Posts Tagged ‘Toronto

It’s The Subway, Stupid

- October 28th, 2014

2014-election-map

Looking at an electoral map of Toronto the day after the city went to the polls, it’s blindingly obvious that what we have here is a tale of two cities.

I’ll leave it to everyone else to go through the myriad range of other socio-economic-political reasons for the divide because I’m going to focus on what I believe is the biggest cause of the chasm and the obvious alienation felt by people who live in the red wards: Toronto’s subway system and lack thereof.

If you look at the green (Tory) and purple (Chow) wards, it’s clear that those wards are the ones now served by Toronto’s existing subway lines. (The wards south of the subway are better served by connecting buses because the routes are shorter and service is generally more frequent and reliable as a result.)

The red wards are, generally speaking, a mass transit wasteland. Anybody who doesn’t understand that has never had to spend four and five hours a day (depending on the weather, etc.) commuting from the wilds of Rexdale to and from the city centre or been stuck on the Arctic plains of Malvern waiting for a bus in the middle of winter.

If John Tory truly wants to unite this city into One Toronto, he’d better start building subways as fast as possible. His SmartTrack plan using existing rail lines heads in that direction but still leaves the most isolated parts of Toronto ,,, well, isolated.

SmartTrack-map

Warren Kinsella, then with the Olivia Chow campaign, got into big trouble a few months ago by pointing out (in a controversial but thought-provoking manner) that problem in the west end of the city where SmartTrack just doesn’t go.

In the east end, Tory’s campaign team resolved the SmartTrack failure there simply by pretending the eastern half of Scarborough doesn’t exist. (Just look at his schematic map — there’s a hell of a lot of Scarborough missing.) The Scarborough extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line (which I doubt Tory would have proposed if Ford hadn’t already gotten it on the books) will go part of the way to dealing with the problem, but there’s still an enormous unserviced void in the northeast of this city. Same for the northwest.

Start building the subways to service those areas — NOW. It’s one of Toronto’s great shames that, over the past two decades, our city leaders haven’t budgeted on a consistent year-in, year-out basis for constant, evolutionary additions to our subway network as every major city in Europe does, usually at the rate of one or two new subway stops per year — PLUS the creation of entire new lines as the need becomes apparent. (As I’ve written before, the federal government should be picking up a far greater portion of the construction tab, but we won’t go there again right now.)

I’m a big proponent of major subway systems for major cities. They work. In fact, they’re absolutely essential to the survival and enhancement of any true metropolis. And they bring people together.

At the very least, Tory’s SmartTrack plan should have proposed extending the Sheppard subway line east and west to complete logical transit circuits.

And don’t tell me the northeast and the northwest don’t have the population bases to warrant full subway service.

Toronto’s still got a lot of growing to do. We’ve only got about 2.8 million people living in the city right now. Mumbai, on about the same amount of land (a little less actually), has somewhere in the vicinity of 13 million. Seoul has about 10 million (again, in a slightly smaller area than Toronto).

We certainly don’t want to become Mumbai or even Soeul, but there’s a lot of middle ground in between. New York City, for example, has more than 8.5 million inhabitant living rather well in an area only about 15 per cent larger than Toronto’s municipal boundaries. So I think it’s safe to say that in the next few decades, Toronto’s population is easily going to double and keep rising.

And where are all those new, teeming millions going to live?

In the northeast and the northwest, of course, the major areas of Toronto with the room for serious population expansion.

Forget “If you build it, they will come…” They’re coming anyway, so start building now or be well and truly damned 20 years from now.

As for the greater cost of subways versus LRTs, that’s actually a red herring. A subway may initially cost more than twice as much as a Light Rapid (or Rail) Transit line to build, but subways are built to have a 100-year lifespan while LRTs only have a 30-year lifespan. Anyone who ever rides on the decrepit, unreliable Scarborough LRT (or SRT or whatever you want to call it) can tell you the 30-year estimate is a joke.

Do the math and you can see that — even leaving inflation out of the equation — subways are a bargain compared to LRTs over the 100-year life of the mass transit line.

As for reliability — regardless of what the propagandists say now — there’s a reason LRTs are called LIGHT Rapid Transit. I want to be on a heavy-duty, industrial-strength subway train in the middle of a Canadian winter.

I’ll say it one more time: Anyone who doesn’t understand the importance of getting proper subway lines extended into the northeast and northwest sectors of this city has never had to endure the endless, uncertain treks to and from those places on the TTC’s existing bus routes or (God have mercy on your soul) on the SRT.

