As It Happens

'It's like a cathedral': Toronto votes to save what could be city's oldest tree

Toronto City Council has approved a plan to buy a North York house in order to save the 300-year-old red oak.

'If this tree could talk, the stories it could tell about our country,' Edith George says

The Toronto city council voted to buy the North York home where the massive red oak resides. (Submitted by Edith George)

The self-described guardian​ of a massive, 300-year-old red oak tree in Toronto is celebrating after city council voted in favour of buying the property that is home to the heritage tree.

"For me what happened at city hall, personally, all the stars aligned after 12 years," Edith George, who has been fighting to protect the tree, told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Toronto city council voted Monday to move forward with negotiations to buy the North York home where the tree  —  believed to be the oldest in Toronto — resides.

The tree is protected by the city, which requires homeowners to get approval before chopping it down.

Back in 2015, city council voted to explore how to buy the tree and build a parkette around it but nothing came to fruition.

In April, George, who lives in the neighborhood and is an adviser to the Canadian Urban Forest Council, learned that the owners who bought the property in 2015 planned to put it back up for sale and could try to have the tree removed in the process.

The roughly 300-year-old tree, which stands near Sheppard Avenue West and Weston Road, as seen through the seasons. (Submitted by Edith George)

At the time, realtor Waleed Khaled Elsayed told The Toronto Star that the tree's root system were threatening the structural integrity of the home.

The previous owners, George said, were meticulous in their care for the tree and watered it faithfully. This, she believed, is why they never had any issues with the roots threatening the foundation of the home.

"As long as you're watering that tree, it's happy. It's a plant. The roots aren't going to try to find any water," George said, adding that she doesn't believe the current owners took the same care.

'Intertwined in the history of Canada'

George worried what another new owner would mean for the tree that she said has "its roots and branches intertwined in the history of Canada."

George said the oak, which long predates the Confederation of Canada in 1867, was a marker tree on the historic Toronto Carrying-Place Trail. The trail was a vital portage route that linked Lake Ontario with Lake Simcoe and the northern Great Lakes.

"If this tree could talk, the stories it could tell about our country," she said.

Edith George considers the massive red oak an integral part of Canada's history. (CBC Toronto)

But it is the size and beauty of the tree that George said takes her breath away. The tree is 24 metres tall with a circumference of about five metres.

"The first time I saw its trunk ... my legs started shaking and it almost brought me to my knees," George said.

"I don't consider it a tree. When you look up into its branches, it's sacred. It's like a cathedral."

City will pay half 

Once a price is negotiated between the city and the homeowners, a fundraising campaign will be started to raise half the amount needed.

Celebrity gardener Mark Cullen also pledged to donate $100,000 to help the city purchase the property.

George hopes that the house can be turned into a museum for people to learn the history of the tree, and that it will be around for future generations to enjoy.

"When you look at it, it always brings me to tears because it's nature. It's part of our natural landscape," she said.

"It brings us hope for a planet that's dying."

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from CBC Toronto. Produced by Samantha Lui. 

  • Correction: A previous version of this article said Edith George is an adviser to the Canadian Urban Forest Council. In fact, it is the Ontario Urban Forest Council.   


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