As we get ready to start the Toronto Island Master Planning process, we’re launching a collective storytelling campaign to celebrate Toronto Island Park and the special place it holds in the hearts and minds of Torontonians.

The City of Toronto is developing a Master Plan for Toronto Island Park. The Master Plan will be a strategic document that will establish a new vision for the park and guide future improvements.

Timeline

We expect the Master Planning process to continue for two years, with opportunities for public engagement through all phases:

  • Project Kickoff: Toronto Island Stories (August/September 2020)
  • Phase 1: Background Review and Analysis (Fall 2020)
  • Phase 2: Towards a Vision and Principles (Winter 2021)
  • Phase 3: The Big Moves (Spring 2021)
  • Phase 4: Concept Plans (Summer 2021)
  • Phase 5: Preliminary Master Plan (Fall 2021)
  • Phase 6: Final Master Plan (Spring/Summer 2022)

This schedule is tentative and subject to change.

Toronto Island has always played an important role in the history of Toronto and the lives of the people who have lived here – first to the Mississaugas of the Credit as a place for ceremonial gathering and healing, and then as an important refuge from the respite of the hustle and bustle of the big city on the other side of the bay.

Today the park is enjoyed by nearly 1.5 million visitors annually who are drawn to its beautiful beaches, amusement park, marinas, clubs, nature trails, schools, cultural places, and events.

Population growth, especially downtown, is leading to increased demands on the city’s waterfront parks, including Toronto Island Park. With growth, the pressure for park space increases and the significance and importance of Toronto Island Park is heightened.

There are greater demands for services and amenities, and increased expectations around programming and events. Increased use also results in greater environmental impacts and operational demands. And recent flooding caused by high lake levels in 2017 and again in 2019 have impacted park facilities and amenities, eroded the shoreline, and washed away beaches.

Most recently, the pandemic has put a magnifying glass on the importance of Toronto Island Park and has created new pressures on the City to ensure the park is safe and accessible to everyone so that it can continue to be a place that promotes health and wellbeing.

These pressures point to the need for a new Master Plan for Toronto Island Park.

A Master Plan is a dynamic and long-term planning document that outlines a vision, objectives, and action items to guide decision-making for ongoing improvements, the development of new programs and amenities, and management of the park.

It is important to understand that a Master Plan does not get implemented all at once as one big project. A Master Plan is a document that informs decision-making around park improvements over many years.

The future Toronto Island Master Plan will ensure that future park improvements move it towards, and contribute to, a vision for the entire park that is comprehensive and complete. A vision for the park that will better serve the public, improve equitable access and user experience, celebrate the charm, natural, and cultural history of this cherished park, and ensure its sustainability and viability for future generations.

The Big Picture – Planning Framework

In mid-2018, City Council approved the TOcore Downtown Secondary Plan and related studies, which included a new Downtown Parks and Public Realm Plan. These plans projected significant growth in Toronto’s downtown and highlighted the importance of Toronto Island Park within the Core Circle – a circuit of public spaces that connects existing natural features around Downtown – as an integrated and significant part of the city’s greenspace network.

Two other important documents approved by Council in 2019 were The Parkland Strategy and the Facilities Master Plan. These are driven by the importance of parkland and recreation facilities within our city and highlight the need for increased parkland, programs, and recreation facilities in order to be able to serve our growing population.

In addition, outcomes and themes from early internal stakeholder sessions have informed the baseline for the Master Plan process. Parallel initiatives and studies already completed or underway will also inform this work, such as the TRCA Flood Mitigation Assessment, the Ferry Fleet Assessment, and the Toronto Island Heritage Study.

Mother Nature and High Lake Impacts

Over the years, the Toronto Islands have been shaped and influenced by Lake Ontario currents. As a low lying and sand-based landform, extreme weather events and wave action from prevailing winds can have dramatic impacts on Toronto Island. Human interventions in the form of engineered design solutions, including landfill, armoured shorelines, and break walls have resulted in the park that is familiar to many people today. These interventions also managed to ward-off dramatic changes to the park landscape in recent decades.

