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Behind the scenes of an $11-billion subway war


Minton Place is a quiet East York cul-de-sac that begins near Pape and O’Connor and ends a dozen houses north at a weathered stone barrier overlooking the urban wilderness of the Don Valley. On cool mornings, woodpeckers tap away at 100-year-old oaks and deer graze in neighbourhood backyards.

Fred Keeley, a retired SickKids scientist, has lived on Minton Place for 30 years. He and his wife, Sally, raised their children in a sturdy brick house at the end of the street. He has a wildlife camera that he sets up on the path beside his property, capturing foxes and coyotes that wander past.

One morning in the fall of 2020, Keeley received a letter. “Metrolinx, an agency of the province of Ontario, is working to transform the way people move,” it began, in the boastful boilerplate of a government press release. Three paragraphs in, it got to the point: the agency was building a new transit line, and Keeley’s home would be “needed to accommodate construction.” The letter wasn’t a formal notice of expropriation but rather a friendly heads-up. “We thank you in advance for your understanding,” it read.

Three of Keeley’s neighbours received the same letter that week, sending a current of panic crackling through the community. The homes were to be bulldozed to make room for the tunnel entrance of a subway line that would, theoretically, emerge from the earth beneath their properties before rocketing across the valley on a new bridge. Residential expropriations in downtown Toronto are rare, but they do happen. Metrolinx will typically negotiate with homeowners and offer them market value for their property based on third-party appraisals. Often, they can’t come to an agreement, kick-starting the expropriation process and dragging both parties into a complex bureaucratic back-and-forth. In the end, if the province decides it needs a house, there’s little the homeowner can do about it.  Since the letter’s arrival, Keeley and his neighbours have been in a state of anxious paralysis. You can’t sell a house that’s about to be taken by the government. How do you live with a wrecking ball hanging over your head, with the knowledge that every tulip bulb you plant or cabinet you fix will soon be pulverized into the dirt?

The Minton Place letters were part of a wave of Metrolinx announcements that washed over the city during the pandemic, each arriving with the same infuriating we-thank-you-in-advance-for-your-understanding tone of inevitability. In Thorncliffe Park, residents woke up one day in April of 2021 to discover that a storage facility the size of 21 soccer fields was being plunked down in their dense community. In Riverside and Leslieville, residents were shocked to learn that the agency planned to run the transit line right through the heart of their neighbourhood. And in August, the province expropriated the First Parliament Site on Front Street over howls of objection from residents, who had long-standing plans to turn the historical city block into a library, park and community hub.

Each of those moves was to make way for the Ontario Line, a 15.6-kilometre subway track that will start at Exhibition Place, zip across the core to Leslieville and shoot north through Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park up to the Science Centre at Eglinton. When Doug Ford first announced the line in April of 2019, he presented it as the “crown jewel” of his $28.5-billion subway expansion plan. The Ontario Line replaced the in-progress downtown relief line, an eight-station underground subway that the city already spent three years and millions of dollars planning. The Ontario Line will follow less than half that route, instead taking shape alongside existing rail corridors, elevated tracks and tunnels. At a price tag of $11 billion, it will stretch roughly twice the distance of the previously planned line, with 15 stations.

Ford’s plan was the result of a secretive three-month process in which he tore up existing blueprints in favour of his own legacy-building project. It was the continuation of a dismal local tradition. For decades, provincial and municipal governments have presented countless transit maps and made breathless announcements, which are inevitably replaced with a fresh set of maps and announcements after the next election.

Over the past two years, as the city has focused on surviving a pandemic, the Ontario Line has hurtled forward with remarkable speed. In 2020, Ontario passed the Build Transit Faster Act and the Transit Oriented Communities Act, legislation that allows the province to fast-track expropriations and start work before environmental assessments are complete. In early 2022, Metrolinx will award contracts to build the tunnels and stations in the southern segment, after which any change in direction will come with significant penalties. Most importantly, the federal government has already committed $10 billion to the province’s transit plans. The Ontario Line is the first downtown subway in Toronto in more than 50 years—a massive undertaking that has the potential to be as transformative, and as destructive, as any infrastructure project in living memory.

