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Is the City Trying to Stifle Dufferin Grove Park?

Go to Dufferin Grove Park on a Thursday evening and you will see something rare, even for Toronto: people of all ages and skin colours happily intermingling; a community kitchen dishing up bowls of chilly gazpacho; vendors at a farmers’ market hawking organic baked goods and greens; a yoga class exhaling in unison; small children chasing each other through tall ornamental grasses. And the especially interesting thing about this kombucha-fueled camaraderie is that it’s entirely resident-led. The stuff that happens there is mostly the work of an amorphous citizen collective called Friends of Dufferin Grove Park, members of which are now saying the City is trying to clamp down on their activities.

Some of the energy at Dufferin Grove is attributable to Jutta Mason, who, in addition to her involvement with the Friends, runs CELOS, a non-profit self-described research organization that funds the park’s community kitchen and its skate rental program. CELOS was recently the recipient of a $100,000 Trillium grant, which it has been investing in the park, independently of the City.
Recently, Mason wrote a lengthy blog post, in which she accused the City’s division of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation of using staffing changes as a cover for bringing Dufferin Grove to heel. This is a perennial issue for the park—in fact, it seems to make headlines, in some form, every year—but this time, Mason says, the situation is especially grave.

“A new recreation supervisor, Wendy Jang, has been assigned to Dufferin Grove Park,” writes Mason. “She spent many hours writing lists and reallocating staff, in a way that made more sense to her than the work schedule that had been developed by trial and error at the park. Then she told the staff that they must follow her schedule instead.”
When Mason refers to the work schedule that “had been developed by trial and error,” she’s alluding to the fact that CELOS pays the City’s part-time parks staff to do work above and beyond their normal job descriptions. This practice has helped make Dufferin Grove into what it is today. And yet it’s deeply worrisome to City management.
“We need to get to a place where there are clear roles and responsibilities,” says Kelvin Seow, manager of community recreation for Toronto and East York. “Where all of our legislative agreements are being followed.” The City’s proposed solution is to transition all of the services run and funded by the Friends and CELOS (primarily food service and skate rentals) to City staff.
This may sound like bureaucratic quibbling, but it’s not a trivial point. CELOS and Friends of Dufferin Grove are unelected groups running programs that aren’t City-sanctioned, on public property. If they were to do something illegal, or descend into infighting, someone would need to be accountable for the mess. The City has to ensure good governance, and relying on the benevolence of the self-selected isn’t a surefire way of doing that.
But to Mason’s way of thinking, neither is ceding total authority to Parks, Forestry and Recreation. She believes the City would formalize job roles at Dufferin Grove so much that the laid-back character of the park’s services would be lost.
“If the City takes it over, all those things will just collapse,” she tells us. “They’re saying they just can’t do it any other way, because those are the policies. Well, who made up the policy?”
The City’s hands are tied, to some extent, by their contract with CUPE Local 79, the union to which recreation workers belong. There’s some friction between the two entities over the extra job duties Dufferin Grove employees perform for CELOS. Seow was bound by the collective agreement not to discuss this in any detail.
Seow says his division’s goal is to maintain all of Dufferin Grove’s unique services without enlarging the park’s existing budget envelope. “Obviously we’re going to include CELOS, as well as the community,” he says. “Our discussions are preliminary.”
Mason is open to that discussion, and says that CELOS and the Friends have long wanted the City to step in and operate programs in the park, but only if they’re going to do it in the spirit of community and trust. “What happens when the safeguards lock down what can happen in the City?” she asks, rhetorically.


  • Mark Dowling

    Well, the current head of regime at Parks/Rec was just promoted to a Deputy City Manager post so I guess the City thinks there's a “heckuva job” being done there…

  • Geoff Gilmour-Taylor

    “CELOS and Friends of Dufferin Grove are unelected groups …”

    So is the City bureaucracy.

    This is the perfect time for the (elected) Mayor to step in and make policy changes to allow for citizen groups to help improve the parks. It was suggested last week, after all, that volunteers could mow park lawns. This dovetails quite neatly with Ford's desire to save money by cutting red tape.

    I'm sure he won't do it, however, since he seems to be more concerned with pissing off the hippies than any sort of coherent policy.

  • isyouhappy

    I wrote to Wendy Jang as I was interested in her perspective (and hearing it from her rather then what CELOS is accusing them of) she wrote back saying: 

    “The City has no plans to reduce support or change activities in the park.  The programs that you value so highly such as the Farmer's Market, pizza ovens and campfire pits will all continue to be supported through City resources and City staff.”