Then, unexpectedly in spring 2017, high lake levels resulted in extensive flooding and damage throughout the Island Park. Repairs to community and park infrastructure were required and investment in flood protection was coordinated by the City with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), with Parks, Forestry and Recreation leading the implementation.

In 2019, lake levels rose higher than before. Flood protection and infrastructure installed following the 2017 events such as pumps, sumps, damns, low berms, and sandbags were successful in minimizing the new high lake level impacts, but the high water levels had a compounded impact to Island facilities and amenities within the park, along the shorelines, and within the Island communities.

Most recently, in summer 2020 the City and TRCA completed additional flood protection measures – road raising, beach habitat restoration and armoured shoreline treatments – to increase flood protection in some of the most vulnerable places on the Island. Additional assessments for further improvements are also underway. And to further complicate matters, the aging island park infrastructure and the Island ferries are challenged to keep pace with these increased service demands and these environmental pressures.

A Vision is needed

A new vision for Toronto Island Park is needed that will cement its role as a cherished gathering place for many generations to come.

This vision should celebrate the Island’s natural heritage and cultural significance, address the protection of the existing park and infrastructure, consider new assets and programs, as well as management approaches and coordinated servicing.

To achieve the vision of the Core Circle and the goals set out in the Parkland Strategy and Facilities Master Plan – this vision will also consider improvements to the user experience, equitable and four-season access for all users, improved connections to the larger parkland network, as well as future improvements to park programs and amenities to ensure the Island Park’s ongoing success.

To establish this vision and achieve these goals and more, Parks Forestry and Recreation has decided to take a proactive approach to considering and planning for the future of Toronto Island Park by hiring consultants to complete a comprehensive study of Toronto Island. The Consultant team will develop the plan by reviewing parallel studies and looking at precedents, completing an inventory and analysis of the existing conditions of the Island, considering the integration of on-going flood mitigation measures and engaging with the public to prepare a Master Plan for Toronto Island. This Master Plan will work in compliment to the planning framework and goals highlighted above. It is intended to better meet these demands and needs of changing demographics and will serve to mitigate impacts from flooding as well as protect the unique and highly valued park. The Master Plan will serve as a guiding document to help the City make informed decisions that align with approved plans and better address the various challenges facing this cultural gem and highly valued park.

A map showing the boundaries of the study area, ferry routes, pathways, trails, beaches and out of scope areas. The study area includes all of Toronto Island Park in addition to the area around the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. It excludes all areas on the island where there is housing, the service area around the water treatment plant, and the Island Airport.
The study area for the Toronto Island Park Master Plan includes all of Toronto Island Park, in addition to the area around the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. It does not include areas on the Island where there is housing, the service area around the water treatment plant, and the Island Airport.

The Master Plan will be created through a collaborative engagement process that will take place over the course of 2 years. Approaching the project in this way will ensure that the future vision for the park is inclusive and equitable and that outcomes will be more dynamic, functional, and responsive to user needs. The Master Plan will serve to tell the Toronto Island story by celebrating the natural and cultural heritage of the park as well as seeking inputs and collecting the many Island Stories that park users have to share!

This collaborative approach began in 2019, with a stakeholder summit that was held as a precursor to the master planning process. Participants were asked to outline a set of preliminary objectives for the Master Plan. The initial eight objectives will act as a starting point for the Master Plan exercise. They will be revisited, revised, and potentially added to as the project advances through public engagement:

The Master Plan will ensure that Toronto Island Park becomes:

  1. A world-class waterfront park destination accessible and inclusive for all
  2. A model for resilience, environmental excellence and sustainability
  3. An Island of balanced and varied activity celebrating four seasons
  4. An Island of areas/rooms with diverse and memorable experiences
  5. An Island Park that celebrates its natural and cultural heritage and Indigenous placemaking
  6. An Island oasis, care-free and protected
  7. A park that will serve a unique function for all Torontonians and beyond
  8. An Island community and culture, centred on balance and respect for past, present and future

A Place of Healing

The Toronto Islands were not always islands but actually a series of continuously moving sand-bars formed by sand eroded from the Scarborough Bluffs and carried westward by Lake Ontario currents. By the early 1800s, the longest of these bars extended nearly 9 kilometres south-west from Woodbine Avenue, through Ashbridge’s Bay and the marshes of the lower Don River, forming a natural harbour between the lake and the mainland.

