Corriere Canadese

TCDSB, Villa Charities: Institutional Arrogance and Life’s ironies

Hon. Joe Volpe, Publisher
One sometimes wonders about the value attributed to some of these locally-elected Boards, Institutions or “mini governments”. They are supposed to be responsible and accessible to very local or task specific goals – therefore very democratic and transparent.
If the meeting of the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) held June 15 is any indication, it goes a long way to explaining why successive Provincial governments have been openly musing (and threatening) about the desirability for One, single Board of Education. Or, at the very least, combining public and separate schools under one roof.
But first, let me acknowledge that there are many decent, dedicated and upright individuals who consider community service and careers in education as a vocation, not simply as a job. The TCDSB rightly recognized some that night. How it handles urgent and pressing matters that weigh on its mandate is a little less clear.
One delegation came forward with what it claimed was documented evidence of racial discrimination in a specific school, committed by none other than a staff member. A similar situation earlier in the year at the York Region School Board (YRSB) prompted Ministry inspectors, public protests, resignations and lawsuits or threats thereof.
The Chair in this instance advised the delegate not to name individuals or to provide any telling indicators that might reveal identities. The Board proceeded to “receive and refer” [to Staff for further study and subsequent report back]. When? No earlier than next September. Maybe it doesn’t carry the same weight as the incident at the YRSB. 
Another delegation was perplexed at the fashion in which decisions had been reached in respect of a family of schools when Staff reports had never mentioned the option chosen – one seemingly contrived and selected after the Board had voted in favour of another.
The delegation, dismayed and disappointed, wondered, understandably, whether the appropriate recusal had been exercised by the local trustee whose economic interests may have been potentially enhanced by the decision. The Chair cautioned the delegate against identifying the subject of the veiled allegation. The Trustee was in the room.
Again, the matter was voted “received and referred”. The TCDSB seemed unfazed by the fact that last year their co-terminus Board, the TDSB, had experienced internal upheaval and public discredit after similar issues (among others) surface in their regard. The TCDSB will not have been unfamiliar with that scenario given that it had, itself, been placed under Ministry supervision, not that long ago, for practises that included similarly questionable conventions.
But, Life is a Life-long Learning process, so to speak..
A third delegation, appearing in order to advise the Board on the Italian Community’s (and others’) position on the massive Construction Project envisioned for the South-West corner of Dufferin and Lawrence Avenues – because it hinges on a shared-used facility with a TCDSB school – was met with what can best be described as aggressive badgering and hectoring by yet another Trustee.
The lead-off speaker, a retired University professor and one of the original founders of the Villa Charities, a community organization now turned Developer, remained – to his credit – cool, calm and collected. He had come to offer his perspective for the Board’s consideration, as is his right and duty as a citizen, even if the Trustee had difficulty grasping the concept.
The Professor’s two colleagues - a lawyer and a former MPP – followed with valiant presentations imploring the TCDSB to re-assess the project on technical matters and on its socio-cultural impacts. In vain, on the face of it, even as the local trustee, Maria Rizzo, tried to salvage a smattering of respect for well-intentioned citizen delegations.
The Board voted to “receive and refer”. Their mind was made up, so to speak.
Ironically, the very next day, as reported by the Corriere Canadese, the Minister of Education sent the Chair of the Board a letter outlining the government’s position. In brief, its contents signalled the withdrawal of the Ontario government’s permission to proceed with the joint-use facility. Moreover, it reminded the TCDSB that it cannot proceed with capital projects without the expressed written consent of the Minister.
And, that is not coming anytime soon … so to speak.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), without apparent reason, is rushing headlong towards an irreparable rupture with Toronto’s Italian Community. Who can predict the consequences?
Briefly, the TCDSB has embarked on a controversial project, conceived and fashioned behind closed doors by the Directors and Management of Villa Charities Inc (the umbrella organization which claims title to the Columbus Centre), keeping for years the affected community in the dark.
The Catholic School Board operates two schools on Playfair Ave: Regina Mundi and Dante Alighieri Academy. In 2011, they TCDSB secured an allocation of $32.8 million from the Provincial government to build a replacement school for Dante Alighieri Academy (built in 1976). It did so on an “urgent” need basis since [the Board] had described [the Academy] as “dilapidated”, and no longer viable.
