The Garden of Eden Takes Many Forms in our Minds and in our Hearts: Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg

This contribution from Mary Wiens is part of Park People’s A Day at the Park series, exploring how city parks shape us. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the summer months.

For me, one of those eternal gardens came in the form of Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park. Growing up on a farm in Manitoba, wide-open spaces were as natural to me as breathing. But the man-made landscapes of plowed and tended fields were designed for work.

Assiniboine Park – in Winnipeg, an hour away by car – was another matter. The sweeping swathes of manicured grass and gently curving roads were designed for pleasure – lending dignity and grandeur to family outings, a crowd which included my grandfather, plenty of cousins, uncles and aunts. The aunts brought blankets and picnic baskets filled with egg salad sandwiches, rhubarb Platz, thermoses of coffee and mason jars of lemonade, wrapped in towels to keep them cold.

The one hour drive to the city after the Sunday morning church service must have been carefully planned by our collective mothers. I don’t remember the planning. What I do remember is the expanse of cut grass when we arrived at the park and the view of the Pavilion at the far end. The Pavilion. Even the word was magical – all other pavilions mere shadows of that glorious first one at Assiniboine Park. It was built in 1930, just before the Depression eliminated the possibility of more such grand public gestures.

Mary Wiens’s mother in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg

Part Tudor cottage, part pavilion, its steeply pitched gables, exposed timbers and formal pergolas epitomizi the dignified playfulness of Assiniboine Park. Equally magical was the park’s zoo. The zoo was built in 1904 to showcase a handful of native animals, and expanded over the years so that by the 1960s when I visited as a child, there was a monkey house, a tropical house and dozens of enclosures spread across 80 acres. But all the other animals — ducks, porcupines, gazelles, buffalo, and monkeys — were mere warm-up acts to the true stars — the polar bears. The enclosure for polar bears, the zoo’s most renowned feature, was built in 1967.


Wyman Laliberte, Assiniboine Park (1967)

Unveiled in that optimistic Centennial year, it showcased massive polar bears splashing and diving in groovy, water-filled pools painted a brilliant white. Has my imagination added fictitious turquoise to the mix? The bears’ wet coats, gleaming under the blue prairie skies, together with the turquoise pools, made it seem as though the bears, like us, had travelled from a very different landscape for a suburban vacation – the bears as sleekly mid-century modern as their surroundings – their streamlined bodies merging smoothly into small heads and long pointed snouts.

On those golden summer Sundays, we finished with one last gathering around the picnic baskets, the ice cubes in the mason jars long since melted, before we were corralled into our respective fathers’ cars. We were farm families and the milking and chores at 6 couldn’t wait, so we left gazing through the rear windows at the park still glowing in the late afternoon sun. At 17, I left the farm to take my first job in Winnipeg. I lived in Wolseley, a neighbourhood with plenty of cheap apartments on the second floor of houses with fading painted exteriors. By bike, we were only 20 minutes away from Assiniboine Park, cycling past the stately homes and towering trees on Wellington Crescent.

In Winnipeg, where nothing seemed too expensive or forbidding, I began to stretch my cultural muscles. The first time I saw ballet was on a summer evening in Assiniboine Park, the Pavilion serving as a backdrop to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s free performances, attended by thousands of people every year.

Forty years later, I still see that ballet – Rodeo, a playful, contemporary work by choreographer Agnes de Mille, set to music by Aaron Copeland with dancers in cowboy boots and fringed jackets. Another performance of Rodeo was scheduled for the 2020 season – part of a retrospective to mark the company’s 80th anniversary season – cancelled because of COVID.

Today, I live in Toronto, only a few minutes’ walk from High Park in the city’s west end – the private gift, also from an earlier era, of Toronto’s philanthropist architect John Howard. I am lucky to have lived in the long, green shadows of not one, but two great parks. But it was Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park which taught me first, and many more generations of children before and after, to expect largesse, generosity and dignity in public spaces built with municipal funds – and to see summer pavilions as a wondrous architectural miracle.


About Mary Wiens

Mary Wiens is an award-winning journalist and producer who can be heard weekdays on CBC Radio One’s most listened-to morning show, Metro Morning, on 99.1 FM in Toronto.

Mary’s journalistic scope ranges from groundbreaking series on transit, such as “Joyless Commute” about the emotional strain of the daily commute, to a series exploring father absence called “Fathering Change: Strengthening the role of black fathers”.

