Pay a fare to ride transit

May 27, 2024

On a recent Saturday morning I boarded the 506 Carlton streetcar of the Toronto Transit Commission, heading west. I tapped my Presto card to pay my $3.30 fare. I like to sit at the back, but it was occupied by a sleeping man, who had stretched out over five seats. I walked further ahead, and saw two other sleeping forms, one beside a cart filled with their possessions; the other sleeping on a bench with several bags tucked under the bench. I walked further forward; just behind the driver sat a fourth sleeping figure, next to a shopping cart.

I am quite sure that none of these riders paid a fare.

The TTC is in trouble. The commission notes that ridership in 2023 dropped to 70 per cent of levels in 2019, before the pandemic – even as Toronto has continued to grow. Fewer people ride transit because more people work from home. But that’s only part of the reason. The roads are as clogged with cars as ever, or more so; if more people work from home, whence all these extra cars? Part of it, I suspect, is that people choose cars over the TTC, because our transit system is becoming a refuge for homeless people, and riders feel less welcome. I feel less welcome.

Continue reading


May 5, 2024

Sabatino and Mario are friends.

I met Mario first. The other day as I walked our younger dog on the sidewalk by our house, a man  emerged from a house across the street. That house changed hands last year, and the new owners, who I think are architects, are doing a lot of work on it.

“Hi,” said the man, who was a bit older, perhaps 70, and did a good job filling out his work clothes.

“Hi,” I replied. “What are you up to?”

“We are rewiring this house,” he said.

“Oh, so you are electricians? Are you available?” I asked.

“I am not the electrician. He is coming out in a bit. You can talk to him when he comes out,” he said. He said his name was Mario. We shook hands.

A few minutes later a second man came out of the old brick house and walked through the yard to the sidewalk, and then down the street a few paces to where he’d parked his white panel van alongside the chocolate factory, across from our house. The second guy, whom Mario introduced to me as Sabatino, could not have been more physically different from the first. Mario is portly and of average height; Sabatino is tiny. They seem about the same age.

Continue reading

Earth Day

April 22, 2024

Happy Earth Day!

On the weekend I read environmental coverage in The Globe and Mail and some of it slightly depressed me. For example, according to the Globe about 70% of clothing is now made out of plastic, up from about half in the year 2000. The story suggested that, with people turning to electric cars, clothing is the new cash cow for the oil and gas industry. We are all buying more clothing than we used to, much of it junky fast fashion make from synthetic fabrics. Also scientists are finding micro-plastics in peoples’ arteries.

But the paper also published an encouraging story about a guy in Vancouver who planted a Douglas fir tree.

On Sunday I took our dogs, Coco and Rook, for a walk in High Park. I used to drive to the park but I realized that it’s just as easy, and more enjoyable, to take the TTC. Also it is better for the planet. The College streetcar was unusually crowded at about 10:30 a.m. Turns out lots of people were headed to High Park to enjoy the cherry blossoms. Rook sat next to a young man at the back of the streetcar. I think the guy was a bit unfamiliar with dogs but he smiled when Rook sat on his foot. Rook likes to sit on peoples’ feet.

Continue reading


January 18, 2024

My sister Sylvia van Oort is travelling in Italy with my brother-in-law, Franc van Oort. They sent this from Palermo. Sylvia wrote the words and Franc made the drawing.

There is a place in downtown Palermo where everybody goes by at one time or another. We walked from our tiny apartment through a narrow alley, turned right and found ourselves on the via Vittorio Emmanuele, the main thoroughfare down to the sea. A few blocks down we came to the beating heart of downtown – I Quattro Canti, or four corners, where the two main streets of this city have intersected for many centuries. As both streets are now largely pedestrianized there was a coming together on this crossroads, as though two rivers were meeting, a large semi circular fountain on each scalloped out corner, with below each one steps, and above each rising three stories high, a  sculpture of dignitaries in 17th century garb, above which statues of angels, then more decorations, and eventually the roofs. Every type of person imaginable entered the space strolling about, or conversely determinedly going about their business. Tiny motorized scooters zipped through, often with two people plus bags balanced on them, parents pushing strollers, tourists with rolling suitcases, and the odd ‘carabinieri’ car who seem to be able to get anywhere at all.

Continue reading

506 to High Park Loop

January 17, 2024

Some friends met me for a drink on Saturday night at E.L. Ruddy, or neighbourhood boîte on Dundas St. West. I am doing a Dry January, so that was the first controversy, but they all got over it. The three of them ordered beer and I drank ginger ale. My bill was pleasant: $6 for two soft drinks. Plus I felt great the next morning.