Currently, the TCDSB owns 13 acres of land on the site that houses Regina Mundi (built in 1974) now judged ready for demolition because it too has been described as “decrepit”. Logic suggests that the new Dante Alighieri be reconstructed on the Regina Mundi site. 
For some obscure, undeclared reason, the TCDSB entered into and agreement with Villa Charities Inc that goes something like this: the TCDSB buys a parcel of the land occupied by Columbus Centre and builds the new Dante Academy within which space a portion will be leased to the new Columbus Centre, now reduced to 45% of its current space.
As part of its development plan for the area, in January of 2017, Villa Charities Inc presented Toronto City Council with a request for amendments to the Official Plan so as to permit the construction of a school in an area currently zoned residential single family. The eastern parcel of the site, for which intentions are veiled from public scrutiny, is zoned to permit high rise condos.
When referred to North York Community Council for examination and decision on May 7, the NYCC decided to engage in public consultations as is demanded by the democratic and planning process.
The meeting took place at Yorkdale Secondary School, where an unanticipated 500 people assembled, the overwhelming majority of whom expressed opposition (with anger and rancor) to the project which had as a pre-condition the demolition of the Columbus Centre, an icon of the Italian Canadian Community to which the Corriere Canadese has provided significant coverage.
Almost immediately after the meeting, taking stock of the potential public scrutiny and likelihood of an impasse, Villa Charities Inc opted to appeal directly to the Ontario Municipal Board. Just to be clear, the OMB is an administrative, unelected tribunal with such an egregiously notorious reputation for indiscriminately siding with builders that the Provincial government passed legislation designed to defang it.
When the news of this manoeuvre, at first guarded jealously, became public, the Community’s ire erupted. Several delegations presented themselves to the TCDSB in order to request that it take a step back and answer several questions which remain unanswered.
1. Why did the TCDSB not utilize for 6 years the $32.8 million that the government had allocated for improvements to or reconstruction of Dante Alighieri?
2. Why did the TCDSB assent to the move by Villa Charities Inc to circumvent the Planning process and proceed directly to the OMB? 
3. For what undeclared reasons is the TCDSB not rebuilding on the site of Regina Mundi which it will demolish?
4. Why is it contributing to the demolition of the Columbus Centre, built by the Italian Community one of the pillars of the Catholic School System?
5. Why is it ready to make itself an accomplice to a project that many find reprehensible and with overall murky objectives?
The TCDSB boasts a mission statement aiming to create “an inclusive community of instruction and learning that unites home, church and school and is rooted in the love of Christ”. With this project, Catholic School System like any other Developer, is creating division rancor and anger, coupled with a profound cynicism among Catholic ratepayers and the Italian Community by being complicit with Villa Charities in its appeal to the OMB.
The TCDSB is duty-bound to relay to Villa Charities Inc that the shared-use facility with Dante Alighieri cannot go forward and that the application leading to the OMB should be withdrawn.
Will it have the good sense to heed the Community’s wishes?
TORONTO - “The project is botched up; the Communications Plan is botched up”, so said Toronto Catholic District School Board trustee, Maria Rizzo. She was referring to the Proposed joint-se facility envisioned by her Board and Villa Charities Inc. 
That was arguably the most positive statement on behalf of the proposal uttered during the North York Community Council meeting June 13 - by anyone.
Consider that the first two intervenors, the Planner and the lawyer for the Developer, came across as cavalier and embarrassingly unprepared and to respond to basic questions. First, who owns the property? Second, why does Columbus Centre have to be demolished? Third, what would be the costs to refurnish the Centre? Fourth, why did they “circumvent the process” by going directly to the OMB with their plan the moment the Community started to ask questions”.
MPP Mike Colle was openly incensed by the actions of Villa Charities and the TCDSB. He advised the meeting that he had asked the Minister (of Education) to withdraw the $ 32 million set aside for building a New Dante Alighieri. 
“No one supports this plan”, he said, “this is tearing at the heart of the Italian Community… Villa Charities and the TCDSB have put a gun to the head of the Community by going to the OMB”.
What followed was a litany of testimonials - some emotional, all thoughtful – attesting to the cultural value attributed to and evidenced by the history of the Columbus Centre.