Her feature stories have won numerous regional and national awards from RTDNA Canada – the Association of Electronic Journalists, as well as the international Gabriel award for Metro Morning’s series, “Stolen Children”, about Canada’s infamous residential school system.

Mary’s deep affection for Toronto is also expressed in her work as a community volunteer. As a founding member of Roncesvalles Renewed and RoncyWorks, she has been recognized with a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal for local projects that help build civic engagement.

Thank you to our generous sponsor: 

This contribution from Mary Wiens is part of Park People’s A Day at the Park series, exploring how city parks shape us. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the summer months.

Transitioning streets to pathways to create physical distancing during COVID-19: a look at Canada and beyond

During COVID, health officials are still recommending people get out for some exercise when needed. But going for a walk, jog or cycle while maintaining physical distancing can be a monumental challenge in dense cities.

Because of this, there’s momentum building for designating open streets for people instead of cars in urban neighbourhoods the world over.

Programs promoting car-free streets and neighbourhoods are, of course, not new. In Toronto, for example, Kensington Market has had car-free Sundays for 16 years. Last summer, Montreal launched 4 new walking only streets.

Globally, in the era of COVID-19 Bogota was first to respond by designating open streets so people could enjoy the outdoors while following physical distancing requirements. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Bogota is a forerunner in pedestrianizing streets. The city has had a free-car Sunday program called Ciclovia (Bike Ways) since 1974 in which over 70 miles of streets are car-free. Today, this program operates full time.

Many US cities followed Bogota’s lead. In Washington, D.C., advocates are calling for the closures of select streets pointing to those that extend or are adjacent to existing trails to create more seamless active-transportation networks. New York City, established car-free streets in four of the five boroughs, but before long, the pilot was shut down.

A spokesperson for city hall said that “not enough New Yorkers are utilizing the program to justify its continuation at this time.”

The other explanation is that many police have fallen sick with COVID and resources need to be used to actively enforce social distancing across the city.

In Canada, Calgary has taken the lead in launching a pilot project to reallocate streets for pedestrians and cyclists to promote physical distancing. Calgary’s roads department, in coordination with the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, identified roads where lanes could be reduced to give walkers and cyclists more room to move.

Last week, the city of Winnipeg announced its decision to open four active transportation routes for pedestrians, and cyclists. Normally, vehicle traffic is restricted to a maximum of one block on the four designated routes every Sunday from the Victoria Day weekend until Thanksgiving. But starting April 6th, the four streets will operate as active transportation routes from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m every day until May 3rd.

According to Jason Shaw, manager of the city’s emergency operation centre, ”the city is trying to find a balance between allowing people to get out during the pandemic and enforcing the messaging of maintaining a distance of at least two metres from others”.

The Vancouver Park Board announced that all roads on Stanley Park are now car-free starting Wednesday, April 8th at noon to allow pedestrians to access the roads in the park

We’re doing this to reduce congestion in the park, to provide space on the roads within the park, and to relieve congestion on the adjacent seawalls to cyclists and to pedestrians,” said Vancouver Park Board General Manager Malcolm Bromley.

London, Ontario has closed Blackfriars Bridge to car traffic. The oldest river crossing in London, the historic structure is now only accessible by foot or bike. The city has also established one-way sidewalks and right of way rules on congested bridges and tunnels.

City councillors and advocacy groups in Toronto and Vancouver are now asking for the reallocation of main streets in high-density neighbourhoods.

Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who was instrumental in the Bloor/Yonge closure last summer, said: “the thousands of residents living on and around Yonge Street need to be able to get outside, to run essential errands or for their physical and mental health, without being squeezed together on the narrow sidewalks”.

This new demand for open streets, in Canada and around the globe, demonstrates that now, more than ever, we understand the crucial importance of open public spaces and their role in providing quality of life in our cities.

People are seeking more room to move, and our streets can become pathways to provide new avenues for active transportation.


Thank you to our generous supporters

We’ll get through this, together

First off, thank you for all you are doing to keep yourselves and your community safe and healthy.

We wanted to let you know the steps Park People is taking in the immediate term in light of COVID-19.

These include:

We encourage your park group to follow Canadian guidelines on social distancing to protect the health of your loved ones and your community.

