Margaret Zeidler is the creator of 401 Richmond, an arts hub in downtown Toronto, and a member of the Order of Ontario. She is the daughter of the architect Eberhard Zeidler, who designed Ontario Place.
Imagine there was an urban park on the waterfront in Montreal called Quebec Place. Do you think for one second there would be a single thing at Quebec Place that wasn’t created, sourced, grown or invented in Quebec? Not on your life.
Yet Ontario Place, which opened 51 years ago this summer as a shining beacon for Ontario and its people, has not only fallen into sad disrepair, the new one in its place has nothing to do with Ontario. It could be Any Place, and in many ways, its rebirth is worse than its death.
Pride in our province was a big deal back when Ontario Place was built. Ontari-ari-ario had just created a brilliant pavilion (and film and song) at Expo ‘67. This prompted the province’s premier, John Robarts, to keep that spirit alive by funding and building a glimmering theme park on the Toronto waterfront where no land had existed before.
Commenting before its opening in May, 1971, Mr. Robarts said: “We felt there was a need in Ontario for something akin to a spiritual home, a touchstone of stability, a place where people could come, see and reflect upon the society that has been created in Ontario … a place to reaffirm our identity as Ontarians and Canadians.”
The two million cubic yards of landfill that make up its four islands were hauled from booming construction sites around Toronto. The raw materials used in the triodetic dome of Cinesphere and the five pavilion pods came from Eastern Ontario. The steel was forged in Hamilton. The trees came from Ontario government-owned forests. And the wonderful IMAX films (the world-renowned technology invented by Ontarians) were shot across the province by Ontario filmmakers.
Our pride in the place that 40 per cent of Canadians call home, our eagerness to thump our chests and show off, was almost embarrassing.
But it’s been replaced with something much more toxic, almost a sense of shame.
The new Ontario Place, which will begin construction next year, is made up of three big parts.
There’s a family adventure park that has net-based aerial adventures, ziplines and escape rooms. You can rent out kayaks, too. This is being designed, built and operated by a company from Quebec. Apparently, no one in Ontario knows how to do this.
Next is a giant spa with tropical interiors complete with palm trees, swimming pools, saunas and steam baths. You can spend the day there for $300 for a family of four. It will be built and owned by an Austrian company. Again, no one in Ontario knows how to build spas? And the bigger question, of course: Is a giant tropical spa the best way for Ontarians to celebrate our province? Is it the best use of such priceless public land? Is it even a good idea, given climate change, to rip out a native forest and replace it with hectares of glass-covered space that will require heating and cooling year-round?
Finally, there’s the concert venue. No surprise that the American company that forced the demolition of the original Forum in 1994 to make way for the Molson Amphitheatre will now tear that structure down and build a much bigger venue that can hold 20,000 people.
Quebec and Ontario are different: Quebec has a strong sense of its self-worth, while Ontario’s government is saying there really isn’t much here, so let’s import our culture and recreation from someplace else.
I’d like to see an Ontario Place that has trees and plants from Ontario. Oh wait, it already exists. The site is currently a park that’s used by more than one million people a year.
So what about showcasing the extraordinary foods we grow and make here? Our world-class wines and microbrews? Nope.
Or celebrating the ingenuity of both the people who have been here for millenniums as well as those more recently arrived? Together, they have made one of the most diverse societies on the planet. No again.
Okay, what about our culture – art, theatre, film, our music? Ontario punches far above its weight internationally. For example, four of the 10 most successful pop acts in the world today were Made in Ontario.
It makes one wonder, if there’s nothing here to celebrate, showcase, reflect on, if there are no stories worth telling or songs worth singing, why do we even need a province?
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