A sunny December Wednesday, cold, but a perfect day for a late-season bike ride. I bundle up and head out to the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 81 hectares of winding roads and home to some of the country's oldest and most diverse trees and shrubs. Established before Toronto was a city by our first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, the Yonge-Eglinton-area cemetery promotes itself as "an arboretum for the enjoyment of the public."
I wind down to an older section where the Eatons, Westons, Masseys and all the wealthy pioneers of Toronto are buried. There are mausoleums with fluted granite columns, some designed by renowned architects, that tell of old money and the ancient craft of masonry.
The air is fresh and sharp and smells like leaves, but as I continue wheeling along the path something different accosts my senses -- the whiff of sawdust and the sound of chainsaws.
Suddenly I'm in a clearing. Where ancient yews and junipers stood, there's now a clear-cut view to the road on the other side. Gone are close to 70 fully mature, 6- to 7-metre trees that used to frame the old monuments. Not only are they cutting on cemetery property, they are cutting down plantings on almost 40 private grave sites.
The ground is littered with name tags from some of the removed trees. Names like corkscrew hazel, Siberian peashrub, Japanese yew, Sawara cypress. Confused squirrels bound over the fallen timber. So much for perpetuity. So much for green-space or wildlife habitat. There's enough logging by the side of the road to fill up a hockey rink.
What is going on here? In the next week, I place a number of calls. The first is to Jack Radecki, chief arborist at Mount Pleasant. "I have an agreement with the city," he tells me. "I don't need a permit if a tree is diseased or interfering with cemetery property. The large yews and junipers, I agree, they were healthy, but we can't have them outgrowing the monuments' space or obstructing the headstones."
But who's to say what words like "interfering" and "outgrowing" mean? Is a tree or shrub detrimental only because it becomes too big to maintain easily? The cemetery's own bylaw goes on to say that any "rights holder" of a private lot will be notified in writing of a tree's removal. But people die. What's to prevent the cemetery from removing all shrubs once no one responds to their letters?
Mount Pleasant property manager Ian Young assures me that all letters have been sent out. "That information is private, between the family and the cemetery," he says. "This is just a situation where we want to make sure the plants have a healthy environment. It's also a safety issue. We have people walking about the cemetery and there are branches around. For anything larger than 30 centimetres in diameter, we are going to be in touch with the city."
Indeed, a city bylaw states that permits are needed to cut down any tree on private property with a trunk that's over 30 centimetres in diameter. It's a crude bylaw for most properties, never mind an arboretum, where most exotic trees and shrubs never reach that size. Back at the cutting area I note that there are between eight and 11 stumps over 30 centimetres. Did the cemetery notify the city?
Says Carol Walker Gale of the city's urban forestry services department, "Jack called us a couple of months ago about future cuttings. We thought he was going to submit something, but he didn't. We ask where people are removing trees when they submit an arborist report. Even with that report we'll inspect 90 per cent of cases." When I tell her some trees broke the 30-centimetre rule, she agrees to take a look. "We could always use more people," she complains. "We receive 30 to 40 calls a day."
Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries is a not-for-profit organization like the Red Cross or the YMCA, but no information is available about the way it run its business. I approach VP of marketing David Stones about these questions, but he responds that he's under no obligation to talk. Therein lies the problem.