Category: City Life

The Fight against Doug Ford’s Attack on Toronto has Begun

On Monday, the Toronto City Council continued its debate on their response to Doug Ford’s changing the ward boundaries and cutting City Councillors from 47 to 25 in the midst of a municipal election campaign. The law which purports to authorize Ford’s actions was not yet introduced at Queen’s Park when the debate on what is an existential issue for the City of Toronto had already begun.

“Bill 5, The Better Local Government Act, 2018” (who says?) was introduced for first reading only on Monday afternoon. Tuesday, second reading was delayed by an Opposition amendment. It is now scheduled for second reading tomorrow, Thursday, August 2nd. The expectation is that the government will use every effort to push the law through as quickly as possible without any Committee hearings or any consultation.

I attended the City Council debate on Monday and was struck by how much time the hard core of councillors who supported Ford’s actions spent pontificating about the advantages of reducing their number to twenty-five. “Twenty-five reps works well for the province and the federal government;” they said, “it can work well for municipal government as well. It’s “a welcome move,” “taxpayers will be happy,” “a first step to ending the chaos at city hall,” “there is no need for any referendum; that occurred on June 7th,” “the province has all the power, we can do nothing about it, move on.”

Another group of councillors supported reducing the wards and the number of councillors but were very unhappy with the process and timing. They made it clear that their constituents did not like arbitrary change mid-way through an existing election.

The majority of councillors were adamant that this was an arbitrary interference with the fundamental governance of City Council without consultation and in the middle of a municipal election, according to the existing law and set for October 22nd. Reflecting a multi-year Ward Boundary Review undertaken by the City in recent years and conducted with significant public and professional consultation, the existing law provides for 47 wards and 47 councillors. These numbers provide approximate voter parity and reflect changing voter populations in different parts of the city. Numerous diverse candidates from communities not previously represented at Council have already registered as candidates “for the right reasons.” Now no one knows what is going on. And the City Clerk has made it clear that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate the proposed changes in preparations for the current election.

Several councillors spoke about the unique governance structure of the City of Toronto, the multiplicity of community councils staffed by local councillors, committees, commissions, boards, and institutions which now require councillor participation and already have trouble finding a quorum. Others spoke about the work of city councillors where they must be responsive to personal, local concerns, development applications, the desires of multiple Business Improvement Areas, residential associations, community groups, the nitty-gritty of city life which puts more demands on local politicians than on federal and provincial representatives. If immigration is the primary preoccupation of M.P.s, provincial M.P.P.s are preoccupied with education and health care issues. Everything else falls to the municipalities.

Others noted that the actions of Doug Ford were directed only to the City of Toronto. If the number of municipal councillors is to be determined by using provincial and federal constituencies, many Ontario cities would be reduced to one councillor, or perhaps a councillor they would share with another town. Councillor Shan noted that Scarborough, with a population of over 600,000, now has six Councillors and would be reduced to three under the new rules. Markham, with a population of 350,000, has twelve. Already under the existing rules, Toronto has more constituents per councillor than any other city in the province; under the new rules, the numbers would double. So much for voter parity which is supposed to be a fundamental principle of the right to vote in Canada.

Many councillors were particularly articulate about the significance of Ford’s attack on the city and what must be done. See Gordon Perks on YouTube. He is absolutely right. If we value our municipal government, and the work that city councillors do on our behalf, we have to respond.

City Council has voted its opposition to the reduced numbers, and has requested the provincial government to conduct a binding referendum before proceeding with the legislation or, alternatively, to permit the City to put a question on the 2018 ballot. It has also requested the City Solicitor to consider the validity and constitutionality of any provincial legislation, including its potential violation of the rights of the citizens of Toronto to fair and effective representation, the practicality of conducting the election, the Clerk’s capacity to implement the changes, and any errors or flaws in the legislation and to report back to City Council at a special meeting… on Monday, August 20, 2018 with options for City Council’s consideration. (Passed 31:10)

Former mayor David Miller, lawyer David Butt in the Globe and Mail, and I have called for litigation to challenge what Ford is doing in court. There is jurisprudence which describes the nature of the “right to vote” under the Canadian Charter, but my lawyer son tells me that that the Charter “right to vote” does not apply to voting at the municipal level. Previous efforts to use the courts to stop the amalgamation of the City of Toronto were unsuccessful. This case, however, is unprecedented. How the province has proceeded, the lack of any consultation with those affected, and the timing of the change of the law (in the middle of a current election campaign) all distinguish this case from prior jurisprudence. If ever there were a fact situation that demonstrates the most arbitrary provincial action against a major city within its jurisdiction, this it it. It would make an excellent test case.

In the meantime, we have to follow Councillor Perks’ advice and make sure that the provincial government (including the alleged “adults in the back rooms”) know that what they are doing is beyond the pale. As Councillor McMahon said on Monday, “It is simply wrong.”

Tomorrow, those who want to show their opposition are invited to attend Queen’s Park and be present in the public gallery when the government seeks to go forward with second reading. There is also a rally scheduled for the lawn of the Legislature at 11:30. See you there.

 

 

 

 

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A Friday the Thirteenth Commuters’ Nightmare

Never have I crossed the Lions Gate bridge so quickly. It was 6:30 a.m. yesterday morning, and I was on my way to drop off a parcel to cousins in upper Kitsilano. As I approached the north end of the bridge, traffic was going so fast that the cars did not even stop as they merged into the single lane with the green signal to cross the bridge. Merging four lanes into one at top speed was a unique experience which made me nervous. But once I was on the bridge, I marvelled at the wisdom of commuters going into the city so early. I turned off the Stanley Park causeway at Prospect Point, took the excursion around the park, past English Bay and over the Burrard Street bridge to my destination near Broadway and Vine. It took only twenty minutes, a record in my experience.

That was the trip there. The trip back was another story. As I left my cousins’ home at 8:30, I called my husband to tell him where I was and my plans for the morning. I assumed that I would be back at Park Royal by 9:00, would do several errands and be home shortly. It was a lovely drive east on Broadway, back over the Burrard Street Bridge and around English Bay, then north on Denman. Three blocks south of Robson, I came to halt behind a line of cars. I thought that it was the normal backup for the left turn lane from Denman onto West Georgia to go back over the Lions Gate Bridge. But the lights kept turning green and not a single car moved.

Finally, I decided to pull into the empty lane on Denman which required a right hand turn onto Robson. My idea was to get onto West Georgia at the next major light to the east, at Cardero. There, heading down the hill, I was the fifth car in line to turn left and I congratulated myself on my brilliant advance closer to Georgia. Alas, I soon realized that even a green light only allowed a single car to get through the intersection. Not only that, the one car was required to position itself in one of the two lanes of traffic apparently backed up on Georgia going west. Finally, it was my turn. I pulled into the far lane and joined the queue of vehicles. I was so preoccupied with the news on the car radio about the American indictments against the twelve Russian military officers that I scarcely paid any attention to the passing of time as I crawled west on Georgia.

By this time, I learned on CKNW that there was a “police incident” on the Lions Gate Bridge. Commuters to and from the North Shore were warned to use the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows bridge over the harbour. All very well and good to know when I was stopped on Georgia heading west.

It was an hour by the time I reached the head of my lane on Georgia and Denman. There, I found a police car straddled across the road behind the traffic ahead, orange pylons blocking my own lane, and a police officer directing traffic to go south on Denman or north the short distance towards the water. As I hesitated turning right, the officer yelled at me to “move along, you can’t stop there.” I yelled back, “How are we supposed to get back on the bridge eventually?” He replied, this time somewhat more politely, that “it would be faster to go over the Ironworkers Second Narrows Bridge.” OK, I could do that, so I continued my turn.

