By Marcus Mitanis
Presiding over one of Toronto’s most ethnically diverse wards since 2003, municipal Councillor Michael Thompson has seen his responsibilities grow in step with the complexities of the City’s sometimes unpredictable political environment. Like Toronto as a whole, Ward 21 – Scarborough Centre is wrestling with accommodating a steadily growing population. As a result, a high-density node consisting primarily of high-rise condominium towers has developed around Scarborough Town Centre, where a major transit hub intersects with shopping and civic gathering places. This area was once considered the downtown of its own city, Scarborough, which was amalgamated in 1998 along with five other lower-tier municipalities, including the original City of Toronto. The ward’s remaining built form is largely characterized by swaths of single-detached homes and clusters of apartment blocks located adjacent to major arterial roads.
Elected five years after amalgamation, Councillor Thompson was initially responsible for a ward about two-thirds the geographic size it is today. A recent municipal plan to increase the number of wards from 44 to 47 – a move the City says was intended to achieve greater voter parity – was suddenly mothballed after Ontario elected former Toronto Councillor Doug Ford as Premier. The new provincial government swiftly passed legislation to cut Council to 25 wards a few months shy of the 2018 municipal election, unceremoniously kicking some veteran incumbent Councillors out the door. Collecting nearly 70% of the vote, Thompson handily won a fifth term, this time overseeing an enlarged ward. Nearly one year removed from the municipal election, Thompson is now the Deputy Mayor for the east area of the city and the Chair of Toronto’s Economic and Community Development Committee, serving as one of the City’s most influential municipal leaders.
We talked with Councillor Thompson about how he is managing his broader duties, the challenges in negotiating a larger ward of over 100,000 constituents, and which areas of Scarborough Centre he enjoys the most.
Geography and Demography: Managing Growth in Scarborough Centre
Acclimatizing to the new boundaries has been manageable for Thompson, who grew up in Scarborough and returns to the job with an acute recognition of the communities he serves. “The geographic area has grown by about one-third and the population has grown by approximately 55,000. The change in systems certainly brought challenges but it has also provided new opportunities,” said Thompson, who has made a determined effort to discover the additional territory now included under his purview.
“I already had a few favourite spots like McCowan Park, Knob Hill Park, Albert Campbell Square and the restaurant, Patty Time. To really learn about the community I’ve been walking, biking and driving in the area but, really, it comes down to relationship-building, and that takes time. I have hosted a number of town halls and community meetings but I have also attended community events and parent association meetings in the area.”
A Natural Respite From the City
The City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division’s motto, “A City Within a Park”, is on vivid display in Scarborough Centre. Steps from the towers and bustling transit station that funnel tens of thousands of commuters through its corridors on a daily basis lies a quiet oasis of mature trees and natural green space that hugs a waterway stretching the entire length of Ward 21. A more manicured network of parks and recreational spaces envelops West Highland Creek as it wends its way south.
“There is a lot to explore in Scarborough Centre but one of my favourite things to do when I have a moment to myself is to visit our local parks and ravines like Thomson Memorial Park, the Birkdale Ravine and the Scarborough Bluffs,” Thompson said. “We have some of the best trails and park space in the city of Toronto so I always recommend that people check them out while visiting Scarborough.”
Tastes of the World
Like the rest of Toronto, Scarborough Centre is a cultural mosaic, home to a significant immigrant population. As of the 2016 Census, 61,315 people – 56% of Ward 21’s population – were classified as immigrants. Compared to the City of Toronto’s 47%, Scarborough Centre is among the most ethnically heterogeneous communities in the region, and in the country. A plurality of immigrants here were born in the Philippines, with a large number of people also establishing roots in the ward after emigrating from Sri Lanka, India, China, Guyana and Pakistan.
Scarborough Centre’s diverse tapestry of cultures makes it a hotbed for international cuisine. From Korean barbeque and Caribbean fare to halal meats and Middle Eastern pastries, discerning foodies have a literal smorgasbord of dishes to feast on. Many of the area’s richest finds are somewhat hidden in unassuming strip malls, stepped back from the street and behind rows of parking. A product of post-war suburban planning, these anachronistic retail plazas have evolved into animated neighbourhood hubs serving multiple purposes.
“When I am not enjoying the outdoors, I will visit one of our many local restaurants with cuisines from around the world,” said Thompson. “Some of my favourites include Ghadir Meats and Fish, Windies, Makkal Chon, Diana’s Oyster Bar and Grill, Patty Time and Crown Pastries where I can cap off a delicious meal with traditional Syrian baklava and syrupy desserts.”
Planning for the Future
An upcoming replacement of Scarborough Town Centre’s aging elevated rapid transit system with a subway line will offer commuters a seamless transition to and from the existing transit network. Expected to trigger further intensification of the ward’s densest district as new residents are welcomed each year, developers meet the demand by constantly adding new condominium and rental buildings constructed on pockets of underutilized land. Formerly its own entity but still a major regional business district twenty years after amalgamation, Scarborough Centre is embracing its contemporary role within a larger metropolis.
We asked Councillor Thompson why a recent immigrant to Toronto should pick Scarborough Centre as their home. His response is one echoed by thousands of proud Scarberians: “I would tell them that Scarborough, and Ward 21 in particular, is a beautiful, safe and vibrant community with some of the best restaurants, parks and shops in the city. Most importantly, Ward 21 is home to the best people. Our community is a collection of caring, respectful and talented neighbours, making Scarborough a great place to work, play and raise a family.”