The landform has spiritual significance for the Mississaugas, who called it “Menecing”, which translates to “on the island”. Its long beach was considered a place of healing and the Mississaugas brought their sick there to recuperate. In addition to its restorative power, the peninsula was used for numerous ceremonial purposes, including childbirth and burials.

The Toronto Purchase

In 1787, the British Crown recorded Treaty 13, often known as the Toronto Purchase, in which the Mississaugas received goods including 2,000 rifle flints, 24 brass kettles, 120 mirrors, 24 laced hats, and 96 gallons of rum valued at £1,700 for the sale of Toronto.

However, the validity of the deed documenting this event, which was blank with no description of the land purchased and with the marks of the Chiefs who had agreed to the sale written on separate pieces of paper and then affixed to it, was considered questionable. The Crown, concerned that settlers did not have legal title to the land on which the capital of Upper Canada stood, negotiated a new agreement with the Mississaugas for 250,830 acres of land at a cost of just ten shillings.

This agreement was also contested by the Mississuagas, who claimed that it did not include the Toronto Islands, and that the compensation was both inadequate and insulting. In 1998, the Mississaugas of the Credit filed an official claim against the Government of Canada, which was finally settled in 2010 for $145 million.

Early Military Use

Following the Toronto Purchase the Island came to be recognized for its strategic location. The sheltered harbour and the restricted entrance created by the peninsula is said to have weighed heavily on Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe’s decision to locate the new capital of Upper Canada in Toronto in 1793. He named the head of the peninsula Gibraltar Point (actually where Hanlan’s Point is today) and built several military facilities there. In 1809, Toronto’s first lighthouse was also built on the Island. However, the shifting Island sands, unpredictable weather, and an outcry from critics led the Lieutenant Governor to abandon his military plans for the Island and the capital. In 1813, during the War of 1812, all military structures were destroyed by an American invasion, except for the lighthouse, which has stood for over 200 years, and which is today the oldest surviving lighthouse on the Great Lakes and one of Toronto’s oldest buildings.

A Place of Leisure

As Toronto was settled by Europeans, the main peninsula became known as the “Island of Hiawatha”, after an early First Nations leader and co-founder of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. A carriage path was built from York to Gibraltar Point, which was very popular during the 1800s. It later became known as Lake Shore Avenue. Part of the boardwalk on Centre Island today traces this same route.

In 1833, the first island ferry service was begun by Michael O’Connor to take people to his newly opened island hotel, called “The Retreat”. The ferry was powered by a pair of horses walking on a treadmill and ran every two or four hours on weekdays and Sundays from the foot of Church Street. O’Connor’s hotel was marketed to “sportsmen, parties of pleasure,” and anyone who wished to “inhale the Lake breeze.” The Island’s popularity as a place of year-round leisure grew.

The Peninsula Becomes an Island

Over the years, a number of severe storms and their strong wave action worked to erode the peninsula, which was still fundamentally a sandbank, requiring frequent repair to small gaps. Finally, in 1858, a major storm completely separated the peninsula from the mainland at what is now the Eastern Gap, and it was kept open to facilitate easier shipping navigation.

Hanlan’s Point

After Confederation in 1867, ownership of the Islands was transferred from the Federal Government to the City, which divided the land into lots, facilitating its settlement. Among the first settlers was an Irish immigrant named John Hanlan, who built a small home on what was then called “West Point”. John had the job of patrolling the Island’s beaches and parkland. His son, Edward (Ned) Hanlan, was born in 1855 and grew up on the Island. To get to school on the mainland, he rowed across the harbour every day, becoming an excellent oarsman in the process. He went on to become the first Canadian to win a world rowing championship in 1880. In the late 1800s, the City renamed West Point as Hanlan’s Point in his honour.