I had never been on this street before but knew that there was a road going east along the downtown waterfront and hoped that I could find it. Sure enough, I followed a couple of other cars as we turned right, and then left, and then right, and then left again through the maze of condos, hotels and office towers near Coal Harbour leading back to Cardero and onto the Convention Centre. This was not the street I was looking for, but I soon found myself on Hastings Street heading east. It was clear sailing across the city. Past Granville Street and Seymour, skirting Gastown, past Victory Square at Cambie and into Vancouver’s famous East Side, across Main Street, and into the port lands. As there were few cars on the street, I could notice the landmarks as I passed, and the colourful characters on the sidewalks.

Until I hit Powell Street. There my flight of fantasy came to an abrupt end and I found myself joining a single lane of traffic heading east bumper to bumper.

By this time, CKNW reported that traffic was backed up on the freeway leading to the Second Narrows Bridge, all the way to Capilano on the north shore, Sprotte Street in Burnaby, and Powell Street in Vancouver. Tell me about it. I was on Powell Street, a long way from the freeway. Apparently, the four North Shore bus routes that normally go over the Lions Gate Bridge were diverted to the foot of Lonsdale in North Vancouver where there was a four-ferry wait for pedestrians to cross the harbour on the seabus. As I sat, hardly moving at all, I saw huge transport trucks moving back and forth on an elevated roadway beside the port installations beyond the railroad tracks. Too bad that road was closed to the public.

Inching my way east on Powell, I saw two cars pull off on a quiet street that angled to the left. There was a sign saying, “No left turn 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday to Friday,” and another saying, “Local traffic area.” I also noticed a group of four or five adult cyclists emerging from the same street heading west. It occurred to me that they may have come on a bicycle path over the bridge from the North Shore, and that this might well be a short-cut to the freeway. What the heck? I had nothing to lose and made the turn.

I found myself on a pleasant street lined with nice houses built to enjoy a spectacular view of the port facilities, the harbour and the North Shore. As I travelled east on the street, I revelled at how quiet it was, how few cars there were, and how I could slow down to take in the view. Eventually, I found a park where I could stop and take photos of the Second Narrows bridge and the mountains across the water. What a glorious spot which I never before knew existed. I spoke to a couple of locals and asked if the road did lead to the freeway further on. “Yes, it does,” they replied, but, “it dipsy-doodles around corners and you have to pay attention.” Great, I got back into my car and headed east. Just think of all the cars I was passing.

A few blocks further east, the road turned right and appeared to climb the hill. But a sign for the Portside Bicycle Path pointed to a road going east and I decided to follow it instead. Alas, it soon ended in a cul de sac with a “private road” leading off down the hill on the left, an empty roadway curving past below, and what I assumed was McGill Street with the cars lined up bumper to bumper above. What to do? Surprisingly, I never thought to turn around and take the road mounting the hill.

Instead, I descended down the private road and found myself outside the front gate of a huge Self Service Storage facility with a big sign warning about the perimeter security system and cameras in use in the area. I pulled up and again considered my options. Coming down the “private road” may have been a mistake.

I looked at the empty roadway curving right beside me but had no idea if the road went both directions. One car came along the curved road heading west. Eventually, another came up behind me, went over the curb and headed east. So I followed him, drove east, past the storage yards and into the parking lot of yet another park. I saw the Portside Bicycle Path leading off to the east and other trails as well. A woman in the park told me how to get onto McGill. If I wanted to go east, she said that I had to take a left at the first light, turn around and then come back onto McGill.

I did as she instructed and soon found myself heading south on North Renfrew street beside the Pacific Coliseum Racecourse and Slots. This was a Vancouver landmark which I had heard about all my life but never before seen. I realized that had I taken this road up the hill, I could have made a direct left-turn onto McGill going east. Where I was now, I saw only a long line of cars stretching south as far as the eye could see. All were going north, waiting to make to make the right hand turn onto McGill. I turned around in the Pacific Coliseum parking lot, and waited to see if some kind soul would let me in. Someone did. Grateful for the generosity of this driver, I joined yet another queue heading for the Second Narrows Bridge. This time, the line was moving at least, and within what seemed like a relatively short time, I was over the freeway, onto the bridge, and back onto the North Shore heading home at full speed.

It took me two hours and fifty minutes to make the trip which had taken twenty minutes only a few hours before. But what I had discovered about the city in that time was worth every minute.

When I got home, Lions Gate Bridge was still closed in both directions as the “police incident” continued. Apparently, the bridge was closed both ways for over four hours and hundreds of thousands of morning commuters were affected. In the Vancouver Sun this morning, there was no mention of the incident. The local policy is not to encourage copycats.

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Drama on the Seawalk

Squawking gulls and cranky crows are a sure sign of trouble. Moving briskly west on the seawalk below my Vancouver cottage, I was focused on using my Nordic poles to pick up the pace of my early morning walk. The idea was to extend the stride of my step and the length of my arm pull to enhance the benefits of the walk. But the noise of the seagulls and the crows diverted all my good intentions and I stopped to see what was the matter.

Sure enough, at the water’s edge where the tide was retreating from the rocks coated with kelp and rich green algae, a bald-headed eagle was standing on the biggest stone around. Not as large as others I’ve seen, his shiny black feathers and snow-white head still stood as a beacon to the eyes. He stood there as if glaring at the hoards of smaller birds advancing towards him.

At least three large well-fed gulls and three more black crows took up positions around him, all squawking madly as if in a fit of frenzy. A couple of gulls approached, flapped their wings and swooped just above him. Then two cocky crows dive-bombed him from two different directions at the same time. They repeated these actions over and over. It all appeared as a well-choreographed attack, perhaps to protect the favoured feeding grounds of the smaller birds. Eventually, the eagle lifted his large wings and flew away across the bay and high in the sky, the crows and one seagull in hot pursuit.

It occurred to me that this may be an example of allied interspecies coöperation against a common enemy. I would have to ask a naturalist about that. As a friend and I had seen a similar incident about the same time yesterday morning, it probably is a daily ritual at a particularly rich feeding site on the shore. 

Still later on the seawall, I narrowly avoided being hit by a snail-shell dropped by a crow descending over the sidewalk onto the rocks. As there was a live snail inside, we threw the snail onto the seashore for the crow to recover. Alas he was two slow. Another crow which I had not seen must have been watching and waiting. Just as soon as the snail hit the sand, the second crow was on it for his breakfast.

Later on this same walk, I spied a tall heron fishing in a shallow pool between the rocks. He was standing silently and stately, moving slowly and stealthily in search of his food. A bevy of gulls and Canada geese grazed nearby, and a squadron of crows sat on a log watching over the scene. Obviously, these birds coexist peacefully. I guess only the bald-headed eagle is considered a threat.

Update on the litigation between CN Rail and the District of West Vancouver.

In February 2017, I published a post describing CN Rail’s efforts to have the public using the seawalk declared “trespassers.” Their aim is to monetize to the maximum whatever leasehold interest they can enforce against the District. Diane Powers, spokesperson for the District, advised me last week that the Canadian Transportation Agency held a two-day oral hearing in October 2017 on the District’s application for a declaration that it has a “right of way” on whatever the interest held by the railroad. The CTA agreed that they had jurisdiction to deal with the issue but adjourned their decision until the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled on the earlier lawsuit started by CN alleging that the public were “trespassers.”

Ms. Powers told me that it may take another three to five years for the matter to be concluded. In the meantime, the District has refreshed notices to the public indicating that so long as the litigation is ongoing, the District can only do maintenance on the seawalk that affects health and safety. They can change lightbulbs that affect lighting, remove trip hazards, and engage in any storm cleanup. “Cosmetic maintenance” is suspended for the duration. The gardens at 19th Street and 24th Street that mark the boundaries of the seawalk, and the narrow green areas at 21st and 22nd streets, are designated park areas at the foot of District streets. The District will still tend to them. Like most North Shore residents, I have a visceral personal interest in this dispute, and will monitor what happens.