Announcing a megaproject is exciting. Cutting the ribbon is a triumph. In between is the ugly, contentious, sometimes devastating reality of building the thing. Oppositional neighbourhood groups have sprung up like mushrooms along each stretch of the line. They’ve formed war rooms over Zoom and in backyards, strategizing about how to beat back the Goliath of a provincial transportation agency. Expropriation lawyers, accustomed to a glacial pace of change in their field, have been jolted into action by the new legislation and by anxious clients.

The skirmishes erupting along the Ontario Line are a sequel to the battles that have marked the last decades of city-building in Toronto, pitting the sanctity of neighbourhoods against the needs of the region, the rights of current residents against the viability of future Torontonians. In a city that does its best to avoid hard choices, the massive project comes with an implicit message: in order for the majority of us to win much-needed transit, some of us will have to lose. And as the line races forward, for those set to lose, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

If it seems like the Ontario Line is happening fast, it’s also a century behind schedule: plans for a transit line along that approximate route have existed since 1910. In 1985, fresh from two decades of transit building, Metropolitan Toronto released its “Network 2011” plan—a blueprint for the next 30 years that, planners believed, would come to define the urban form of the city in the same way the Yonge line had. Network 2011 proposed new subways along Sheppard and Eglinton, as well as a downtown relief line that would stretch from the Bloor-Danforth line at Pape down to Union Station. The plan was broadly popular, but downtown progressives mounted opposition to the relief line. Ten years earlier, these activists had defeated the Spadina Expressway, which would have torn through the Annex and destroyed scores of homes in the process. The urbanists who fought the expressway were part of a continent-wide rejection of the postwar megaprojects that plowed through neighbourhoods and razed low-income areas in the name of the greater good.

Jack Layton, then a young alderman, led downtown resistance to the relief line in the 1980s. He argued that the suburbs needed to be developed into their own self-sufficient communities. Making it easier to get downtown would only bring more people into the delicate ecosystem that was the old city of Toronto. In a 1984 Globe and Mail op-ed, John Sewell, the former mayor who had come to prominence during the Spadina Expressway battle, argued that the city needed to “stop talking about more expressways and subways going downtown.” He wrote, “we can’t grow forever and as things are now, the city works quite nicely, thank you.”

Network 2011 never happened. When transit-friendly premier Bill Davis resigned, he was replaced by leaders who balked at the plan’s $2.7-billion price tag. The next 4o years of transit planning were defined by political backtracking and indecision, with successive premiers and mayors unceremoniously cancelling the plans of their predecessors. By the mid-2000s, however, rush-hour hordes were crowding onto the Bloor-Yonge platforms, and in 2018, the TTC hit historically high congestion, with trains that were either 100 per cent full or near full for 90 minutes every morning.

Today, the basic concept of a relief line is that rarest thing in Toronto transit planning—a project that just about everyone acknowledges is necessary and overdue. And yet the politicking around the project has only grown more complicated. Today, the protective stance of Layton and Sewell has ossified into the dominant mode of thinking in progressive downtown neighbourhoods. You can hear its core themes at planning meetings and city hall deputations: a Jane Jacobs–inspired defensiveness over the heritage and character of communities, a distrust of large government projects, and an insistence on the primacy of consultation. The rhetoric once used to stop a neighbourhood-obliterating expressway is today used to protest an unsightly daycare or an inconvenient bus lane.

The response to the excesses of postwar urban renewal projects has been the rise of what urban planners Alan Altshuler and David Luberoff call the era of “do no harm planning,” where governments do everything in their power to steer away from opposition. In practice, that means burying subway lines at great cost in places like Scarborough in an effort to avoid contentious surface construction. It means putting transit lines along highway medians to avoid disrupting residential communities, even if those routes bypass the neighbourhoods most in need of transit. And it means pre-emptively cutting back on ambitious projects that would benefit the region but might inspire the ire of local groups.

In its ambitions, with the decision to build partially above ground, and its sheer size, the Ontario Line pushes against the do-no-harm approach in ways that will make life unpleasant for many residents. It’s a plan made by a premier who is politically and temperamentally indifferent to the concerns of downtown progressives. Building the line will turn whole swathes of central Toronto into construction zones for the better part of a decade, snarling traffic and rerouting streetcars. And it will disrupt comfortable neighbourhoods—where residents are not prepared to give in without a fight.