All those areas want is to be treated as equal (and equally worthy) partners in the community of communities that make up Toronto. Regardless of what you think of the Ford Bros, they were the only ones who seemed to really get that — despite John Tory’s slick slogans. (I don’t trust the word of either Ford further than I can throw them, of course, but that’s a different matter. As for Tory, I give him the benefit of the doubt … for the moment.)

If that subway expansion doesn’t happen — and pretty damn quick — Toronto will have much, much bigger problems than a city electoral map divided by a Christmas colour scheme.

 

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The David Soknacki Blog Post I Never Posted

- September 10th, 2014

Soknacki

I wrote it weeks ago. I don’t know why I held off posting it at the time: Perhaps the municipal election still seemed a bit too far away or maybe I just wasn’t ready to publicly commit to a monogamous political relationship.

It’s too late now, in any case. David Soknacki has left the arena and I am bereft. Despondent, disconsolate, doleful, lachrymose, melancholy, saturnine and downright sullen. My political parrot is, in other words, dead and all I am left with is this Roget’s Thesaurus of crestfallen synonyms.

Not that it would probably matter. Soknacki had essentially no chance of winning the Oct. 27 election for mayor of Toronto. But if he had remained in the race, I would have at least had an honourable and responsible place to park my ballot.

Now? I wouldn’t — couldn’t — vote for any of the three leading candidates for the job, even if I held my nose. And I’m not holding my nose for any of those stinkers.

So, just as part of the mourning process while I evaluate my future voting intentions, I give you — uncensored and unexpurgated — The David Soknacki Blog Post I Never Posted, which would have been entitled …

 

Why I Plan To Vote For David Soknacki As Mayor

It’s safe to say a lot of people reading this are saying “David Who?” because, even though Soknacki has a well-established track record in city politics and was one of the first legitimate candidates to enter the mayoral race (and promises to still be in it at the end), he really hasn’t made a strong impact on Toronto voters.

The corollary of this is that many other people who actually do know who David Soknacki is (and maybe even admire him) will say, “Why would you waste your vote on Socks when he’s obviously not going to win? Your one vote could mean the difference in whether X, Y or Z becomes mayor. Could you live with yourself if X (or Y or Z, depending on your politics) won because you threw your vote away on Soknacki?”

The answer is, “Yes, I could. Easily. And proudly.”

Why, for God’s sake? Explain your kamikaze logic.

Simple. By voting for David Soknacki, I’m not throwing my vote away. I’m doing the right thing, as I see it. And that’s never a wasted vote.

A truly wasted vote, in my opinion, is casting your ballot for someone you don’t really believe in — and maybe don’t even like or trust — just because he or she is the lesser of two or three evils. In the end, you will always regret that wasted vote.

soknacki-kimmel

Now, don’t get me wrong: I do not support all of Soknacki’s positions and I don’t think he has the ability to solve all of Toronto’s myriad problems.

In fact, I’m on the opposite side of the fence from Soknaki on a number of issues. Take, for example, the proposed Scarborough subway extension, which I’m strongly in favour of and which is endorsed by mayoral candidates Rob Ford and John Tory (and previously by Karen Stintz before she flitted off in a snit).

I favour the subway option because it’s more robust, more integrated, more dependable and, in the long run (over the 100-year life of a subway line compared to the 30-year lifespan of an LRT), far more cost-efficient.

And it treats Scarborough as a homogenous part of the City of Toronto, not some poor-relative backwater which somehow doesn’t rate being on the same mass transit grid as the better-connected parts of the city. (Much the same way as the Bloor Viaduct finally stitched together the eastern part of Toronto with the central and western parts a century ago.)

Soknacki is opposed to switching from the already-approved LRT plan to the newly favoured subway plan, not for ideological or opportunistic reasons, but because he believes it’s the right thing to do

Soknacki has, by far, the most comprehensive and thought-out (and consistent and believable) position of any of the mayoral candidates when it comes to urban transportation and fighting gridlock and building infrastructure.

He’s laid his platform out forthrightly and clearly (well, as clearly as a techo-nerd can, given his commitment to accuracy and objectivity) in a number of detailed policy papers, while his higher-profile opponents dither and slither and pretend their airy-fairy transit plans are even possible (especially within the time and financial frameworks they fantasize about).

Meanwhile, Soknacki chugs along, looking for realistic, affordable, effective ways of  reducing — if not outright eliminating — Toronto’s current traffic nightmare and keeping Canada’s largest, most economically important city from grinding to a halt while we wait for some promised miracles decades down the road.

