there's something about cana dian artist Gordon MacNamara that keeps bringing images of archetypal figures to my mind. For one, at the age of 92 he looks like a cross between Chief Dan George and Don Quixote. If, like Quixote, he were just tilting at windmills, though, it wouldn't be so easy to take his side in the battle he's currently waging. Windmills are after all sound ecological devices. The object of MacNamara's wrath, the Canadian Tire Corporation, is, among other things, a dispenser of an energy source not generally regarded as clean or ecological - gasoline.
But it's not that part of the business that's got MacNamara so up in arms. It's the two towers Canadian Tire proposes to erect on its Church and Yonge site and, more importantly, the shadows they will cast.
MacNamara has, for the past 50 years, owned and painted in an artist's studio on Severn Road in Rosedale Valley just below the Canadian Tire store parking lot. But this isn't just any artist's studio. It's a famous cultural landmark, widely cherished as the home of the Group of Seven and the Canadian art movement.
Built with the financial support of artist Lawren Harris and opened in 1914, the building was designed to capture and maximize the natural sunlight that streams in through its massive wall of windows to glorious effect. In this light that flows in from the north over the ravine system, such great Canadian artists as Tom Thomson, A. Y. Jackson and Harold Town have lived and painted masterpieces.
But that natural light that is such a precious resource to painters is now threatened. Somehow, the massive Canadian Tire Corp. has managed to acquire an exemption to the well-thought-out downtown zoning by-laws that limit the height of any high-rise in the area to 10 stories.
The good reasons for this policy have to do with the ecology of the ravine system that undulates through the area, with population density and property values. None, overtly, has anything to do with art or "the view." But art will be adversely affected by the planned 25- and 18-storey towers Canadian Tire intends to perch on the lip of the ravine.
If these massive buildings are allowed to go up, the northern light that floods in all day long during the summer months, MacNamara says, will be cut off at 3 in the afternoon - a loss of five or six hours a day of precious painting time to him, who like many artists paints in nothing but natural light. And so, in his vigorous old age, he has taken to fighting the forces of darkness. Corporate darkness. The battle lines are drawn: Canadian Tire versus Canadian art. Visiting him down in his valley studio and seeing how the ancient light slants in through the large steel sash windows, illuminating the elegant interior, I can understand why he would want to fight the gloom.
He sits back in one of the large mahogany chairs, revealing big blue veins that run right down the front of his arms and fan out over his wrists like tributaries of some great river. He looks like Old Man Canada himself. But he has a light, cheery air, too. Sometimes when he speaks, his voice sings up into a delighted falsetto. He almost skips when he walks. But light-hearted as he seems, he's not someone to mess with, as the iron grip of his handshake readily attests.
"It's a matter of right to light,' he says. "Not just for the studio but for the park.' He is referring to the recently dedicated Lawren Harris Park. "Why would they go to all the trouble of naming it, only to cast it into shadow for half the day?' he asks furiously.
In the course of this struggle, MacNamara has taken his case to council and ratepayers meetings to no avail. On June 20, when he appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), Canadian Tire's lawyers made a motion to dismiss the case. This shifted the onus of proof onto MacNamara. So far, he has funded this fight from his own pocket, but the money needed to pay for expensive wind, light and shadow studies is clearly beyond his means. If he's unable to come up with any substantial evidence by August 18, when the pre-hearing is scheduled, the case could be thrown out.
A former lawyer, he has called on powerful allies including Pierre Théberge, director of the National Gallery of Canada, who says in a support statement that "walling in the ravine with high-rise buildings and casting the park and building in shadow for a large part of the day would indeed be detrimental to the appreciation of this monument of Canadian art."
Christopher Borgal, president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, puts it even more emphatically. He tells me the plan is "a desecration of a site of national significance.' None of this, though, seems to have had much effect, and barring an upset, the planned desecration will go ahead.
What can account for the apparent ferocity of Canadian Tire's determination to build these two towers? Are they perhaps constructing new affordable residences for the homeless? Are these towers actually large photoelectric dynamos that will harvest the light for a new friendly car fuel? No, the two towers are intended as condos for the wealthy. Ah, Canadian Tire, Tirelessly blocking the light.
Maybe the company has its own version of this fairy tale of light and darkness wherein they're the good guys. If they do, they're not telling it very well. A week after my initial enquiry I finally receive a message from Jennifer Sexton of their public relations deparment.
"Canadian Tire had extensive consultations with ratepayers associations, city staff and the local councilor, Kyle Rae," she assures me. "And there's been a high level of support throughout.'
Maybe the Old Man is starting to wear them down. Maybe they're just plain Canadian Tired of answering questions. On the other hand, councillor Kyle Rae, whose job it is to strike a balance among the conflicting interests of developers and citizens groups in the downtown core, is more fluent. He assures me there's been no funny business. All of this has had due process and, in fact, the building of the two towers has been approved by the South Rosedale Ratepayers. There's been no change in the allowable population density for the area.
If Canadian Tire were to construct lower condos over a wider area of the site, they could easily and legally house at least as many people as the planned towers. Density is just being "re-massed" - upward. As for the issue of a painter's light, Rae is unsympathetic. First, the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board), which oversees these things, makes no allowances for "view." If view were an issue, no more high-rises would be built anywhere in the downtown core.
None of this brings much comfort to Gordon MacNamara. When he's not painting cockfights and crosses, he plots boycotts, appeals, petitions. He will defeat the shadow. He smiles when I ask if he's obsessed with this fight, if it keeps him awake at night. The answer is a calm Zenlike no. MacNamara has clearly developed some warrior smarts in his 92 years, and he doesn't intend to let this battle undermine his health. He's stewarded this light for 50 years, and he will guard it to the end.
At this I think of another archetypal figure, one who also had to do battle with a giant Philistine: King David. Kyle Rae has cautioned me against the obviousness of the image, but it somehow seems apt. And yea - though he walks through the valley of the shadow of Canadian Tire - I can't help wishing the Old Man good luck.