Filming at Leslie Street Spit angers local advocates who worry future shoots could harm wildlife

A recent film shoot on the Leslie Street Spit is opening up a conversation about whether film shoots should be allowed in the area at all.

TRCA says all productions are vetted for ecological soundness before being green-lit

Members of a citizens group were horrified to see a large set spring up on the Leslie Street Spit in late February. They argue it's not the right place for large productions. (Submitted by G.V Riley )

A recent film shoot on the Leslie Street Spit is opening up a conversation about whether film shoots should be allowed in the area. 

The shoot, for an Apple TV series called See that stars Jason Momoa, has now wrapped — but members of the citizen advocacy group Friends of the Spit remain concerned about the long-term impacts on habitat for wildlife. 

"It's time for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) and the city to stand up and to recognize that they've got an amazing resource," said co-chair John Carley.

"If you have that asset, you protect it."

Carley says built sets, cars and trucks all run the risk of disturbing the birds, insects and snakes that call the environmentally sensitive area home. 

'There was a lot of heavy equipment involved,' said a Friends of the Spit group member. The vehicle pictured was used to facilitate set-dressing. (G.V. Riley)

"I don't know what the long-term effect is going to be, but I think it will take a while for that area to recover," said member Ed O'Connor. 

Area Coun. Paula Fletcher, who sits on the TRCA's board and also chairs the Toronto Film, Television and Digital Media Board, says she convened a meeting last month between the TRCA and PortsToronto to discuss whether and when film shoots should be allowed. 

"I hope this will be the last major filming," said Fletcher, who says she'll bring stakeholders together again next week. 

"Given the nature of the Leslie Street Spit, there needs to be a conversation."

PortsToronto, which leases more than 140 hectares of the spit from the Ministry of Natural Resources, says it's also rethinking allowing shoots, telling CBC in a statement that it "has agreed to encourage future film production at other locations in the area to try to re-direct interest away from the spit."

Shoots that cause harm 'a non-starter': TRCA 

The Spit, which includes Tommy Thompson Park, is owned and managed by several entities, including the TRCA, PortsToronto, and the City of Toronto. 

The recent shoot, which involved the erection of colourful, post-apocalyptic tents, was done on land leased by PortsToronto, and co-managed by the TRCA. 

Both entities say that filming of one sort or another has taken place on the spit for more than two decades, and that permission to film is granted only after careful study of the ecological impact.

The shoot area 'for the past 30 years has served as a favourite winter roosting place for snowy owls,' said Ed O'Connor in an interview with CBC Toronto. (Submitted by Ed O'Connor)

"I think that the crux of the matter is that we don't entertain any proposals that would negatively impact the park's ecology or users," said Karen McDonald, senior manager of ecosystem management with the TRCA.

"That's just a non-starter." 

As for the specific land in question, McDonald describes it as a rubble shoreline with limited vegetation, and will suffer no long-term impacts.  

Part of the agreement with the film company also includes "a commitment to restore the land to how it was or better,"  something she says she'll begin working on during a site visit next week. 

Money goes back to park, say authorities

The TRCA and PortsToronto also say that the revenue they earn from shoots is poured back into the area to help maintain it. 

"We've been filming there for 25 years; it has brought important revenue to the park that we direct directly back into it," said McDonald.

She says the nearly $39,000 in gross revenue the TRCA earned from the production will help continue the operation of the Tommy Thompson bird research station, among other things. 

McDonald says over the last half decade, they've averaged five shoots a year, earning an average of $136,000 annually. 

PortsToronto also says its earnings will go straight into the land it manages, helping to rehabilitate a floating pedestrian bridge. 

Carley says he understands the importance of the city's film industry, but believes they can find other places to film. (Submitted by John Carley)

But for members of Friends of the Spit, there's an issue with the core concept of a protected natural area being used for commercial purposes. 

"The spit is an urban wilderness, and as such should not be monetized or used for these productions," said Carley. 

Carley would like to see the city itself invest in maintaining the spit, saying the scale of film productions has been cranking up over the last year.

"The damage to the habitat is happening. It's also setting precedents that we are very unhappy about," he said.


With files from Jessica Ng