I first heard about the community on the Toronto Islands while I was doing a Workaway near Nelson, BC. The lady who I was staying with spent time living on the Toronto Islands 30 years ago as a documentary photographer. She had migrated across from Switzerland as a young woman to capture the distinctive culture that varied across Canadian towns. I had seen her documentary about the Toronto Islands when she’d visited the first time, and the reflection on the changed culture when she went back almost 30 years later.
The Toronto Islands are made up of a chain of small islands in Lake Ontario, off the shoreline of Toronto. The community is the largest car free urban centre in North America. About 300 homes sit on Ward’s and Algonquin islands, with residents commuting only by bike or walking. On arrival on Ward’s Island I saw a small flyer promoting a walking tour with two residents during the late morning. I took two hours to wander around before getting a lift back to the jetty on a golf cart with a local chef. He gave me a small insight into what it was like growing up on the islands, during the fighting against the city council for the land, before dropping me off and speeding back to his restaurant for the lunchtime rush.
I met with residents Susan and Linda before the tour started and mentioned what had led me to their community. At mention of the Swiss photographer I had met in Nelson one lady exclaimed in delight that of course she remembered her, as she had taken her wedding photographs. A distance of 3,000 kilometres, and yet still such a small world. An avid birdwatcher joined us and Susan and Linda began the story of the Toronto Islands as we walked.
White settlement on the islands began in the 1880s as the people of Toronto (at the time the city was known as York) used the area as a retreat from the city. It was a place of relaxation and excitement, and with the growing community, the shops, beaches and theme park flourished. More and more people began to reside on the islands, with the settlement on Ward’s Island originally being as a tent village. As the community grew, residents began replacing their tents with houses and soon the village was permanent.
The ladies told these stories as we wandered the streets, gesturing to the houses which were the original ones built. These stand scattered between newer designs, covered by foliage. As we came up to one house, a stalk cutout stood out the front – the second we’d seen so far. Linda used it to demonstrate the strong sense of community – when a resident gives birth their baby is welcomed by everyone.
However, in the 1950s the Metropolitan Toronto Government took ownership of the Island. decided it wanted to remove the communities from the Toronto Islands and convert the space into a park. People’s homes across Central Island were bought and torn down as the city began enacting their plan. The newspapers began portraying the residents of the islands as freeloading hippies, so the community was determined to fight back. This brought about the ‘Save Island Homes’ movement, which was supported by many members of the Toronto public.
After many years of fighting to save the Toronto Islands, the provincial government gave the island residents a 99 year lease through a land trust agreement. The residents had to reside in their houses year-round and if they chose to leave, the house must be sold back to the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust at controlled prices. Susan and Linda explained how many residents stayed in the properties for life and handed them down to their kin, as the trust wouldn’t buy the houses for enough money to invest in a house on the mainland. This is to ensure the market value of the houses do not rise astronomically, and the housing remains affordable.
The interest of moving onto the island has not dwindled, Susan explained. The Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust holds a list of those who dream of moving onto Ward’s or Algonquin Island – there are only 500 spaces which are filled by a lottery and a yearly subscription fee must be paid to remain on the list.
Now 700 people reside across Ward’s and Algonquin Island, and are proud of their history. Because they fought so hard to stay, Susan explains, they treat the Islands with respect. They are one of the largest car-free urban communities, have a local veggie garden and have been encouraging contributions to the Toronto Island History Project through blogs, documentaries and art.
Most information about Ward’s Island and the ‘Save Island Homes’ movement were learnt through and fact-checked with:
Ursula Heller’s documentary: ‘Village Portraits’
Susan and Linda’s Walking Tour
Welcome to Toronto Island Community Youtube video
Toronto Island Community Webpage
The Toronto Island History Project blogs