Please be assured, we will reach out to groups and individuals as quickly as possible to discuss any programs, events or funding impacted by the current situation. Please contact us if you have any questions. We’re here to help.

Thank you for the work you do and for your support and patience at this difficult time.

We’ll get through this together.


Dave Harvey and the whole Park People team.

P.S. We encourage you to read a great article in today’s Globe and Mail about the role parks can play during the pandemic.

TD Park People Grants Make Green Spaces Into People Places

Our shared green spaces have the potential to significantly improve the quality of life in our cities. However, that potential can only be reached when green spaces become people places. Research has found that each additional supervised activity in a park leads to a 48% increase in park use. As modern life continues to coax us to stay inside with the promise of comfort and convenience, park events help draw us outdoors into our green spaces, where we can build meaningful connections to nature and to one another.

Now in its third year, TD Park People Grants have helped bring 663 events and 61,398 people into city parks across Canada. This year, TD Park People Grants will reach even further providing critical support to community park events in Metro Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Greater Toronto Area, National Capital Region (Ottawa-Gatineau), Montreal, Quebec City and Halifax Regional Municipality.

Starting today, qualified organizations and community groups are encouraged to apply to receive a $2,000 grant to host three events in their local parks or green spaces between Earth Day, April 28, 2019, and New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2020.

The $2,000 grants give more people more reasons to head to their local park. The grants are supported through TD’s global corporate citizenship platform, The Ready Commitment, which is designed to help open doors for a more inclusive and sustainable tomorrow.

“The more time we spend time in our precious green spaces, the more deeply we can connect to nature and the people in our communities,” says Carolyn Scotchmer, Executive Director of TD Friends of the Environment Foundation.

Over the past two years, TD Park People grants have supported events like a Vancouver community BBQ where 100 people gathered together for a free outdoor meal served on a 30ft long table, a Zero Waste picnic at a Toronto park, offering people new ways to reduce their environmental footprint, and nature walks exploring wild Montreal landscapes in the fall.

If you are part of a park group looking to host engaging community park events that connect people with local green spaces, apply by March 2nd at


We’re proud to launch this round of grants with a series of videos highlighting the impact TD Park People Grant events have in city parks across Canada. Enjoy!  




21st Century Park Wayfinding for a 21st Century Town

Bowmanville, Ontario has taken a decidedly thoughtful approach to growth. While the town has experienced significant population growth, residents maintain a deep commitment to the local agricultural sector and environment.

Bowmanville is uniquely situated at the convergence of Bowmanville and Soper Creeks. These lush river valleys have always been central to the town’s identity. In the past, the creeks powered several mills and were home to apple orchards and a World War II prisoner of war camp.

Local fish anglers led the effort to actively re-naturalize the local valleys and creeks, and as a result, more and more people began using them. The City of Bowmanville recognized that the trails fulfilled people’s need to connect to their river valleys and watersheds and invested in creating 6km of paved trails that have been extremely popular.

Since the trails were established, people have flocked to the river valleys to experience nature, fishing and cycling. For the past several years, the community has been working to create a connected network of river valley trails. The project is what Lloyd Rang, treasurer of the board for Valleys 2000, calls “a community dream.”

A key step in realizing this dream happened in 2017 when Greenbelt protection was extended to 21 major urban river valleys and 7 coastal wetlands across the Greater Golden Horseshoe – including the Bowmanville Creek. As Lloyd Rang says,

“Greenbelt protection of the river valley makes us part of one of the most successful conservation projects in the world.”

Now, Valleys 2000 wants to help people fully experience all the protected river valley has to offer. With support from the Greenbelt Foundation and Park People’s Greenbelt River Valley Connector Program, this 21st-century town is getting a 21st-century wayfinding system in its Greenbelt-protected river valleys.


In the spring, visitors to Bowmanville Creek and Soper Creek will be able to tap their smartphones on one of 17 well-marked digital wayfinding stations to learn more about wildlife, flora and history of the creek systems. The new stations will send participants’ phones to web pages, games and activities that help tell the story of the valley and its place in the Greenbelt.

Lloyd Rang is bursting with excitement as he shares:

“My son is now 15. Since he was a little kid we spent a lot of time in the creek, following animal tracks, exploring plants and seeing salmon in the creek. He’s developed a strong sense of and appreciation for nature. Now, this wayfinding system is going to be scaled up so more people, especially families and kids, get to have this valuable experience.”