And part of that co-ordinated, progressive quest is Soknacki’s mantra: “Politicians should never interfere with the construction of new transit routes that are already designed, engineered and funded.”

He’s right, of course. If you keep changing horses in mid-stream, you’re all going to drown eventually.

Having said that, I firmly believe it is just plain stupid — if not criminally irresponsible — to keep throwing tons of good money at a demonstrably bad idea, just because it’s been approved already.

I still firmly believe that LRTs don’t hold a candle to subways when it comes to reliability and endurance — especially in a Canadian winter — but Soknacki is good to go with the Scarborough LRT. He says it can provide necessary capacity at subway speeds at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the construction time compared to the proposed Scarborough subway.

Soknacki knows his stuff — much better than I — so even though my gut keeps telling me “Subway,” I am prepared to accept his evaluation of the situation and take his word that the Scarborough LRT will not be a colossal white elephant 10 or 15 years down the road.

Because I trust him. Because I know he’s done his homework and his grunt work. Because I know he’s got a good mind and a good heart. And because I know he isn’t distracted and blown off course by gusts of passing fancy and visceral enthusiasm and blinkered ideology and self-serving partisanship and mindless jingoism.

When Soknacki is asked a tough question and you see, in his eyes, that his brain’s going clickety-click, you can be pretty sure the main thought going through his mind isn’t “How is this answer going to help me personally?” It’s “What is the right thing to do?”

If he was the self-serving type, he wouldn’t lay himself open to attack by openly saying he would consider new transit taxes as part of a comprehensive, rational transportation programme that deals with everything from getting the downtown relief subway line underway to properly automating the transit system to keeping the city’s road infrastructure from caving in on itself to finding better, more efficient ways of moving people and goods in and out of the city.

Take something as simple as this: He would introduce — immediately and without fuss — early bird TTC fares to get more people on buses and subway trains when they’re less crowded and service is better.

He would clear core roads of onstreet parking to keep traffic moving better. He would look for solutions that involve more smart thinking and innovation than throwing gobs of money at a problem in the hope it will go away.

That’s just transit, barely scraping the surface of transit. And Soknacki’s miles ahead of his opponents in that regard. In my opinion, anyway.

He’s got well-thought-out plans for bringing the police services budget under control, for getting council out of its dysfunctional funk and bringing all regions and sectors of the city into the decision-making process.

He’s actually got plans for dealing with the crises of Toronto homelessness (yes, it’s real) and the breakdown of the city’s social housing fabric while expanding rental market housing and protecting the homeowners who carry most of the tax burden in this city — and doing all of this with existing tools, not whining and waiting endlessly for the province or federal government to ride to the rescue with saddlebags of imaginary cash.

Most importantly, he knows what he’s talking about and knows how to put his words into action. He’s not a gasbag or blitherer or ditherer.

So I’m planning to vote for David Soknacki on Monday, Oct. 27.

I may change my mind over the next two months, but I doubt it. David Soknacki might not be wildly charismatic, but he is very experienced and smart and thoughtful and honest and responsible and consistent and genuine. He’s a good person and I am pretty darn sure he can (and will) do what he says he wants to do.

In the end, I trust David Soknacki. What greater virtue could you seek in a mayor?

 

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Why It’s Simple Logic That Toronto Will Get A Second NHL Team — At The ACC

- August 28th, 2014

MLSE

The speculation about a new round of NHL expansion is wild, intense — and all over the map.

Some experts say it’s definitely on, others say it ain’t gonna happen. Still others say   it’s on — but only for two teams, not four. And yet others have their cake and eat it too with the Solomonic judgement that yes, it will happen sometime … maybe two teams, maybe four, but not in the immediate future.

The only thing most experts agree on is that the least likely candidate on the current short list is a second franchise for the Toronto area.

Well, I’m no expert — I love watching hockey but, hell, I can barely skate — and I’m as confused by the contradictory claims as you are.

The only thing that guarantees in my mind that a new round of expansion is going to happen soonish — probably next summer — is Tim Leiweke’s absolute denial that anything has been decided … yet … at this exact moment in time and space. We all know now how Leiweke phrases things and how carefully you have to parse his sentences, especially his denials.

Now I really don’t know for sure that a second NHL team for Toronto will be in the mix for the most immediate upcoming expansion phase — especially if it is limited to just two teams.