    I'm sort of confused as to what's going to happen. It sounds from the city's perspective they're trying to reorganize roles so that they can keep tabs on what's happening and so that things arn't so wishy washy and fluid. But I also understand that's what gives the park it's charm and character (minus the shooting that just happened last week, that we could do away with).

    It sounds as though this would be a good time to have a town hall style meeting at the park with our councillor to hash things out. As I think a lot of the community members that aren't associated with CELOS have to read about what's going on through their perspective(as most of the direct info is posted on their confusing website) and doesn't necessarily sound objective?

  • Sharon Rose

    It's interesting how one City staffer, specifically placed, can undo years of trust-building and hard work in just a few weeks. I wonder if she wears a black hood when she's filing work schedules, appropriate in her role as executioner in the park's death by administration.

  • Piedmont60


  • Piedmont60

    I applaud you for taking the initiative to contact Wendy Jang directly. Judging by your call for a townhall meeting, I would say you are trying to keep an open mind. (For the record, there was a meeting at the park on June 21 and there may be more later.) However, if you want to know the full story, you would need to talk to Dufferin Grove staff. I am one of those staff. I would love to talk to you or anyone else about the changes, but I can't, because at our last staff meeting Wendy threatened us with termination if we speak publicly about her decisions. When you are thinking about what is happening, bear in mind that that you aren't hearing the perspective of Dufferin recreation staff, because we are a under a gag order. Wendy and Kelvin, if you are reading this, my name is Michael Monastyrskyj. I trust I won't be fired or reprimanded for making a simple statement of fact.

  • isyouhappy

    thanks for the info!

  • Coffeehouse Theatre

    I think it's tragic that the city is trying to rearrange something so wonderfully organized by the community. Dufferin Grove Park is the perfect example of a the people coming together to create something beautiful and wonderful for themselves and sharing it with each other. Most events are free to the public. Clay and Paper does fantastic work. The staff supper is always a pleasure and I've never seen anything violent happen over the course of working there this summer.

  • Jim Borwick

    Wouldn't a similar arrangement to the board run hockey rinks work here? As far as I know, community boards running the arenas at an arm's length relationship with the city has resulted in better run (more efficient and more tied to the community they serve) arenas when compared to city-run arenas. If there is a committed community willing to run things why doesn't the city just stay out of it?

  • qdog11

    Sounds like staff are being asked to be accountable and they don”t like it!!  I've spoken to the former supervisor and he told me all the money that is collected from the suppers and snack bar goes to celos but the city pays the staff.  How is this possible?

  • JohnfromTO

    These arm's length relationships are hard to get right. That's the problem with the City's approach. It doesn't seem to realize that there is no easy formula for community engagement that can be summarized in a tidy three-ring binder.  In some communities the local board will be dysfunctional, in others there may be no one available to volunteer. And in places like Dufferin Grove, there may be an unusual, informal arrangement that works well. People are complicated and communities are different from place to place. “Trial and error” may sound haphazard, but that's how success stories come about.

    The key is for the City to remain flexible, allowing itself to remain exposed to good input from the community. This requires that local managers be allowed to build relationships with the communities they serve, instead of being treated like interchangeable widgets as is the City's current policy. It also means, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it,” as opposed to treating Dufferin Grove's unique vibrancy as an “anomaly” to be corrected because it doesn't accord with some central policy document. When you stumble into a successful arrangement, for chrissakes don't fuck it up!

  • isyouhappy

    Actually it sounds like the staff is being pulled in different directions.

  • Matthew McIntosh

    “So is the City bureaucracy.”

    Thank you. I wish people would consider more deeply the implications of the fact that most government employees are effectively unaccountable to the public. I find this single fact illuminates much that would seem bizarre if I believed I lived under a democracy.

  • Matthew McIntosh

    Dead on. Bricolage is totally Toronto's style, and embracing it makes this city strong. Trying to crush your own citizenry's capacity for self-organization is … uh … kinda the opposite of wise leadership, to put it politely.

  • Piedmont60

    Wendy Jang sent me a personally-addressed letter today. I found it so offensive that I've decided to risk my job by publishing it. You can read it here: I acknowledge she may well have employment law on her side, but that doesn't make her position any less immoral.