City attempts to quell LGBTQ+ community's concern about future plan for Hanlan's Point

Members of Toronto's LGBTQ+ community are raising concerns about the city's master plan for the future of Hanlan's Point on the Toronto Islands. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Members of Toronto's LGBTQ+ community are raising concerns about the city's master plan for the future of Hanlan's Point on the Toronto Islands. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

The beach at Hanlan's Point on the Toronto Islands has served as a gathering place for the city's LGBTQ+ community for decades, but some are worried that could soon be at risk.

A dozen people recently formed a group called Hands Off Hanlan's to sound the alarm about the city's master plan for the islands — a long-term planning document that's still under development. The plan is meant to guide decisions about the future of the area, which sees close to 1.5 million visitors per year.

In a series of social media posts last week, the group questioned a proposal to create an "open-air event space" on the event lawn close to the beach for hosting "Island-sized festivals and cultural events."

Travis Myers, a member of Hands Off Hanlan's, said he worries about what the proposal could mean for the LGBTQ+ community that relies on what he called Canada's oldest queer space.

"These are a lot of people who have experienced different types of vulnerabilities in different parts of our lives," he said.

"When these elements are introduced without adequate public consultation, I think there is a reasonable cause for people to be alarmed because they don't know what exactly this master plan could be inviting into a space that's been a safe space for a long time."

The social media outcry has prompted the city official in charge of the consultation process, Daniel Fusca, to speak out in an attempt to dispel what he called a "misunderstanding" and to reassure the community that its voice will be heard.

The public spat shows the intense emotions and tensions surrounding any possible changes to the historically and culturally significant location.

City has consulted about plan for over 2 years

The city's been consulting the public for more than two years about the master plan, which is scheduled to be completed by summer 2023.

The process has involved: engagements with Indigenous groups, community organizations, sports programmers, island residents and other stakeholders; public workshops to gather and discuss ideas for change; pop-up events to share information; an open house, and more.

But Myers said the LGBTQ+ community has been largely left out of the process.

"There was one queer consultation meeting with just 11 people," he said.

Electric Island/CBC
Electric Island/CBC

Fusca, manager of public consultation at the City of Toronto's parks and recreation department, told CBC that more than 20,000 people have participated in the process so far.

He said the city has gathered the views of the LGBTQ+ community through a targeted discussion and a focus group that involved Pride Toronto, trans advocates and other LGBTQ+ advocates. He said hundreds of Hanlan's Beach users responded to surveys or attended other public events.

Still, he admitted that more consultation could have been done with the Hanlan's Beach LGBTQ+ community.

"We probably could have engaged further with Hanlan's Beach users. That is clear based on the feedback we're getting," he said.

Tim McCaskell, a longtime gay activist, attended an initial consultation meeting and said the idea of a festival space was never raised. He said the increased foot traffic and crowds that such a space could bring raises safety concerns about possible harassment.

"The real wealth of that area is that it is more natural, quieter, less razzmatazz than the rest of the islands and that's what attracts the people that wants to go there," he said.

"It's worked for the past 50 years and I don't know why the city would want to change that."

"It's worked for the past 50 years and I don't know why the city would want to change that." - Writer, educator and activist Tim McCaskell.

Members of Hands Off Hanlan's have pored over the hundreds of documents the engagement process has produced so far. They argue community support for a festival event space is almost non-existent according to the city's own research.

As one example, the groups cites the results of a digital outreach campaign that saw members of the public rate and comment on 140 "big ideas." The summary document shows the idea of having a publicly-owned concert grounds on the islands received a low rating, compared to other ideas that were presented and that received high engagement.

Further, the group argues the city wants to "prioritize private profit over public space." As evidence, the group points to a Dec. 2020 meeting the city held with seven promoters and event management companies, including those involved with the Electric Island, Field Trip, Veld and Boots & Hearts music festivals.

"When we have been doing the outreach that we have online, there's been an overwhelmingly negative response to this," said Myers.

Patrick Morrell/CBC
Patrick Morrell/CBC

Master plan could still change, city says

Fusca said the proposal for an outdoor event space in its current form would "formalize" a space that has been already used for events for years. He said it could include an outdoor amphitheatre defined by pathways and sloped lawns, with a power source and other infrastructure to support small-scale events. It would remain public when not being used for permitted events.

But Fusca stressed that the master plan is meant to serve as a high-level document, not a detailed implementation plan.

"The misinformation is that this is going to be some sort of a concert venue, that it will replace the Budweiser Stage," Fusca said. "There's a lot of different ideas floating around ... that it's a final baked plan."

Fusca said there will be additional opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community to provide input, including at two upcoming events.

The city is holding a virtual meeting on Thursday, Feb. 23 to discuss the outdoor event space idea. Meanwhile, a workshop at the 519 community centre on Monday, Feb. 27 will focus on all the ideas proposed in the draft master plan for Hanlan's Point.

Fusca said these meetings will help the city determine the specific nature of the community's concerns, whether any "guardrails" would need to be in place to make people more comfortable, or if the idea should simply be dropped altogether