Presenting: Michael Prue, A Working Class Success Story: From Regent Park to Queens Park

All East York Councillors were part-timers who would attend committee meetings on various evenings and afternoons, and Michael would simply take unpaid time off work to mind his civic duties as a Councillor. From 1993 to late 1997 Michael was the Mayor of the Borough of East York, a time of a major economic slowdown. Michael is indeed the first person that I heard refer to this era as a “depression”. And by any economic definitions this time was indeed a depression since it was a period of more than six quarters of negative growth in a row.

This was a time when no new major commercial or industrial projects were undertaken at all in Toronto. As a matter of fact, Michael indicates that the new Dorothea Knitting Mills factory in East York was the only new commercial / industrial project in all of Toronto, and his borough was able to attract this new investment due to their favourable licensing program that would give new entrepreneurs all necessary permits within a 90-day period, unheard of in any other part of the city.

Michael loved being Mayor since he could really effect change and make a difference in people’s lives. Being a provincial Member of Parliament in opposition is a different story. Since Michael is a member of the New Democratic Party’s caucus he is not part of the ruling Liberal government. As a result his role is limited to being a critic, something that he finds frustrating. He has, however, been able to make some changes.

One example was the case of a woman on welfare who found a $25,000 bundle of money on the streets. She correctly assumed that these funds were the property of the local bank, and it was indeed confirmed that this large bundle of money had been dropped by armoured car employees. The bank gave her a $3000 reward for her honesty, however, because she was on welfare the provincial authorities clawed back the $3000 from her welfare payments, in effect punishing her for her honesty. This honest citizen would have seen none of her reward if Michael Prue had not intervened. He brought this case to the attention of the Minister of Community and Social Services and after persuasively arguing his case, the woman was allowed to keep her reward without having the same amount clawed back from her welfare payments.

Michael also went to bat for a man who is suffering from late-stage diabetes. His disease is so serious that he is losing his vision and will have one of his legs amputated in the next few days. This man is receiving a regular disability support payment because he is unable to work. The provincial government has cut his nutrition subsidy in half, a supplementary payment that allowed him to pay for a special diet which involved expensive items such as macrobiotic yoghurts and protein shakes since he has a hard time digesting proteins due to his condition.

Marquee of the Fox Cinema, the oldest continuously running cinema in the Beach

Michael explained that the government was saving $10 a month in nutrition supplements while incurring extra hospital costs of $600 a day for the leg amputation which happened it is believed primarily due to the lower grade diet the man was forced to eat because of the cut in his nutrition supplement. Sometimes governments’ decisions do not make sense from an economic point of view and they can cause serious hardships to the individuals in question. Wherever he can, Michael tries to point out these contradictions and tries to help the people affected.

I questioned Michael about his Beaches-East York riding – the electoral district that he represents. He explained that some areas of his riding have a fair number of low income residents, new immigrants and other people with social issues. A relatively recent wave of Bangladeshi immigrants along Danforth Avenue has caused a readjustment in the neighbourhood as they have started to open stores and hold cultural events along this popular Toronto thoroughfare. Michael has experienced the Bangladeshi immigrants as a very adaptable and resourceful group of people who have adjusted quite successfully to their new environment. Michael has found them to be hard working and very interested in the local community. Individuals from this community have gotten involved in political campaigns of different candidates from all parties and they participate in the democratic process.

We also talked about the Thorncliffe Park area, for which Michael was responsible when he was Mayor of East York. This area has Canada’s largest concentration of Muslim immigrants and many of these residents are Ismaili Muslims, a Shia sect that celebrates the Aga Khan as its spiritual leader. Michael characterizes this group of Muslims as real immigrant success stories since they often arrive from other countries without much money and a lack of English skills. He admits that when he saw some of them arrive in winter in short sleeved shirts and light cotton pants, just having landed from various places in East Africa, he thought that they would never make it.

Within a few years the Ismaili Muslim immigrants had achieved substantial economic success and virtually all their children were attending university or college. Michael explained that their unique traditions are key to their success: these immigrants pool their money and dedicate themselves to helping one another achieve a better life. But their generosity and community assistance is not limited to members of their own group: they become involved in charitable activities that help people of other communities and backgrounds. Their stated goal is to become good citizens of the country they belong to and they see it as a duty to make their home country a better place for everyone. Michael admits that he truly underestimated the ability of this group of immigrants and expressed his praise and admiration to them during a recent public event.

Funky mural in the Beach

Another part of his riding is the Beach, also referred to as the Beaches. I tried to clear up the confusion as to why some people might call this area “the Beach” while others might refer to it as the “Beaches”. Michael explained that historically the area consisted of several beaches, including Woodbine Beach, Kew Beach, Balmy Beach and Scarborough Beach, but the commercial strip along Queen Street East from Woodbine to Victoria Park has always been referred to as “the Beach”. The wider area outside the Queen Street strip is still mostly referred to by many as “the Beaches”.

When Michael’s mother was growing up in Toronto’s East End near Victoria Park and Danforth, the area was still very WASP (white / Anglo-Saxon / Protestant), and especially leading up to and during the second World War there was a lot of racism, not just in the Beach, but in other parts of Toronto and Canada as well. This era was not a proud moment in Canadian history. Michael refers to an excellent book called “Sabbath Goy” written by a Torontonian about his youth growing up in the Christie Pitts area and being hired by Jewish families to complete light work on the Sabbath.