In the 1870s, the Hanlan family converted their home on the northern tip of the Island (an area now occupied by the Toronto Billy Bishop Airport) into a hotel, which was expanded significantly in 1880. The hotel became the focal point of the social life of the Islands, and Hanlan’s Point became the “Coney Island of Canada”, with a vaudeville theatre, dance halls, and a popular amusement park. In 1897, a baseball and lacrosse stadium was built there, primarily to house the minor league Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club. It is famous for being the place where Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run during a game between the Maple Leafs and the visiting Providence Grays. The ball landed in Lake Ontario.

The Hotel Hanlan was lost to fire in 1909, but the stadium continued to host games until 1925. The amusement park was the last of the attractions to close in the 1930s, partly because of competition from the much newer Sunnyside Amusement Area, but also to make way for the new Island Airport, built there in 1937. The construction of the Island Airport also forced the relocation of the cottage community that existed at Hanlan’s Point to the present Algonquin Island.

Ward’s Island

David Ward, a fisherman, settled the area known today as Ward’s Island in about 1830. In May 1862, six of David’s children, including his son William and five younger daughters Rose, Jane, Cecilia, Phoebe, and Mary Ann, were all out sailing on the lake when a strong gust of wind capsized their boat, sending them all tumbling into the water. William managed to right the boat and to pull all five of his sisters back into it when another squall sent them back overboard. The girls, unable to swim, tried to hold onto the side of the upturned boat, but they were eventually pulled under the water again by the weight of their dresses and all five drowned. Only William survived. William’s mother, who had already lost three other daughters in a single night to Scarlet Fever, was said to pace the shore for years afterwards, looking out onto the lake where her five daughters perished. William, devastated by the tragedy, vowed to devote his life to helping people and went on to become the captain of the Dominion Lifesaving crew. He is credited with saving 160 people from drowning in the Toronto Harbour over the course of his lifetime.

In 1882, William Ward built the landmark Ward’s Hotel a short distance from the ferry docks, which became another popular island summer getaway. In the 1890s, people started pitching tents near to the hotel, so they could spend the summer there. In 1899, there were just eight tents, the inhabitants of which had each paid a modest fee of $10 to rent the land for the season. But the tent community grew rapidly, and by 1913 the City was forced to regulate it. It divided the land into lots and imposed a grid street pattern marked by wooden planks. Over the years, the inhabitants of the tent city built ever more elaborate structures, adding verandas, cooking sheds, and other semi-permanent facilities, which were always dismantled and stored for the winter. Eventually, the City began to allow permanent structures to be built, and in 1947, in response to a housing shortage on the mainland, it allowed year-round occupancy of the Island for the first time, as a temporary measure meant to expire in 1968. This is how the present community of homes on Ward’s Island came to be.

Centre Island

Centre Island began to be permanently settled by the late 1800s, when many of Toronto’s wealthiest families started to build Victorian summer homes east along Lake Shore Avenue, from Manitou Road towards Ward’s Island. They were drawn partly by the existence of the prestigious Royal Canadian Yacht Club, which was relocated from the mainland to a spot on the harbourside of Centre Island in 1881.

Manitou Road was the main commercial street of Centre Island. It was located where the Avenue of the Island is today. It was originally known as Middle Road and became an increasingly important thoroughfare with the construction in 1905 of a freight wharf near the bridge over Long Pond. To serve a growing population of both summer and year-round residents, business along the road expanded in the following decade to include a general store, a butcher shop, a dairy, a boathouse, laundries, and several hotels. Manitou Road also became an entertainment hub with facilities that included a casino, a bowling alley, and a movie theatre.

In 1888 the City of Toronto officially established Island Park on land previously occupied by the Mead Hotel.

