“It’s a national embarrassment”: City councillor Brad Bradford on Toronto’s new tobogganing ban

“It’s a national embarrassment”: City councillor Brad Bradford on Toronto’s new tobogganing ban

In January, city staff prohibited sledding on 45 of Toronto’s hills, saying that obstacles like trees and ditches make it too risky

Brad Bradford in the snow with his three-year-old daughter
Photo courtesy of Brad Bradford

Is banning tobogganing a slippery slope? On January 14, City of Toronto staff passed a bylaw that prohibits sledding on 45 hills, deeming them unsafe because of trees, ditches and other obstacles on the slide paths. The move came seven years after the city ran an initial investigation into the safety of its tobogganing sites and two years after a sled-related injury at Christie Pits. Brad Bradford, city councillor for Beaches–East York, says the new rule robs Torontonians of an accessible winter pastime and is a lazy alternative to danger-proofing the hills. He’s hoping city council will repeal the bylaw after its next meeting, on February 6. Here, he explains why he thinks sledding is worth saving and how outlawing fun activities affects public trust in government.

First thing’s first: what’s your tobogganing vessel of choice?
The Brett Hull GT Snow Racer, which is a ride-on plastic toboggan with a steering wheel. The colours match the ones on Brett Hull’s NHL jersey. These days, though, I mostly skate with my daughters.

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Were you into tobogganing as a kid?
Definitely. I grew up in Hamilton and went to a local hill at Rousseau Public School with other neighbourhood kids. On occasion, we would cross town to play on a bigger, scarier hill at Chedoke Golf Course. It was always a blast. That big hill may have been a bit more dangerous, but overcoming my jitters and sliding down it was a mini lesson in taking risks and overcoming anxiety.

It barely feels like winter outside. Where did this tobogganing ban come from?
In 2017, the year before I was elected to council, the city decided to look into dangerous tobogganing sites. I hadn’t heard anything about it since. Then, earlier this month, city staff referenced that investigation’s results and banned tobogganing at 45 hills. They said it was an issue of liability—if somebody were to get hurt, they could sue the city and demand compensation.

Why weren’t city councillors involved in the decision?
City staff were able to make this call because it’s one of the many issues that has been delegated to them. Council doesn’t have the bandwidth to tackle everything, but staff dropped the ball on this one. I think it’s bogus. The reality is that we deal with far more liability complaints from residents who cross the street or trip on a sidewalk than from people who get hurt while tobogganing. Not to mention that the city allows way riskier activities, like full-contact hockey and swimming in lakes. For people to be able to participate in society, we have no choice but to assume a certain level of risk.

You’re proposing repealing the bylaw. Why do you feel so strongly about it?
Tobogganing is an accessible and affordable winter activity, not to mention a quintessential Canadian experience. Not everyone is in a financial position to participate in organized winter sports like hockey. Beyond that, overbearing rules like this make people cynical of local government. It makes residents feel monitored and creates skepticism about how we’re using their tax dollars. We banned road hockey in 2015, and in 2022 we almost passed a bylaw that would have forced people to put leashes on their outdoor cats. We’ve since discounted both ideas—because they were ridiculous—but not before families were threatened with municipal fines. Toronto is earning a reputation as a “no fun” city.

What have you heard from constituents about the issue?
In the days after the No Tobogganing signs went up on January 14, I started receiving calls and texts from fellow parents and people in my neighbourhood. The gist was basically What is city hall thinking? and Have you lost your minds? In the following weeks, those signs were ripped down by residents, then the city replaced them. All the while, I’m still receiving an avalanche of upset emails.

Pun intended?

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So what, exactly, will you propose at city hall?
I hope to immediately remove the bans. Instead, I’m suggesting that we go back to what we had last year—when we installed safety measures like fences made out of snow and hay bales—and add “use at your own risk” signage to further mitigate any liability, like we do for our skating trails. It’s possible to curb risk while still allowing fun. Banning tobogganing entirely is a lazy approach. Plus, even with a ban, people are likely to continue using those hills. They’ve been using them for generations. In that case, they wouldn’t have any additional safety measures, and the risks would be even greater. I also want to remove city staff’s ability to unilaterally impose a ban on sledding. I’ve lost trust in their ability to make sound decisions on this matter. They’ve lost the plot.

Why do you think spending a session debating tobogganing is a worthwhile use of taxpayer dollars?
Because residents should have the right to engage in a fun winter activity at their own risk. If city staff hadn’t implemented the ban, we wouldn’t have had to spend time on it at all. But here we are.

Do you know how much the new bylaw has cost taxpayers so far?
It’s difficult to say, but for the 2017 investigation, the city paid staff to assess the hills. After the bylaw passed, signage was ordered, and staff were sent back to install those signs—not to mention the cost of replacing the signs people have been tearing down. And for what? To become a national embarrassment, the city that cracked down on tobogganing? It’s a waste of resources.

Where should we be spending those dollars?
On properly staffing our parks and rinks so that they’re better maintained. We could also put the money toward efforts to clear snow from sidewalks and other areas. We’re lucky that it’s not a snowy winter this year, but next year could be different. I’m sure people would not be pleased if staff were so busy conducting investigations on tobogganing hills that no one was available to clear their neighbourhood sidewalks.

As it stands, what would happen to someone caught in the act of tobogganing on a banned hill?
I have no idea how the city expects to enforce this new law. Patrolling snow hills and penalizing tobogganers is a poor use of time.

Do you think city staff are just responding to overly cautious parents?
I doubt parents are the problem. I’m a father of two young girls—I’ve taken my three-year-old tobogganing at East Lynn Park, near Woodbine and Danforth, and we’ve had a blast. In fact, she misses it now that it’s not allowed. As parents, we set our own safety standards. The parents who don’t want their kids tobogganing don’t take them, or they get them to wear helmets or stay on smaller hills. People should have the right to assess risk for their children without the city’s intervention. This idea that we should bubble-wrap kids and prevent them from taking on challenges is so prevalent already. We don’t need the city perpetuating it. 

With winter getting greener and greener, do you think we’ll even have enough snow for this kind of thing in a few years?
We had a lot more snow back when I was a kid. Now, our opportunities for tobogganing are limited. I do think Toronto’s lack of snow this year is an anomaly—my sister lives in Orillia, and there’s a lot of snow there. Either way, it’s all the more reason to take advantage of our tobogganing hills while we have them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.