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What to do when relentless rains drench Vancouver?

I spent several weeks in Vancouver this January. Average rainfall at YVR in January is 168 millimetres. This year, there were 249 millimetres, making it the fourth wettest January since records were first kept in 1937.

I can handle the light rain, what my mother called “the Scottish mist,” intermittent showers, and the fog. I can even deal with the occasional tropical deluge or pineapple express which blows the rain horizontally. In these circumstances, locals generally don a Gore-Tex, grab a handy umbrella and carry on doing whatever they planned anyway. I can do that, too. We all know the local secret. So long as it rains for any period of time at any time of the day, the news will report “rain in Vancouver,” and easterners who hear the weather reports will chortle and stay away.

But when the rainfall becomes relentless, so that it goes on for forty days and forty nights of soaking rain, even locals become depressed. So I learned in January. I never thought I would ever say that, but I found it to be true.

The challenge was that we had a visitor from Toronto coming for several days. Originally from Colombia, he came west to help a friend move to Victoria. Since he was coming anyway, we encouraged him to come to Vancouver and stay in our Vancouver cottage. Why not? He had never been to the west coast before and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to show the sights of Vancouver to a newcomer. But what sights do you show a newcomer when you can’t see the sea or the mountains, and walking outside leaves you drenched and miserable?

The first day, he came from Victoria by ferry through the Gulf Islands, and by public transit on the bus and Canada Line to our apartment. That’s an adventure in itself. On his arrival, he joined a small dinner party which my husband had prepared for a few guests. That’s easy, and fun, and a warm welcome to the local scene. The next day, two mutual friends en route to New Zealand had a long stopover in Vancouver. They had rented a car and, as the sun actually came out for a few hours, we toured the North Shore to see the beaches at Whytecliff Park, the fresh snow on the mountains above Horseshoe Bay, and the view of the city and beyond from the lookout up the Cypress Mountain Parkway. But the clouds were coming in, the winds were blowing, and the view was so unsharp that I failed to identify the new Port Mann bridge on the horizon.

The next day, the dreaded deluge returned. That’s okay. We drove through the west end, around Kitsilano and along the shoreline out to the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. There, in addition to the usual treasures, we saw a special exhibit of indigenous woven carpets from the 19th Century. Our tour around UBC by car was a washout, but we headed to Granville Island for lunch. Parking was easy and we had no problem finding a comfortable table beside the windows in the Farmers Market food court. Protected from the rain, we could watch the birds and the boats on False Creek and enjoy the buskers while we ate. The ambiance gave the illusion of a bright day and we loved it. We then drove back over the Burrard Street Bridge, along English Bay and home. A good first day.

The second day, we took the bus very early and got off at the first stop after Lost Lagoon on Georgia Street. In a light rain, we set out to walk the Vancouver harbour to the Convention Centre and Canada Place. Before we even reached Jack Poole Plaza, the rain was pelting down, and we took to looking for any kind of shelter along the way; an occasional glass overhang, an inset doorway, a glassed-in staircase, an outdoor café (closed of course) beneath a building above, anything to protect us. Ultimately, near the Convention Centre, we spied a waterfall leading down into a food court in an underground plaza. Over a hot cocoa, we considered our course of action. What to do?

We learned that underground tunnels connected the food court to the SkyTrain at the downtown Waterfront Station. The reconstructed historical concourse of that station is worth a visit. I then decided that I wanted to see the new Evergreen extension of the Vancouver’s SkyTrain system which goes all the way out to Lafarge Lake in Coquitlam. If I can ride the new extension of the Toronto subway, I can ride the Vancouver addition as well. And I thought that our friend could get a view of my old stomping grounds in Burnaby, New Westminster, and along the Fraser River. So we got on the original Expo Line and did the circuit, transferred to the extension that passes through a long tunnel to the new stations in Port Moody and Coquitlam, and then took the newly configured Millennium Line back downtown. The views were disappointing, but I was impressed by the potential of the new extension. It took us one hour to travel the entire route and cost me only $2.80.

The highlight of our trip was meeting the falcon. As we transferred onto the Expo Line at Commercial Drive and found a seat in a crowded car (thank goodness we are seniors), we noticed that we were surrounded by a crew of young people carrying fancy cameras and a big box which they carefully put down on the floor beside me. When I asked what was in the box, they said that it was a falcon. A falcon? Yes, they had a six-week contract with the city to document how the mere presence of their falcon on the SkyTrain platforms would scare away the pesky pigeons. They told us that in the six station span of their project, it worked every time, except for one station where the pigeons roosted too far away to pick up on the falcon’s presence. We were amused and wished them well.

By the time we returned to Waterfront, the rain had abated enough to allow us to visit the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and to walk the streets of Gastown. We then took the SeaBus to the Lonsdale Quay and a bus back to West Vancouver. Altogether, not a bad day.

Day three was a challenge. I decided that, depending on the state of the weather once we got outside, we would take the Skyride up Grouse Mountain, or drive the Sea to Sky Highway to Squamish. Since the local mountain was invisible, we took to Highway 99 up the east side of Howe Sound, past Lions Bay, Porteau Cove Provincial Park, Britannia with its Mine Museum, Shannon Falls, and the world-famous mountain face known as the Stawamus Chief. The new Sea to Sky Gondola nearby was open, but who wants to hike trails at the top of a mountain in the rain? At Squamish, there was no rain. We proceeded up the highway to Brackendale where the signs advertise “bald-headed eagles.” Oh yes. That’s right. I suddenly recalled that, every January, volunteer naturalists come to Brackendale to count the eagles feeding at local rivers. I’d heard of that before but never been there.

So, we turned west and drove the streets of tiny Brackendale until we came upon Eagle Run Park on Government Road. There we found numerous interpretive displays, an Eagle Watch Interpreter Program, and a well-maintained dyke viewing area which is accessible via a ramp at the south end. We learned that the spawning of chum salmon runs in the Squamish, Cheakamus and Mamquam rivers provides an ideal habitat for feeding bald eagles. In 1994, the Brackendale-Squamish area set the world record count with 3,769 eagles counted in a single day. We saw our share of eagles: big adult birds, black with white heads, and the motley brown youngsters, sitting on the logs and rocks at the river’s edge, roosting in the trees, and sweeping across the skies. We were ecstatic. It was the totally serendipitous highlight of our week.

If any readers have suggestions for rainy day activities in Vancouver, please use the Comment section below to enlighten the rest of us. My cousin suggested we could have hiked in Lighthouse Park where we would have experienced an old growth forest as it really is. Or we could have hiked in Pacific Spirit Regional Park on the UBC campus as I described in an earlier post. Good suggestions. Are there any more?

 

 

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Toronto’s Christmas Present: A New Subway Extension

It’s Boxing Day, that treasure from our British past which I cherish. For those of us who have no inclination to seek bargains, it’s a time to relax, sit around the fireplace, read a book, eat leftovers, and sink into the sublime serenity of a day with nothing on the schedule.

Before settling down to an evening of binge watching The Crown, I want to share with you my reaction to Toronto’s new subway extension. Last Thursday morning, I rode Toronto’s Number One subway line from Queen and Yonge Street downtown all the way up the old Spadina line to Sheppard West station (the end of the previous line at Sheppard and Dufferin), and then to the new terminus at Vaughan in York Region. It took me 51 minutes to make the trip. Without leaving the system, I then did a tour of each new station, to the extent I could see them without going out of the turnstiles. I did not see the exteriors of the new stations. But I took photos, talked to TTC staff and passengers, and left utterly exhilarated by what I saw.