Prof. Elio Costa, a contributing “founder” of Villa Charities, portrayed the proposed demolition as a “betrayal of the Italian Community and of the trust the Community had vested in the Board of Directors to address the issues of the Community”.
Lawrence Pincivero plead the case for designating the Centre as a heritage site, pointing to a long list of celebrities in the Arts and the estimated 700,000 “regular Canadians” who annually make the Centre a destination point.
 Patrick de Marco referred to the plan as a “monstrosity” conceived by “barbarians” who have appropriated a public (community) asset for their own designs. He was also the first to allude to a $100, 000 entrance fee become a member of Villa Charities, and hence to qualify to be on the Board.
Ian Macdonald, an artist and member of Columbus Centre community, rejected the claim by Villa Charities’ lawyer that the site is dilapidated. 
He regretted that the founders of 40 years ago surely could not have anticipated that “their dream would have been destroyed” and, with it, a truly “heritage site”.
Franco Misuraca suppressed his anger to voice disappointment that Canadian-Italian political representatives, with a few notable exceptions, were mute in the face of this [mis]appropriation by a few individuals driven exclusively by a profit motive. He slammed the TCDSB, a Catholic pubic institution, for siding with those private interests.
And so it went. Intervenors emphasized the numerous contributions made in kind, in dollars and donations to the creation of a public, living community asset. An asset the clownish spokesperson for the Developer was now describing as old, decrepit and dilapidated. 
Vincenzo Gentile, who identified himself as one of the structural engineers commissioned in the 1980’s to build the unique structure that is Columbus Centre, objected to the description. He deplored the apparent, insidious “subterfuge and total lack of transparency” with which the development was proceeding, likening it to “omertà”.
A point, this latter one, re-enforced by Dorothy Pullan (?) … an educator/researcher who was astonished that the TCDSB would be allowing outside adults in its schools between the hours of 6am and 6pm. 
She pointed out that a “shared-use facility between these hours runs counter to regulations; and, it would be a “fallacy to proceed” with demolition to facilitate a fallacious plan.
Christine Genowefe, another non-Italian intervenor, found it deplorable that the TCDSB was “piggy-backing” on a demolition proposal that she described as “ripping history out of our experience”.
Councillor Shiner, whose mother had participated in the construction of the Centre asked the obvious question of Trustee Rizzo: “Why not (re)build Dante Alighieri on the site where you already are?” Adding, for good measure that “this doesn’t make sense; it’s a bad plan!”
Other Councillors seemed in agreement. The Chair, Maria Augimeri, ceding her positive to intervene became impassioned – even angry- and forceful in outlining Council’s reservations to the Developer’s spokespersons.
The Columbus Centre “is not yours to sell; it is not yours to tear down …  there are circumstances that are less than honest behind this application”, she said. “Columbus Centre belongs to the public; we funded it”.
Councillor Augimeri held out hope of salvation, as it were, adding that she had “no doubt that the place [would] be declared a Heritage site”.
Councillor Peruzza was perhaps equally strong declaring it “shameful that these trustees (of Villa Charities) operate as a single owner … people who use this as their own development playpen”. Yet, he added, “people (over the years) gave with no strings attached; what fools we are!”
Council voted unanimously to reject the proposal as presented, and for the Staff Report on the matter. 
Toronto City Council will deliberate on it and the Amendments presented by Councillor Colle in its July meeting.
But the OMB, if and when it places the application on its agenda, will consider only the Planning Act implications.
The government should protect Columbus Centre and Casa Italia
TORONTO - I write as an “Italo-Canadian” Citizen, and constitutional lawyer who has dedicated his professional life to protecting the Canadian Constitution and rights under it, outraged at what my government of Ontario is allowing to happen, in dereliction of its duty, to Columbus Centre and “Casa Italia” (the Italian Consulate at Dundas and Beverly streets), in Toronto. While I am an extremely busy lawyer, trying to do my other work, my phone will not stop ringing over these two issues.
Mark Twain once said to the effect that: “History never exactly repeats itself, it echoes”.
Under the guise of “development”, plans are well in the works to take possession of lands, and these two buildings, in Toronto, and demolish these cultural institutions of crucial importance to the Italo-Canadian community, in purported pursuit of condominium and other commercial development. A community that has made longstanding and significant contributions to our Canadian society at large of whose fabric we are a proud member.
