Should the Federal Government be allowed to do whatever it wants?

If you built a deck without a building permit the city inspectors would stomp all over your back with hob nailed boots.  But the Federal government can build anything it wants, however it wants without one.   It’s a legal principle called ‘paramountcy’.  It’s based on the idea that one order of government can’t tell the one above it what to do and it makes some kind of sense.   You wouldn’t want the province of Prince Edward Island declaring war on North Korea, or the city of Vaughan deciding what OHIP should pay a doctor.

You can imagine my surprise then, when I notice a 33,000 sq. ft., $45M building being constructed in my ward and it had no building permit or any city approvals.  In 1996 the Department of National Defence decided to consolidate their ten buildings in Toronto into a single structure which they built on Downsview base land on the north side of Sheppard Ave., just west of the Allen Road.  As far as new buildings were concerned the Federal Government had until now,  always respected the municipal planning and building process and had applied for building permits even though they didn’t have to.   The city was the expert here.  Toronto’s official plan laid out standards that protected public interest.  The re-zoning process allowed for public input and the city design standards were some of the highest in Canada.  This was the first time the military had evoked paramountcy in Toronto.   It resulted in a very ugly building.

Art Eggleton was the minister of defence.  As a former mayor of Toronto he should have known better.  Art and I shared the riding and had always worked co-operatively.  My annoyance prompted me to give the building an award. It was a prize that I invented for the occasion; the “Toronto’s Ugliest New Building Award”.   I invited Art to receive the honour in a ceremony at the County Style Doughnut shop at Wilson Heights and Sheppard.  Alas, Art did not show up so the girl behind the counter accepted it on his behalf as we mugged for the Camera.  Fortunately, I was able to present the award formally the next night at the annual “Toronto’s Best Building Award Gala” at the design exchange on Bay Street.   Art wasn’t there either.

I next took the issue to council and convinced them to establish a committee that would review any matter, no matter how trivial or routine, related to the Downsview Lands. Council appointed me to chair the committee.

A few months later I received a call from someone who identified himself as a Colonel.

“We need to have a municipal address. I thought that this was a routine matter”, he said. “Now I am told that I have to appear before the Downsview Lands Operational Protocol Committee. The delay in receiving a municipal number is causing a major headache for the armed forces.  The building is the centre for all land forces in Ontario and unless we have a municipal address Canada Post will not deliver our mail.”

“We don’t seem to have a record of your building in our files.” I said.

”Can you put us on the agenda?”               

 “I’d be happy to do that,” I replied

“When will the Committee be meeting?”


            “I’m not sure.  It hasn’t had its first meeting yet.  Perhaps it will meet in three or maybe      six months. It would be helpful in the interim if you paid us the half million in building                 permit fees that you owe.”              “As to postal delivery,” I said.  “Tell them to send the mail   to Art Eggleton’s constituency office. His staff will be happy to bring it over.”

It took them a year but they finally solved their problem by having Canada Post give them their own postal code. 

Since that time they have further ‘uglified’ the building.  Instead of flowers they’ve landscaped it with tanks and other military equipment. These, of course, are appropriate decorations for a military structure.   You wouldn’t expect the military to display flowers.  Only peaceniks do that.
The military hardware is adorned by beautiful brass plaques that trumpet their historical significance.  But there is just one problem.   During the 3 day G-20 and G-7summit in Toronto when the Harper government blew $1.1 billion on security somebody threw barbed wire fences around the armories.  This was obviously to protect the military from attacks by the protesters that never came north of Bloor Street.  Now, because of the barbed wire fences, nobody is able to get close enough to read the plaques.  Barbed wire, by the way, is illegal in Toronto but then again the Federal government doesn’t have to abide by our bylaws.  They have paramountcy.

Veterans graves flooded at the Mount Sinai Memorial Park

I’m familiar with Mount Sinai Memorial Park.  Most members of my family are buried there and it will be my final resting place.  It is located on Wilson Avenue west of Keele Street south of Downsview Park.

In the rear section of the cemetery  is the burial ground of Canadian Jewish War Veterans, the graves of some 300 service men and women who fought and died for their country in both the first and second world wars. The war vets are buried at the north side of the cemetery abutting the Downsview lands.

Downsview Park resulted from an election promise of the Liberal government during the Federal election of 1999 -Liberals like to promise parks. It was the land from the decommissioned CFB Downsview.  Of the some 295 acres of land released, only about 65 acres are actually park.  The balance will be sold off for redevelopment under the supervision of Canada Lands, a federal agency.