Toronto Island Park

Over the years, various plans were proposed for the Island and its park. The idea of expanding the park through the removal of residential communities existed since at least 1949, when it was proposed in the City’s Official Plan. Interestingly, this Plan also called for a bridge over the Western Channel and ample parking on the Island.

It wasn’t until 1955, with the creation of the new Metro Toronto Parks Department, and the appointment of Tommy Thompson as its first Parks Commissioner, that plans for Toronto Island Park began to be cemented. It produced a Parks Plan in 1956 that proposed the development of “metropolitan parks”, which were to be distributed across the metro area, be a minimum of 250 acres, and offer natural outdoor environments for recreation. The crown jewel of this system of parks was Toronto Island Park, which was to be expanded through the removal of all of the Island’s homes, the land raised to protect from flooding, and the beaches expanded.

It was also in 1956 that ownership of a large portion of the Islands was transferred from the City to the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, which immediately began the demolition of cottages, residences, hotels, and other businesses in order to implement its new regional park plan. By the mid-1960s, much of this plan had been implemented, including the land-raising and extensive re-landscaping, as well as the construction of the Far Enough Farm, which opened in 1959. In 1967, the Centreville Amusement Park and a new public marina were opened. In 1971, a new ferry terminal was built where it still remains, at the foot of Bay Street.

It was also by the mid-1960s that Metro’s expropriation scheme began to run out of steam, as the remaining Island residents organized to fight the plans. By the 1970s, the expropriations had stopped completely and a years-long legal battle ensued. It wasn’t until 1993, with the passage of the Toronto Islands Residential Stewardship Act by the Province of Ontario, that the matter was finally settled. It granted islanders 99-year leases and created a Land Trust to handle transfers or sales of properties.

Cultural Significance

Toronto Island Park is a site of national LGBTQ2S+ significance, since it is the site of what is generally acknowledged to be the birthplace of the Toronto Pride Festival. On August 1, 1971, queer people gathered for Canada’s first openly queer picnics at Hanlan’s Point and again at Ward’s Island in 1972. The picnics were organized by the University of Toronto Homophile Association, Toronto Gay Action Now, and the Community Homophile Association of Toronto one year after the first pride marches took place in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. The picnics grew rapidly until 1974, when the first Pride Week was held in Toronto and festivities moved to the mainland. Nonetheless, Hanlan’s Point Beach remained popular with Toronto’s queer community, becoming its unofficial “Gay Beach”. In 2002, the City officially made the beach clothing-optional, finally sanctioning a practice that had been going on for some time, and creating only the second clothing-optional beach in all of Canada.

The Toronto Islands have also been the location of many of Toronto’s most significant cultural events, including Caribana, which held its annual picnics at Olympic Island from 1967 until 2007, Wakefest, the Mariposa Folk Festival, and, more recently, the Electric Island music festival.

Today the island continues to be home to diverse communities and events. People of all ages head to the island for the beaches, canoe and kayak rentals, boating marina, large grassy fields, nature paths, and the amusement park.

August 2020

  • Launch of Island Stories, a campaign to celebrate the Toronto Islands through collective storytelling.
  • The procurement of consultant teams for both the Master Plan and public engagement is continuing. Contracts are expected to be in place by mid-September, with a launch of the Master Planning process in the fall of 2020.

We understand that the Toronto Islands have a rich and diverse history and that many different communities that call Toronto home have a relationship to this place. It is our goal to create a wide range of opportunities for community engagement at every stage of the planning process to ensure the ideas, hopes and aspirations of everyone are reflected in the final master plan.

Toronto Island Stories

The Island means something different to everyone. To kick-off the Toronto Island Master Plan project, we’re reflecting on the unique role the Island plays in the lives of Torontonians of all walks of life – before we collective reimagine its future. We want to hear from you! Share your Island Story.

Community Meetings and Events

We will be holding community meetings and engagement events throughout the course of the development of the master plan. Because of the COVID 19 pandemic, some of these will be held online. Full details will become available in the fall.

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Toronto Island Park History in Pictures