When Maggi Redmonds first learned about the plans for the Ontario Line, she was appalled. Redmond is 74, with pink-and-purple-tinted hair, and has spent her life working in community development roles. She’s lived in Riverside for 45 years, dismissing the “Leslieville” label as little more than a gentrification name cooked up by real estate agents.

Maggi Redmonds, who’s lived in Riverside for 45 years, is convinced that the Ontario Line will turn her historic neighbourhood into little more than a railyard

Once a working-class, industrial area, the neighbourhood is now a desirable collection of $1.5-million Victorian semis steps away from the taco joints and cheese shops of Queen East. At the centre of the neighbourhood is a 150-year-old rail corridor currently used by GO trains. To accommodate the Ontario Line, as well as a GO expansion project, Metrolinx will add three tracks to the three that already exist, raise the entire track bed and rebuild six bridges. At peak hours, trains will zoom by every 90 seconds, guaranteeing a near-constant flow of rail traffic. For Redmonds, the plan seems like a blueprint for devastation that would turn her neighbourhood into a construction site for several years and then leave it as little more than a rail yard.

In early 2020, Redmonds attended a meeting organized by her neighbours and found they all had the same concerns. Why was an above-ground subway being pushed through the middle of their historic neighbourhood? And why was Metrolinx acting like this was a done deal? The residents quickly formed a group, EastEnd Transit Alliance, or EETA, to push back against the plan.

Throughout lockdowns and successive waves of Covid, as plans for the line moved forward, the group grew more militant. When some members of EETA wanted to meet with Metrolinx to figure out how to work with the agency, others were horrified. “The phrase they kept using was ‘We want a seat at the table,’ ” says Redmonds. If EETA members were discussing noise barriers with Metrolinx, it meant they’d given up on fighting to bury the line. To her, that wasn’t advocacy, it was capitulation. Shortly after, Redmonds and other hardline members left the group and moved to a new organization that would be single-mindedly devoted to pushing the Ontario Line underground.

The new group, “Save Jimmie Simpson,” was named after the beloved park east of the rail corridor that, the protesters believed, would be destroyed if Metrolinx had its way. Metrolinx says that the park is not, and has never been, in jeopardy of being expropriated, a fact that Save Jimmie Simpson now acknowledges. But the name stuck. This kind of misunderstanding has become a pattern for the Riverside protesters. They’ve extrapolated based on what little they’ve been told, and always with the underlying assumption that Metrolinx—which they have dubbed “Metrolies”—isn’t telling them the whole story. Then they present the most attention-grabbing version of that interpretation to their fellow residents.

One of the leaders of the new group was Eon Song, a 37-year-old finance worker. Song had moved to the neighbourhood just months earlier, buying a home on Wardell Avenue, a pretty stretch of red-brick homes across the street from the train corridor. Before putting in an offer, he and his partner, Pierre, a science teacher, had gone to the property with a decibel reader to make sure the sound of the GO trains wasn’t too disruptive. “Before we bought the house, we knew there were plans from Metrolinx,” says Song. “But we thought they were many years away and that there’d be an opportunity for people to have a say. And we didn’t think they would proceed with an above-ground line right through a residential neighbourhood. We just didn’t think that would happen.” The more he learned, the more outraged he became. He dug into noise guidelines put forward by the Rail Association of Canada. He found World Health Organization reports about the effects of vibration and noise on human health.

Eon Song, a recent arrival in Riverside, is concerned about how the constant rail-traffic noise in his neighbourhood will affect residents’ health

The fight between Save Jimmie Simpson and Metrolinx has devolved into a vicious PR battle. A poster blitz by the activists in the fall of 2020 warned residents they could “Kiss tennis goodbye” and “Kiss basketball goodbye.” In 2021, someone in the neighbourhood spray-painted a green line through the middle of Bruce Mackey Park, which hugs the west side of the rail corridor—slicing the park in two to show, protesters said, how far the rail corridor would need to expand to accommodate the Ontario Line.

In response, Metrolinx put up billboards and flooded social media with ads. In the summer of 2021, they published a post rebutting the “misinformation” coming from activists. The truth is that Metrolinx has no plans to remove basketball courts or any other park amenities. In fact, it claims it will increase the square footage of the parks flanking the corridor by installing retaining walls. Rather than reassuring activists, this has only served to make them more enraged—evidence of a behemoth government agency throwing PR money around to brand concerned citizens as liars.

