moved in amongst the rubble.

This subdivision is the end of our trek. North of it is a thin strip of protected moraine, and beyond that, Aurora, Newmarket and other entirely new exurban landscapes that will remain unexplored. After two days of walking, we’re ready to stop. We’ve reached, at least momentarily, the end of Toronto’s sprawl.

In some ways, Macleod’s Landing could be the end of sprawl for Toronto in a much larger sense.

When we talk to the executive director of the group Environmental Defence, Rick Smith, about the Stouffville Rd. development a few weeks later, he tells us he remembers the subdivision well. He camped out here in 2003 to protest the building of 6,600 homes on the ecologically sensitive moraine. The plot of land was the site of a well publicized battle between developers, environmentalists and the McGuinty Liberals, who eventually had to break their campaign promise to stop the project when developers began clearing the trees and scraping away the topsoil.

“I think that was the turning point,” Smith tells us. “It was such a brazen act on the part of the developers that I think people really began to take notice. It moved the government to action, and I don’t think you’ll see something like that happening again.”

Since the battle at Stouffville Rd., the McGuinty government has introduced a greenbelt initiative that halts growth on 600,000 acres of protected land around the city. Just a week ago, the province announced a progressive “Places to Grow” plan, which will curb sprawl by forcing 40 per cent of the four million people expected to move to southern Ontario in the next 25 years into existing urban areas.

More importantly, the last few years have seen a change in Toronto’s attitude towards sprawl. Slowly but surely, municipal leaders are discovering that the increased property taxes they get from new developments often don’t cover the costs of the infrastructure needed to service them. The government is beginning to realize that paving over important headwaters and prime farmland isn’t always the smartest policy.

And the public is gradually coming to the conclusion that maybe a nice backyard and a basketball hoop on a quiet cul-de-sac aren’t worth sitting in gridlock for several hours each day.

Despite the ultramodern townhouses being erected, then, the Stouffville Rd. development-in-progress seems a little old-fashioned. Fifty years after developers at Don Mills created the classic suburban design – cul-de-sacs that feed into collectors, houses with large yards located near schools – the pattern may have had its day.

In all likelihood, the future will look less like this field of houses and more like the areas we’ve already walked through – the downtown condominiums we passed nearly 90,000 steps ago, or the mixed-use main street of Richmond Hill.

In fact, the same week that the McGuinty government announced its plan to force 40 per cent of new growth into existing urban areas, the Greater Toronto Homebuilders’ Association announced that, at least momentarily, we’re already there. In May, 45 per cent of all new homes sold in the GTA were apartments in high-rise condominiums.

The townhouses and monster homes rising from the mud at Stouffville Rd. won’t be the last suburban homes ever built, but it’s possible that this muddy development at the edge of the city marks the beginning of the end of a particular type of unconsidered Toronto sprawl.

What’s certain, today, is that it’s the end of sprawl for us.

We leave the subdivision and stagger back toward Yonge St. down an unused lane lined with silver maples. It’s a beautiful road, one of those grand driveways you imagine must have once led to a large farmhouse in the middle of the country.

From the lakeshore to this lane, 88,687 steps on the Special K pedometer, it has all been city. To get here, we have used two different maps and walked through two different area codes. We’ve traversed the limits of entire transit systems, walked through dozens of subdivisions, and seen more Tim Hortons than we’ve bothered to count.

At the end of the lane, we stop for a moment to catch our breath. Looking south on Yonge, we can just make out the hazy forms of downtown Toronto in the distance, the CN Tower like a Tinkertoy on the horizon. Then, cursing, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try to find the nearest bus stop.