The terminal station, Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, is a Transportation Hub which connects to the York Region Viva bus rapid transport north of Highway 7 and to York Region Transport (YRT) buses at the SmartCentres Place Bus Terminal. With seven knockout panels as part of the design, it is also intended as the centre of a planned downtown to feature a large park, condo towers, shopping and entertainment facilities to be constructed in the next decade.

I loved the spectacular colours of the upper level windows; such bright colours will lift the spirits on the most dreary of days. As in all the new stations, there are shiny new elevators making the system wheelchair accessible to all levels, glistening escalators which are lit at foot level and which go up and down (if not side by side, at least at different ends of the platform), and solid metal handrails in the middle of the staircases. For those of us who take stairs, such handrails will be a godsend. As an incentive, the SmartCentre which runs the local parking lot is free until January 1st.

Approximately five minutes south is the next station, Highway 407. Located just west of Jane Street, south of Highway 407 on the west bank of Black Creek, it connects with York Region Transport and Brampton Transit, and includes a commuter parking lot with 585 spots, plus a passenger pickup and drop-off area. Parking is free until April 1st, 2018; obviously an effort to entice commuters with cars onto the subway. An attendant told me that, since the extension opened last week, the parking lot has been full each morning by 7:30 a.m.

Commuters can also park at the third station, Pioneer Village, at Steeles Avenue West and Northwest Gate, to the west of York University. There, the parking lot can accommodate 1500 cars, and is free until April 1st. The ceiling lighting installation called LightSpell over the subway platform is already controversial. The design of the fixture is distinctive in itself. What I failed to appreciate, until I read about it in the Toronto Star, is that five keyboards on the platform allow passengers to type eight-figure messages that will be reflected in the lights for the edification and/or amusement of their fellow travellers. The TTC has apparently delayed full implementation of the fixture until they can develop software to prevent hate messages, an enterprise that has provoked complaints of censoring free speech. That the installation is provoking controversy already heralds a notable future for the site.

The fourth station, at the heart of York University’s Keele Street campus, is the reason for the subway extension in the first place. The platforms are busy with students using the new station. It breaks my heart to think of the hundreds of thousands of students and staff who have endured years of commuter time and inconvenience travelling to the university since the extension was first proposed decades ago. The lack of political vision, persistent partisan bickering, constant changes, and construction delays which have plagued extending the subway even to York University is a shameful history which we must remember but cannot dwell on. The extension to York University is finally built and everyone is exultant.

The York University station has an elaborate Information Centre on the concourse at the turnstiles. The walls are festooned with promos that would be of interest to students, the signage in the concourse specifically identifies York University sites of interest, and there are two pay telephones for those who need such amenities. (There is always someone.) Most engaging of all was the TTC customer service representative who was knowledgeable about the extension and keen to answer my questions. I may not have fully appreciated the “exciting” Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) artwork which the TTC touts at the station. For me, as for most students, getting to the campus quickly and comfortably is such a treat; everything else is superfluous.

The next stop is Finch West station, located under Keele Street, north of Finch Avenue West. This station will also feature a bus terminal, commuter parking lot, passenger pickup and drop-off, and secure bicycle parking. Again, the bright red of the corridors and brightly coloured windows at the concourse are delightful. Already, many people are using this station.

The last of the new stations is Downsview Park, the first stop west of the old Sheppard West station. An attendant told me that the station is in Downsview Park, very close to the rebuilt hanger called HoopDome, a gymnasium facility used for several years for basketball, indoor soccer, volleyball, and many other activities which attract athletes from across the city. The station is also a five-to-ten-minute walk from the entrance of the Downsview Canadian Forces Base to the east. Effective January 2018, the GO train on the Barrie line will stop at this station. Passengers will be able to transfer there onto the TTC and get a half-price discount on TTC fare.

There have been complaints that the subway extension does not include a washroom at each station. However, there are washrooms at: Sheppard East, the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, and on the top floor (the bus bays) of the Highway 407 station. TTC riders can access these washrooms without leaving the system. 

It’s been so long since the TTC has generated genuinely good news. And maybe even longer since it has won any awards as the North American “Transit System of the Year.” We’ve finally done it. The system is beautiful, shiny, new, accessible, well-marked, and efficient. I am very excited about what is a world-class extension of the system which can make us proud. Check it out for yourself.

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Dior Divertissement: Haute Couture as Therapy

Searching out the upbeat. Choosing what we can control as a diversion from a world run amok with negative news. These are recommended strategies in the age of Trump. If you are feeling anything like me these days, then the Christian Dior exhibit now on display at the Royal Ontario Museum is for you. It’s wonderful.

The haute couture house of Christian Dior opened in Paris in February 1947. The exhibition uses the ROM’S collection of Dior fashions to illustrate the first decade (1947-1957) of designs created for a “clientele of habitually well-dressed women.” Holt Renfrew, the sponsor of the exhibition, obtained the first license to sell and make Christian Dior designs in Canada. These are the actual day dresses, afternoon dresses, and evening dresses worn by Canada’s elite and donated to the museum. They are spectacularly beautiful.

Curator Alexandra Palmer has created a remarkably interesting show. It describes how the house of Dior functioned and how it achieved its international influence in a short ten years. We learn about “The New Look” and how it reflected (and added to) the aspirations of the post-war period. We learn how the house resurrected skills from the 18th and 19th centuries and adapted them to modern designs and materials. We visit the dressmaking atelier, see how the dresses were actually constructed, and what it took in both skill and materials to make “the look.” We see the difference between the original design concepts and the end product. We meet the tradespeople and suppliers of exquisite textiles, sequins, ribbons, and hand embroidery. We learn how their businesses operated and how they flourished with the success of Dior. We come to appreciate the relationship between the designer, the artisans, the models, the suppliers and ultimately between the design house, the merchants, and the clients. We see how the house stimulated other businesses to produce shoes, stockings, handbags, gloves, costume jewellery, and perfumes which promoted Dior’s design principles and added to the lustre of the label.

For a small exhibit with what seems like a modest footprint, it packs a wallop. It’s a fascinating insight into an amazing world.

To get full benefit from the show, make sure to read the electronic placards which describe all the dress designs on display. Klutz that I am with new technology, it took me awhile to figure out how to manipulate the touch screens. Once I did, I was enchanted. The placards describe the name of each design, the collection, the primary dress-maker, the model for whom the design was created, the significance of the design, the choice of the textiles and embellishments, and some of the clients who purchased the dresses. Here you will find copies of the original design drawings which are intriguing and beautiful works of art in themselves. There are also samples  of textiles from which the dresses could be made.

Also, sit down and watch the film. Apart from resting your feet, to see the real images of Dior working with the dressmaker and the model to perfect the dress in its last stage is to understand the relationship between them. Join the world’s major fashion buyers and their exclusive clients as they watch the models presenting a new collection of designs on a 1947-1957 runway. Some of the designs we saw on the original runway are on display in the exhibition.

Everyone I heard talking at this show had opinions on what they liked and what they didn’t. All were awestruck by the care put into the creation of the designs and the exquisite workmanship on display.

I took in the exhibit with ease in about ninety minutes. I left with impressions and questions which diverted me for hours. I consider that good therapy. The show runs on the fourth floor of the ROM (using the new elevators to the left of the entrance foyer) until mid-March. See rom.on.ca/whatson for talks and workshops on the subject.

 

 

 

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Meet the River Otters

It’s amazing what a late afternoon walk will bring. Although it is getting close to Christmas, the leaves of some trees are still autumnal scarlet and have not yet fallen to the ground. Even as a muted sunset settles over Kitsilano, there is enough light to see wildlife that inhabit the local area.

