After the flood: can Toronto Islands be saved from the next disaster?


The flood waters had only begun to subside, but over the August long weekend, the Ward’s Island Association annual Summer Gala was in full swing beside the Ward’s Island Clubhouse. The band played, and attendees wore T-shirts that read “I Survived the Flood of 2017.”

“We laughed, we drank beer on the bowling green,” says long-time Island resident Jay Bascom. “We’d survived adversity in the past and we knew we could survive it again.”

A veteran of the floods of 1952, 1973, 1993 and 2017 – as well as the “40 years war” waged by the former Metro Council to evict Island residents – Bascom is a living testament to the resilience of the Toronto Islanders.

For the 20,000 people who visit them on sunny summer weekends, the Toronto Islands are a lotus land of meadows, woods, lagoons and sandy beaches (one of them clothing optional).

But for the 800 residents, 30 businesses and two schools that call the islands home, it isn’t always paradise. The weather can blast, flood and ice them in from the mainland. The land they live on is nothing more than a bump in a watery sandbox that’s slowly sinking out from under itself.

1146 Epic.jpg

Sean Tamblyn

In May, a combination of torrential rains and record runoff around the Great Lakes from an unusually warm winter raised Lake Ontario one metre above normal spring levels, its highest in more than 100 years.

Under normal circumstances, the excess water would have escaped through the Moses-Saunders Power Dam between Cornwall, Ontario, and Massena, New York. But a late spring freeze jammed the St. Lawrence. If Lake Ontario had been released then, flooding in Quebec would have been devastating. When the waters were allowed out on June 14, it was at a record rate – one-third more than the peak flow over Niagara Falls – or, if you prefer sporting analogies, more than four Olympic swimming pools of water per second.

On the Toronto Islands, geese and ducks swam on ponds that had been lawns, and carp flopped in rivers that had been roads. City Parks teams led by Island Park Supervisor Warren Hoselton, supported by residents, fortified shorelines, roads and public buildings. By the end of May, more than 45,000 sandbags, 1,000 metre bags and 27 industrial pumps had been deployed by city and Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) staff to stem the tide.


Sean Tamblyn

When it comes to the prediction of natural disasters, 100 years does not seem to be as long as it used to be.

Pumps ran around the clock through May, June and July, returning water that seeped up through sodden ground to the lake. But despite that enormous effort, 50 per cent of buildings on the islands and 50 to 60 per cent of the parklands were affected by the rising waters. The economic costs of the flood were as enormous as the effort to contain it. The Islands were closed to visitors through the busiest three months of the year. The Centreville Amusement Park and Far Enough Farm suffered $6 million in damages, which will be covered, in part, by Centreville selling its beloved 110-year-old carousel.

And so this city, where access to anywhere that’s remotely wild is difficult for those without cars, was forced to confront the reality that the Toronto Islands, in spite of their development, are the nearest to wilderness we have, so we had better do all we can to preserve them.

Was it a freak of nature or warning of worse to come?

After Hurricane Harvey’s devastation of Houston, Irma’s destructive dance through the Caribbean and Florida, and increasingly frequent and severe weather-related fires, floods, heat waves and droughts across Canada and around the planet, that is the question that politicians are going to have to answer. The TRCA, which has been fighting erosion of the islands’ shorelines for decades, knew the answer to the question years ago. When it comes to the prediction of natural disasters, 100 years does not seem to be as long as it used to be.

The Toronto Islands have always been prone to storms and floods, but over the past 200 years, their natural protections against erosion have been disappearing, due as much – maybe more – to human activity than the caprice of nature.

As far back as the 1850s, when the islands were threatened by removal of sand for construction on the mainland, Canada’s most famous scientist, Sir Sandford Fleming (the man who gave us world standard time), warned that the deposit of sediment from the Scarborough Bluffs and mouths of the Don and Rouge that built the islands is a local phenomenon that’s best not interfered with if we want the Islands to remain intact.