The first area to be re-developed was Stanley Greene, an area of what used to be base housing for enlisted men and their families.  It was just next to the Veterans’ graves.  Stanley Greene was to be replaced with a massive town house development

Phil Grenfell, the manager of the Mount Sinai Cemetery told me. “The trouble began when they tore out the base housing and the sewage system was ripped out.”

Water began to seep southward, filling the graves.  The level of the land for construction had been raised about 4 feet and that added to the drainage problem. “I’ve been here for twenty six years.  Our cemetery has a sweeping tile system. We’ve never had a drainage problem before,” he said.

Al Rubin, president of the Jewish Canadian Veterans’ Memorial Park Association told me that they discovered the problem when they dug a grave and the water rose to above the level of a coffin.  The cemetery now has to pump out a grave before the funeral arrives and return the soil to the grave quickly before the water is visible.  Several open graves have collapsed. The Association has had a number of meetings with Canada Lands and there are two City of Toronto Inspectors directly involved who are not going to approve the subdivision until the drainage is fixed. In the end Canada Lands as a Federal Agency can ignore the city inspectors if they so choose. In Canada, a government has no jurisdiction over an order of government above it.

“I can assure you that we are not taking this lightly,” said Al Ruben

My Uncle Joe Moscoe is buried in Mt Sinai Memorial Park.  He was captured in the Dieppe Raid and spent four years in a German prisoner of war camp, Stalag VIIIB.   Joe was president of the General Wingate Branch of the Canadian Legion.  Every year in late August just before Yom Kippur, the legion would lead a grand parade of veterans to a memorial service at the Jewish Veterans’ War Memorial.   Each year the parade would get just a little smaller as the veterans aged and died off.  On August 10th, 2008, a week before the parade and memorial service, the Sunrise propane explosion occurred on Murray Road just to the west of the cemetery.   The parade was cancelled.  It never happened again.  It’s as if the vets moved off the parade route into their graves.

Maria Augimeri, the local councillor, is dismayed about the Canada Lands handling of the situation. “They’ve shown a real contempt,” she said. “The veterans deserve better than a watery grave.  Where’s the respect?”

Excess Packaging: what a waste!

The City of Toronto has to deal with mountains of garbage that is generated each day.  On a whole they handle this task primarily through our recycling system but recycling is very costly.  The real answer, of course, is not to generate the waste in the first place.

I bought a cordless telephone set and when I opened the package I discovered that the set itself occupied about half of the box.  The rest of the package was bolstered by folded cardboard.  The big glossy package was a marketing tool designed to give the illusion that you were getting something more for your money.

The Province of Ontario tried to deal with the disposal of electronic waste, and they failed miserably. Electronic waste is piling up more rapidly as technology evolves. The question is, who should pay to dispose of obsolete electronics?   The obvious answer is the manufacturers who generate the waste in the first place. But that’s not the reality.

The government let manufacturers seize control of the process by setting up Waste Diversion Ontario -an industry funded and controlled body.  The result was that in July of 2010 we were hit with the ECO fee (disposal fee) that was to be used to cover the cost of recycling obsolete electronics. The ECO fee was a hidden charge that ranged from seven cents for a cell phone to $40 for a large TV. It didn’t appear on the price tag but you got walloped with it at the cash register after you paid the HST.   The manufactures had successfully transferred the costs from themselves to you, the consumer.

Public anger was so intense that the Ontario government pulled back the ECO fee.   They immediately solved their problem by downloading the costs of disposing of electronic waste onto the backs of municipalities. You still pay the fee but now it’s hidden. Now you pay through your property taxes.

Setting packaging standards is the responsibility of the federal government.  Given the influence that manufacturers wield, efforts to regulate packaging at the federal level are doomed to fail.

Toronto is the largest consumer market in the country.  I proposed that the city enact a bylaw that required every retail outlet over 3,000 square feet to establish a well signed, well equipped packaging removal area where customers can remove and leave the packaging. If most customers were encouraged to remove and leave the excess packaging at the store, the retailers would turn to the manufacturers and say: Unless you reduce your packaging we are not going to carry your product.

Would it work?  When the city had a 5 cent charge on plastic shopping bags their use was reduced by a whopping 88%.

You can do your bit too.   Don’t take your groceries home in the store’s cardboard boxes and when you make a purchase remove the packaging and leave it at the store.  They might begin to understand that society doesn’t have to generate a mountain of waste.