But I know absolutely and without a trace of doubt that Toronto will get that second NHL team in the foreseeable future. And, just as surely, I know that second team will play out of the Air Canada Centre along with the Leafs and the Raptors — just as the Lakers, Clippers and Kings share the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

I know it’s a sure thing for the same reason that other people say Toronto will never get a second NHL team: Because Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has an ironclad proprietorial lock on the Toronto NHL market and has the power to stop any competitor from encroaching without astronomically exorbitant compensation.

And it’s the same reason (probably) that Tim Leiweke is folding his tent in preparation for leaving Toronto (or at least MLSE): Because of the inherent tension within MLSE ownership and its inevitable fracturing.

I’m talking about those two media monsters, Rogers Communications and Bell Canada, who jointly bought 75% of MLSE in a complicated deal from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan in 2011-12. (Larry Tanenbaum holds the other 25%.)

Again I’m no expert or insider, but even idiot amateur me can see that putting tooth-and-nail business competitors like Rogers and Bell in the same ownership box is much like putting a tiger and a crocodile in the same cage and expecting them to co-exist and co-operate: Not going to happen in the long run.

I get the sense Rogers and Bell fight about everything, including Leiweke’s presidency. One team structure is simply not big enough for two ferocious beasts who each want absolute dominance.

To my way of thinking, the only logical way out of this boardroom death match is for the MLSE majority owners to exercise the power they have to exclude any other potential competitors — and claim the second Toronto NHL franchise for themselves.

Not jointly, of course. One of either Bell or Rogers keeps the Leafs and the other gets the new NHL franchise. At the same time, they cut their ties — and cut up the pie — on the rest of the MLSE empire so there is no monopoly or collusion concern.

It’s complicated, of course, but anything big these guys get involved in is complicated — they’re used to it and they have herds of lawyers and accountants and advisers to sort out the nitty-gritty.

In the end, both Bell and Rogers end up with their own autonomous sports empires and broadcasting rights and fan bases in the most important hockey market in Canada, the way they always wanted. Masters in their own houses, not co-habitating with a vengeful  estranged spouse.

And since both conglomerates have deep pockets, Gary Bettman doesn’t have to worry about ownership stability. They’ll have to work something out about the expansion fee, but that’s doable.

Of course, the expansion franchise will be a wobbly weakling for years to come — maybe decades — compared to the brawny financial and fan-base might of the Leafs, so whoever gets the new team will also have to get a huge amount of complementary compensation for taking on the work-in-progress.

And, of course, the two NHL teams will have to share the ACC as home arena. It makes so much sense in every way compared to the ridiculously unnecessary option of building another terribly expensive, half-used arena. They’ll work it out. As I said, just look at the successful Staples Center model in L.A.

That is the only scenario that makes any kind of sense to me.

1. The majority owners of MLSE are in direct competition with each other and (supposedly) have increasing  difficulty in playing nice in the MLSE boardroom. They must split at some point and each wants to keep the family home (being the Leafs).

2. The majority owners of MLSE have the power to allow or deny a second NHL franchise in the Toronto market. By divorcing, they can buy the newbie franchise as a replacement home for the partner heading out the Leafs door. If that partner gets the Lamborghini and the Muskoka getaway as well, it’s a smoother separation.

Think about it. It makes sense, right?

I’m sure Rogers and Bell are thinking — maybe even talking — about it too.

 

 

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Once Again, Pearson Air Travellers Are UP The Creek

- August 2nd, 2014

Let’s get this straight: I don’t hate Lester B. Pearson International Airport. In fact, I think it’s quite a nice airport — a middlin’ good airport in the grand scheme of things. I’ve been in a lot worse … and I’ve also been in some waaaaay better.

But Pearson is a gigantic monopolistic rip-off.

The latest manifestation of that comes in the admission by regional transportation dog’s-body Metrolinx that, when the direct rail connection between Pearson and Union Station downtown opens next year (before the start of the Pan Am Games, supposedly), the price of a ticket on the new line will be jacked up by $2 or so to pay an extortion surcharge to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

I’m calling it an extortion surcharge because I don’t think Metrolinx is willingly nailing airport travellers with an additional $2-a-trip cost. However, if they didn’t fight tooth and nail to block this gouge, then that’s another black mark on the very long list of black marks piling up against Metrolinx and the GTAA is just being greedy for not looking a wasteful gift horse in the mouth.

The $2 tag-on is supposed to compensate the GTAA for the revenue it will supposedly lose from all the airline passengers who decide to commute to the airport by rail instead of driving their cars to the airport and leaving them there to be ransomed on return (or at least forcing a family member or friend to pay a short-term ransom for delivering you).

