This Canada

Island in a storm’s eye

Linda McQuaig August 25 1980
This Canada

Island in a storm’s eye

Linda McQuaig August 25 1980

Island in a storm’s eye

This Canada

Linda McQuaig

Yacht club gates (far left); walkway; Staneland: suspicion, anger and grief

At 91, Frank Staneland cannot deliver those right hooks the way he used to. Dwarfed by the flowery, cushioned armchair he sits in, Staneland’s trim little frame hints of earlier days when he was something of a boxer and a sailor. But now, looking out at the trees around his tiny wooden cottage, he doubts he’ll be able to offer much resistance on that long-dreaded day when the sheriff appears at his door.

For Staneland, a retired plumbing sales manager, the sheriff’s visit will mean the end of eight decades on Toronto Island. Since that first summer 81 years ago when he pitched a tent there with his older brother, has spent five months a year on the lush green island that stretches like an arc across Toronto harbor, just two kilometres from the crush of city traffic. But this summer he faces eviction—along with 700 other residents who live on the eastern tip of the island—as the Metropolitan Toronto Council (the umbrella council for Toronto and its boroughs) moves to clear more space for amusement facilities in the huge island park. The evictions have become a highly charged political issue in Toronto, with Metro

pushing for them, Toronto city council pushing against them and the Ontario government caught between the two warring councils. But for Frank Staneland, the prospect of leaving the cottage he built almost 50 years ago is a highly emotional one. Unlike most islanders who live there year-round, he owns a duplex in the city where he spends his winters. “But it gets awfully lonely there in the city,” says Staneland, who has lived alone since his wife died seven years ago.

Island life is different from city life for Staneland. He is part of a lively and extraordinarily close community that has affectionately dubbed him “Daddy Frank.” On his daily walks around the cottages and down to the beach, Staneland can count on encountering a succession of friendly faces. “I don’t even know most of their names anymore,” he says. “But they all know me. When I walk down the street everybody’s saying: ‘Hi, Daddy Frank, how are you today?’ ” And Staneland, who treks around the island in a pair of old running shoes, still drops by to watch the community’s lawn bowling teams face off on the green where he used to play more than 40 years ago. Back at his cottage there are frequent taps on the door

as neighborhood children, aware of Staneland’s reputation as a soft touch, come by for treats and a chance to play with his black poodle, Pepper. “I’ve gone through nine pounds of candy since July 1,” smiles Staneland as yet another toddler appears at the screen door. But even Staneland was surprised at everyone’s concern earlier this month when he collapsed at the community centre and was rushed by boat to a mainland hospital. A crowd gathered in front of his house waiting to hear how he was. At 10 o’clock the good news was broadcast by CB radio to all island homes: the community’s longest surviving resident was still holding his own quite nicely.

Staneland has no plans to oppose the sheriff. “At my age what can I do?” he asks. But the younger breed of islanders accept their fate less readily. They’ve been preparing for the sheriff’s visit for months and are determined not to be caught off guard on the mainland where most of them work. They got a trial run last month for the big showdown, when word seeped out that the eviction notices would be delivered that day. The siren blared from the top of the community centre and dozens of islanders sped home through a pounding rainstorm in an emergency flotilla. Faced with a wall of bodies and television cameras, the authorities backed down. The islanders now have a brief reprieve while the courts consider one last

appeal in their long legal battle to win the right to stay in their homes. (It is anyone’s guess whether the real showdown—if and when it comes—will result in violence, but some residents are talking openly of chaining themselves to their cottages to obstruct the evictions.)

With the sheriff gone, everything is back to normal—at least as normal as things can ever be in a community that has lived under the threat of eviction for 25 years. Children run barefoot along the narrow walkways, adults jump and shout on the volleyball court, the luring smell of barbecuing hamburgers wafts across the little neigh-

borhood; it is a typical evening at the island. The homes form an almost fairytale-like village only 15 minutes by ferry from the skyscrapers of Toronto. There are no cars, no laundromats, no fast-food outlets—just 252 modest wooden houses clustered around sleepy treelined walkways. And the islanders who live there are a close-knit bunch. They publish their own newspaper, hold winter and summer carnivals, organize baseball and volleyball leagues and maintain an archive full of island lore.

Sitting at a picnic table near the playing field, third-generation islander Elizabeth Amer points to a row of neatly kept homes along the edge of the

field. “In that house there’s a retired couple, in that one an editor, in that one a student, then a maintenance man, a music teacher. . . .” The list goes on, drawing a picture of a community much more diverse than most in Toronto. Amer, who speaks earnestly about the place that’s been her year-round home for 25 years, also thinks the island community is unique in that, since the homes are leased rather than owned, none of the residents regard them as an investment. “If we have something other people don’t have, it’s not because we bought it,” she says. Amer points out that, while summer living may seem ideal, the majority of the residents—

about 600—stick it out through the cold, blustery winter months as well.

