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Civic Muscle 1

Matt Galloway spoke with the CBC's Mary Wiens. She is producing our series, "Civic Muscle: Building Toronto".
Listen audio (runs 9:33) Listen to all the audio from the series.


We start with the story of Victoria Memorial Square, a small historic park in downtown Toronto.  The park is the site of Toronto's oldest European cemetery, where the bodies of the soldiers stationed at Fort York from 1794 through to the early 1800s were buried.

Scott James, former City Archivist and former managing director of the Toronto Historical Board, says that when those soldiers weren't guarding the fort against invading Americans - a rare event, in any case --  they were armed with spades and pickaxes,  and set to work building Toronto's first roads and sidewalks. 

Today, the original cemetery is marked by a granite monument, where the few remaining tombstones of those early soldiers have been remounted.  Of the original 600 or so tombstones, only 17 of which remain, many were of children and infants.  You can faintly make out one such inscription commemorating the brief life of a 9-month old baby, born to one of the soldiers posted at Fort York.

For James, who lives in the condo building overlooking the square, the story of this public park and the historic burial ground is a story of civic engagement.

"As the first people to move in," says James, "we knew the potential for the park." 

As an archivist, one of his first projects for the City of Toronto was organizing the original records of the Military Burial Grounds Commission.

But it was as a resident living next door to the military cemetery that James became intimately acquainted with the site.  Together with his neighbours around the square, he began a campaign to rescue the delapidated park and its eroding tombstones from more than a century of neglect. 

The City's Parks department had no money to help, so James, together with his neighbours, raised money to hire a landscaper to brainstorm the future of this park.
These were no ordinary residents. Scott's neighbours included architect Ken Greenburg, a former director of the City of Toronto's planning department.   But even with all that high-end talent, Scott was dismayed to find how difficult it was to get the city's parks and recreation department onside.

"I worked for City Hall for 30 years," says James, "and I don't remember it being as difficult to get decisions made, and difficult to get contracts let, and difficult to get contracts adhered to and completed as I've seen in this case."

The residents -- educated, powerful and well-off -- were fortunate to be represented by two consecutive councillors who were eager to help.  They were also savvy enough to work closely with developers in the area, who put up much of the money for park improvements.  And yet, in spite of an abundance of goodwill on the part of so many, James says the municipal government bureaucracy -- from Parks to Public Works to Planning -- was "elaborate, labyrinthine, clumsy and often not transparent."

Dozens of departments all with different, often unco-ordinated agendas, made it hard even for former insiders like James and his well-connected neighbours, to navigate City Hall.
Two centuries ago, the soldiers buried in Victoria Memorial Square helped build Toronto. Perhaps it's no accident that more than 200 years later, the people living next door to their burial ground are prepared to fight for the right to continue building it.

"We're supposed to be partners in this enterprise," says James.   "We're not customers that can be marketed or ignored as the councillors or civil service sees fit.  We're not clients or customers of the government.  We are citizens.  We are the government."