Hmmmm.

Well, for starters, this damn rail link should have been built 20, 30  or even 40 years ago. It amounts to criminal negligence on the part of three, four or five levels of government (perhaps that redundancy is part of the problem) that it’s actually taken this long to get the rail link built.

I really don’t see why the GTAA should be compensated for losing a small portion of what should never have been such a windfall in the first place if proper, competent, responsible regional transportation decisions had been made and followed through on in the 1970s, ’80s or even ’90s.

And the new rail service — called UP Express or UP Yours or UP in (Diesel) Smoke or UP something (the UP apparently stands for Union Pearson) — is not such a great deal to begin with.

Everybody involved hummed and haaed and foot-dragged and passed the buck so long — and then scrambled in a chicken-little panic when the great and mighty Pan Am Games were suddenly falling from the sky — that Metrolinx decided they had to go for diesel trains made in Japan (and assembled in the U.S.) as a temporary fix just to make the Pan Am deadline.

The plan is still to convert the diesel engines to electric — at enormous additional expense — at some undetermined time in the future. But, really , Metrolinx comes out of this whole thing looking like they could learn a thing or two from Brazil on getting ready for biggish sporting events. And, with all the cost overruns, they might learn something from Brazil on budget management too.

And then there’s the cost of tickets on this new rail link. Prices haven’t been set yet but a one-way fare is expected to be somewhere between $20 and $30.

UPDATE: My friend Ian Harvey, who knows about such things, tell me the final ticket price will likely be closer to $40.

The direct rail connection (with trains every five or 10 minutes) on the RER suburban line between Charles de Gaulle International  Airport and downtown Paris is (if I remember correctly from a year or two ago) something in the range of €8 or €9 — $13-14 Canadian. It’s a wonderful, convenient, timely and affordable (and electrified) public service.

That’s a big difference, roughly double triple (see above) in terms of price (not to mention the actual “service” aspect), and the GTAA’s parking-compensation grab is just a spit in the bucket by comparison. An annoying, unwarranted spit, but a spit nonetheless.

UP-route-illustration

Here’s Metrolinx’s cutesy map of the UP Express route.

 

I guess a large part of my anger and frustration here is that I feel swindled as a Torontonian. I feel like all these self-serving fat cats could have done so much more — and so much sooner and so much faster and so much better — to improve a necessary — vital — component of travel in this city, the transportation hub of Canada.

It staggers me that they’re so proud of their half-assed job. I’m sure they’re all going to want big bonuses too if the line is actually open in time for the Pan Am Games. We do so want our Peruvian and Surinamese guests to be impressed by Toronto’s transportation infrastructure. Hahahahahahahaha. To hell with the millions of people living and working here. They needed this link 20 or 30 years ago — and at an affordable price — but to hell with them/us.

(For those post-Pan Am bonuses, maybe they’ll just tack on an extra fat-cat surcharge to the UP Yours ticket price. Who’s going to notice another buck or two at that price, anyway.)

Speaking of which, let’s get back to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority $2-or-so-a-ride payoff for “losing” customers whose cars could otherwise be held to ransom in the parking barns at Pearson.

Explain to me how Pearson is going to be losing money in the long run by freeing up some more parking spaces? After all, in-and-out passenger traffic at Pearson is projected to increase to about 60 million by 2030 (not that far away) from the 36 million the airport handled in 2013.

Doesn’t it seem like any parking capacity that’s temporarily freed up by some drivers switching to the rail service will very quickly be erased by inevitable increased traffic in just a few short years? Isn’t it a good thing for the GTAA that the time when they will have to build even more very expensive concrete monsters to hold even more unused automobiles is pushed a little bit into the future?

Hopefully we will have wised up somewhat by then and eliminated a greater need for caverns full of stationary, unused, unneeded automobiles at Pearson. But, based on prior experience, I doubt it.

Still, I really don’t see how travellers doing the right thing by taking public transit to the airport somehow end up paying the GTAA $2 a ride for making the GTAA’s job a little easier.

UPDATE: More on the expected cost of an UP Express ticket — ”… at an estimated price of $25, roughly half the cost of a cab ride to Pearson, a ride on the new $456-million rail link will cost overwhelmingly more than comparable airport train rides in other North American cities.” And blogTO.com’s projected sticker price is on the low end of estimates.

 

Now let me tell you the thing I’m most worried about in this whole buggered-up mess.

