I had first heard of the Toronto Islands
back in 2003, and once I moved here last year I planned to go sometime in the summer. I didn't, though, and I likely wouldn't have visited the islands at all had I not read a quote from one Dave Ullrich, a Toronto musician, published in the National Post
on the 8th of October last year.
One of my favourite places is Toronto Island. The community over there is an untouched gem. It's like going to Prince Edward Island before they built the bridge, where we used to play as kids. The view is so unique when you look back at the city from the island. For people who have never done it, it always blows their mind. Toronto Island is like a little PEI.
I am a Prince Edward Islander. I worked for three years as a visitor information counsellor. I'm intimately familiar with the images projected to tourists and the contradictory realities. My curiousity was piqued, especially when I looked at a map of the Toronto Islands and noticed the same north-pointing crescent shape and the same ferry routes connecting the two ends of the Island to the mainland and the same concentration of amusement parks in the north-centre of the archipelago. The Islands do differ from Prince Edward Island in that they were formed quite recently
, but this is a minor enough diference.
The Toronto Islands were not always islands but actually a series of continuously moving sand-bars, or littoral drift deposits, originating from the Scarborough Bluffs and carried westward by Lake Ontario currents. By the early 1800s, the longest of these bars extended nearly 9 kilometres south-west from Woodbine Avenue, through Ashbridge's Bay and the marshes of the lower Don River, forming a natural harbour between the lake and the mainland.
[. . .]
During [the 1850s], a number of severe storms and their strong wave action worked to erode the peninsula, requiring frequent repair to small gaps until finally, in 1858, an island was created when a storm completely separated the peninsula from the mainland and the gap was not repaired. The Eastern Gap has since become an important shipping route into the Toronto Harbour.
I had to go. I first visited the Toronto Islands on Canadian Thanksgiving
, the 11th of October. The sky was a bit overcast and the wind was beginning to blow chill off of Lake Ontario when I boarded the ferry. There were quite a lot of tourists on board, including many international ones. I recall one couple in particular, carrying a bilingual English-Slovenski
dictionary--I thought that Slovenski
was probably Slovene, but I couldn't exclude the possibility that it might refer to the closely-related ethnonym Slovak.
The ferry made it to the Ward's Island
terminus in fifteen minutes, and I disembarked. I went east and walked through the Islands' main residential area, a cluster of small neat cottage-type homes, with paint weathered and dense gardens. I passed these by quickly along a path going first into a wooded area, then following the concrete block-lined shipping channel.
After a bit of an interminable walk opposite the Port of Toronto, I finally got onto the beach on the south shore, stretching attractively west in a tree- and boulder-lined crescent. I spotted two attractive fashion models and a male photographer I'd seen on the ferry there, he taking their picture running down the beach and hugging the foilage, speaking some European language unknown to me. I jagged north off the beachfront path to visit the Rectory Café
long enough to see that their prices were far out of my range, and then headed back towards the cold and stony Manitou Beach, walking by the pier and through the vacant volleyball nets, turning inland because it was becoming chilly to walk past Gibraltar Point
Two hours after I had begun my circumnavigation of the Island, I had reached the famous nude beach at Hanlon's Point on the western shoreline; unsurprisingly given the weather, the few people I saw on it were clothed. I walked through the hardwoods anchoring the sand dunes behind the beach but stopped short of Ned Hanlon
's statue and began circling back, along Block House Bay with yachts, past the public school
. I decided not to go to Centre Island
and its amusement park
, but I did explore the adjacent maze
. It was becoming late, so I walked briskly past the small islands just off the northeastern shore of the main body of the islands with their yacht clubs and residential areas, past the Shaw House
seniors residence founded by the community to support a population older than the Canadian average.
I ended up back to the Ward's Island ferry terminal where I started just in time to make it to talktooloose
's place for Thanksgiving. Later that night, when I mentioned my hike, I ended up chatting with him about the Islands and the recent controversy over the Toronto City Centre Airport
. Under mayor Mel Lastman, the City of Toronto had signed a contract with a development company to build a fixed link between that airport, located on the Islands north of Hanlon's Point, and the mainland, to let it function as a secondary airport for the GTA. The permanent residents of the Islands strongly opposed this on the grounds that it would expose the Islands to much greater traffic, and that it would threaten their insularity. They won when David Miller was elected and cancelled the contract; the lawsuit, I believe, is still pending.
I wasn't convinced of that argument. The Islands have a population of several hundred people. I'm quite sure that I saw more than several hundred people last October. Yesterday, when I joined an enjoyable hour-long harbour tour
at 6 o'clock last night with Jonathan
and the rest there were several dozen on our boat alone. The tour was enjoyable: The boat was in good shape, the weather beautiful (temeprature in the mid-20s, sky a perfect blue unmarked by both water-vapour clouds and smog, only a light cooling wind), and the jocular narrator not only nice to look at but actually funny and smart in a tourist-friendly way. One thing that he did make explicitly clear in the course of his schpiel was that the Toronto Islands are a precisely-managed community, with membership in the Toronto Islands' communities--its business community, its residential community, the Royal Canadian Yacht Club--strictly regulated by the City of Toronto. The Toronto Islands might look nice; the Toronto Islands might in fact be Toronto's Central Park. That's because it's run like Central Park.
The Toronto Islands claim to be insular not only by virtue of their geography but because of their social situation, and so far as I can tell their claim is founded in reality. What the Toronto Islands demonstrate is that insularity is as much a social creation as a geographical reality. Small island communities--and large ones, too--have to engage with the outside world despite their isolation. They just aren't sufficient in themselves. I'd go so far as to argue that, on a per capita basis, island communities--especially successful island communities--are some of the most globalized communities around. Imagine if you will that after the burning of York, the political capital and future economic nucleus of Ontario became another city--Hamilton, say, or Oshawa. With Ontario's metropolis of international renown located dozens of kilometres away, would the Toronto Islands ever have become as idyllic as they are now? Would anyone live on the Islands? Would the Islands even exist without their careful management?
Insularity isn't a condition so much as it's a tightrope: too much engagement or too little, and it disappears.