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1: Toronto’s Island Airport Lands: History and new possibilities

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

Bill Freeman and Brian Iler
1828: The city of York from Gibraltar Point
1828 – The city of York from Gibraltar Point (Toronto Public Library Archive)
A spiritual place

Before Europeans came to what we call Toronto, the Mississauga’s of the Credit viewed the Toronto Islands as a spiritual place of retreat where they came to rest and restore themselves. They camped on the Island, fished in the harbour and along the sand beaches of the lake.

When the Toronto Purchase was negotiated in 1787, the Mississaugas agreed to sale of over 250,000 acres of land for a little money, gunpowder and other items. Immediately disputes arose. The Mississaugas claimed they didn’t understand that this was a sale. They thought it was a type of rental agreement and they could continue to use the land. The British had drawn up a map of the property that included Toronto Island. The Mississaugas said they would never give up the Islands. It was sacred land for them.

The dispute was so intense that the Toronto Purchase was renegotiated in 1805 but the issue of the Toronto Islands was still not resolved. Again, the elders who negotiated the original agreement, said they would never give up the Island. Over two hundred years later, in 2010, there were new negotiations and another agreement was drawn up between the Mississaugas and the federal government. This time a more generous financial settlement was made and it resolved the issue of the Islands, but many of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations still see the Islands as a special place.

1805 – The Toronto Purchase
1805 – The Toronto Purchase

With the arrival of European settlement many, like the Mississaugas, came to see the Toronto Islands as a special place. Fishermen and their families settled on Hanlan’s Point and Ward’s Island. A lighthouse was built and first lit in 1808. People built shacks and later cottages. Yacht Clubs came to the Island in the 1880s. An amusement park, hotels and a baseball stadium were constructed at Hanlan’s Point and a thriving, busy, unique community was established.

Then someone had the idea that the Island should be turned into an airport.

An island airport

When the proposal to build the Toronto Island Airport was first floated in the early 1930s it immediately met criticism. The airport would be an extension of the industrial land along the Waterfront, but it would also be in the midst of Toronto’s major recreational assets enjoyed by all of the people of the city: the Island Park and community, the harbour and Lake Ontario.

After a polarizing debate at Toronto City Council, the airport was approved in 1937. That debate, pitting those who believed the airport would bring economic development to the city, and those who believed an airport on the Waterfront, in the centre of the city, with its noise and pollution, would damage the quality of life of the people, has shaped the political controversy on the airport from that day to this, eighty-six years later.

1939 - The Toronto Island Airport from the Canada Malting Silos
1939 – The Toronto Island Airport (City of Toronto Archives)

This is a summary of those debates and controversies and an account of what actually happened at the airport. It goes on to describe new possibilities for the airport lands.

The war years

The airport was built on fill drawn from the bottom of the harbour and grew to about 200 acres in size. It opened in 1938, just before the beginning of the Second World War. Until 1945 it was a training facility for flyers.

First it was used by the Royal Norwegian Airforce. There were so many complaints from nearby residents about the noise and pollution that the Norwegians decamped and moved to Gravenhurst. Later it was used by the Canadian Airforce as a training facility.

At the very same debate in 1937 that approved the Island Airport, city council also approved another city airport. It was called Malton Airport because it was close to the town of Malton in the west end. Malton was to be a secondary airport and the airport on the island was to be the city’s main airport. It didn’t work out that way.

By the end of the war the complaints about the Island Airport were so serious that other solutions had to be found. Noise and pollution were the chief concerns of nearby resident but there were other issues. The runways were too short; there was no room for expansion without more lake filling; there were safety problems because the airport is surrounded by water; and it often was fogged in during spring and fall.

Meanwhile the Malton Airport had none of those problems, and more important as it turns out, it had land available for expansion. After 1945 it became Toronto’s major airport, the largest in Canada. Today it handles over 50 million passengers a year and tons of cargo. We call it Pearson International Airport.

After the war

1945 would have been a perfect time to close the Island Airport. There was no military need for it and after the war it was used mainly by small planes owned by businesses and wealthy people. The destinations of many flights were to cottages in Muskoka and the Kawarthas. There were accusations that the Island Airport was a government subsidy for the rich. By 1952 the accumulated losses of running the Island Airport from 1945 was $752,000. That is $7.5 million today, a lot of money for an airport that is providing nothing to the city other than complaints.

Still, there were supporters of the airport. In 1959 the major runway on the Island was extended to 1211 meters with lake filling. The Western Gap was dredged, an air traffic control tower was built and a new hanger. The footprint of the airport became 215 acres, the same size it is today. Subsidies from the feds continued to flow into the airport to cover their annual deficit and keep it operating.

By that time many didn’t think the airport would survive and looked to other alternatives. The province commissioned Eb Zeidler, perhaps the leading architect in Canada at the time, to design “Harbour City.” It proposed converting the airport lands into a residential community with a system of canals and recreational facilities. By 1972 even Harbour City failed because a new idea seized the imaginations of politicians and the business community – turboprop airplanes.

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