I’m really, really afraid these geniuses are going to figure out some way to screw up the current Airport Rocket express bus service from Kipling station on the Bloor-Danforth subway line.

It was always supposed to be a make-do until the proper, logical rail link was built to the airport, but — dammit — it works. And for the cost of a single TTC fare. It’s efficient and timely and affordable. I don’t know how they do it, but even in the midst of nightmarish traffic jams on the 401 and 400 and even 427 the Airport Rocket just cruises up to the airport, usually in about half an hour from the subway. Did I mention that after you’ve paid your TTC fare from anywhere in the city, it does not cost you one single penny (oops — nickel) more to step on the Airport Rocket and be chauffeured to Pearson?

(Of course, they have to make it a little difficult by sticking the TTC pick-up and drop-off points at the airport as far away as possible, but I sneer at that petty bit of manipulative gameplaying. I hope you do too.)

I wouldn’t consider taking any other means of transportation to or from the airport. In my richer and more stupid days, I spent $180 on parking at the airport or $120 on limousine service. How insane is that when I could have spent $3 for a faster, better ride?

And what about the 40,000 or so people who work at the airport or in the immediate vicinity? Do you think any of them — especially the ones working for minimum wage or close thereto — will EVER be popping $20 or $30 one-way for a ride on the UP Express?

I’m pretty sure I won’t be.

Unless, of course, the geniuses behind the curtain who are supposed to be making our lives better and smoother decide to tilt the table again and make it impossible to get to Pearson in less than three or four hours without paying extortionate fees in one form or another. And that, dear friends, would be one crime too many.

 

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The Dickeys of Toronto: A Family Saga Spanning Centuries And Continents — Part 1

- July 16th, 2014

Toronto-waterfront-1873

A bird’s eye view of Toronto from over the lake, 1873. Click on the image to enlarge it.

 

This started out as a short, simple, straight-forward story about a city, a house and a man.

Then, like most things in my life, it got complicated.

The house I’m referring to is the High Victorian mansion Sir John A. Macdonald owned in Toronto from 1876 to 1886 and which was his family’s principal residence for the first two years of that decade of ownership.

The house is located at 63 St. George Street on the University of Toronto campus. It  is surprisingly unknown despite being an important landmark — one of the very few still existing — of the deep and important relationship between this city and Canada’s first, best and greatest (perhaps “grandest” would be a better word) prime minister.

63-St-George-front

The building is still in relatively good shape — but has been treated by its current owners (U of T) with what might charitably be described as benign neglect and with what must truthfully be described as utter disrespect over the past century.

I recently wrote an entire blog post on that situation, which you can find here.

Here’s the historical plaque beside the house at 63 St. George Street. (It still rankles me that it’s called the “Macdonald-Mowat House” and not just “Sir John A. Macdonald’s Toronto House” … but never mind. And I definitely wouldn’t call the eclectic building style “French Second Empire” … but never mind about that either.)

Macdonald-plaque

One thing that intrigued me about the plaque was the reference to its builder, “Nathaniel Dickey, a Toronto iron founder.”

When seen properly the house really is quite beautiful — interesting, anyway, sort of like Gérard Depardieu’s face — and was situated in what would have been a magnificent setting at the time. It is large and certainly would have cost a fortune to build.

So why, I wondered, would Nathaniel Dickey — an obviously established and prosperous businessman — build his dream house in 1872 only to turn around just a few years later and sell it to Sir John A.? Was it the result of a personal tragedy or a business collapse or a simple change of heart? Perhaps the house — on the northwestern outskirts of the city when it was built — was just too far away from Nathaniel Dickey’s place of business and he got tired of the daily commute.

I would love to show you a photo of Nathaniel Dickey right now … but I can’t. I’ve worn out my eyes and my fingers and heart looking for any kind of pictorial representation of Mr. Dickey. With no success. BUT I know a picture of Nathaniel Dickey exists somewhere and I’m bound and determined to find it and show it to you. Why do I know it exists for certain? Because Nathaniel Dickey was a member of Toronto City Council for most of the 1860s, and local politicians were camera hogs back then just as much as they are now. So somewhere there’s a sepia-tone image of Nathaniel Dickey scrunching closer to Mayor Bowes or Mayor Medcalf or Mayor Smith at the official ribbon-cutting for a public horse trough or the opening of a new brewery. I know it’s there and I’ll find it. Someday. I promise.

So I looked into Nathaniel Dickey. I had an itch to know the background to his story and — the most important thing, from my point of view at the time — the story of the house that Nathaniel Dickey built.