There are many people on the Seawalk, even so late in the afternoon. Most seem determined to get their constitutional finished before it gets dark. When a group is stopped on the sidewalk peering into the water, I know that there is something to be seen. Sure enough. Three seals or otters are swimming back and forth off shore. Then they disappear. The head of one pops up out in the deep water, first in one place; then in another. It then stops, turns, and heads back to shore, squeaking with a strange peeping sound over and over as if calling to the others. Eventually, all three of them are cavorting near the rocks only yards from where we are watching. One eats a fish, two slither ashore and climb onto the rocks, totally oblivious to the curious onlookers. Who would have guessed that they are so big? That their legs are so long? And that white markings are on their coat? A woman who seems knowledgeable tells us that these are river otters who are known to steal salmon from the fisherman on the nearby Capilano River. Now that would be something to see.

When I got home, I decided to play with the otters on my new photography program. In the past, I’ve taken courses from several very skilled photographers who have recommended using Adobe’s Lightroom for post-production. I’ve finally taken the plunge. A couple of weeks ago, Peter Levey, at the Advanced Digital Training School in North Vancouver, helped me download Lightroom and gave me a couple of lessons on how to use it. I can see the advantages that Lightroom offers over the Apple Photos program that I have used for years but which seems increasingly inflexible and of decreasing quality. But Lightroom, among other things, presupposes that my picture files are properly organized and readily findable. Organization of my digital files (for documents and for photographs) has not been my strong suit. Clearly that must change. Equally obviously, to learn the full extent of Lightroom’s capabilities and how to export the improved photos to other platforms correctly will require much practice. That’s the point. I want to learn new publishing programs (such as Blurb or Shutterfly) to make the photography books that my grand-kids love. And it wouldn’t hurt to upgrade the photos on my blog, as well. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

 

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Vancouver’s Circle Craft Market

Last Friday, I spent the entire day exploring the Circle Craft Christmas Market at the Vancouver Convention Centre. When the doors opened at 10:00 a.m., already there was a lineup of shoppers like me, eager to see the wares without the crowds. Circle Craft is a self-sustaining cooperative of BC artists, formed in 1972, to promote “direct from the artist” quality crafts at the Market and at their gallery on Granville Island. Circle Craft is more intimate than the gigantic One of a Kind show, which runs in Toronto at the end of November but, with three hundred exhibitors, this offering is no less engaging.

One of the delights of these shows is the chance to speak with the artisans who produce such creative treasures. The X-tails couple from Prince George with their colourful line of children’s books started out by accident and are now in great demand for stories in schools. The Out of Ruins couple from Ottawa offered to come to my home in Toronto and propose a glass insert for my foyer window fashioned from their recycled glass. The Abeego Designs folks from Victoria promise that their beeswax paper will lengthen the freshness of left-over food. The Lemon Square bakers from Vancouver offer samples to die for. The 4 Paws Pure people from Prince George have an array of dried treats for animals too exotic for my cats but which the dog-lovers in the crowd were buying up with gusto. Don Pell of Wingnut Enterprises, Bellevue, Saskatchewan, told me that the brightly coloured whirligigs that I admired were for outdoor use and would withstand even the coldest prairie winter. The young man at Gift-a-Green had a range of inventive greeting cards that grow. An intriguing idea worth a try, I thought. The bamboo sleepwear on display at This is J, was colourful and soft, but I was in no mood to try on clothing, so took their Fall/Winter 2017 catalogue and may well buy online.

And so it goes. Back and forth along the rows, with too many wonderful treasures to explore. In the interests of expediency, I skipped the jewellery shops, and generally avoided the pottery, ceramics and wood. I declined the free samples offered by various distilleries, wineries and breweries; drinking so early in the day would undoubtedly deter me from the serious power shopping ahead.

For anything too heavy or cumbersome to carry back to Toronto, I decided to rely on webpages. Almost all the artisans seem to have an internet presence, and collecting cards for future reference online is useful. They also have those new-fangled little gadgets for taking credit cards and issuing receipts by email at the same time. Finding my email address already embedded in some machines was somewhat disconcerting; my email address preceded my attendance at the Market! I later thought that perhaps this occurred because I made purchases at the Harmony Festival in West Vancouver before, although not from these particular artisans. Even more shocking was to return home and find so many receipts clogging up my email. Did I really buy all that?

As at the One of a Kind, I made good use of the Parcel Check to store my purchases as I went along. The only downside of the practice is that I forgot how much I’d acquired until it was time to go home. Then I had to arrange all the bags on my arms and in my backpack, and then pack all the parcels myself up the escalator, across the foyer, and down the escalator again to get outside. Fortunately, I didn’t have to stand long until a cab came and whisked me over the bridge just as the setting sun lit up all of North Vancouver.

In the vast expanse of the One of a Kind in Toronto, I typically meet no one I know. At the Circle Craft Market, by contrast, shortly before noon I heard my name called, turned, and found my cousin Diane standing right behind me. Over a lemonade together, we caught up on all our news. Later, the same thing happened again; this time with the two new friends who had met me and my DOH companion at the airport last week. I may be in Vancouver for only a short time, but such encounters make me feel at home.

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CN Rail versus District of West Vancouver: Another Corporate Cash Grab?

The front page headline in Thursday’s Vancouver Sun caught my attention: “CN fights West Vancouver Over Centennial Seawalk.” CN Rail is demanding $3.7 million dollars in annual rent from the district of West Vancouver for public use of the seawalk built on the CN right-of-way to celebrate Canada’s Centenary 50 years ago. Since the district has refused to pay such a sum, CN has terminated its lease on the property, and started a lawsuit against it in the B.C. Supreme Court.

CN wants a judge to declare that their termination is lawful, that the seawalk, gazebo, gardens and parking spots built by the district trespass on the railroad corridor and must be removed, and that the district (and presumably the public) must be restrained from further use of the right-of-way. Oh yes, they are also asking for damages for arrears of rent.

The district has responded by applying to the federal Canadian Transportation Agency which resolves public transportation disputes. The district says that nothing is owed to CN Rail at all because of the long public use of the right-of-way, the lack of any damage to CN’s property, and the district’s ongoing and expensive enhancement of the shoreline which provides added protection to CN’s tracks at no cost to the corporation. To settle the matter, the district has offered an annual rent of $12,500.00, indexed to future inflation. Apparently, that’s not good enough for CN Rail who want a rental value based on the very expensive real estate in the area.

My Vancouver rental “cottage” is very close to the seawalk and the gazebo in dispute. I have written about the seawalk in prior posts, and am one of the thousands of locals who use the seawalk every day. The 1.7 kilometre seawalk may be the single most popular attraction on the entire Vancouver North Shore. Tourists and residents from all over the Lower Mainland flock to the short walk along the seashore that links Dundarave Pier with John Lawson Park, Ambleside Park, and the Capilano River to the east. Beside the seawalk is a separate “dog run,” unique in the area, which allows dogs to pace their owners leash-free without interfering with other users of the seawalk, including many seniors with mobility issues.

I only have “the facts” as set out in the newspaper article, taken from documents filed by the district. Here’s the history. When the seawalk was built in the 1960s, the government-owned Pacific Great Eastern Railway also owned the right-of-way. The PGE became BC Rail, also owned by the government. In 2004, the B.C. government sold its railway operation to CN Rail but retained ownership of the right-of-way which it then leased on a long-term lease to CN.

I gather that the government-owned railway must have leased the right-of-way to the district when the seawalk was first built. The district paid an annual rent beginning at $25 and increasing to $300. BC Rail requested rent increases up to $9,523 in 1999, but the district paid nothing at all after 1994. BC Rail made no further demands for any payment after 1999. When CN Rail purchased the rail line in 2004, it would have taken its own lease subject to the pre-existing lease to the district. Apparently CN Rail made no demands for rental payment from the district until September 2015 when their officials met with the district “to regularize the lack of a written agreement, deal with compensation and risk allocation.”

Without the benefit of hundreds of hours of costly legal advice which, undoubtedly, CN Rail has available and which the district will have to incur on behalf of the taxpayers, the issue seems pretty straightforward to me.