            Our gang sought to skirt controversial subjects, such as Israel/Gaza and Trump, so we wound up bitching about something that’s a perennial bugaboo for the four of us, city-boosters and downtowners that we are: the Toronto Transit Commission. Mostly we rely on the streetcars, which really don’t work very well; one friend had a doctor’s appointment at Toronto General Hospital, which is literally four kilometres from his house; the app told him the College streetcar would take an hour to get there. It didn’t. Even 4 km/hour was out of the TTC’s reach. He arrived 20 minutes late. I announced that I have confidence that, in my lifetime, I will ride the Eglinton Crosstown, the light rail line that the province of Ontario began to build on Eglinton Ave. in 2010. The line, four years behind schedule and up to $4 billion over budget, still has no opening date.

Continue reading


January 4, 2024

When the weather gets cold, I get excited. Why? I am not sure. I know I am not alone. I think it’s because cold weather offers so many opportunities for fun. Toboggan, snowshoe, skate, ski, cross-country ski: these are the things you get to do in winter.

Along with the fact that it is January, and thus, nominally winter, cold is on my mind these days because I am at work on a book about the history of maple syrup in Canada. One thing I’ve learned in my research is that the long cold winter of North America’s northeast – as distinct from the weather patterns of Europe, for example – are vital to the maple syrup industry. The cold creates the conditions that farmers require in spring to make maple syrup: good flows of sap with a reasonable content of sugar.

Continue reading

The clock is ticking

November 9, 2023

The other day in Trois Rivières I met a guy who gave me an gift.

I had travelled to Trois Rivières to meet a retired police detective. The cop, who spent his career at the Sûreté du Québec, led the investigation of the biggest theft in the history of Canada: working at night for most of a year, a gang of thieves stole thousands of barrels of maple syrup, worth a total of $18 million, from a warehouse in St. Louis de Blandford, across the St. Lawrence River from Trois Rivières. The Trois Rivières detachment caught the crooks.

I had a bit of time to kill before my meeting with the police officer. I walked through Old Trois Rivières and came to the port. A cruise ship stood moored in the harbour, the Seabourn Quest – a substantial vessel to my eyes, with 11 decks. The ship’s presence figures into this story in some way.

Continue reading

Postcard from the Beauce

October 31, 2023

Happy Halloween! Here is a photograph of me with Angèle Grenier, my favourite maple syrup rebel grandmother, on Oct. 25, in front of her home, about 300 kilometres east of Montréal in St. Clotilde de Beauce, Québec.

I got to know Grenier back in 2015 when a National Post photographer and I traveled deep into the heart of the Beauce to write about a loosely grouped gang of rebels who fought to throw off the shackles of what was then called the Fédération de Producteurs Acéricoles du Québec. Quebec by that point was already about 15 years into a strict supply management régime where, if a producer made syrup in large quantities, i.e. 200 litre steel barrels (same size as a barrel of crude oil) they must sell it through the single buying agent of the federation, and get paid the federation`s agreed rate for the syrup, on a payment schedule agreed by the federation.

Continue reading


September 26, 2023

A tornado ripped through our farm last year and smashed a lot of trees. The force toppled a proud ash tree that grew on our treeline. The tree fell into the neighbour’s hay field.

The neighbour used a tractor and pushed the ash into the shared fence line, shoving it up among the old split-rail cedar fences. Since then I’ve made trips when I have a moment, to buck the ash tree up with the chainsaw. Then I load the rounds of ash in our little red wagon, attached to my rider mower (that no longer mows) and haul them back to the cottage for firewood.

The emerald ash borer, or EAB, a beetle from Asia, is on a rampage to kill all the ash in North America. This beetle has no predators in Canada. A few years ago when my Master of Forest Conservation class visited Montreal, we learned about trials by the City of Montreal to release wasps to control the beetle. The wasps work a bit like the creature in Alien; they lay their eggs in the larvae of host insects, and then thrive at the expense of the EAB.

Continue reading

Toronto International Festival of Authors

September 22, 2023

Harbourfront was buzzing on the night of the fall solstice, Sept. 21. Harbourfront, a cultural non-profit, occupies a campus on the shore of Lake Ontario, in the heart of Toronto. I rode down on my bike for the Toronto International Festival of Authors. Runners, skaters, cyclists and scooter enthusiasts thronged the Martin Goodman Trail, the bike path along the shore of Lake Ontario; one has to stay alert to avoid getting mowed down by some athlete on a souped up road bike.

I am at work on a book about the history of maple syrup in Canada, and I felt like I needed to get into the author zone.

But there was so much else going on. In one tent gathered music industry types for an event called Global Toronto, dining on Japanese inari pockets stuffed with wakame, shitake and wasabi peas, along with pakoras and lamb kafta. At another watering hole by the skating rink (currently under reconstruction) people from across North America who run bike rental, or bike share operations gathered for canapes and beverages.

Continue reading