Wednesday, October 30, 2013



Once upon a time, when life spread before me like a grand buffet, I got Toronto council to stop charging for skating and swimming.
And now, in an echo half-a-century later, councillors are considering returning to those good old days, much of which vanished when they introduced amalgamation like it was a dirty secret.
I was waiting for my ride to City Hall too many decades ago when I noticed a story tucked in the back of the Tely about a kid who had been arrested for stealing empty pop bottles. He wanted to make enough change on the deposit return to swim in the Greenwood pool down below the big house where I lived with my uncle, a GP famous in the neighbourhood.
My ride came courtesy of a city limousine provided for Donald D. Summerville, then a controller and east-end movie theatre proprietor, now remembered only for his name on an east-end pool commemorating his brief tour as mayor in 1963 before he died as a goalie in a charity hockey game.
Summerville often collected me on the way to work. He had grown up in the east-end politics that my doctor dad had dominated before his death. In return, I wrote a few speeches for him. I was a municipal reporter who knew all the issues but, in a nod to propriety, made it a rule never to write about those speeches.
Don was a breezy type who loved his Leafs and all sports and life in general. Together we were Mutt and Jeff pals with a gap in age as well as size. We used to play hooky from City Hall committee meetings for a steam and massage at the Central Y.
So he was being pummeled this hot summer afternoon as I expounded on the kid who had to steal empty pop bottles for the deposit money (this is really dating the story, isn't it?)  and why couldn't kids swim for free.
"You know, "Don said, "I bet we could save some money by not hiring people to collect the
admissions. And their parents have already paid for the pools once in their taxes. Let's give the kids a break."
So we went back to City Hall and Don went into the parks committee meeting and said he would like to speak. The committee was annoyed at that because he wasn't a member, but  they gave in. So Don said he thought swimming pools should be free. And the committee didn't dare speak out against that, not with the mercury nearing 100 F. So I phoned the story in for the final edition and the Tely put it on Page 1, and the Star City Desk phoned their reporters and asked whotinhell was going on when they had missed such a nice story.
Council itself didn't dare attack the idea, since the heat wave still was bubbling the asphalt. So pools became free and Don was the most popular politician in the city. He knew he was on to a good thing so that fall he proposed that city skating rinks be free too. The newspapers thought it was a great idea because, after all, they copied Don's argument and pontificated that people had already paid for the facilities in their taxes and they didn't have to hire as many people if they didn't have to staff the admission windows.
There were no reports prepared by legions of consultants and bureaucrats about the costs and implications of this free admission. There were no days of heated debate because the lefties and the gLiberals generally wanted all city services to be free and the conservative Conservative had children and grandkids too and decided that being against the idea would be like grabbing an ice cream cone from a baby and smashing it on the ground.
Now today the news stories talk about the community development and recreation committee urging council to provide recreation programs at no charge. The councillors who remember their civic history, and many really don't, recall that the downtown city didn't charge user recreation fees before amalgamation but the suburbs did. The free skating and swimming had expanded to all inner city  programs. When amalgamation was imposed (a good idea done the wrong way) in 1998, fees grew like dandelions in the civic lawn across the one big city.
That supposedly is the history. Except there were exceptions. For example, after 1998, I swam happily at Memorial Pool  for free  because when the service club which built the facility turned it over to Etobicoke council, its officials won a deal that seniors would always swim for free there to honour the  volunteers who collected the donations for the pool. to honour veterans..
A few years ago, some petty bureaucrat decided it wasn't fair to the rest of the city for some Etobicoke old farts to swim for free. So the city reneged on the deal and we also had to pay.
The estimate is that getting rid of recreation user fees would cost $30.6 million annually (I suspect the .6 is thrown in there to conceal that it's really a guesstimate). Except not all programs have to be free. You could pick and choose what would be the most beneficial in keeping users fitter.
However, I would argue that a healthier city would result if all recreation facilities were free, and that the $30.6 million cost would be reduced if you could rid yourself of all the computer programs and gatekeepers and printed schedules that are now part of an obese system that has sprung up around some rather simple programs.
There are parts of the world to which Canadians feel superior - for example parts of the old Yugoslavia like pastoral Slovenia - where children can't graduate from public school unless they can swim and ski.
 It's amazing to me as a boater that so many of the people I take out on my boat, including a guy who runs a major fishing tournament, can't swim a stroke.
Learning how to swim can save your life. And exercise of any sort, even tiddly winks, is good for you. So it is important to make it as easy as possible for everyone to do something more interesting than jogging.
It would benefit a lot of kids who can no longer steal pop empties to get enough money to go swimming and skating. That possibility vanished years ago when the pop companies and the grocery store lobbies turned us into garbage pickers who have to separate our garbage to create the illusion that there really are no disposal costs to taxpayers for all those empty bottles and cans that the sugar water industry now dump into our homes.
I wonder where the kid is now that stole those empties one day near Gerrard and Greenwood and caused one politician and one kid reporter to give away tens of millions in recreation costs.
I think it was worth every penny, and I realize the penny is disappearing now like the pop deposit did in the distant but golden past.

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