The innovative digital wayfinding system is also intended to build momentum for Valleys 2000’s vision to join Soper and Bowmanville Creek trails to create a circle of greenspace and trails around Bowmanville for cyclists, anglers, runners and families to enjoy.

The solution may be high tech, but the wayfinding system has a decidedly old fashioned goal to keep the town meaningfully linked to its beloved watersheds. As Lloyd Rang says:

“Good planning and people have been key to preserving all of the key features of small-town life and a big part of that is sharing all that our Greenbelt-protected river valleys have to offer.”


Now we are park people

After a second wonderful season, we had a celebration to recognize the efforts of  Manulife Walk in the Park program walk leaders. Walk leaders rallied their communities together for weekly walks in neighbourhood parks. They were the key to the program’s success.

Manulife Walk in the Park provides training and support to help establish community-led walking groups for seniors across Toronto. These groups help seniors get fit while helping build connections with nature and with other community members. This year, the program has brought together 263 people who hosted 1115 walks in parks across the city. The program was generously supported by Manulife.

In addition, getting people walking, this program helped build powerful social connections, tackling both physical and mental wellbeing.

One walker shared “Walking makes me feel comfortable and happy. I also made more friends, I like this activity. I will continue to walk regularly.”

During the celebration in glorious High Park, Walk Leaders shared their feelings about the program. Here’s some of what they told us.

Jaye, Velma and Barbara from Stan Wadlow Park Walkers

“Walking in the park is a fantastic way to break the ice,” said Jaye. “Stan Wadlow Park, our park, has something for everyone with a spectacular topography. We walk every Wednesday of the year. The park staff know about us and they have a calendar of all of our walks to help anyone want to join us. We will wait for you next Wednesday in front of Stan Wadlow Park Clubhouse to walk in the park with us.”

Wendy, Allan and John from the Friends of Guild Park

“We had great seniors turn out during our walks” explains John Mason who heads up Friends of Guild Park. “Guild Park, our park, is unique in Toronto and in the world: it is where nature meets the arts. During the walks, we opened everyone’s eyes to the park, even if they’d already been their park before. People were smiling. They enjoyed the walks. We even saw a deer! Another highlight for the seniors having a sense of safety in the park: we feel safe walking in the park as a group.”

Josephine and Cita from Waterfront Optimistic Walkers (WOW)

“We had so many people joining us on our walks, and we walked everywhere in Toronto. Everyone is welcome to come with us.
We particularly loved walking in Steep Park, there are so many washrooms there!” Cita – WOW Walkers

Lynne, Grace & Ras from Rustin Oree Walkers

“Esther Lorrie Park has a secret admirer who decorates the park for each season. We haven’t caught him yet, but we love him! Our park is the perfect place to be if you are interested to walk for your health: paved, shaded, and full of nature. Our group, the Rustin Oree Walkers, walk three times a week. Our best memory: spotting a deer and its baby during one of our walks”.

Jo-Anne, Margareth & Sandra from ISSRA (Ismalic Social Services & Resources Association) Walking Club

“You know Neil Sedaka song, Laughter in the rain? Every time we invite someone to join our walks we sing the lyric “Walking hand in hand with the one I love.”Our walking group is very diverse travels from everywhere to join our walks. Before joining us, they all had misconceptions about the west-end (we are at St-Clair and Runnymede), but now that they walk with us, they know it is safe and beautiful.”

Isabel from Seniors on the Go

“I never saw our park, Chalkfarm Park, before. No one from our community group knew about the park before the walks. It is small but beautiful.
We had a lot of fun walking together and I learned much more about my friends and their lives during those walks. Among my best memories of those days: on one rainy day I forgot my umbrella and used a big leaf instead.
But the best outcome of our walking program was having members of the Vietnamese community join one of our walks. After walking with them, I joined their Tai-Chi program. We bonded over walking in the park.”

Fatima, Mainul, Nadira, Rabiul, Shah & Shawkat from Dentonia & Prairie Drive Parks Walking Groups

“Before Park People, we were inside people. After meeting with them, we went outside. Now, we are park people.”
Beyond walking, we are also organizing workshops to talk about climate change to encourage our community to take care of the environment and fight climate change.”