It was actually fairly easy to get an early quick-fix on Nathaniel Dickey. Which was good, because I saw the Dickey connection as merely a footnote to the much more important Macdonald story.

But one thing led to another, one bit of information raised questions which led to another door, which opened into a hallway with half a dozen more doors (some just closed, others locked tight). And those new doors led to still more doors and still more questions. And behind many of those doors was completely contradictory information. You get the picture.

Thus my short, simple, straight-forward story turned into “a family saga spanning centuries and continents.” And only “Part 1″ to boot. Lordy.

I doubt that many people will continue with me on this whole journey, but I welcome those who do and wish us all good luck. This thing will evolve over time as new facts and perspectives come to light, so I will add updates as seems appropriate.

But right now I have to start writing something; it’s better to make changes later than to wait until I think I know everything about the subject, a day that will never come. Besides, I don’t want to make the story of one family with which I have absolutely no connection (apart from curiosity) my life’s work. I still have Rob Ford and Steve Harper and Vlad Putin to deal with.

So let’s start with my entry point into the story of Nathaniel Dickey, iron founder, and his family. That would be this biographical sketch on Nathaniel’s brother James from Volume II of the 1885 History of Toronto and County of York published by C. Blackett Robinson.

1885-bio-James-1

1885-bio-james-2

It all seems straight-forward enough, doesn’t it? The two immigrant Dickey brothers “retired” in 1876, the same year Nathaniel sold his house to Macdonald, and turned over the successful business to their brother-in-law and partner, John Neil (or Neill — it goes back and forth all over the place).

Keep moving, folks, nothing to look at here. Except …

Except when you do keep looking, so much of that brief entry turns out to be coverup or disputed or just plain wrong.

For starters, both of the Dickey brothers were just in their early 40s at the time — in the prime of life, career-wise, and certainly nowhere near an age any entrepreneur with gumption would retire either then or now. And neither of those Dickey boys was what you would call “retiring” in a commercial, social, political, legal or militant sense either.

So let’s go back, as best we can, to the beginning of the Dickey saga and see where it takes us.

The Dickey family was what used to be known as “Scotch Irish” — poor Scottish Protestant farmers and labourers recruited by the English (and Scottish) King James I in the first two decades of the 17th Century to colonize Ireland and subdue the rebellious Catholic natives.

I’ll tell you which Dickey made that crossing of the North Channel soon enough, but we can trace the family line back five generations before that to one Scottish landowner named Robert Dik who was born in 1463 in the reign of the fifth Scottish Stewart king and who sired eight children before he died at the ripe old age (for that time) of 75 in 1538 in the reign of the seventh Stewart sovereign, father of the notable (and beheaded) Mary.

(NOTE: The name is spelled both Stewart and Stuart but since it comes from a man known as “Robert the Steward” I think the “Stewart” spelling is probably more faithful to the origin.)

Before Robert Dik died, the family surname had become Dickey and, with eight children to carry on the line, a huge number of people now named Dickey — perhaps all of them, for all I know — can count Robert Dik as their ancestor.

We move ahead half a century and move from the fields and farms of rural lowland Scotland to the shops and houses of urban Glasgow where John Dickey III was born in 1584 (about 20 years after Shakespeare was born, although neither John Dickey III, his children nor his children’s children would have ever heard the name Shakespeare). John had the misfortune to lose his parents in his early teens but at least his father had been a  successful small merchant and left the boy with some property and what appeared to be a modestly comfortable future.

Until disaster struck in the form of Glasgow’s Great Fire of 1601. Everything the 17-year-old owned was burned to the ground and he was left penniless.

So poor and without prospects in his native land, John Dickey III was a prime candidate to join the flotilla of Scottish Protestant colonizers sent across the narrow sea of the North Channel to conquer Ireland a few years later by James I, King of Great Britain, as he styled himself.

ScottishU-landlords

At this point, the English had been trying to subdue Ireland for centuries — since at least the Norman period — with varying degrees of success. And the Gaelic Irish had been resisting — with varying degrees of success — for centuries.

This latest attempt at subjugation was focused on the northern part of Ireland known as Ulster not so much because it was closest to Scotland, but because Irish resistance had been strongest in Ulster and the English wanted to replace the most rebellious Irish Catholics with loyal and dependable Scottish Protestant subjects.

So John Dickey III was one of those who came in and drove off the Irish, built fortified towns and established what was known as the Ulster plantation.

At almost exactly the same time as the English were planting themselves in colonies on the inhospitable shores of wild America, the Scots were planting themselves in colonies on the green but equally hostile terrain of wild Ireland.

