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Councillor wants to rename Cawthra Park after Barbara Hall

Hall was the first mayor to march in Toronto Pride

Renovation work continues at the possibly soon-to-be renamed Cawthra Square Park.  Credit: Rob Salerno

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam has tabled a proposal at Toronto and East York Community Council to rename Cawthra Square Park, in the heart of the Church-Wellesley Village neighbourhood, after former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall. The proposal passed through community council May 13 and will go to full city council in June.

In a letter to council distributed May 13, the Toronto Centre councillor states that naming the park after Hall is an apt tribute to a woman who has been a strong ally of the queer community.

“In 1994 when Ms Hall was elected as Mayor of Toronto, she became the first big-city mayor to march in a Gay Pride Parade,” the letter reads. “Her prominent support for LGBTQ2S people helped set a new standard of acceptance for a community that was once shunned.”

Hall was a downtown city councillor from 1985 to ’94 and mayor from 1994 to ’98. She has served as Ontario’s chief human rights commissioner since 2005 and has announced her intent to retire in October.

Some of her work with the gay community includes serving as an advocate for gay men brutalized by police during the 1981 bathhouse raids and pushing for the Ontario Human Rights Commission to establish gender identity and expression as prohibited grounds for discrimination — long before the legislature formalized the change in law in 2012. Of particular significance for the park, she was the first chair of The 519 Church Street Community Centre’s capital campaign for its expansion and renovation in 2010. Hall has also been a prominent advocate for poverty, housing and tenant rights.

Wong-Tam first announced her intention to rename the park last year, although she refused to discuss what names were under consideration at the time. No consultation process was announced, and Wong-Tam’s staff recently told Xtra that any possible renaming would not be brought forward before WorldPride.

Bob Fabian, a board member of the Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association, says that the city has a broken process for naming major public spaces. “We’re concerned that a new name may be selected without a full public review of the need for a new name,” Fabian says. “The consultation process was effectively nonexistent.”

But Fabian says he personally believes that the name is a good compromise between some who may have preferred that the park be named after a prominent queer Torontonian and others who’d prefer a more “inclusive” name.

“Would it have been a divisive process, with people arguing for a recognizable member of the [queer] community?” he asks. “There is an ongoing point of contention between an LGBT community that sees Church-Wellesley as its epicentre and a batch of local residents who aren’t all members of the LGBT community.”

The board of directors of the 519 Community Centre, which abuts the park, were not consulted about the name change, says Matthew Cutler, The 519’s director of communications, but plans to discuss it at its next meeting. “We found out about the proposal last night, and it’s been referred to our board. We won’t have a position until May 26,” Cutler says.

Wong-Tam says that she’s followed city guidelines for naming public spaces. She says the idea for the renaming came up in conversation with prominent community members, including Salah Bachir and George Smitherman.

“I don’t believe I’m doing anything extraordinary and out of order. Sometimes councillors also initiate something and council would respond,” she says. “I certainly have let people know that I was considering renaming the park.”

Cawthra Square Park was named after William Cawthra, a philanthropist and early social reformer who owned property in the area until his death in 1880. There are several other streets and buildings named for Cawthra in Toronto and the GTA.

The park is currently nearing completion of a nine-month renovation that is intended to be complete before WorldPride.