A few more pictures from our walk leaders celebration in High Park 
A few pictures from ISSRA last walk in High Park on October 8, 2019

Thank you to all the walk leaders who encouraged their community members to get more active and helped strangers become friends.  

A very special thank you for the generous support of Manulife, who made the Manulife Walk in the Park program possible. 

GBQ! – Sharing a meal with neighbours

The annual GBQ is one of the many ways that Gordon Neighbourhood House is working to address the growing issue of social isolation in the City of Vancouver. The GBQ is a free annual community BBQ where 100 neighbours are invited to share a free meal set on a 30m long table.

Between increasingly busy schedules the flood of food delivery services and people’s growing tendency to retreat into private space, more and more people are choosing to eat alone at home more often. We know the multiple benefits of food in parks, and Gordon Neighbourhood House’s shared meal created tantalizing opportunities for human connection.


Operating in Vancouver’s West End since 1942, Gordon Neighbourhood House knows that food helps neighbours get to know each other and build social capital.

In fact, their mission states that their programs all strive to meet, “the needs and dreams of the community.” They have a Food Philosophy and several food initiatives that nourish their community.

This joyous event was supported by a TD Park People Grant and featured local musicians such as Madelyn Read and Jan Bartolome, who filled the air with folk and R&B tunes. Community members, including employees from the local TD branch, volunteered to food to the neighbours who gathered together.



Dinner also featured a special appearance by the bike-powered Gordon Greens produce market and locally grown herbs from the Gordon House Community Herb Gardens which can be found sprinkled through the West End (map).



These herb gardens provide a free, openly accessible place for West Enders to harvest and enjoy fresh herbs. The produce market brings local, nutritious, and affordable produce to the West End community over the summer months.



After dinner, neighbours were invited to stick around and continue building bonds over rounds of street hockey and board games.








“The ambiance of people laughing and talking, the music, decor and the delicious food was amazing.” – West End resident.

Check out Gordon Neighbourhood House’s next TD Park People food-centric event cleverly named Heart and Farty, on Thursday, September 19th. Learn more about the TD Park People Grant program and our latest round of grantees hosting 225 park events across Canada.

Photos by Matt Schroeter. More photos can be found here.



The Ready Commitment. Through this platform, TD is helping to open doors for a more inclusive and sustainable tomorrow so that people feel more confident – not just about their finances, but also in their ability to achieve their personal goals in a changing world. As part of this, TD is committed to helping elevate the quality of the environment so that people and economies can thrive, by growing and enhancing green spaces and supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy. To learn more about The Ready Commitment visit

Stewarding Trees for the Future

A majestic, 120-year-old willow tree is a powerful presence as student volunteers work in the already-hot morning sun. They work quickly to fill large watering cans with water to help 39 young trees become established. The students from West Humber Collegiate and Park People’s summer student, Mariam Farah are at 121 Kendleton, a Toronto Community Housing property in Toronto. The willow stands as a solid reminder that their efforts will eventually grow to become something much, much bigger than the young, slender trees they care for about twice a week.

A great partnership between Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), City of Toronto, Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests (LEAF) and Park People brought trees to this, and two other TCHC properties to replace ones lost due to ice storms and insect damage. The trees increase the urban forest canopy and help create vibrant, green communities that promote a healthy quality of life for TCHC tenants.


Because many of the residents at Kendleton simply don’t have the physical capacity to care for the trees, Park People worked with the local high school to connect students in need of volunteer hours with this volunteer opportunity caring for young trees.

Guided by community leadership

The volunteer students were supported by Mariam. They volunteered twice a week right through the Summer. They worked with Thomas Boehler, coordinator of the community garden at Kendleton who spent 12 formative years on his family’s farm in Orno. Thomas, who lives in the building, walks the property each day to pick up any trash he sees. He has also volunteered for 15 years supporting Kendleton’s thriving community garden. He clearly values volunteerism and his wealth of knowledge and ongoing presence help the volunteers glean a deeper appreciation for environmental stewardship.



Thomas says that the community thinks of him as “the community’s gardener.” His reverence for trees is crystal clear as he stares up at the willow tree, saying “whoever decided to plant that tree was …very clever….”

The day we’re there, he greets the students with a huge grin and then gets right down to work, checking off who is on-site that day so their hours will be accurately recorded. Then, he starts helping fill the watering cans.

