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Real City Matters

Join us for a series of panel discussions about the state of our city, and how we can have more honest, constructive conversations about its future.

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I Want Your Job: Tom Millard, Toronto Island Ferry Captain

I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
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Name: Tom Millard
Job: Captain, Toronto Island Ferry
Captain Tom Millard, who has safely guided Toronto Island ferryboats across Toronto Harbor and back since 1985, is a big, gruff-looking man with a neatly trimmed grey beard and a loud, deep voice twanged with the rounded, clipped vowels of a homegrown Canadian. He was born in North York, lives there still, and has been driving down to the Toronto ferry docks five days a week since 1980, when he was hired as a deckhand.
Up on the boat deck, where the captain is stationed, above the rambunctious crowds of mainlanders packed with picnics in the summer or the few freezing islanders lugging groceries home in the winter, the view is clear and the noises few, aside from the odd holler of the horn and the low hum of the diesel engines. It’s one of the few places in Toronto—perhaps along with the stretch of the Gardiner between Exhibition Place and Jarvis Street, or the observation deck of the CN Tower—a huge swath of city can be viewed in a single glance. Despite our city’s perpetual resemblance to an awkward teenager, with befuddling new growths happening in all kinds of odd places, this view, which Millard has been taking in each workday for the past thirty years, is sublime.


It also helps one to think about things—our city, our country, what’s changed about them over three decades, what hasn’t. On the day we met Millard, boatloads of special-ops military personnel were boarding large watercrafts and carrying semi-automatic weapons in a security training session for the upcoming G20 Summit. That sight brought the October Crisis of 1970, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the war measures act to protect citizens from the threat of abduction and terrorism perpetrated by the FLQ, to Millard’s mind. He recited the famous heated exchange between Trudeau and CBC Reporter Tim Ralfe almost verbatim, relishing Trudeau’s classic line, uttered in response to Ralfe’s questioning of how far Trudeau would take his extended powers: “Just watch me.”
Millard is full of these recollections about Canada’s history, its political and social landmarks, and usually he has an opinion or two of his own to add after a moment of silence, once a story wraps up. In these quiet moments, Millard often shifts his position, qualifying something he’s said, or emphasizing something he skimmed over. As he looks out at his city, its flaws and its expanses, he finds a new perspective, another way to tackle a question he’s been chewing on.
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Torontoist: My, Captain Tom, what a nice job you have.
Captain Tom Millard: Yeah, today, for sure. But when the fog comes in and you can’t see, or it’s blowing eighty clicks an hour and the snow is horizontal, it has its times.
How did you end up working on the water?
I guess I wanted to. I was ex-military, and I was going to be an aviator, and I got my licenses in the recession in 1982. But there’s a certain timeline in aviation, you need to be a certain age to get a good job. You generally have to be under thirty by the time you reach a certain level, otherwise you’re not going to get in with the airlines, and it became obvious that wasn’t the way it was going to go, so I made some changes. You gotta work, right?
It seems dangerous that boats can freely sail right in your channel. Are there ever any close calls?
Probably the closest call is other boaters doing something erratic. We’re full of sailboats in this harbour, and we’re running a service. So, we end up running into a whole fleet of sailboats racing. So, you’re trying to go full speed, because you don’t want to interrupt their race, you know, as little as possible, so you head right for someone’s stern and then all of a sudden the son of a bitch turns. And you go, ‘What!?’ And that’s terrifying. The closest call, as you’d say. And it happens constantly.
Somebody doing something really crazy.
Not crazy. Just stupid.
Has anybody ever jumped off the boat?
Yes.
And what’s the protocol then?
Well, basically, there’s a whole man overboard procedure, but really what happens is you call the police and the police come and fish him out. You know, you stop, you deal with it, and we look at the list [of protocol], but it’s not necessarily the way it happens. Anyway, nobody jumps off now, and in the winter, if they jumped off, they’re basically dead. I mean, you could skate out here.
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I’m sure the skyline’s changed a lot since you started.
Unbelievable. As a matter of fact, when I started, there was the Toronto Star building, the Westin Hotel, and a couple condominiums, and the TD Bank. The Queens Quay Terminal was a frozen warehouse. Redpath Sugar, Canada Malting, they’ve always been there. Everything was different. It was all industrial wasteland.
So you think it’s better?
Sure, sure.
Is Toronto a different city than it was when you started?
Not really. I’m from here, and it’s a different city from when I was a boy, but it’s not a different city than it was in 1980. The big difference from when I was a boy is the coloured people. And I don’t mean Negroes, I mean Chinese, Philipino, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans, all of these different people that started being admitted to this country in the early 70s. I mean, it’s changed Toronto so much for the better. The food is great, the scene on the street is great, there’s a dynamism to it which, when I was a kid, I mean, the only thing open on Sundays was a movie theatre for a matinee, and you couldn’t buy an alcoholic beverage unless you bought food. No bars or anything. The biggest change in Toronto is the non-white immigration. That’s what’s made this city exciting, at least in my mind, and it’s been a real change for the positive, a real change for the positive.
Do you ever come in contact with the public?
No. If there’s a big problem yes, but the crew does a good job, the mate goes down and handles things, and we try to not have those problems. We try to defuse situations, have things run smoothly. You’re here for six minutes, get on the boat, get off the boat, just deal with it. And we’ve got people that drink too much and…remember, we are an operation that’s very low-cost, so we attract people that don’t have any money. We don’t necessarily attract the best and brightest of society. However, we also attract a lot of immigrants. Over the years, I remember, we used to have all Vietnamese passengers. Now we’ve got all African Muslims. The place is full of Muslims in the summer. Because they can afford it. They get out of town. I can track the people who are our best customers in the summer through the waves of immigration. That’s who comes here. And that’s another kind of cool thing, to be in a business the provides a service to people that don’t get too many luxury services, shall we say.
So, do you ever come to the Island on your day off?
No. (Laughs.) Well, once or twice.
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.

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