Throughout these squabbles, the protesters in Riverside have taken great pains to say they’re in favour of public transit. The neighbourhood, Song points out, was behind the TTC’s underground relief line, which went through a long consultation process. They’re just against this particular line in this particular place. It’s the same sentiment we’ve heard from resident groups for years. And the fact that it’s undoubtedly true doesn’t particularly matter. When a group derails a specific project, how they feel about transit in theory is irrelevant. The line doesn’t get built.

The face of the line, and the target of much of the community’s ire, is Malcolm MacKay, the silver-haired engineer who is the Ontario Line’s project sponsor. MacKay spent 15 years at the TTC, where he was in charge of building the relief line. On the day Ford announced the Ontario Line, MacKay crowded into his office at the TTC with the rest of his team to watch the press conference. MacKay had spent years puzzling over engineering challenges and overseeing community consultations on the line. That day, he watched as Ford unveiled a brand-new plan.

Malcolm MacKay, Metrolinx’s main spokesperson for the Ontario Line, has been the target of much vitriol from the protesters, who refer to his agency as “Metrolies”

“Of course I was cynical and like, Why, why?” MacKay says. But the more he learned about the project, its scope and funding, the more he came to appreciate the new plan. Going above ground through Riverside, MacKay says, is a smart way for Metrolinx to take advantage of a huge swath of land they already own. It also buys the agency the time and money to extend the line to neighbourhoods like Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park, where transit is sorely needed. A few months after the announcement, in August of 2019, MacKay joined Metrolinx, following his subway line across organizations.

In the years since, he has dutifully shown up at online town halls and in backyard community meetings to deflect the vitriol of local residents. Like everyone at Metrolinx, he is smooth and affirming, beginning his responses with phrases like “I appreciate your feedback” and “We value your question.” And, like his Metrolinx colleagues, he is totally resolute. In response to dozens of questions from people up and down the line about why the tracks can’t be placed somewhere else, MacKay begins with niceties and ends with some version of the same hardline response: “The alignment is set.”

“He’s made of Teflon, like many of their spokespeople seem to be,” says Maggi Redmonds. “Things you say seem to just roll off them.” The activists in Riverside aren’t the only ones frustrated with the agency’s consultation style. Fred Keeley and his neighbours at Pape have found their meetings with Metrolinx infuriating. Keeley understands that the line needs to go somewhere. He believes in public transit and the greater good. But he says no one from the agency has been able to show him the slightest bit of proof that this is the best path for the line. “That’s really what I think drives us all crazy,” says Keeley. “If this has to be it, then all right, this has to be it. But let’s make sure it’s the best route.”

In January of 2020, Metrolinx held a town hall at the Metropolitan Community Church near Gerrard and Logan. One attendee, a Riverside resident named Paul Young, is a trained urban planner and a health promoter at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre. He’s used to community consultations. He’s taught seminars on them. As he walked through the church, with little stations displaying the same vague maps and renderings that had been online for months, he decided the town hall was not a true consultation but rather a corporate communications exercise. “It was what I would call a gong show,” says Young. If Redmonds and Young were skeptical before the event, they left that meeting incensed.

Paul Young says Metrolinx hasn’t sufficiently consulted with the residents on its plans for the Ontario Line

Change will always be disruptive, but if someone wants to tear up your neighbourhood, they better have a good explanation why. In public consultations like the Leslieville town hall, Metrolinx either couldn’t or wouldn’t provide those answers. This is partly because of the sheer speed of the project: Metrolinx has released its plans piecemeal, before it has detailed answers. It’s also because Metrolinx is a massive provincial agency that simply doesn’t need to answer to local constituents.

The fundamental problem in most of the encounters between protesters and Metrolinx is a difference in understanding about what a “consultation” should be. In consultations for the previous relief line, the TTC met with community members over years. They brought multiple options. In the end, they came to a plan that buried the Riverside stretch of track underground, which the neighbourhood supported. That is not how Metrolinx does things. “What we do on our projects is we work out technically what is the best and the right option to follow,” says Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster. “And then we consult on how to implement that option. This is our mandate.”

