Families, community members decry sudden loss of Ontario Science Centre

TORONTO — Families and community members decried the loss of a beloved institution Sunday after the Ontario Science Centre abruptly and permanently shut its doors last week amid concerns over the state of its roof.

The provincial government already had plans to move the 55-year-old science centre from its current location to Ontario Place when it announced the sudden closure on Friday — a move it said was meant to protect the health and safety of visitors and staff.

The province said it received an engineering report this week that found a number of roof panels "in a distressed, high-risk condition" that could fail under the weight of snow this winter.

A crowd of parents, children, educators and other community members gathered in a west Toronto park Sunday to call on the province to restore the centre in its current location instead.

Children blew whistles and hoisted homemade signs declaring their love for the facility as the crowd chanted "Save our science centre."

Katarina Gligorijevic and Colin Geddes had planned to take their son Sasha to the centre on Friday but had an unexpected scheduling conflict, meaning the eight-year-old wasn't able to visit one last time before it closed.

The science centre was "one of the important cornerstones of our schedule" for Sasha, who is homeschooled and loved to spend hours looking at the frog section, his parents said.

"The abruptness of the closure felt extremely unnecessary and cruel," Gligorijevic said.

"To not give the thousands of kids in the city who love the science centre a chance to go one last time ... it was just totally unnecessary and totally unreasonable," she said. "This feels like not just an attack on a major cultural institution but also on education."

Geddes noted neither teachers nor families were consulted, adding many educators plan their curriculum around the centre.

Arushi Nath, a Grade 9 student in Toronto, said her family has had membership at the centre since she was born, and going there on weekends "felt like coming home."

"It's where I learned it's OK for women and everyone to be passionate about science," said Nath, who credits the centre with fuelling her curiosity.

The teen started creating increasingly complex experiments over time and ended up taking the top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in both 2022 and 2023 for her projects on detecting and deflecting asteroids.

Closing the centre, she said, amounts to "robbing children of their scientific curiosity and childhood dreams."

As a high school science teacher, Howard Buckstein may not take his own students on field trips to the centre, but he said it plays an important role in science education.

"We know that sitting in class with a book or with a laptop is just not getting the job done for way too many kids, but the kind of education in science that happens at the science centre is ideal for neurodivergent kids who need to explore the world in their own way," he said.

Shuttering the centre is a huge loss both for science and for Toronto's architecture, he said. "When a piece of our architectural history is lost, there's no replacing it," he said.

Buckstein also raised concerns about the plans for a new science centre, saying if the province was serious about building a good replacement, it would have done so before closing the original.

The science centre's fate has become a political issue as well, with provincial opposition legislators and local politicians joining Sunday's rally. Both NDP Leader Marit Stiles and Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie urged the Progressive Conservative government to reverse its decision to move the centre and instead repair the existing facility.

A business case released last year by the government found the current building is facing $369 million in deferred and critical maintenance needs over the next 20 years.

The business case said that moving the science centre instead of renovating could save the government about $250 million over 50 years. A large part of those savings come from the smaller size of the new planned facility, though officials say there will be more exhibit space.

The facility was the world’s first interactive science centre when it opened in 1969, but years of limited capital investments have left it with several deficiencies.

The centre's new home at a redeveloped Ontario Place on the city's waterfront isn't slated to be open until 2028.

The province has said alternative programming is being offered to limit the disruption caused by the centre's closure, and those with memberships will receive refunds.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2024.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press