Why is CN Rail doing this? It seems that CN Rail wants to play hardball with the district of West Vancouver like CP Rail did for fifteen years with the city of Vancouver over its abandoned Arbutus Corridor which runs for nine kilometres from False Creek to Marpole on the south side of the city. There, residents had used the right-of-way as a community trail and created community gardens which CP Rail then bulldozed as leverage to force the city into buying the property. CP initially said that the land was worth $400 million. The city ultimately paid CP $55 million to buy it. 

But the Arbutus Corridor situation is entirely different from the West Vancouver seawalk. There, CP Rail actually owned the land, no trains had run on the right-of-way for fifteen years, and no public money was spent to enhance the value and use of the right-of-way. Here, the right-of-way is still owned by the province. The railroad and the seawalk have co-existed for nearly fifty years. I have no idea how much the district of West Vancouver has spent on the seawalk, its protection and amenities but it must be a lot. The seawalk is stunning and the anti-erosion enhancements have been substantial.

Who is CN Rail? CN Rail is the largest railway in Canada, with 32,831 kilometres of track extending from coast to coast and even into the United States (both to the Gulf of Mexico and to Alaska). According to the internet, the largest individual shareholder of CN Rail in 2014 was Bill Gates. The latest internet CN Rail Ownership Summary shows that the largest institutional investors in CN Rail are the Royal Bank of Canada, Massachusetts Financial Services, the Wellington Management Group, the Bank of Montreal and TD Asset Management In. The President and C.E.O. of CN Rail is Luc Jobin. He joined CN Rail as a senior executive in 2009, responsible for, among other things, “strategic planning.”

Some strategy. The court and/or the Tribunal should throw the Greedy Grouts out of court, and impose all possible legal costs against CN Rail and in favour of the district. What’s CN going to do? Impound all the cars from the parking spots? Tear down the gazebo? Bulldoze the seawalk? Their position is ridiculous, if not shameful, and will only serve to waste scarce public resources better spent on something else. What kind of corporate citizenship is that?

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Speaking with Strangers

My ears pricked up. Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current was interviewing New York writer Kio Stark on her new book, When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You (TED Books, 2016). Stark was saying that the world needs more of strangers talking to each other, more random conversations on the street, in the shops, on transit.

It occurred to me that I shared her philosophy, and that talking with strangers helps make The Effervescent Bubble thrive. Without even waiting to actually read the book, I ordered twelve copies from Indigo to give as gifts for Christmas.

As an aside: Have you noticed how easy it is to shop on the internet these days? Click, add to cart, pay with the credit card, and forget about it. A few days later, often free of charge, Canada Post delivers a bright clean new cardboard box to the doorstep. Do you get the same frisson of excitement when the time comes to open the box? It’s like Christmas all year.

Getting back to Kio Stark: When the book came, I was keen to devour it. Stark writes, “Talking to people I’ve never met is my adventure. It’s my joy, my rebellion, my liberation. It’s how I live,” and her words resonate. That’s what I do. That’s what I like doing. Why? Perhaps because, as she writes, “when you talk with strangers, you make beautiful and surprising interruptions in the expected narrative of your daily life. You shift perspective. You form momentary, meaningful connections. You find questions whose answers you thought you knew. You reject the ideas that make us so suspicious of each other.” Hers is a book “about talking… about seeing, listening, and being alert to the world.”

As much as I agree with Stark’s approach, her tone is didactic and, on first reading, seems a bit self-helpish. Her approach is analytical, somewhat clinical in nature, with suggestions for what to do, how to do it, and exercises to begin.

Many of her examples and discussion come from a course on communications and modern technology which she teaches. Her comparison between conversations in person and on the internet is intriguing but relevant primarily to social media types. She understands the violence implicit in “street harassment” and calls for action against “aggressive street behaviour.” She is conscious of “stranger danger” as a product of “childhood training,” but makes the point that “unpredictable and unpleasant are not by definition dangerous,” and how we need “to perceive, not… name or categorize” or stereotype.

Her essential point is that talking with strangers is “good for you.” “You are awake… you’re not in your own head, you’re not on autopilot from here to there. You are present in the moment. And to be present is to feel alive. You are also connected.” The action of speaking with strangers, meeting strangers, pushes us to see others as individuals and can be transformative to the person, and to society more generally. We become more empathetic and “cosmopolitan,” which she defines as “tolerant, open… curious and (believing) that we are all in this together.”

In her chapter “The Mechanics of Interaction,” Stark writes about how some cultures “take extraordinary measures not to interact at all.” She cites Toronto as an example, “though not other places in Canada.” She has been told that “strangers in Toronto talk (or mutter) to each other only when necessary, and with the tacit understanding that it’s painful for all involved. ‘Excuse me’ is a last resort on the streetcar.” I know that my west-coast volubility is a little unusual. A Toronto-born travelling companion once told me that I “could talk with a newel post,” which I am not sure she intended as a compliment.

I have often felt that native-born Torontonians are hesitant to talk to strangers, although not in the dog park, nor in a shop. If the stereotype is true, it is changing. The majority of people who live in the city do not come from Toronto; so many were born elsewhere, either in Canada or abroad.

The techniques described by Stark, when I think about it, are simply second nature to me. Talking about dogs and babies is an excellent entrée to learning about people in the neighbourhood. Compliments are conversation-starters. Many different young people, and even a memorable older woman my own age, have taught me about my smartphone and how I can download apps or text numbers to find out when the next transit vehicle will come. Newcomers to Toronto have told me their migration stories, and provided the grist for yet another post on my blog. I can attest that my talking with strangers, even in Toronto, is generally well-received.

I remember how it was a total stranger on the Paris RER  (transit system), in 1966, who suggested that Grenoble welcomed students and I could find accommodation there cheaper and more quickly than in Paris. I had spent several days looking for a cheap place in Paris and was on my way back from spending a horrible night in a decrepit student hostel in the far southern suburbs that I remember for its high ceilings, broken windows, and dormitory beds like those in war movies. I went to the train station right away, bought a ticket to Grenoble, and was welcomed there by volunteers greeting foreign students. A day later I had a job, room and board with a wealthy industrialist just outside the city, and was registered as a student in a university program there. I spent four months in Grenoble, and had an excellent experience with a very interesting family. That stranger on the RER did me a big favour.

Read the book. Listen to Kio Stark’s TED Talk at TED.com. Try talking with strangers, and see what happens. I think the stereotype about taciturn Torontonians, if it really is true, will not long endure.

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The Legacy Of Honest Ed’s on the TTC

Toronto’s most famous emporium, Honest Ed’s, closed its doors on December 31st, 2016. Merchants and restaurateurs in nearby Mirvish Village are decamping for new locations. It’s the end of an era.

To honour Mirvish Village merchants, three local residents’ associations planned a New Orleans-style “second line” parade with a brass band which would follow hot chocolate, hot cider and cornbread at Southern Accent restaurant on Markham Street. Unfortunately, the freak snow storm which blanketed the city beginning late afternoon, December 15th, meant that the brass band could not play, so the parade was cancelled. The party went ahead, nevertheless, with locals decked out in festive lights, great refreshments, and typical Southern Accent hospitality.

Losing Honest Ed’s and Mirvish Village feels bittersweet. Although redevelopment is inevitable, the neighbourhood and the city can only hope that what rises in its place will generate the same enthusiasm and community spirit which prevailed before. At some point, I will write about the proposed new development.

The closing of Honest Ed’s prompted the TTC to plaster its western entry at the Bathurst Street subway station (on the Bloor line) with samples of Ed Mirvish’s famous advertising posters. (See above.) I thought that was it. A fitting memorial.

But I was wrong. I had occasion to use the station last week and discovered that the TTC has now commandeered someone with Honest Ed’s punster talents to advertise its own services. I love it. Someone at the TTC has a sense of humour. We desperately need more of that.