This unyielding approach has the benefit of being fast—a seductive idea for Torontonians who have been waiting generations for transit. But Metrolinx’s job isn’t just to create a transit map that’s ideal on paper. It’s also to guide people through a massive transformation, to help accentuate the gains and minimize the hardships. The spokespeople at Metrolinx, it seems, have mistaken a human problem for a technical one.

MacKay is an engineer, someone who gets excited talking about the practical challenges of digging a subway station in a neighbourhood with soft soil. In Riverside, he’s tried to assure residents that noise levels in their neighbourhood will not rise, with diagrams and presentations and videos and even an interactive sound demonstration. Right now, the only thing separating GO trains from the street is a chain-link fence. Metrolinx will install seamless noise walls that, MacKay says, will actually lower decibel levels. “What is failing to resonate, and it might be our communication, is that their concerns about noise are mitigated,” he says, a hint of frustration creeping into his voice. “We’ve done our work. We’re implementing solutions.” As for the fears about expropriation, MacKay says that companies bidding on the contract work are financially incentivized to minimize property disruption, so the successful contractor will likely be the one whose plan requires the least displacement.

Residents don’t believe him. Metrolinx’s approach asks residents to trust that they have already determined what is “best and right”—a trust it has not earned. Metrolinx is supposed to be an arms-length agency, but since it takes its instructions directly from the Ontario government, it behaves like Doug Ford’s personal construction team. Putting the line underground would cost an additional $800 million, Metrolinx says, but those concerns seem hypocritical when they’re unnecessarily burying the Eglinton Crosstown in North Etobicoke, Ford’s neighbourhood, at a cost of $1.8 billion. There is a long history of organizations like Metrolinx treating neighbourhoods poorly. “Truthfully, I don’t believe a word they say,” says Redmonds.

The neighbourhood where the Ontario Line will have the largest footprint is Thorncliffe Park, just north of the DVP and east of Leaside. There, a massive maintenance and storage facility is set to be built in a dense, low-income neighbourhood of immigrants.

Metrolinx’s stated plan in Thorncliffe Park is to tear up the community, or at least a good chunk of it. The maintenance and storage facility will displace the neighbourhood’s mosque, as well as an entire plaza that is home to 34 businesses, including Iqbal’s, a beloved halal grocery store. MacKay insists that Metrolinx will find a new location in the neighbourhood for each and every business—a promise that is, on its face, completely unrealistic. “There is nothing available in the area,” says Apexa Kotak, the owner of Trupti, a specialty spice store that’s been in the neighbourhood since 1997. “I don’t know why they chose this place,” says Kotak. “They’re hurting so many people.”

Thorncliffe residents are incensed that their neighbourhood is being left out of the discussion. Metrolinx’s first town hall to discuss the facility was at 6:30 p.m. on April 15, just before sundown in the middle of Ramadan, when the neighbourhood’s large Muslim population would be breaking their fast. “That’s where the irritation began,” says Aamir Sukhera, who has spent his life living and working in Thorncliffe. “Metrolinx is building in our community, but they don’t understand our community.”

Aamir Sukhera, who lives in Thorncliffe Park, started SaveTPark to protest the construction of a maintenance and storage facility that would obliterate 34 businesses and a mosque

Sukhera is in charge of an employment program at the Neighbourhood Organization. When he first heard about the plans, he didn’t know what to do. He’s always been a community guy, someone who door-knocked with politicians to help get Thorncliffe vaccinated. But he had too much on his plate. Unlike the protesters in Riverside—professionals who have garnered media attention, raised funds and earned meetings with politicians—Sukhera didn’t have the time or resources to mount a full campaign against Metrolinx. Nobody in the community did. Still, he mobilized a youth group and went door-to-door, telling his neighbours what was coming. He helped form an organization, SaveTPark, and put together a website and online petition.

Metrolinx insists Thorncliffe Park was selected for technical reasons. Its staff looked at nine potential sites and compared them across a variety of criteria, with the aim of minimizing impact on residents, businesses and the environment. “We have no other place we can build it,” says Phil Verster bluntly. But Sukhera is convinced no one would suggest plunking down an enormous storage facility in a wealthier, whiter neighbourhood. “Why is it us?” he asks.

