Ontario Place: A Hill to Die On?

Two of Mayor-elect Olivia Chow’s major platform commitments are to save the Science Centre and to keep Ontario Place public.

Premier Doug Ford, while congratulating Chow and looking forward to working with her, in his next breath re-affirmed his commitment to developing the Therme Spa and relocating the Science Centre to Ontario Place. Reinforcing the Premier’s commitment, both the Ontario Government and Therme Spa are running major online and on-air advocacy advertising campaigns.

I will speculate about how this flash-point issue will evolve. For either or both leaders, is this a hill to die on, an issue on which they will not back down?

Doug Ford’s Stakes

It is hard to see why Doug Ford would become so committed to a luxury spa, which appears too elitist, foreign, and expensive to appeal to Ford Nation. Is it the possibility of more construction jobs? As I discussed in a recent op-ed in The Globe and Mail, the terms of the lease and development agreement between the Ontario Government and Therme are confidential, so it is difficult to follow the money. (Daniel Ellsberg’s dead and gone but we wish his spirit would live on.)

Ford is a bully, and bullies always try to take the measure of a new kid in the playground by pushing them around. Perhaps pushing forward on Ontario Place is Ford’s way of starting his relationship with Chow by showing who is boss. The City has some legal levers, such as refusing the development application or a necessary land exchange. The province has stronger legal levers, such as expropriation, and maybe Ford would use those levers to assert dominance.

Perhaps Ford wants to pick one or more fights with Chow as a tactic for the next provincial election. His soundbite would be “see how the ‘dippers are screwing up Toronto, don’t let them screw up the province.”

A somewhat less aggressive approach Ford could take is to make a deal involving Ontario Place. In exchange for the City’s acquiescing in Ford’s plan for Ontario Place, the province would support something Chow wants, like more funding for housing.

Looking for Common Ground

Olivia Chow has presented herself as adept at looking for common ground between opposed viewpoints. Is there some common ground on this issue?

A citizen’s group called Ontario Place for All has produced a thoughtful and detailed proposal for Ontario Place and the Science Centre entitled A Better Idea: Changing the Conversation around Ontario Place and the Ontario Science Centre, which I strongly encourage you to read. The proposal for Ontario Place includes enhanced parkland, preservation of its architecturally distinguished buildings, and creation of a branch of the Ontario Science Centre to focus on water, the natural environment, climate change, and science education. But the proposal has no place for the Therme Spa. Though I hope I’m wrong, I think the proposal is doomed from the start. I don’t think Doug Ford wants a fresh conversation or a new start. He wants the spa and the parking lot.

The Law’s Delay

The City and citizen’s groups opposing Ford’s plans for Ontario Place and the Science Centre could take every legal avenue possible to delay the proposals, including the City withholding approvals, challenging any provincial government legislation to expropriate the site possibly on Charter grounds, and attempting to activate the federal government’s environmental review process to slow or halt development. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t judge how effective these tactics would be at delaying the project so long that Therme gives up or a new government, elected in 2026, cancels the Ford Government’s plans.

In the Streets and on the Barricades

Another possible approach is to build public opposition to Ford’s Ontario Place plan, including publicity, petitions, and protests. The educational workers’ strike and threat of a general strike last fall forced the Ford Government to repeal Bill 28 and bargain seriously. In this case, the cutting down of 850 mature trees to make way for the Therme Spa would be a provocation egregious enough to lead to demonstrations, protests, and even civil disobedience. Perhaps a strong show of public support would finally make a government that says it listens to the people back down.

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