Cultural deracination and colonization is not new to Canada. Unfortunately, the country was built on it, and too often degraded by it.  Despite calls, commissioned Inquiry, and recommendation for Reconciliation, even the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, continue to struggle to resist the continued persistence and impact today.
While it does not “surprise” me that this is again happening to our community, in line with the such historic racism as the WWII interment and property theft of Italo-Canadians on June 10th, 1940, and resistance to using John Cabot’s and Christopher Columbus’ real, Italian, names in Canadian history books, it is still appalling and unacceptable. My community, unfortunately, is not unique to this racially criminal tragedy.
“Deracination” and “colonization”, the erasure of the culture of a people, and the physical destruction of cultural heritage is currently being advanced, and prosecuted, as a crime against humanity, in international law, under the Rome Statute (international treaty with respect to Crimes Against Humanity) which is imported and reproduced in our Criminal Code. This is understandable given the avalanche of history, and the destructive effects of these acts and policies. 
This is again what is echoing to us in this city by the proposal, full steam ahead, to demolish Columbus Centre and Casa Italia, notwithstanding that they historically belonged to, and were essentially paid for, by members of my community, and then (mis) appropriated by private and government hands without clarity, clarity of title and/or right, nor any transparency of legal process.
Notwithstanding all and any of the above, both buildings and sites need, and should be protected by Heritage status by your Ministry and our Government of the day, with a prohibition against demolition. I am requesting, and respectfully demanding, on my behalf and the Italo-Canadian community, that you exercise your authority and statutory and constitutional duty, pursuant to s.34.5, et. seq. of the Ontario Heritage Act and designate these two buildings and sites as “properties of cultural heritage value and interest of provincial significance”, as they are vital and crucial to the cultural heritage of not only Italo-Canadians, but also Canadian heritage, history, and significance, which meet the guidelines and Regulations under the Ontario Heritage Act. 
To demolish these two sites is to easily pave the way to pretend that our contributions to this City, Province, and Canadian Society, never took place. History is that easy to erase.
Our Provincial government is thus complicit in this erasure, and act of deracination and continued colonization, as well as the destruction of cultural heritage, in its refusal to act.
I, and the rest of my community, want you and our Government to know that we know that our Government’s failure and refusal to act, despite requests, is with knowledge and intent to do just that: erase our history and contribution from this society and replace it with a useless “Italian Heritage Month”, which our Government has done. 
There are twelve months in my, your, our, Roman calendar. Not a condescending and racially diminutive one, as we are equal Canadians twelve months of the year. 
I posit the idea of taking the site at the North-West corner of Queen and University, and demolishing that two-story little building (“Campbell House”) on that prime real-estate. Campbell House, a building that was physically transported from another physical site to preserve its importance. Or George Brown’s on Beverly up the street from Casa Italia? This would be unthinkable. Why? Because these are different tribes with a racially Superior priority? Yet Columbus Centre and Casa Italia are to be demolished without a thought?
We do not, despite the depravingly pathological and criminal history of this Country, when it comes to race and culture, see ourselves, our place, our dignity, as “inferior” to the main-stream tribes who hold political power. We do not see, nor accept, the notion of being “lesser” Canadians or Ontarians.
We will not accept this without holding our Government, and the private actors, politically and legally accountable.
You, your ministry, and our Government need to act on this issue. If you do not, you and our Government do not deserve a single Italo-Canadian vote in any future election.
This, particularly so with the elected Italo-Canadian MPPs of our Government, who acquiesce  to this, and “omit” to act, as collaborators in cultural erasure, deracination, colonization, and in effect, a form of continued cultural cleansing.
Our Government will be taken to political and legal task at the polls and in the Courts, along with the private interests involved.
In the end, “win or lose”, the reality of what is actually happening, and why, is clear to the vast majority of our Italo-Canadian community, as well as other communities who have suffered and continue to suffer similarly deplorable, unacceptable, and legal and constitutional violations, indignities, and treatment. 
City Hall may object to Villa Charities’s project
TORONTO - The City Hall takes action in the controversial situation regarding the project on the Columbus Centre’ demolition and the construction of a shared-facility with Dante Alighieri Academy.