In the summer and fall of 2021, Save Jimmie Simpson and other community groups fighting Metrolinx’s plans began meeting to try to figure out how to present a united front. Sukhera joined one of those meetings on behalf of SaveTPark, but it was difficult for him to find a sense of common cause with the outraged activists on the line. “I don’t want to be offensive to anyone,” he says carefully. “But we’re not being NIMBYs.” The struggle in Thorncliffe Park, Sukhera says, is not the same as in other neighbourhoods. In Riverside, activists have mobilized to prevent increased train traffic along a rail corridor that has been there for 150 years; in Thorncliffe Park, they’re fighting to stop Metrolinx from demolishing more than two dozen businesses and a place of worship. SaveTPark is not protesting the train line itself, which will run above ground on elevated tracks along Overlea. Sukhera knows how beneficial the line will be for Thorncliffe Park, connecting a community that can be isolated from the jobs and wealth that pool in neighbourhoods on either side of it. “You can put the train line through the middle of Thorncliffe. I wouldn’t care because I know it would benefit people,” says Sukhera. “That’s the bigger picture. That’s the trade-off.”

At a rally at Queen’s Park in October, protesters from community groups across the city gathered to protest Metrolinx. Turnout was modest, with about 100 people scattered across the lawn in front of the legislature. Politicians took turns giving speeches. A quartet of Save Jimmie Simpson members sang a parody song penned by Redmonds. Doug’s been working on his railroad, all the livelong day, they sang, accompanied by an acoustic guitar. He likes to ride his big bulldozer, push communities out of his way.

At the end of the event, the emcee took a moment to acknowledge the community groups in attendance, whose logos were emblazoned on the large banner behind her. “We also want to take a moment to express our solidarity for the work that the Save Thorncliffe Park people are doing,” she said. “They were not able to make it here today, but we stand with them in their fight and we support them!”

Sukhera says his group wasn’t interested in attending the rally. “They put our name down without even asking us,” he says.

The Ontario Line has already been delayed. Metrolinx now says it will be done by 2030, three years later than its original date. But if you look closely enough, the first signs of the line are already visible. This fall at the First Parliament Site, archaeologists did soil tests beneath a flimsy white tent. At Exhibition Place, surveyors began the early work of reconfiguring the station. Metrolinx negotiators have fanned out across the city, meeting with businesses and landowners to begin the delicate operation of acquiring the property they’ll need.

Toronto has a history of flip-flopping, and no one can say for sure that a project will happen until shovels are in the ground; sometimes not even then. A provincial election is coming, and elections have a way of changing plans. During the pandemic, with TTC ridership down and work patterns forever altered, some have questioned whether this is the right time to invest so much in public transit. Metrolinx says this view is short-sighted—you build transportation infrastructure for the needs of a city a half-century from now, not two years from now.

In November, Maggi Redmonds and her fellow protesters gathered at Jimmie Simpson Park, arguing that the above-ground line would destroy the urban forest

In December, opposition groups got a wink of hope. Metrolinx abruptly announced they were changing the route of the TTC’s Yonge North Extension, bowing to pressure from neighbourhood protesters. The abrupt switch, in an Ontario PC riding, enraged anti–Ontario Line activists, newly convinced that the process was purely political. But it also suggested an opening: with enough pressure, it seemed, Metrolinx could be forced to bend.

The agency also recently announced a $50-million deal with the Islamic Society of Toronto that will bring a new mosque as well as a gymnasium and business centre to the community. For Sukhera, the deal seemed like a payoff to win support for the Ontario Line. “This is a transaction between a party that is being expropriated and Metrolinx, with no involvement from the Thorncliffe Park community,” he says.

The Save Jimmie Simpson people, meanwhile, have only intensified their efforts. Over the summer, they raised more than $18,000 and commissioned their own Health Impact Assessment, which concluded that a below-ground option would be better for the health of the neighbourhood, and hired a publicist to help get the message out. “The work feels less like community organizing,” Eon Song says, “and more like a political campaign.” They’ve requested to meet with the federal government, the federal NDP, and all provincial parties. Song sees no reason to stop fighting, even once contracts are signed and construction starts. The Harris government, he points out, halted work on the Eglinton subway after it broke ground. “They had dug a hole and spent millions of dollars filling it,” he says. “I have no plans to give up the fight.”