Toronto Island flood-1-3.jpg

Richard Longley

Despite the enormous effort to stem the tide, 50 per cent of buildings on the islands and 50 to 60 per cent of the parklands were affected by the rising waters.

Removal of sand was halted then, but deforestation of the lakeshore, “stone-hooking” that stripped the floor of Toronto Bay of its rocky armour and deepening and narrowing of the Western and Eastern Gaps, exposed the Islands to underwater erosion.

More recent developments along the lakeshore – diversion of the Don River into the Keating Channel, away from Ashbridge’s Bay paving over marshland and turning it into the industrialized Toronto Port Lands and construction of the Leslie Street Spit and stabilization of the Scarborough Bluffs – have combined to reduce the amount of sediment that lake currents used to carry toward the islands. 

The Globe and Mail’s environment reporter Martin Mittelstaedt wrote a decade ago about how these assaults had affected Lake Ontario’s capacity for destruction and repair of the Toronto Islands. According to an estimate by the TRCA, up to a sixth of the park could be lost over the next century. But the problem could easily worsen. “All we need is one high-water year and we’re really in trouble,” Joanna Kidd, a spokeswoman for the Toronto Bay Initiative, told Mittelstaedt.

That high-water year arrived in May.

Beaches along the south shore of the islands were severely depleted, nowhere more than at Gibraltar Point, the island’s exposed southwestern tip where the beach was reduced to a narrow strip of sand littered with broken trees. 

The effects of the flooding reached beyond the islands and are still being felt at Marie Curtis Park beach in Etobicoke, where large amounts of debris continue to wash up on shore, at Scarborough Bluffs in the east, where there have been significant slope failures and the Eastern Beaches, where the TRCA had to rescue the Leuty Lifeguard Station at Woodbine Beach. 

Meanwhile at the islands, water levels are 30 centimetres above pre-flood conditions in April and aren’t expected to return to normal until November.  

Watery dinner for two copy.jpg

Sean Tamblyn

Water levels at the islands are still 30 centimetres above pre-flood conditions in April and aren’t expected to return to normal until November.  

Are the islands doomed?

According to Gord MacPherson, TRCA’s senior manager of Environmental Monitoring and Habitat Restoration, the future stability of the islands will require “engineered protective structures,” artificial reefs off the south shore, starting at Gibraltar Point, to intercept incoming waves and force them to roll onto shore and drop sediment they’re carrying gently to rebuild the beach, rather than crash on it and tear sand away, as they do now, unimpeded by any underwater obstacle.

MacPherson is convinced that the engineering is sound.

But east of the islands, where the structure of the lakeshore has been altered so much by the building of Toronto, the planners and engineers at City Hall mapping the city’s future promise more changes to come.

Those include the planned “Bring Back the Don” naturalization to free the Don River from the concrete straitjacket that is the Keating Channel and creation of Villiers Island in the Port Lands. What’s proposed promises to look beautiful, provided it reduces rather than increases erosion of the Toronto Islands.

A tumultuous history from the beginning

The 2017 flood was more extreme than any in living memory but the life story of the Toronto Islands has been stormy from the start.

Mohawk historian William Smith describes the islands violent origins in A Haudenosaunee History Of Toronto Island: “The winds that day came with a terrific roar. They laid the forests flat, whipped the waves as tall as treetops and made the earth tremble. Thunder rocked the earth lightning split the sky.

“Along the lakeshore land slid into water, submerging, thrusting up, sinking again…. Great trees ripped and torn and shredded. They threshed in the howling wind, their broken and jagged ends sticking up in a great tangle of twisted branches and splintered trunks as the land continued to be swallowed by the water.”

When the storm ended, Toronto Island and a great bay were formed. The TRCA’s MacPherson has another, equally dramatic explanation for the birth of the Toronto Islands.

It starts 13,000 years ago when Ontario was covered by the one-kilometre-thick Laurentian ice sheet. South of that was glacial Lake Iroquois. Melting of the ice sheet caused this primordial great lake to rush away through the Mohawk valley, leaving behind a cliff of a shoreline topped today by Baldwin Steps, Casa Loma and St. Clair Avenue in the west and Scarborough Bluffs in the east.

