Meanwhile, in Pickering…

Ours was the last family relocated from airport lands


It seems no matter where I lay my bones, I’m followed by the sound of jet engines overhead. 

I live at Queen and Spadina, a stone’s throw from the Island airport. I love living on Queen – don’t get me wrong. 

But since moving to Toronto, I’ve pushed painful memories from my mind that are revived every time I catch sight or sound of a plane landing at the airport.

I grew up in Pickering, but not near Frenchman’s Bay or on White’s Road or even the Pickering Town Centre. I grew up in the northern part in the countryside often referred to as the “airport lands.”

As a child, I didn’t think much of the proposed airport project. Most of my days were spent with my sister Nicole swimming in the local creek in the summer or building snow forts in the winter. Seriously – we actually swam in a creek, and the snow up there was The Dog Who Stopped The War deep. I knew it was a precarious situation of sorts. My parents rented our house from the federal government. 

Yet I had no idea of the nightmare that would eventually befall my family in the early 1990s when the debate over what to do with the 7,000-plus- hectare land mass was reopened and there was a surge of support for building an international airport. 

From then on, we lived in a constant state of anxiety. We were too paranoid to call our landlord – the “feds,” as my dad called them – for repairs on the house, as they might find something that would lead to our being evicted. We stopped trimming the trees around our property so others couldn’t see in. We lost contact with the majority of our neighbours. We isolated ourselves and hoped the world would ignore us. And for many years it worked.

However, in late 2004, after 25 years in our quaint one-floor, handmade bungalow, my parents were forced out. The delivery truck driver filling our oil tank accidentally spilled some on the lawn, and when inspectors came to assess the damage, they also poked around inside and said the furnace wasn’t up to code. And instead of being allowed to buy a replacement unit, my parents were told they had one month to pack up their things and vacate. 

Ours was the last family relocated from the area to another home on federal land. Within a few months, many of our new neighbours would suffer a similar fate. Dozens were evicted on a variety of trumped-up issues and their homes boarded up. 

For years afterwards, my parents would visit their old homestead once a year in the summer to pick flowers and wade in nostalgia. They did this until the summer of 2010, when a suspicious fire gutted the house before a bulldozer was brought in to erase any sign that our family had once lived there. Demolitions soon followed for all the empty homes in the area.

During this time, I moved to Toronto. However, when the previous federal finance minister Jim Flaherty announced in June 2013 that the federal government would be moving forward again with its airport plans, I was shocked, angered and dismayed. It opened old wounds. 

As my father once told me, we only rent any plot on earth for a short time. And that is why I’m paying close attention to the Island airport now that downtown is my home. 

Perhaps what’s happening in Pickering can give us pause to reflect on the future of the waterfront and the effects of the actions of elected officials when land is developed and lives altered.    

Geoff Norris is co-producer with Kyle Lennan of Presence, an emotionally-charged documentary about the expropriation of the best farmland in Canada for the Pickering airport. 

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