“The kids are all pulling their own weight,” he says, proudly. Earlier in the heat of summer, many of the trees looked like they weren’t thriving: “The kids were really worried about the trees drying out. But, we kept watering and now they’re almost established.”

It’s one thing to collect volunteer hours to meet high school requirements, but Thomas’ personal commitment to environmental stewardship has helped these trees strike a deeper chord with the students. It’s also meaningful that the students are connected to a dedicated resident.

Making the connection to trees



We asked the student volunteers why trees are important and were struck by the clarity of their answers. Without missing a single beat, one of the volunteers says:

“We had an information session with LEAF  about global warming and the part trees play in combatting it. Trees are important for clean air, for providing habitat for wildlife and for managimg flooding.”

Asked how much they care about global warming on a scale of 1-10, they were unanimous that it matters more than anything else.

It’s heartening to know that climate change is so the top of mind for these 15-to-18-year-olds and that they see tree stewardship (watering and caring for the trees) as a valuable way to make a difference on an issue that can make us all feel so helpless and fearful.

They’ve also helped Thomas become more conscious about some of his habits. The volunteers noted that he was wasting excess water across the asphalt. They very quickly reminded him that it could be put to better use on thirsty plants.



After months of careful and consistent watering by this great tree team at Kendleton, the 39 young trees have had a great start. The students are back at school but come once a week after school to work with Thomas to water the trees to the end of September. The trees will need one more year of care, but at Kendleton, we’ve got a formula that works. From our visit, it’s clear that what the students learned from Thomas and the trees help them feel like part of the solution to climate change.

For Thomas, he’s looking forward to seeing the trees in the back garden come to full maturity: “In 5 years it’ll be just gorgeous” he says.


This project is supported by funds from Every Tree Counts, a partnership between Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation and the City of Toronto.



Smile on their faces and dirt under their fingernails: Boys and Girls Club of Canada explore Ontario’s Greenbelt

This year, the Greenbelt Foundation, Park People and the Boys and Girls Club of Canada partnered to get children and youth into nature through the Into the Greenbelt Program.

This partnership gives young people from the Boys and Girls Club of Canada the opportunity to explore the natural beauty of Ontario’s Greenbelt through fun and educational day-trips. We were happy to provide a $400 bursary to regional clubs to help underwrite the travel and programming costs of a day-trip out of the city.



I had the opportunity to tag along with a Club from Durham as they explored Brooks Farms and the experience was pure joy. With a 10-acre barnyard playland onsite, Brooks offers a ton of exploratory play opportunities for children including straw climbing structures, a giant sandbox, farm animals and a tractor-pulled train tour of the farm. When I arrived, the campers were fully immersed in activities. Some flocked to feed the chickens, goats and cow while others swung from tire swings, dug in the sand, or hurtled along a zip line. The laughter, excited shrieks and singing could be heard from the parking lot. These kids were having some serious fun on the farm!



Parker, a seasoned Boys and Girls Club councillor, told me: “Campers that don’t usually participate in our regular activities are fully engaged, excited, interacting and having fun! It’s amazing!”.

Just at that moment one of the campers ran up with a big smile and wrapped his arms around her legs. I asked him if he’d been to a farm before and he said “no, but I want to come back. My brother would like goats!”. He then ran off to join the rest in line for the train.


I smiled to myself and watched them board the train. They broke into a camp song about Yogi Bear and rolled off to explore the fields. Smiles on their faces and dirt under their fingernails. I left the farm feeling happier and proud that the Into the Greenbelt program provided an opportunity for those 25 kids to be outdoors for the day and have fun.

This year, eleven bursaries were awarded to local clubs. There are still a few spots available for the Fall. Visit our website for full program details or contact us at



A microphone to amplify a community’s vision

Art on my Mind 2019, an open mic concert organized by the Jane-Finch Family and Community Center and the Art Gallery of York University at Edgeley Park brought professional local artists and local youth together to perform for their local community. Art on my Mind was part of a free workshop for local youth to learn how to write, perform and record songs. It is one example of incredible work happening through Arts in the Parks, a Toronto-wide initiative, bringing art to parks outside the downtown core.

