Allan Sparrow, former City of Toronto and Metro Councillor and public space activist, died this week at the age of 63.
Sparrow was a key figure in stopping the Spadina Expressway, a three-term reformer at City Hall and a long-time advocate for the Toronto Island. Several tributes, from NDP chief Jack Layton to Mayor David Miller, were paid to the 1970s community organizer. However, no words on the life of Sparrow are more appropriate than his own: shortly before he passed away in London Health Sciences Centre’s Victoria Hospital on Wednesday, he penned his own obituary, or, as he called it, an 'autobit.'
The following is how Sparrow saw his own life - in his unedited own words - followed by a brief biography written by his friend, Marc Brien (in italics).
One of the good things about being dead is that you don’t have to gnash your teeth at the usually well intentioned but often off the mark obituaries that others write about you.
This is my modest attempt to combine a compressed autobiography and obituary into my ‘autobit’.
I was probably best known as a councillor representing Toronto’s downtown core from 1974 to 1980 who fought rapacious developers, gouging landlords and a xenophobic police force, while simultaneously helping to craft a new city plan ..... This period is now widely referred to as Toronto’s `golden age’ of community participation.”My election in 1974 was supported by all of the downtown neighbourhood groups and attracted more than 1,000 volunteers to defeat a developer-backed incumbent who was determined to bulldoze the historic and unique Toronto Island community and to devastate the Church/Wellesley community with a series of road widenings. Today the Island is recognized as a model car free, green and creative neighbourhood and Church/Wellesley is the lively heart of Toronto’s gay community.
Out of this crucible of conflict in the 70s, my progressive City Council colleagues and thousands of civic activists crafted a new neighbourhood-based city plan for Toronto. Much of this plan remains in place today and contributes to Toronto’s vitality. The plan was enacted in spite of opposition from the three daily newspapers and Toronto’s self-serving establishment including a puffed up and wrong-headed Board of Trade. Some things never change.
What is now considered “corruption” was legal. Politicians could pocket “left over” campaign contributions, and many raised money almost exclusively from the limitless coffers of the property development industry.
To counter these pre-owned politicians, I helped form Reform Metro, a progressive, metro-wide political action group that recruited and supported community-based politicians. A decade later, I formed Reform Toronto, a city-based group which published The Badger, a hard-hitting and irreverent tabloid newspaper about city issues. Tens of thousands of copies of The Badger were distributed by volunteers throughout Toronto neighbourhoods. The tabloid let municipal voters see their city councillor’s voting record and was a key to electing a progressive council in the 1988 election. Reform Toronto was early into many of the environmental battles still facing Toronto, including the need for more affordable TTC fares and expanded and safe bike lanes.
One of the highlights of my political career was forging an alliance among the leaderships of the Black, South Asian and gay communities to take on the Toronto Police Commission for tolerating racism, homophobia and sexism on the force. I helped found The Working Group on Police/Minority Relations. When it was rebuffed by the police, a more pro-active organization, The Citizens’ Independent Review of Police Activities was born. It set up a 24-hour hotline staffed by volunteers to field complaints about police misconduct, indentifying a group of officers who engaged in systemic abuse, so much so that Amnesty International cited their misconduct and the failure of the police leadership to curb it.
The police fought back with lawsuits and charges against community leaders, including against me. I knew I must be doing something right when I was simultaneously sued by the Toronto Police Association for libel and by the self-styled king of the body rub parlour operators for cleaning up the sex-for-hire businesses that had taken over parts of Yonge St.
On the positive side, I helped steer the design of the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, a new model downtown community, embracing a mix of affordable and market-priced housing centred on a park and community recreation centre. My greatest joys were facilitating the construction of non-profit housing projects, organizing tenants to achieve meaningful rent controls, eliminating discrimination against families with children in rental housing, imposing tight zoning controls to protect older residential neighbourhoods from destruction, establishing the 519 Church Community Centre, as well as setting the stage for community centres at Harbourfront and St. Lawrence.
After three terms at City Hall I stepped aside enabling the first openly gay candidate, George Hislop, to run for office.
Bracketing these initiatives was my involvement, before being elected, in stopping the Spadina Expressway and, 30 years later, stopping the bridge to the Island Airport and fighting to restore the airport lands to their zoned use for public park and recreation. In the case of Spadina, activists used the threat of raw political power to unseat the incumbent Tory MPP, and the province capitulated. As for the ongoing battle over the future of the Island Airport lands, some things never change. The privileged and civically disengaged will continue to pollute and degrade Toronto’s waterfront with their “save a few minutes at all costs” life style. Like Spadina, at the end of the day, the larger community will prevail, but not without struggle.
In 1981, I founded Domicity Ltd., an information technology consulting company which has helped reshape the use of advanced IT in large private and government organizations. Domicity also advises IT hardware, software and services vendors on competitive issues and business strategies. For several years I was the federal government’s consultant of record for attracting IT investment to Canada and led missions to Japan, Korea and Silicon Valley.
My partners in Domicity, Sue Sparrow and Marc Brien were my mainstays in life and, laterally, in the effort to prolong it. Trust me it is harder on the caregivers than on those who receive their loving attention.
The organizing, electioneering, hectoring and hard work throughout my lifetime were leavened by travel, movies and more movies and my personal credo of “sex, politics and rock and roll” including last sets at Grossman’s, The Horseshoe, the Bev, Midwich Cuckoo, the Cameron, the Gasworks, the Elmo as well as community fundraising concerts organized by Sue, ranging from pianist Anton Kuerti to Perth County Conspiracy, the Good Brothers, Ernie Smith’s Roots Revival, Teenage Head and Johnny and the G-Rays.
There’s more of course - my remarkable romance of 45 years with Sue and the family and friends with whom I’ve shared so much love and affection. These memories will live on with them.
My early years are captured in my upcoming novel NAMAO … the God of Speed and Death. Built on an autobiographical framework, NAMAO uses events during my childhood to trace and analyse major trends - the back story - of the second half of the 20th century.
By way of background
Allan Sparrow was born July 22, 1944 in Vancouver BC. He was raised an air force ‘brat’, growing up on a series of bases across Canada, including Vancouver, Edmonton, Trenton, Picton and Ottawa.
Following his marriage to Sue in 1965, the two spent a year travelling to New Zealand and Australia.
After returning to Canada they lived in downtown Toronto and moved to Stratford in early 2007, a town Al spent much time in during his boyhood.
As a three-term Councillor (1974 to 1980), and as a community organizer before and after this period, Al helped lead many fights to improve city life.
Al died of colorectal cancer. The original prognosis gave him just six to 18 months to live. He was into his seventh year when he died, thanks to his indomitable spirit and a treatment regime based on aggressive nutritional strategies and multiple surgical interventions.
Al will live on in the hearts of all those for whom he improved the world or cajoled into watching movies, attending football games or listening to rock and roll.