Toronto District School Board sues city, province, police over high school fire

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TORONTO — The Toronto District School Board is suing the city, the province and local police over a fire that destroyed a high school two years ago, alleging negligence allowed a small blaze to erupt into a much larger one that gutted the historic building.

Legal documents filed on Wednesday show the board is seeking $90 million in damages in connection with the fire at York Memorial Collegiate Institute.

In an unproven statement of claim, the board alleges firefighters failed to completely extinguish a small fire in the school's auditorium on May 6, 2019, allowing flames to erupt again the next day and eventually destroy the building.

"The fire struck the building only weeks before a celebration to mark the school’s 90th anniversary," reads the statement of claim, which notes no one was hurt in the blaze. "The consequences of the fire have been devastating for the TDSB, as well as its staff and its students."

The school board alleges that because Toronto police and firefighters suspected that the initial fire may have been arson, the school's auditorium was sealed off as a potential crime scene.

The suit notes that the evacuated building was in full custody of police, firefighters, and the Ontario Fire Marshal after the first small fire and alleges the defendants failed to control and supervise the scene, leading to the catastrophic damage to the school.

The City of Toronto said in a statement that it plans on fighting the case.

"Staff took all appropriate steps to preserve evidence, and allegations in the claim that suggest otherwise are patently untrue and irresponsible," it said. "It is unconscionable that the TDSB and its insurers would impugn the integrity of Fire Chief Matthew Pegg and other Toronto Fire Services staff in this manner."

Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General said it wouldn't comment on the case as it was before the courts. The Toronto Police Services Board issued a similar statement.

TDSB interim director Karen Falconer said in a statement that the school board and its insurers had hoped to resolve the matter outside court but were left with no choice but to take legal action.

Falconer said that the school board will rebuild the school regardless of the outcome of the legal proceeding. She noted that the cost of the ongoing rebuild is covered by the TDSB’s insurer, who filed the legal action with the board in an effort to recover its policy payments and additional costs.

"Our focus remains on supporting the 900 students and staff that were sadly displaced by the fire two years ago," said Falconer.

City manager Chris Murray sent an open letter to Falconer on Thursday defending the reputation of Pegg, who is currently serving as the head of Toronto's emergency response task force charged with handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We ask you to consider the harm caused to Chief Pegg’s reputation by the false claims of misfeasance advanced in your lawsuit," reads the letter from Murray. "We also ask that you reconsider maintaining those claims and consider whether a public apology is owing to Chief Pegg."

According to the TDSB, the school was built in memory of those killed in the First World War and opened in 1929. It held a number of artifacts from the First World War.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2021.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press