John Dickey III died in Ballymenas, Antrim, in 1641, having fathered three children and established the Dickey family in Ireland.

What followed is known as the Ascendancy, the establishment of a minority Protestant elite ruling over a disenfranchised Catholic majority, with its high point being Protestant William of Orange’s defeat of Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Now not all the Protestant “Scotch Irish” made it into this ascendant elite. A lot of them were relatively poor tenant farmers and tradesmen — but all of them were better off than the impoverished Gaelic Catholic masses, received at least a smattering of education, had more opportunities for advancement and had more rights and privileges. And they fought to hold on to those advantages.

irish-rebellion

The Dickey family weaved through all this turmoil, surviving and growing and staying mostly grounded in Antrim.

By the early 1700s “Nathaniel” was an established name in the Dickey family. And by the time our Nathaniel Dickey emigrated to Canada with his brother James in 1847, he was the sixth generation of his family in direct succession to be named “Nathaniel.” (Our Nathaniel for some reason didn’t name any of his children Nathaniel, although one — born W. Arthur Dickey in Toronto in 1869 — appears to have later changed his name by deed poll to Nathaniel Adam Dickey as an adult in the U.S.)

One of those earlier Nathaniels was quite famous as a leader of Methodists in Ulster who broke with the parent church in 1798 over the right of the people to choose their own ministers. I don’t want to get caught up in the intricacies of Methodism’s schism any more than I wanted to step into the whole Irish Catholic-Protestant quagmire. Suffice it to say, the Dickeys’ standing rose within the lower ranges of Scotch-Irish Ulster society but still did not elevate them into the elite.

The family had moved to Lisburn  (still in Antrim) just south of Belfast by the time our Nathaniel’s grandfather (also named Nathaniel, of course) died there at age 71 in 1828.

(If you’re a Dickey genealogist, you may have come across some information saying this Nathaniel was our Nathaniel’s father, not grandfather. Couldn’t be: Our Nathaniel was born in 1829 — not 1826 as is often erroneously reported — the year after that Nathaniel died, and several of our Nathaniel’s siblings were born even later. The plethora of “Nathaniel Dickey” namesakes probably led to the confusion. It was our Nathaniel’s brother James, by the way, who was born in 1826. In the 1881 Canadian census, James lists his age as 55 and Nathaniel lists his age as 52, ages which coincide with the 1826 and 1829 birth years.)

Now one thing that’s interesting here is that our Nathaniel’s grandfather was married to a “Quakeress” (name unknown — which indicates the information on the gravestone was supplied much later and with sketchy authority) so the family was obviously not dogmatically rigid at this time.

Anyway … our Nathaniel Dickey was born in Lisburn, as were siblings James, John, Thomas, William, Robert, Adam, Samuel and Sarah. Quite a crowd. Too many to be supported by one family farm.

Fortunately for the Dickeys, the Industrial Revolution came along just in time to provide factory work for some of the increasing number of farm folk headed for the cities and towns.

old-belfast

And also fortunately for the Dickeys, they were Protestant Scotch-Irish with a basic education, so they were considered employable by the other Protestant Scotch-Irish who owned the factories.

James for sure and almost certainly Nathaniel and possibly one or two other younger brothers were engaged as apprentice machinists in the MacAdam Brothers’ Soho Foundries in Belfast.

Like many iron foundries around the world, the Belfast Soho operation was named in honour of the original Soho Foundry in Birmingham, where James Watt developed the first truly efficient steam engines, thus making the Industrial Revolution possible. Steam engines and turbines and boilers were the cutting edge of technology in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, so calling your iron foundry Soho was a little like independent computer designers today calling their operations “Apple” — the difference being that people could get away with it 200 years ago. And it was, after all, a mark of respect and homage. Keep that in mind when the name Soho Foundry comes up later.

Anyway, several of the young Dickeys got their grounding in mechanical engineering and iron foundering with the MacAdams. The Belfast Soho Foundries built steam engines and turbines (as well as spinning machines) for mills throughout Britain and even exported some of their engines as far away as Egypt.

So the Dickeys are now gathering in Belfast in the mid-1840s. And this is where we will pause.

The Great Famine of 1845-50 is about to descend on Ireland and blow the entire Dickey family (in several waves) across the Atlantic to Canada. But we’ll get to that in a few days. I’m still opening doors and poking in the Dickey family closets. I am, after all, Nosey Parker.

See you soon.

 

 

 

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