And why perform in a park? Clara Stewart-Robinson from the Jane-Finch Family and Community Centre explains:

“The program encourages the community to come together in their local parks and see them as places they can use in different ways. It is a great starting point to talk about how our green spaces can be improved and how they can meet the needs of the community.” She goes on to say, “Art creates a platform for connecting with people”.

Exactly what the community needs

“This is an amazing idea. This is exactly what the community needs” This enthusiastic pronouncement by a Jane & Finch resident during the open mic concert embodies the power of this artistic collaboration.

The program created by Allyson Adley from the Art Gallery of York University aimed to reach out to kids from that community to help them establish new ways to express themselves through singing and spoken word performance. For Allyson, the collaboration with York University makes perfect sense since the University is just a few blocks away and is always working to foster stronger ties to the community. Her idea was simple: find local youth willing to learn songwriting and pair them with professional artists from the community with experience in the field. Because she has worked on art projects in the community for over a decade, Allyson built the program around direct insight into what would be most engaging and impactful for participants: “They’re surrounded and inspired by hip hop as an art form and I think a lot of them are very eager to perform,” she said.

Jameel “Jameel3dn” McPherson, grew up in the area and was one of the facilitators and hosts of the performance. He discussed the value of Art on My Mind to the community in a recent interview: “I know it’s not exclusive to Black children, but me being a Black man, in our communities they don’t necessarily teach us how to express ourselves and a lot of the expression we would have turned into anger,” he said. “What do you do with the anger that no one taught you how to deal with? Usually, it comes out in some sort of violence.” As a kid struggling with his emotions, writing became a good strategy: “If something was bothering me I just put it in my stories and it helped to release me from that issue. I wasn’t angry anymore.” (Toronto Star)

The performance as ultimate collaboration and celebration of partnerships

Art on my Mind was built on a strong foundation of community collaboration, leveraging the expertise of partners with deep connections to the community. Through the Parks, Forestry & Recreation Division of the City of Toronto, Toronto Arts Foundation and Park People, the Art Gallery of York University partnered with the Jane-Finch Family and Community Centre, a local community park group, who Allyson states is doing “very important advocacy work to make sure the community’s voices are being heard.

Allyson worked directly with 5 local facilitators to deliver the free songwriting workshops. They included: Jameel3dn, Zakisha Brown, NamedTobias, Abdulkadir “Moose” Noor, Terrence Penny, Denise De’ion and Es Ef, all of whom grew up in the Jane & Finch area.

For Allyson, who received, with the Art Gallery of York University, the Animating Toronto Parks grant from Toronto Art Council, “the key to success was working with artists who have a strong link to the community.” This helped to build a connection between the professional and the local youth performers:

“As artists, they are supporting one another and through art, they’re building a community.”

The final partner in this initiative, R.I.S.E., worked with local musical talent that made up the performance’s pre-show. “We provided the cherry on the top,” joked R.I.S.E. founder & director Randell Adjei.

Randell Adjei, founder & director of R.I.S.E. talking about his organization to help local artists. 

Being open to surprises

Soon after the program began, it faced some serious challenges: “This year, almost all the youth stopped to come after a local shooting, as they had safety concerns about participating in an outdoor program” Allyson explains. After the shooting, participation in the program dropped to only two youth performers.

It was initially devastating.

Allyson and her team had to quickly adapt the program. They decided to feature professional artists in the performance in order to hopefully inspire youth to jump up on stage and participate.

Allyson explains: “the program did not turn out to be what we expected. From a songwriting workshop with youth in the park, we created an artists residency, with extremely talented local artists who worked together to write 3 songs, and record them at York University and in Edgeley Park.”

The power of leveraging local voices

The work of professional artists was so inspiring that local aspiring musicians dared to take the mic to perform in their own community park.

Rachel Cunningham, a shy but extremely talented young woman in the audience declared before starting to sing: “I don’t normally do this, but you are all making me so comfortable, it’s like singing by myself.”

It was clear Rachel felt as if she was performing in front of her friends at home without pressure, judgment or fear. The performance morphed into a magical jam session where professional artists and local youth shared together in a powerful musical experience against the backdrop of a community park.

By the end of the performance, it was impossible to distinguish the professional artists from local youth who were often performing for the very first time. In spite of challenges along the way, Art on my Mind gave local youth the courage to raise their voices and express the art on their minds.



Park People has collaborated with Toronto Arts Foundation since 2016.
Learn more about the Arts in the Parks program.

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