Susan Swan

I resolve to...protest when it counts

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I don’t like bullies. That’s what i told a friend who asked me why I work for political causes like boycotting the Island Airport. Why bother, he asked, when the grassroots campaign to close the airport seems to be going nowhere? My friend has a point. Despite a 2003 civic election in which a majority of Torontonians voted for the only mayoral candidate against a bridge to the airport, and despite Mayor David Miller’s determined opposition to its expansion, the Island Airport is currently seeing 28 landings and take-offs a day, and there are plans to raise the number to 35,000 flights a year.

Recently, the Toronto Board of Trade backed the airport expansion while editorials often dismiss protests as a NIMBY issue that only matters to people living on the waterfront.

Which brings me back to my friend’s question about activism. I became a member of community AIR in 2002 after returning from a cottage weekend to find Toronto blanked out by a veil of smog. The organization had been founded a year earlier by Allan Sparrow to stop the expansion of the polluting airport and restore the 215-acre site to its zoned use for recreation and culture.

I’m an activist, not just a novelist, because activism works. I may forget that it works in the middle of a long, discouraging campaign like this one, but the 2000 members of Community AIR persist. Documents show that an expanded airport will dump massive amounts of pollutants into Lake Ontario and Toronto’s already dirty atmosphere.

After Porter Airlines launched in October, downtown residents noticed an odour like kerosene in their homes kerosene is what jet fuel smells like.

The 1960s faith in activism has stayed with me. I believe we are citizens, not just consumers. My citizen’s voice is different from my narrative voice in fiction, but it is nonetheless an expression of who I am and how I want the world around me to be.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen extraordinary political change. Feminism improved the quality of women’s lives irrevocably. When I started writing, all Canadian books were sold at the back of the store in a section labelled Canadiana, which suggested they were manuals for stripping pine furniture. Popular foreign books were sold at the front in the bestseller section, and foreign publishers expected writers like me to sell them the Canadian rights to a novel and forgo a Canadian edition of my work.

Activism changed these practices.

Luckily, Porter Airlines is not faring well. A recent Community AIR survey estimates that Porter’s planes are just 35 per cent full (and that’s a generous estimate). The poor showing isn’t a surprise. For over six decades, the fog-prone Toronto Island Airport has been a money-losing proposition. And the Toronto Port Authority, the federal agency that brought us the doomed Rochester ferry, hasn’t shown much business savvy (just a tendency to bully taxpayers).

Do we really need a bigger carbon footprint at the gate to our city? Why not promote green growth on the site city planners have designated as parkland? Waterfront renewal will offer 25,000 permanent jobs, a million square feet of new construction and $12 billion in new investment compared to the 100 or so jobs created by the Island Airport.

On the other hand, a busy commercial airport could turn our city into another Detroit, hollowing out Toronto like a doughnut when many business and residents relocate to outlying areas.

So dismiss activism as hopeless if you need to vent. Just boycott the airport. Or pick up a placard and join me. I’ll be demonstrating down at the bottom of Bathurst Quay every Friday in the New Year between 5 and 7 pm. Environment issues have never been more important, which means we’ll win eventually, inevitably.


Susan Swan, a member of Community AIR, lives in the heart of Toronto. She is also a novelist and York University humanities professor. What Casanova Told Me is her most recent fiction.

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