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My Best “Good News” Story for 2016

It was the early afternoon of October 31st, and I was due to leave the house shortly to help the grandkids do Hallowe’en in Whitby. I thought to make a quick trip to the local bakery on College Street to pick up some of those Hallowe’en cookies I’d seen. Luckily for me, there was a parking spot close to the bakery. I reached into my purse, pulled out my wallet, and hopped out of the car to get my 15-minute parking receipt from the kiosk nearby. I was only gone a minute, returned to the car, put the receipt on the dashboard and locked the car. Minutes later, my goodies in hand, I returned to the car and drove up Clinton to return home. Suddenly, it occurred to me that my purse, with my iPhone in it, was missing. It had been sitting on the bucket seat beside me when I got my wallet. It wasn’t there now.

I drove around the block back to the bakery, found another parking spot, and enquired in the bakery whether I had left my purse behind. Apparently not. It was nowhere to be seen. How could that be? I’d just had it. I retreated to the car and returned home. Had I left my purse at home? Maybe I had. Forgetting what happened only a moment ago is not foreign to me these days. But no, the purse was nowhere in the house. Nor was the iPhone.

Quite uncharacteristically, I was relatively calm as I went upstairs to my home computer and switched on the “Find My iPhone” application in the settings. Miraculously, the setting was on. I activated the program and, sure enough, a local map appeared with a little green dot showing that my phone was at the bakery on College Street. With my resident nephew in tow, I returned to the bakery. This time, using a load voice, I insisted that the purse with my iPhone was somewhere nearby. I approached each of the patrons seated at tables at the bakery and asked if they had seen a black leather purse with an iPhone in it. This time, the saleslady made further enquiries of the rest of her staff downstairs and in the kitchen. No luck. No purse. No iPhone.

What to do? We returned home, refreshed the computer and saw that the green dot had moved one block west. Great. Someone had it and they were still nearby. We refreshed the application again. This time, the green dot was another block west. Refreshed again, and the green dot had moved further west, apparently across the street to the area of a well-known restaurant.

At that point, I called 911, reported a non-emergency and asked to be transferred to 14 Division. Another operator answered, another transfer, then another operator, and another transfer. Finally, someone listened to my lament that my purse and iPhone had been stolen. “But,” I added brightly, “we know where they are… at the corner at Beatrice and College.”

My interlocutor was not impressed. “Do you have a description of the person?” she asked. “No, of course not, I didn’t see who took it. I only know where it is.” “Well, ma’am. The police don’t get involved in these kinds of things. There is nothing we can do without a description. You can file a ‘theft from auto’ report and if we arrest someone who has your purse or iPhone in their possession, we will return it to you.” I took a deep breath. “Madam,” I said, “we know where the phone is and we are going to go and get it” “We don’t recommend that,” she replied. “You may not,” I said, “but I need to get my phone back.” She took my ‘theft from auto’ report and said an officer would call me back later.

My nephew suggested that he take his bike and his cellphone, that I stay at the computer, and that we track the little green dot. And so we did. He jumped on his bike and rode west on College. I called him and reported that the green dot was in the parkette at the corner of Claremont and College. He didn’t see anyone there. The dot remained there, so he looked around in the bushes to see if it had been thrown away, but found nothing. Then I remembered to refresh the computer. Now the green dot had moved a couple of blocks west and was turning north on Ossington Avenue.

My nephew biked to that corner and turned north. Across the street, he saw someone he considered a shady character leaning against the wall of a small take-out joint. If he had the phone, my nephew wasn’t keen to approach him. “Where is the green dot now?” he asked me over his cellphone. “It’s moving up the street,” I said. So my nephew turned his attention further up Ossington. There he saw a woman moving north towards the corner of Dewson Avenue where a police officer was directing traffic around a street repair project.

“The green dot turned west on Dewson,” I reported and my nephew replied, “I see her. It’s the woman, short, heavy-set, wearing a dark coat, walking on the sidewalk, carrying two plastic bags.” He rode his bicycle behind her and saw a black purse sticking out the top of one of the bags.

He returned to the police officer directing traffic at the corner. “That woman has a stolen purse and phone,” he reported to the officer. “How do you know?” he asked. “My aunt is at home tracking the phone on her computer program and she described exactly where it went.” The officer called for backup at the corner and, when it arrived, he asked my nephew to show him how he knew. “Where is she now?” my nephew asked me. “She has turned the corner of Dewson and the street beyond and is heading south,” I replied.

That was what the officer needed. He approached the woman, asked for her identification, and to see what was in her bags. The officer opened the black purse sticking out the top of one of the plastic bags, found the iPhone and directed my nephew to ask me what else was in the bag. “A couple of pens, maybe some kleenex” I reported. The officer confirmed the contents and returned the bag and the phone to my nephew. Within less than a half hour after I had missed it, we had my purse and, more importantly, the invaluable iPhone back in our possession.

When the officer asked the lady where she had found the purse, she said that she had heard a ruckus on College Street about a lost purse and a lost iPhone. She had seen it laying on the street and had picked it up with the intention of returning it to the police station. It’s true, 14 Division headquarters on Dovercourt Street is a couple blocks to the west and south. But turning north on Ossington was the wrong direction. The police officer ran a computer check of her identification, and found she had no criminal record. Both he and my nephew concluded she was not particularly swift. I had no desire for any further process against her. The police officer advised her that she should have just left the purse, or returned it to the bakery. He asked her if she knew how we had found her. She replied, “By the phone.” So, who said she was not so swift?

I was totally relieved that the computer program had worked, and we had recovered the phone. Had the setting not been “On,” my iPhone would have been lost forever.

The incident reminded me how often thefts are crimes of carelessness and opportunity. I don’t believe that I dropped my purse from the car seat onto the street. But I do know that for the short moment that it took me to get my parking receipt, I had left the purse on the front seat of my car, and my car was unlocked. I’m not so smart myself.

At 2:45, just as I was leaving the house, an officer from 14 Division phoned to follow up on the ‘theft from auto’ report I had filed. I was delighted to report that the phone and purse had been recovered, with the help of an officer on the street, and that he could close his file.

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“A Tree-Hugger’s Christmas” Tree

Jonathan Forani’s delightful article in the Toronto Star last Tuesday on “A Tree-Hugger’s Christmas” is the latest twist on the perennial debate: Do we have a live Christmas tree? or an artificial tree? There is now a third alternative which combines the advantages of both… rent a live Christmas tree.

Live Christmas tree types are adamant that only a real balsam, pine, spruce or fir (any of the many species available), the fresher the better, will do. In their view, only a real tree provides the appropriate atmosphere, and particularly the arboreal aroma that freshens the home throughout the season. Live Christmas tree types like the hunt for “the perfect tree,” in the woods, at a local nursery or in one of those cut-your-own-Christmas-tree farms in the countryside. Finding just the right tree may provoke considerable debate. It almost certainly requires some effort to raise it on one’s vehicle, transport it on the roof of the car, cut off the base of the trunk, mount it in the appropriate place at home, and keep it watered over the season.

Artificial tree types forego all that fuss and bother. For them, the primary attractions of a Christmas tree are the lights and decorations that add lustre to the holiday home. The essence of convenience is an artificial tree packed away in a box which can be brought out of a closet year after year. Artificial trees are available for sale from all major outlets on the internet and delivered to your home. According to Good Housekeeping, in an article entitled “The Best Artificial Christmas Trees That Will Look Great Year After Year,” most artificial trees are now “pre-lit, so you can skip the temper-fraying ritual of untangling wires and distributing lights evenly around the branches.”

