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

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

Bill Freeman and Brian Iler
Proposed STOLPORT for the Toronto Islands
Proposed STOLPORT for the Toronto Islands (Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives)


The federal government and de Havilland, then a major Canadian airplane manufacturer based in Toronto, promoted a plan to use the Island Airport as the Toronto hub airport for STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) planes to centres around Ontario like London, Windsor, Goodrich, Owen Sound, Kingston and Sudbury. In 1978 the federal government offered various inducements to promote their plan. This included 5 million dollar improvements to the Island Airport and a tunnel under the Western Gap with a moving sidewalk.

By this time a new type of reform municipal politics had become established in Toronto emphasizing citizen control of their neighbourhoods. In June 1971 the Spadina Expressway was cancelled by Premier Bill Davis. David Crombie, a reform politician, became mayor in 1972 and served until 1978 when John Sewell was elected mayor. Sewell was the mayor when the federal government brought its STOL proposal to council. Sewell opposed it and council voted against it 16 to 6.

The controversy around the Island Airport continued. Finances were a constant concern. The annual deficits of the Maple City ferry (the ferryboat to the airport across the Western Gap) increased from $171,000 in 1978 to $469,000 in 1987, and the operating losses of the airport increased from $223,000 to $656,000 in the same years. Still some politicians continued to support the airport.

Toronto Island Airport ferry - 1952
Toronto Island Airport ferry - 1952 (Courtesy of Toronto Public Library)

In the 1980 Toronto municipal election, Art Eggleton defeated Sewell and was elected mayor. He supported STOL service at the airport, but with conditions. After negotiations, in June 1983, the Tripartite Agreement, governing the operations of the Island Airport, was signed by the City of Toronto, the Toronto Harbour Commission and the Government of Canada.

In essence the Tripartite Agreement is a lease of a portion of the airport lands owned by the city. For a nominal rent paid to the city, the Harbour Commission could operate the airport under the conditions of the agreement. The agreement runs for fifty years until 2033. It bans jets. Aircraft using the airport needed to have STOL capabilities, or be one of a list of acceptable aircraft. There would be no airport expansion, no bridge (“fixed link”) and no further government subsidies. Noise was not to exceed a noise calculation called NEF 25.

The Tripartite Agreement stimulated activity at the airport, but no company ever tried to execute the plan of STOL commercial service to small Ontario centers, using the Island as a hub. Presumably, none of the companies thought the plan would be profitable. Regardless, the federal government provided another $20 million for Island Airport improvements in 1984.

Soon a number of companies tried to establish passenger service at the Island.
  • Otonabee Airlines offered service from the Island to Montreal for a few years.

  • In 1981 Voyageur Airlines flew to North Bay and later Sudbury. It failed.

  • The feds offered a company called Canaviere a loan guarantee of $20 million in 1983 but it never operated out of the Island.

  • In 1986 Trillium offered service to St Catharine’s. It failed.

  • In 1986 Skywalker was flying from the Island to Buffalo and Rochester. It failed.

  • Victor Pappalardo purchased Otonabee Airlines and renamed it City Express. The company purchased Dash 7 planes (which were STOL) and flew from the Island to Montreal, Ottawa and Newark N.J. In February 1991 City Express ended in bankruptcy. Papalardo admitted it was never profitable.

  • Air Ontario, which eventually became owned by Air Canada, flew out of the Island Airport from 1990 to 2006. In 2006 the company’s business had dwindled to just 22,321 passengers when it was evicted by Porter.

By the late 1990s it was clear that commercial airline service out of the Island Airport was a failure. Millions of dollars of public money had been poured into the airport from the city and federal government to cover deficits and make improvements. Several companies tried to establish airline services but every one had failed. It seemed obvious that this was the time to close the airport and look for other uses for the airport land, but that is not what happened.

Toronto Island Airport (Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives)
Toronto Island Airport (Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives)

The bridge

In the 1990s the federal government changed their policies around airports and airlines. Before that time, it was felt that the country needed a strong airline industry and the only way to get that was with government protection and financial support. The new federal policy was that the Canadian airline industry was now mature and airlines and airports were to be self-sufficient.

In 1995 the federal subsidy to the Island Airport ended. This was an emergency for the airport because it continued to bleed money. The city replaced the feds and provided subsidies of about $1 million a year to cover airport losses.

Following their new transportation policy, in 1998 the federal government passed the Canada Marine Act which created the Toronto Port Authority (TPA), responsible for the airport and the port. The act stipulated that the Port Authorities were to be independent, financially self-sufficient agencies. New directors were appointed to the TPA Board. They would determine the future of the Island Airport.

Rather than looking for alternative uses for the airport land, the TPA Board decided to aggressively expand the airport by attracting new airlines. In order to expand the airport, the TPA Board said they needed a bridge across the Western Gap to ensure adequate emergency access to a possible crash at the Airport and that meant the Tripartite Agreement had to be amended to allow the bridge.

That decision led to one of the most intense political controversies in recent Toronto history. The city held public consultations about the bridge, and CommunityAIR, led by a former city councillor, Allan Sparrow, organized over 100 citizens to give deputations opposing the bridge and airport expansion. However, Toronto City Council voted in favour of the bridge in 2003.

In that same year, 2003, a municipal election was going on. David Miller was running for mayor. He was the only candidate to oppose the bridge and he was elected mayor largely on his promises to oppose Island Airport expansion and cancel the bridge. Miller’s first act as mayor was to put forward a motion to Toronto City Council to cancel the bridge. The motion passed by a huge majority.

To implement that decision, the federal government announced that it would not permit a bridge to be built.

The airport and the city

Again, one might think that this was the moment to close the airport. The people across the entire city had demonstrated their opposition to the Island Airport. But no. The members of the board of the Toronto Port Authority accepted the cancellation of the bridge. There were still safety issues. Lisa Raitt, then the CEO of the Port Authority, had said earlier that the bridge was essential for safety. But this was ignored and the TPA voted to continue to expand the airport without the bridge.

Toronto Harbour Commission - 1923
Toronto Harbour Commission - 1923 (Courtesy of Toronto Public Library)

The other thing to keep in mind is that at the same time that the intense debate was going on about the airport, there were other important, developments going on in the city and along Toronto’s Waterfront.

In 1998 The provincial government of Mike Harris passed legislation to create what came to be called “Megacity.” The suburbs of North York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, York and East York were amalgamated with the City of Toronto and elected their own councillors to city council. That made the downtown councillors much weaker because there were more councillors from the suburbs. Downtown issues, like the Island Airport, became less important.

In 2001 Waterfront Toronto was created by the federal government, the province and the city. Its mandate was, and continues to be, to turn Toronto’s waterfront into live-work communities with parks and recreation facilities. This has become the biggest redevelopment project in North America costing billions of dollars from both public and private sectors. The Waterfront is immediately adjacent to the airport.

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