Veteran Toronto councillor Pam McConnell remembered as a source of 'quiet strength'

The career politician — who served the city for seven terms — had recently been admitted to hospital and Mayor John Tory had described McConnell as being "gravely ill" on Thursday.

McConnell, 71, served 7 terms on council, championing poverty reduction policies

A table was set up with a book of condolences in memory of Coun. Pam McConnell at city hall Friday. (Michelle Cheung/CBC)

Veteran Toronto councillor Pam McConnell is being remembered for her calm and resolute demeanour — someone who would always try to find "the island" amongst her colleagues, fellow councillors said after news of her death struck city hall.

The career politician — who served as a city councillor for seven terms — died Friday after being recently admitted to hospital. Mayor John Tory had described McConnell as being "gravely ill" on Thursday. She was 71.

Finding "the island" was the metaphor the veteran politician often used for arriving at common ground. 

"I can't tell you how many times we swam to an island with Pam," said Coun. Paula Fletcher on Friday, referring to McConnell's "quiet strength."

Other councilors laughed with a fond and knowing familiarity as Fletcher recalled the signature phrase — a moment of levity in what was a painful day for many.

"The way I always sort of picture her is, if you're in a dangerous place, walking across a rickety bridge ... it wouldn't matter if a tank was coming at you from the other side, Pam wouldn't have let go," said Coun. John Filion, who'd known McConnell since 1985.

Outside city hall, a petition has been circulating to rename a green space in Regent Park "McConnell Park" in honour of her "deep commitment to building and fostering strong and vibrant communities."

At the council chambers Friday, the mayor remembered McConnell "as a woman who proudly and enthusiastically and energetically served her city and the people of Toronto for more than 35 years."

"Pam was a friend to all of us, but a friend to many, many others, and of course was a wife, mother and a grandmother," he said.

"Her contributions to her neighbourhood, her community — the whole city of Toronto — are unprecedented," McConnell's fellow councillor Jaye Robinson told CBC Toronto.

Meanwhile, the city's chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat called McConnell a "principled, tenacious city builder."

Longtime Toronto councillor Pam McConnell was recently admitted to hospital and Mayor John Tory had described her as being "gravely ill" on Thursday. (John Rieti/CBC)

"Champion of neighbourhoods, the vulnerable," she wrote on Twitter. "We are all so saddened today."

Flags at city hall, Metro Hall and the Toronto civic centres will be lowered to half-mast in McConnell's honour, according to the city, and will remain lowered until after her funeral. A date and time for the service hasn't been announced yet.

McConnell served 7 terms

Born in England, the Toronto Centre-Rosedale councillor was a child under 10 when her family emigrated to Canada in 1954.

She became politically active long before being elected to a formal position, first in 1982 as a school trustee. After serving 12 years in that role, McConnell became a city councillor in 1994.

During her tenure as a trustee, she became a friend of Coun. Joe Cressy's family, a mentoring relationship that he says continued when he followed his mother into city politics.

McConnell, seen here with Premier Kathleen Wynne, was known for her work on social justice issues, including improving the state of affordable housing in the city. (Canadian Press)

"Pam has been a close friend to my family going back to the early '80s," he said after learning of her illness. "So she's a friend, she's a mentor and she's the matriarch of city hall."

Serving as deputy mayor before her death, McConnell spent the bulk of her career championing social justice issues, in particular affordable housing and access to education. She spearheaded Prosperity TO, a 20-year poverty reduction plan now in its first year, and held a position on the affordable housing committee on which she pushed for more investment in the city-held properties.

Coun. Joe Cressy called Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell the 'matriarch of city hall.' McConnell was a friend of Cressy's family and a mentor to the rookie city councillor. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

As part of that anti-poverty strategy, the city earmarked $185 million in this year's budget for Toronto Community Housing, expanded child-care subsidies, and created more spots in the student nutrition program.

The city also planned to open a new priority shelter, putting another 200 shelter beds into the system.

Coun. Jim Karygiannis called McConnell a well-respected colleague for her work, dating back to the time when she was the trustee for the ward in which his children attended school.

Outpouring of condolences

​Online and at city council, condolences have started appearing for McConnell from her colleagues and other Toronto residents.

On Friday night, the city's Toronto sign was also being dimmed to remember the councillor.