In an age when the environmental utility of living trees contributing to the purification of the air is a given, the “real tree” advocates have become a little defensive. How to justify cutting down a healthy tree for use only during two or, at best, three weeks a year? The fact that the city collects the trees, chips them up, and recycles them for mulch provides some solace. At least live trees don’t end up as plastic in a landfill site. The 2000 farmers growing Christmas trees across Canada for domestic sale and export, also argue that their 70,000 acres of Christmas trees add over $125 million annually to the Canadian rural economy. But for the demand for “live” Christmas trees, those trees might never have been planted in the first place.

The third alternative, renting a tree, combines the aesthetic appeal of a live tree with the convenience of the artificial. Now that the kids have grown up and transporting a tree home from wherever is getting more difficult, the idea of renting a real tree has considerable appeal. For businesses, renting a real tree seems the perfect solution. So how does it work?

According to Forani’s article, Alfredo and Marcelo Lorenzo of the reforestation company Sapling Life based in Mississauga, offer potted-tree rentals. They have four sizes of potted white spruce trees which were grown in Langdon, Ontario, and which they will deliver to your home before Christmas and retrieve in the new year. On pickup, the trees are replanted or re-rented next year. They will provide you with instructions for watering the trees and, because the trees are not dying while in your home, they shed few needles. The rental rates range from $85.37 for the small tree to $97.37 for the extra large. Should you want to buy the tree to replant on your own property, the total costs are $145.05 to $176.39. For each tree purchased, the company will plant four small saplings as part of their reforestation campaign. Check out their webpage and see how it works. 

Apparently, a former Oakville resident Jeff Ferguson and his business partner Sean Macalister who operate Evergrow Christmas Trees Co. in Burnaby, B.C., started the idea of renting Christmas trees in 2009. Their website indicates that they are “sold out for 2016.”

So is Sapling Life. When I first read the article, renting a tree seemed like a wonderful idea. I looked up the webpage right away, and called to enquire whether the pickup date could be varied. The charming proprietor called me back, and said, “No problem.” By the time I got back onto the webpage, all the trees were “sold out.” Obviously, this is an idea which is catching on. Now that I know about this service, I will get my order in earlier next year.  

In the meantime, to those who are celebrating Christmas with whatever tree, or with none at all, Merry Christmas to you and yours.  For friends celebrating other traditions, may you enjoy all the blessings of this wonderful season of the year.

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Toronto’s Green P Parking App to the Rescue

Recently the CIBC converted their branch at the corner of Grace and College into a new “Banking Centre.” They did away with all the tellers, leaving only an ATM, a bevy of laptop computers scattered among comfortable chairs, and a couple of “advisors” who, apparently, are to educate the locals on computer banking, resolve any issues that arise, and presumably discuss mortgages and other banking services financially helpful to the institution. For decades, this had been my local bank, always handy walking home from the West End Y, and I was devastated.

Truth be told, I only used the branch tellers to get the rolls of loonies and toonies I need for city parking. I’ve never trusted using a credit card for street parking fees. I’ve always worried that after parking the car the kiosk would reject my card or, worse still, would steal the data on the card in some potential scam.

ATMs do not dispense coins. The closest alternative full-service CIBC branch is at Dundas and Ossington. When I went there one morning at opening time, I put my remaining 50 cents into a parking kiosk for the one available parking spot in the area. Anticipating a quick in and out, I found myself in a long line up with no teller. Apparently she was in the washroom. When she finally appeared, she had to deal with a line up of at least ten customers waiting impatiently for her return. More than ten minutes later, she was still dealing with the first in line. Other bank employees aware of the situation chose to ignore it. I made some complaints which, in retrospect, I should have resisted. Soon I had no choice but to abandon my place in the line and rescue my car from any potential early morning green hornet. It was only later that I remembered that the all-pervasive security cameras would have recorded me as an irate customer. Although I am generally known as a patient person, “customer service” like this at our coddled national banks brings out the worst in me.

That very morning, a friend told me about Toronto’s new Green P Parking App. After a couple of false starts during my early experiments with the system, I now fully appreciate the wonder of this new Parking App.

This is how it works. You download the app to your smart phone, enter your email and vehicle licence number to secure your registration, and then look for a parking kiosk on the street or in a Green P parking lot which has a four-digit number prominently displayed on the white decal on the side. The first time you use the system, you will be asked for your credit card information and for a deposit of $20.00. Presumably, when that $20.00 is exhausted, you would authorize another. In the meantime, once you have found a parking spot, you enter the identification number for the nearby kiosk and indicate the vehicle you are parking (or the license number of a second vehicle), and choose the amount of time you want. The app confirms the location and time, deducts the payment, and, if you like, sends a receipt to your email address. Apparently, the paper receipts we used to place on the dashboard are obsolete. Green hornets looking for malingerers will check your licence plate digitally to confirm timely payment.

As an added feature, the app counts down the time, alerts you when time is running out, and gives the option of extending the time digitally from wherever you might be. On a recent shopping trip, I extended twice, for 75 cents each time, from the store where I was happily browsing. I eventually returned to my car secure in the knowledge that there would be no yellow ticket on my windshield. Updated receipts arrived by email.

When I went for dinner one night last week, I found a spot on College Street right beside the restaurant at precisely 6:31 p.m. I pulled out the app expecting to pay until at least 9:00 p.m. But no. The app told me that no parking fee was payable at that hour, and that I should check the signs to be sure. I checked the sign and it was true. Parking was payable 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., prohibited 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., and then presumably parking was free. Pretty slick, I’d say. The app also allows you to type in an address and find the nearest Green P site, renew monthly permits, and pay courtesy charges, although I haven’t yet tested these features. 

Best of all from my perspective, I am now liberated from any further need for live contact with any branch of my bank. Maybe forever.

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Balfour Books

Joyce Blair of Balfour Books has been in the bookselling business since the mid-1970s. When she graduated from U of T in literature, she was offered a government job that would have set her up for life. The night before she was supposed to start, a friend phoned to say that the bookstore where she had worked as a student, at the corner of College and Spadina in downtown Toronto, was faltering. If Joyce would take it over, it could be hers. Joyce had no clue about running a book store but decided that she was too much a free spirit for the government job, so she took the plunge. And she has been at it ever since.

She ran that store for a year or two, and then opened another on Queen Street with a partner. After 15 years there, she opened her own store, this time on College, west of Clinton. After another 15 years at that location, she bought the building where she is now located, closer to Bathurst, with an original ceiling, and tenants upstairs.

Her inventory is rich in art, photography, classics, cultural studies, philosophy, theology, literature, history, biography, literary travel, and children’s books. Murder mysteries and cheap paperbacks at bargain prices are always popular. Close to the University of Toronto, she stocks the books required for course reading lists.

When other specialized bookstores have closed, she has stepped in to fill the gap. The demise of TheatreBooks prompted her to build up her inventory of plays. The closing of The Cookbook Store stimulated her preoccupation with cookbooks. Now, chefs come to Balfour looking for interesting cookbooks. Joyce, and her colleague who specializes in academic books, keep a watchful eye for particular book titles customers seek by special request. A lot of her traffic comes from the street, some people browsing before and after dinner in the local restaurants, others attracted by her bin of books on sale for $1.00.

Talking with Joyce about the business of buying and selling books is fascinating. She says that bookstores selling new books and remainders have been hit harder by internet retail sales than have the used bookstores. Customers who haunt used bookstores do so for the hunt, a pleasure not replicated on the internet. Rare antiquarian books, however, are best found on the internet where the international market is readily accessible and prices are most competitive.

The problem today is that there are too many books out there. Booksellers like her are inundated with requests that she buy books. She seldom does. Instead, she relies on professional book scouts who assess libraries, go to yard sales, mine the recycling shops and the university book sales, looking for the specific types of books and the quality that she wants.

Balfour Books, at 468 College Street, is open Monday to Saturday 11:00-8:00 p.m., Sunday 12:00-7:00 p.m. The phone number is 416-531-9911.

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