'We are 700 people, 200 of us are children. We are in a desperate situation. We are being thrown out of our homes with no compensation. We're simply asking you to wait 24 hours."
Twenty-five years ago this week, Elizabeth Amer stood in front of a crowd of hundreds of angry islanders and made that plea to the York County Sheriff, who had come to evict us from our homes. It was the turning point in a long battle for the Toronto Islands community. My parents bought our Ward's Island home in the early 1960s and, like all islanders, we leased the land.
We also, for as long as I could recall, lived with the possibility that one year those leases might not be renewed.
I still remember crying myself to sleep the night Metro Council voted against the renewal in December, 1973, claiming they were voting to preserve parkland for the entire city at the expense of a relatively small community, as if those two couldn't co-exist.
I don't know how many times I paraded in front of City Hall, or went out to the suburbs to collect signatures for a petition, to try to stop municipal officials from acting on the results of that vote. Years passed, and the organizers kept making political and legal appeals, but by the summer of 1980, it seemed we'd run out of options.
I was one of the hundreds at the Algonquin bridge (which joins the two residential islands, Ward's and Algonquin) that afternoon, arms linked with my neighbours to form a barricade. I didn't hear a word of the exchange between the sheriff and Liz Amer, who was representing us as co-chair of the Toronto Islands Residents Association.
Most of us didn't hear them, because there was a mob of reporters around the key players, Liz, her co-chair Ron Mazza, the sheriff and his deputy. It wasn't until the sheriff got back in his car and drove away and the crowd went wild that I felt we were going to be okay.
The political tide turned that day, and it led, eventually, to the 99-year leases that are in place now.
The sheriff is dead, my old house no longer stands, even the bridge itself has been replaced by a sturdier structure. But like anyone who was there on The Day of The Bridge (as it's known throughout the islands), I'll always be able to summon up that day the way my father's generation could mark John F. Kennedy's assassination. Yet there's a crucial difference: If JFK's assassination was the end of a kind of innocence, the day of the bridge was the beginning of a kind of hope.
The fight for the islands took place at a time of political change in the city -- grassroots efforts had been emerging to preserve heritage buildings, stop the Spadina Expressway from tearing up the city's downtown neighbourhoods, and residents were discovering how broad the definition of city life could be. Under the old way of thinking, the Toronto Islands could only be either a park or a residential community. We were convinced it could be both.
As Liz Amer says, the day is "moving into the realm of myth." Everyone remembers it differently. I didn't remember that an ambulance ominously followed the sheriff's car to the bridge. Someone else tells me he doesn't remember that the sun came out that rainy day after the sheriff left.
For the first time ever, island residents are preparing to fill some gaps in the communal memory and commemorate that legendary day in a special event planned for Friday. This week I sat down with Liz, to rehash the day. Most of what I remembered she said I had right. The sheriff had writs of possession (eviction notices) and had been instructed to deliver them "forthwith." The islanders had an appeal before the Ontario courts that the writs were invalid. We were waiting to hear about the appeal, which is why the extra 24 hours we were pleading for were crucial.
We'd been physically preparing to defend our houses in the months and years leading up to the standoff. Liz says part of the problem was that "we were essentially a middle-class community and people were not prepared to commit civil disobedience. Nothing in their experience would prepare them for that." So the island organizers brought in middle-class, middle-aged women from Pickering who had fought the People or Planes campaign (a successful effort to stop the building of an airport in Pickering that had been announced in 1972) to talk to us. They also brought in Greenpeace activists to teach us how to go limp when confronted by the sheriff. And they hired actors to play police and the sheriff. We staged pre-enactments, as Liz calls them. The actors would knock on a door and we'd run and surround the house and refuse to let the officials near.
And that's not all. We had a telephone tree to alert people who'd gone to work that it was time to come home, and an "island navy," a fleet of motorboats, canoes and sailboats, to pick them up. We had a home guard, identifiable by their yellow plastic helmets, and patrollers with walkie-talkies positioned at key locations around the islands, all of whom were ready to report back to Command Central -- a house with a CB radio -- if anyone spotted the sheriff on his way.
So on Monday, July 28, 1980, the islanders were organized. That rainy morning, after everyone had gone to work, Metro Parks sent over a garbage truck. But as Liz recalls, "it wasn't garbage day, so we later figured they were there to reconnoitre" -- probably to see if the place was deserted. Not long after that, I got a call from someone who knew someone in the Attorney-General's office, saying the sheriff was coming. I called Liz who told the other organizers and they set things in motion.
The Second World War air raid siren on the community clubhouse was sounded. Soon there were more than 100 people at the bridge. Then, Liz says, "the garbage truck came through again and we think they must have sent word back that the place was crawling with people." She and Ron Mazza got a call from the Attorney-General's office saying that representatives of the sheriff would like to meet with leaders of the residents association about the delivery of the notices. She suggested they meet at 3 p.m. at the Algonquin bridge.
I was standing alone on the eastern gap, where I was patrolling, when the air raid siren went. All I could think about was that I might never see all those people I'd known all my life again.
After all those years of struggle, the final showdown was a brief conversation. We hadn't won the war, but that was the last battle we waged on the islands. Our victory ended up being determined through legal hearings and the involvement of provincial officials.
But there was enough drama for Brad Harley, a member of the Home Guard who remembers standing at the bridge that day. He wanted to bring it back to life for everyone one more time.
He and his partner, Anne Barber, are the artistic directors of Shadowland Theatre, a group of self-described urban mummers that grew directly out of the political fight (many of the artists and performers met while making banners and signs in those days). They are now creating a commemorative pageant to mark the event.
He says there are lots of people who became islanders after 1980 who don't remember that day. He wants his kids to have "a bit of the memory, to know about the cleverness of the community, how we outmanoeuvred [the politicians]"
The events scheduled for Friday night take on both the historical facts and the mythical elements of the story. It begins at the Ward's Island Association clubhouse, where islanders are now trying to remount the old air raid siren. Inside, The Day of the Bridge, a short documentary film, will recount the story. Then everyone will move outside for Shadowland's re-enactment.
Some will be on stilts, some will play the island Home Guard or threatening bureaucrats and some will be part of the vignettes along the road as the lantern parade makes its way to the bridge for a kind of high-noon standoff between papier-mâché bobble heads of the sheriff and Liz and Ron.
Brad is just one of many islanders whose political or artistic lives changed as a result of the island battle. Liz wrote two books, primers on community organizing, and served two terms as a city councillor. Even David Miller says that as a young articling lawyer, he became politically engaged municipally while working on the arbitration that was the result of the standoff.
Now when I go back to the island there are fewer faces I know and houses that are unrecognizable. Liz says: "Every day I wake up hearing drilling, sawing, grinding, swearing and seeing trucks drive across my petunias. I couldn't be happier. Now people can think long-term, The effect is we have a richer community life. There's nothing we're afraid to tackle."