The basin of the much smaller Lake Admiralty that was left behind gradually filled until, 7,000 years later, it became Lake Ontario. In 1908, city workers building a water tunnel 20 metres beneath the islands, east of Hanlan’s Point, discovered 11,000-year-old footprints. They had been made by a family in clay on the now sunken shore of Lake Admiralty.

City Inspector W. H. Cross described them for the Toronto Evening Telegram. 

“It looked like a trail. You could follow one man the whole way. There were footprints of all sizes, and a single print of a child’s foot, three and a half inches.”

Imagine what those first Torontonians might have witnessed: the Don, the Rouge and Highland Creek cutting deep valleys and pouring their waters into the Lake Ontario gyre, the counterclockwise circulation round the lake that carries water west through Toronto Bay. Sediment from those rivers, and more from erosion of the Scarborough Bluffs, began to accumulate on bedrock east of the Don and formed a narrow sand spit that grew like the fingers of a giant hand into an archipelago to protect Toronto Bay.

Breakwater copy.jpg

Sean Tamblyn

The peninsula that became the Toronto Islands 

Before the arrival of colonizers, the peninsula was used for fishing, as well as in ways we would recognize today, says Carolyn King, former Chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit.

“For our people, the Island was a retreat. They would go over for picnics, medicine picking. They went for a lot of important things, for ceremony because of the type of land that it was and is today. It still plays that same role it played for our people way back when.”

In 1793 John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, and his wife Elizabeth made a temporary home in their “canvas house” near where the foot of Bathurst Street is today. Elizabeth described in her journal the “beautifully clear and transparent” water she saw in the bay when she looked south. It was a sharp contrast to what she experienced on her way over to her new home on the schooner Onondaga, travelling through a driving rainstorm in the care of a drunken captain. 

Elizabeth survived that ordeal to become the first new Canadian on record to appreciate the Toronto Peninsula as a special place fit for bucolic pleasures, which for her included horse-racing and pyromania. (She noted the “pretty effect” she produced when she set fire to the peninsula’s dried-out vegetation.)

European occupation of the Peninsula began soon after: military storehouses in the 1790s, the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse in 1809, and, by the 1830s, sufficient settlement and tourism to warrant a ferry (powered by a pair of horses who walked treadmills connected to paddle wheels) and the peninsula’s first hotel, Michael O’Connor’s Retreat for “sportsmen, parties of pleasure and individuals who wish to inhale the lake breeze.”

Hanlan's Point Cancelled copy.jpg

Sean Tamblyn

Soon there were many fishermen on the peninsula, fishing from open boats and living in tents and huts that were frequently washed or blown away. It was a precarious existence. In the winter of 1840, a sudden storm forced many fishermen to run for their lives on slabs of ice. 

By then drastic alteration of the lakeshore and the land behind it was well underway. Forests were felled, land contours were graded. Excavation of the peninsula for the removal of sand for the building of Toronto continued apace to a depth that threatened its protection of the bay.

In the 1830s, workers employed by Joseph Bloore (brewer, builder, co-founder of the village of Yorkville and the man who gave his name to Bloor Street) were dragging a load of sand toward the city over the ice. The ice broke and all the men drowned. By the 1850s, further removal of sand was considered “unwise,” but it was still allowed northeast of the lighthouse.

In April 1858 a storm washed away the back of Quinn’s Hotel.

Jenny Quinn was seven years old then. Years later she remembered. “We found mother balancing on a board in the churning water with my baby brother in her arms and my sister Elizabeth clinging precariously to her skirts. She seemed to be standing on the only timber left from the hotel, which was disintegrating and shortly disappeared.”

Overnight the Quinns were homeless, and the peninsula had become a cluster of islands. Harbour Commissioners and island residents knew the Toronto peninsula was a shape-shifter. The islands still are.

Richard Longley is former president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. | @nowtoronto



Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content