Metrolinx and people like Song seem to be looking at the same scene through vastly different apertures. When Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster talks about the project, it’s from a grand historical perspective. “Toronto has needed transit—improved transit, more subways, more connectivity to GO and regional rail—for generations,” says Verster. Now it’s finally happening, in this slim window of time in which governments have decided to make it a priority. “For the period during which we’re going to build it, there’s going to be construction, and it’s going to be difficult,” he says. “But that’s a short period of having something that’s difficult. And then there are huge benefits.”

A “short period” is, of course, relative. The Ontario Line is optimistically scheduled to be constructed over eight years. That’s a blip in the lifespan of a piece of infrastructure, but it’s a child’s elementary school career, the entire time someone is a teenager, the average length of a failed marriage. That’s the time frame protesters are considering. And the truth is that despite Metrolinx’s relentlessly upbeat prognostications, any project as massive as the Ontario Line creates real losers as well as winners. The Thorncliffe Park residents who work at Trupti will no longer have a job in the neighbourhood if the spice store moves. A few summers of construction in Riverside is nothing in the big-picture vision of Toronto transit, but it’s a life-destroying eternity to a neighbouring household with a new baby. Those harms are real, concrete and immediate. They’re the kinds of harms that can enrage residents, push city councillors to act, and derail projects.

The benefits of a subway line, meanwhile, are so distant that they can seem almost abstract. The kid from Don Mills and Eglinton who, 12 years from now, will be able to get a job downtown won’t show up to any town hall sessions. The couple who will move into the apartment building created by transit-oriented development two decades from now can’t give a reporter a sound bite.

Serving this silent, theoretical constituency is not something this city has done well. We’ve been slow to acknowledge that in the time since Layton and Sewell, the nature of our problems has changed. The biggest issues facing Toronto today—the housing crisis, climate change—will require more big government projects, not fewer. The neighbourhoods in need of protection in 2022 are not the residential enclaves of downtown Toronto but the inner-suburban communities of immigrants who need more transit and more opportunities, not more heritage designations. In seeking to do no harm, we’ve too often ignored the damage that comes from inaction. The Toronto of today—a place where the average semi-detached house costs $1.3 million and the average commute is 42 minutes—is not a city that anyone intentionally designed. It’s the result of decades when no one planned a different one.

One morning in late October, I visited the bus stop at the corner of Don Mills and Gateway Boulevard in the heart of Flemingdon Park. Unlike so many of the neighbourhoods along the Ontario Line, Flemingdon has not been in the news. The area is a landing strip for immigrants—a collection of apartment towers and subsidized housing complexes that has long been a first stop for new Canadians.

Like neighbouring Thorncliffe Park, Flemingdon is a community in need of better transit. The 25 Don Mills route is one of the busiest buses in the city, transporting nearly 29,000 people on an average weekday. By the end of the decade, if all goes according to plan, there will be an Ontario Line stop on the northwest corner, where a parking lot currently sits, that will take passengers downtown in just 25 minutes.

At the bus stop that morning, Marwa Mazlomwar, a 16-year-old from Afghanistan, laughed and chatted with her friend Ellaha Orikhia as they waited to go take their G1 tests. A mother with a buggy full of groceries continued her trip home, while a 70-year-old grandfather set off to his job at a furniture store. Masuma Shuchi, a 22-year-old Seneca student in a delicately embroidered face mask, waited at the stop with her friend Alvi Khan. They were on their way to the burger shop where they both work, two buses and an hour away. The bus is one of the worst things about living in Flemingdon, Khan explained. After evening shifts in the winter, when delays are more frequent, he sometimes waits as long as an hour, shivering in the glass-walled bus shelter while six lanes of traffic rush past him.

Shuchi and Khan hadn’t heard of the Ontario Line until I mentioned it. And with years to go, it seemed more like a distant mirage than a practical consideration. In a decade, who knew where they’d be? Who knew what their community would look like then, how a new transit line might transform their neighbourhood? “It’s gonna be good for us,” Shuchi said decisively. Above ground, below ground, she didn’t care. “As long as it’s easy and saves time, I’m okay.”

The bus pulled up, crowded despite Covid restrictions. Across the valley, barely visible over the buildings and trees, rose the spire of the CN Tower—the only discernible sign of a prosperous downtown that, for the moment, still seemed impossibly far away. “If not for us, then for the next generation,” Shuchi said, as she leapt onto the vehicle and the bus rumbled away.


This story appears in the February 2022 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $24.99 a year, click here.





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