The little community is located on Ward’s Island at the far eastern tip of the six-km-long archipelago that makes up Toronto Island. To the west of it stretches more than 550 acres of grass, trees and picnic tables, dotted by a chain of bland commercial hotdog stands and a German-style beer patio. There is also an amusement centre where children can paddle a wooden swan on a lagoon, plunge down a water chute on an artificial log or buy candy floss at an old-fashioned storefront fa-

cade which fails to capture the spirit of bygone days as effectively as the old island homes do. On a hot summer weekend, the ferries are mobbed with mainlanders, most of whom plop their picnic baskets down close to the ferry docks, leaving huge expanses of neardeserted parkland farther away. It is these vast spaces—which remain empty on even the busiest days of the year— that leave most islanders confused and angry about Metro’s determination to evict them.

Even more, islanders bristle at the notion that the 19 acres they occupy are desperately needed while three yacht clubs are permitted to cordon off 33

acres of the island for private use. “My home occupies less space than some of those yachts,” says Amer. The lawns of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club alone spread across 18 acres behind a high wrought-iron gate that bars the public in no uncertain terms. From the wide verandas of its gracious clubhouse, members can sip drinks while they gaze out at the Toronto skyline rising sleek and dramatic across the water. But with an initiation fee of $2,400 and strict control over membership, the RCYC is considered elitist by most islanders. Scoffs Staneland: “It’s just a wealthy man’s club.”

Staneland feels the island has deteriorated over the years as Metro politi-

dans have systematically evicted residents, reducing the once-vibrant community of 8,000—more than 2,000 year-round—to today’s holdouts. “They’ve killed the spirit of the island,” he says, pulling out an old photograph of the island lawn bowling league taken in 1936. Among the smiling faces, a handsome young Frank Staneland beams from the front row. Staneland fondly recalls the highlights of the past eight decades, talking with animation about the great island pranksters of the past: Black Jack, Red Jack and Old Crab. He remembers his own futile attempt to keep up with celebrated oarsman Ned Hanlan in a rowing match some 70 years ago; the spectacular white horse that dazzled island crowds with its diving in 1907; the endless hot summer nights when the island was full of people—visitors and residents— dining, dancing and strolling along the boardwalk. These days, now that the hotels and dining rooms have been evicted, crowds thin around 7 in the evening. The hotdog concessions close by 9. The island—except the east end where the cottages remain—is virtually deserted. In the old days, says Staneland, the main drag, with its shops, restaurants and hotels, was so busy “you couldn’t even ride a bicycle down it.” Metro bulldozed the street and replaced it with a huge concrete patio with formal flower beds and a large fountain. “It’s like a mausoleum now,” says Staneland with disgust. “You could shoot a gun down there at 9 o’clock and you wouldn’t hurt a soul.”

He is particularly puzzled by the charge that islanders are a privileged elite. He still thinks of the days when the Ward’s Island section, where the remaining homes now stand, was the campground for the city’s poor. Middleclass families owned cottages across the island on the west end and well-to-do families—such as the Masseys and the Seagrams—built elaborate Victorian summer properties on Centre Island. “They used to joke over on Centre that if you wanted a cleaning lady you could hire one on Ward’s.”

Around the corner from Staneland, 32-year-old printer Richard Simon sits on a deck chair in his front yard, visibly upset about the prospect of losing his home to make way for amusements like Frisbee golf — one of the many recreational ideas Metro has considered for the site. So many plans have been tossed around by politicians over the years that Simon finds it hard to take any of them seriously. Simon’s house— which he has lived in full-time for 12 years—is airy and rustic, with the feel of an early pioneer cabin. He is convinced—and public opinion polls back him up—that most mainlanders prefer the community with its unique old

homes and shady lanes to artificially installed amusements. The new plans make so little sense to Simon that he wonders if there aren’t grander schemes than Frisbee golf in the works. “I can see them building some very expensive condominiums over here once they get us off,” he says. Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey, who is leading the push to evict the islanders, insists that the site will only be used for recreational purposes. Despite the present empty stretches, Godfrey argues more space is needed because “some people like to be in an area by themselves.” A

supporter of big development on the mainland, Godfrey strongly denies there are any such plans for the island. But islanders remain suspicious.

No one is more suspicious than Frank Staneland, who feels he has watched the island become less and less attractive to people over the years. He whisks his full head of white hair beneath his cap and heads out to his small front yard, only a stone’s throw from the spot where he pitched his first tent. “I’m sure I won’t live to see it,” he says, “but I bet they’ll turn this place into a rich man’s paradise someday.”