For thousands of years, the group of islands sheltering the Toronto harbour has been known by several names. For the Michi Saagiig Anishinaabeg (the Mississaugas, signatory to the 1805 Treaty No. 13), it was simply known as Mnisiing, meaning “on the islands.” Later, the islands were collectively known as Aiionwatha or Hiawatha’s Island. Today, they are known as the Toronto Islands and together, they make up one of Toronto’s signature Waterfront parks.
Visitors from across Toronto are drawn to Toronto Island Park for its beaches, amusement park, marinas, clubs, nature trails, cultural places and events. In recent years, the park has faced numerous pressures, including increased demand, aging infrastructure and flooding.
This Master Plan will be a long-term planning document that outlines a Vision, Values, Guiding Principles and Big Ideas to guide change and investment in Toronto Island Park over the long-term. Through 2021 and 2022, the City is working closely with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, other First Nations and Indigenous communities, island and waterfront communities and businesses and people across the city to develop a Master Plan that will cement Toronto Island Park as a cherished gathering place for many generations to come.
The study area for the Toronto Island Park Master Plan includes all of Toronto Island Park and the area around the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal on the city side of the harbour. It does not include the island’s residential areas, the service area around the water treatment plant, or Billy Bishop Airport.
A Master Plan is a long-term planning document that acts as a blueprint to guide future decision-making around improvements, programming, and management of a park. It influences decision-making, operations and future park improvements.
It is important to remember that a Master Plan does not get implemented all at once; it guides decision-making in the park over many years.
The Toronto Island Park Master Plan will:
As a place for healing and ceremony, the Toronto Islands have spiritual significance for the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and other diverse Indigenous First Nations and communities. Toronto Island Park today doesn’t reflect this significance, and it doesn’t feel like an Indigenous place. That’s why the City sees Indigenous placekeeping as significant to the Toronto Island Park Master Plan.
Indigenous placekeeping is an Indigenous approach to design based on land stewardship. It is centred around recognizing the rights of landscape as a living being first and considering our responsibilities to a place now and into the future. Indigenous Placekeeping thinks beyond our immediate benefits and defines a relationship of mutual benefit between all living things and systems.
To learn more about Indigenous placekeeping and engagement, visit Have Your Say.
Toronto Island has 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. 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.
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 Michi Saagiig (Mississaugas), who called it Mnisiing, 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.
In 1787, the British Crown recorded Treaty 13, often referred to settler-descendants 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
For Indigenous peoples, the Toronto Islands continued to be revered for its spiritual qualities. Although Michi Saagiig and other Indigenous peoples would have lived at Mnisiing over the centuries, it was a place Indigenous peoples gathered in ceremony, celebrating the connection between the land, the water and peoples of many nations. Today, it is used for Indigenous events and activities, including ceremonies that include the sacred fire. Gatherings are often held in partnership with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and urban Indigenous communities with allies that include the City of Toronto, Artscape, and the Toronto Islands- Mississaugas of the Credit Friendship Group.
Toronto Island Park is also 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.
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.
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