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.