“It’s a bad decision justified by another bad decision”: This group is leading the fight against the Ontario Place mega-spa

“It’s a bad decision justified by another bad decision”: This group is leading the fight against the Ontario Place mega-spa

Norm Di Pasquale, co-chair of Ontario Place for All, weighs in on the city’s new deal with the province and explains why the battle against Therme and the Ford government is far from over

Ontario Place for All co-chair Norm di Pasquale

Ontario Place for All is a grassroots community group determined to stand between the West Island and its proposed future as a mega-spa. Last month, the group filed a request for an injunction until the project undergoes the proper environmental assessments, but the recent commencement of tree removals suggests the province is pushing forward. “They were bashing them with an excavator—I was shocked,” says OPFA co-chair Norm Di Pasquale, who organized a celebrity telethon in support of saving Ontario Place earlier this month. Here, he discusses whether Mayor Olivia Chow made a bad deal, forging ahead with the fight against the province, and allegations that he and his fellow advocates are all crunchy hippies.

Would it be accurate to describe you as the captain of the Ontario Place mega-spa resistance movement?
It’s a team effort. Ontario Place for All sprang out of a waterfront advocacy group called Waterfront for All. I think it was late 2018 or early 2019 when the premier said there was nothing at Ontario Place worth saving and that he was just going to tear it all down. So at that moment we realized we had to take action or lose the whole thing. In January 2019, we had our first meeting, Rally for Ontario Place, and about 300 people showed up.

We asked everyone to share their Ontario Place memories in order to give a sense of how important the space has been for so many people over the years. People talked about family picnics, feeding the ducks, seeing bands at the forum in the ’70s and ’80s. And more recently, people said that spending time in this natural sanctuary so close to downtown had been crucial for their mental health. I was there last week, and there were 25 people swimming off of pebble beach—in December!

When did you first hear talk of a giant spa?
The spa was mentioned as early as 2019, but the public didn’t get detailed designs until November 2022, which is when we realized that everything on the West Island would be obliterated: the trees, the vegetation, the microclimates, the lagoons—all gone and replaced by a glass spa the size of BMO Field. That was also the first time we heard about the 2,100-spot underground parking lot and the hefty cost to taxpayers: $200 million for site servicing, $450 million for the parking lot, roughly $400 million to relocate the Ontario Science Centre. They say the devil is in the details, and that has certainly been true with the province’s redevelopment plan. 

That plan scored a major victory with the new deal between the city and the province. It was good news for transit and housing. Not so much for your cause, though. Were you disappointed that the mayor used Ontario Place as a bargaining chip?
I know the city needs financial help and that the province is a main source for that. Disappointed is a good word, although we always knew that this was going to be won or lost at the provincial level. For the province to take the city land is shocking. Not to mention Bill 154, which strips away our environmental protections, the Heritage Act and the Planning Act and allows the minister of infrastructure to issue minister’s zoning orders.

In light of the new deal, does your movement feel dead in the water?
Definitely not. Last month, we launched a legal action to challenge the province’s stance that it doesn’t need to do an environmental assessment on the West Island. It claims the project is privately led, which would mean the approvals process isn’t the same, but I’ve hardly seen this private partner, Therme, at all—the provincial government is the one that has moved bills to attack Ontario Place. The province was in charge of the development application, so in our view it’s not a privately funded application. We’ll see what happens in court.

And then we have the acting auditor general’s report into Ontario Place, which will come, hopefully, in the first quarter of next year. The auditor general recently released a report on the plan to move the Science Centre. It included a few bombshells, like how the provincial government had promised Therme a parking lot as part of the deal and how the plan to demolish the Science Centre seems to have been a way to justify that. It’s a bad decision justified by another bad decision justified by another bad decision. So the fight continues.

Ontario Place for All hosted a telethon to protest the new deal. How did that go?
It was amazing. Artists from all over Ontario came together to perform and stand up for Ontario Place. We had Sarah Harmer hosting and Aysanabee and Barenaked Ladies performing. The whole band was there, and they played “Pinch Me.” I walked into the room and just thought, Yeah, pinch me. It was awesome to see these artists—as well as thought leaders like Adrienne Clarkson—coming together to stand up for Ontario Place before we lose it for 95 years. 

Tree removal began last week. Not to sound like a broken record, but isn’t that another not-so-great sign?
I was shocked. We haven’t seen any schedule for the process. I was on the Science Centre ravine walk when people started sending me videos. They started hacking away at the trees with an excavator, just bashing them from limb to limb until there was nothing left. It flies in the face of this care they claim they’re going to be taking: We’re going to move the trees; we’re going to donate the wood to Indigenous communities. Meanwhile they’re bashing them down as quickly as possible, I imagine because they didn’t want people to show up in protest. And this is just the beginning. One of the worst things about this project is the number of trees that will be cut down: 850 trees on the West Island and another 650 around the Budweiser Stage parking lot.

I’m sure you know that the provincial government has pledged to replace the trees at a 2-to-1 ratio, and 6-to-1 for larger trees. Isn’t that a pretty reasonable compromise?
Renowned landscape architect Walter Kehm, who designed the forests and landscapes of the West Island, calls those lollipop trees: tiny and not likely to survive. It’s extremely hard to grow trees on the waterfront because they are battered by the elements. And it’s not just the trees but entire ecosystems with birds and animals: over 100 species, including endangered ones, will have their habitats annihilated.

We have talked a lot about what shouldn’t happen at the Ontario Place site. In your opinion, what should happen?
To pretend Ontario Place doesn’t need revitalization is to deny reality, but it’s all in the approach. Bill Davis said public interest, not commercial interest, must drive the vision of Ontario Place. We put forth a proposal that reimagines Ontario Places as a 21st-century public space: greenery all over, better connections from Ontario Place to the CNE, and bringing in a satellite branch of the Science Centre focused on the Great Lakes and climate change. We’d also leave room for things like restaurants and Ontario innovation projects. IMAX had its first permanent theatre at Ontario Place, and what a boon that was for that Canadian company. 

Do you think some people mischaracterize the Ontario Place for All group as a bunch of crunchy hippies with their heads in the sand?
I know what you mean. But look at Montreal’s waterfront, which balances commercial and public uses so beautifully. Chicago’s Navy Pier is another great example that our government should look to.

How many pairs of Birkenstocks do you own?
Ha—none. But I do have a good pair of sandals.  

Therme CEO Robert Hanea has said that an overwhelming number of Ontarians support the spa. What do you say to that?
If you look at Therme’s survey, they asked things like, Do you want a new park that is fully funded by somebody else or should taxpayers foot the bill? So it was very leading. Mainstreet Research did a poll in April that showed that more people opposed the mega-spa than supported it. I would tend to trust the survey that the company it’s about didn’t pay for. 

Has Therme or the government engaged with your group at all? And if not, what would you say to them?
We had one meeting with Minister of Infrastructure Kinga Surma and Infrastructure Ontario, and it was so full of spin that I couldn’t stomach having another one: we would ask about the trees on the West Island, and they would talk about taking the greatest care and responsibility and stewardship. We are not spa haters. This spa could work somewhere—just not Ontario Place. And there are other options. The city has presented the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place, which would be a huge reduction in taxpayer costs. It’s a win-win, but they’re not willing to consider it. Instead, they’re shoving a very large facility onto a very small island. And their brand is suffering.

Any theories about why Therme isn’t interested in the Exhibition Place site?
I would probably be looking at that 95-year contract. Every time we learn a new detail, it looks worse for taxpayers and better for Therme, and who knows what else was promised?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.