Skating on Thick Ice
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Skating on Thick Ice

Why we should (and should be allowed to) make the most of Grenadier Pond.

I looked forward to the possibility of some opportunistic urban skiing when I moved to the High Park neighbourhood last fall, but the single snowfall we’ve had since then lasted only one night and half a day. Still, I couldn’t help noticing that the snow-free winter, along with steady sub-zero temperatures, had produced perfect ice conditions on Grenadier Pond. So I went skating instead.

Fun was had by me—all alone. There was never more than one other skater on the pond when I first started visiting a few weeks ago. Last week, skies were blue and the ice was glassy. But there were so few skaters that I could follow my own tracks on laps around the perimeter of the pond.

I knew that many would be dissuaded by the few crooked signs on the shore that said “No Skating.” But the ice was 25 centimetres thick right up to the shore. The danger was (and is) nil. Surely, I thought, there would be more enthusiasts out taking advantage of such ideal conditions.

So one night, I googled “Skating on Grenadier Pond” in the hope of finding them. The closest I came was this delightful home movie from 1955—a charming archaeological specimen of natural living just before the arrival of television and shopping malls. Apparently, that’s how far back you have to go to find carefree winter fun in Toronto.

Twitter loved the clip, and discussions arose. Councillor Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park) explained that the City banned skating on the pond because it no longer has the resources to test the ice and ensure its safety. The Toronto Star‘s Jim Coyle interviewed a fellow lone skater, and CBC radio host Matt Galloway took up the cause.

The Grenadier Pond skating “issue” has become our equivalent of Calgary’s nationally notorious tobogganing ban. And as it is so often in cases of alleged nanny-state overreach, popular sentiment is strongly scofflaw: as of this writing, three-quarters of those responding to a CBC poll on Grenadier Pond’s smooth, thick ice favour free skating over strict public safety.

But even before the poll went up, people began voting with their blades. By Saturday, there were dozens skating through the frozen drizzle, with games of shinny here and there. By Sunday, things got so crowded that a bylaw officer appeared on the shore, blowing a whistle.

The rebels were not amused. The noise made them “skate into the middle section of the thick pond ice so that their peaceful skate wouldn’t be broken by the shrill of the whistle,” according to a post on City Rinks Toronto.

The stern whistle of the law was also heard on Twitter, where Ipsos pollster Darrell Bricker posted a picture of people skating on Grenadier Pond and warned local politicians about “a disaster waiting to happen” because of such “beyond risky” activity. He demanded that the politicians uphold the ban and stop “idiots from placing kids in lethal situations in a city park.”

What followed was a spirited dialogue on legal philosophy between Bricker and Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park), with the former taking a fundamentalist view and the latter advancing a more nuanced, albeit ambiguous, line in favour of “the democratic process for managing public spaces.”

Just as our Victorian forefathers envisaged an entire moral universe revolving around the question of whether to permit streetcars to run on Sundays, 21st-century Toronto has discerned deep divisions about personal responsibility and state authority beneath the frozen surface of Grenadier Pond.

I’m with Perks. Bylaws are by definition communal, not authoritarian, and they can be enforced only by consent, not coercion. More often than not, blowing the whistle means just that. Just as likely, it means it’s time to change the bylaw.

The real issue on Grenadier Pond is why the City fails to support such a natural, wholesome, traditionally Canadian winter activity by inspecting the ice regularly and encouraging people to skate when it’s as safe as it is now. Canal skating is a signature event in Ottawa, a city that takes outdoor recreation seriously—as does Calgary, despite the alleged toboggan ban. But in Toronto, it seems, everybody goes shopping on the weekends.

Skating is banned on Grenadier Pond because the City cut its budget, but the City cut its budget because nobody skated on Grenadier Pond anymore. It therefore stands to reason that the best way to change the skate-banning bylaw is to keep calm and skate on.