The Beach neighbourhood generally presents very few concerns to their provincial member of parliament. One thing residents are passionate about is education, and when the provincial government cut funding to schools, Michael received numerous letters from constituents in the Beach, indicating their worries about this policy. At the time when the provincial government passed a law outlawing pit bull ownership due to many violent dog attacks, various residents of the Beach also spoke out, both on the pro and con side. Overall, he says the residents from the Beach are very easy to deal with. He says he’s been having “a hoot” working in politics and really enjoys interacting with the public.

Very recently there has been some controversy in the Beach: St. Aidan’s Anglican Church has proposed to participate in a city-wide drop-in program for the homeless called ”Come in from the Cold”. Once a week homeless people would drop in and have a place to stay at St. Aidan’s for the night while other locations throughout the city would house the homeless on other days of the week. Michael has received letters and faxes from people who were opposed to the project. The project would have a total of 12 homeless people spending one night a week at St. Aidan’s Church. The referring agencies in downtown Toronto would have to call ahead and make a reservation before the homeless people actually receive a streetcar token to get to St. Aidan’s.

Some of the local residents expressed concerns that the homeless people might bring in diseases, or a criminal element into the neighbourhood. They did not want their children exposed to communicable diseases like tuberculosis. Various rather nasty articles were written in different Toronto media about the lack of community spirit in the Beach. Finally a meeting was held on January 16 which was attended by hundreds of people. Details of the program were explained to the residents and most of the fears were allayed. In Michael’s view, 95% of the concerns were unfounded. Many of the residents stood up at the meeting and said that they agree with this project and feel ashamed about this fearful reaction. More than 100 people volunteered to help out with the homeless program. Money was being collected and one woman donated $1000, saying that she is a devout atheist, but she supports the program and wants to put her money where her mouth is.

Flowers on sale in the Beach

Michael adds that the police don’t see a problem with the program. Homeless people generally do not present a large crime issue, although they may get verbally abusive if they are asked to move. Michael laughs and says that many police officers have been told to get lost (Michael actually used more colourful terminology) by a diverse group of residents, not just the homeless. He commented “it’s amazing what 10 or 12 people can do with a fax machine” and says it’s ironic because the Beach is really a rather left-wing area that consistently votes for the NDP. So the big controversy over the “Come in from the Cold” program was rather surprising, and fortunately the residents’ fears have been addressed at the recent meeting.

Now it was time for the action-packed part of the interview. Michael and I hopped into his car and we went for a drive along Queen Street East. He pointed out the former Woodbine Race Track land, later renamed Greenwood Race Track, which was converted into upscale subdivisions in the early 1990s. Construction still continues today. Houses that were originally sold for $399,000 are selling for closer to $1 million today. Michael fondly recalls going to the race track with his father once or twice a year. He still occasionally goes today to the new racetrack in Toronto’s west end and says the food is magnificent.

He and his wife love coming down to the Beach themselves and they take part in the Jazz Festival, the annual Shakespeare in the Park theatre festival (which unfortunately was not held last year), and various other special events in the Beach. He enjoys watching the waterfront sports activities and likes to spend time on Queen Street.

The famous Leuty Lifesaving Station

As we were driving, Michael pointed out a whole range of local merchants that he likes to shop at. He loves Copperfield’s Treasure House and enjoys buying tea at the Tea Leaf. He also shares my passion for discount fashion from Ends. He pointed out merchants such as JD Jewel of the Beach and Mr. Greek that he personally frequents. Driving by the Beaches Library he mentioned that the building has extensive history and is treasured by many local residents.

He also pointed out a homeless man in front of the local Scotiabank who was selling pencils to passers-by. Michael still remembers this individual from his youth in Regent Park although the man himself does not recognize Michael any more. Further east we passed by Crystal Beach Optical which also sells jewellery, often at 60% off. Michael’s wife loves this place, as well as Totto Spa & Salon, which has won the Best Spa in the City award.

Peppino’s is also a favourite restaurant of Michael’s and just up the street on the north side is another centre of entertainment in the Beach, anchored by Quigley’s, the “Goof” (Garden Gate) Chinese Restaurant, and the historic Fox Cinema, the longest continuously running movie theatre in Toronto. Ed’s Icecream, a few steps west, is a popular destination in the summer, and Michael mentioned that the Wholesome Market (“Nourishing Our Community”) has some really interesting foods and unique items for sale. Driving past Spiaggia’s, a popular Italian restaurant we made it to the streetcar turnaround and drove to the entrance of the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant, a true Art Deco masterpiece of public architecture. The “waterworks” is currently under heavy construction, and security measures have increased since 911 so we were not able to enter the premises. But nonetheless, this imposing public building remains an architectural treasure in the Beach.

We turned around and made our way back west and stopped on the north side, just opposite Kew Gardens, to visit some of Michael’s personal friends: Mary and Joe Abbinante, owners of Ups and Downs Swimwear, a designer swimwear store that has been in the Beach for about 10 years. Mary designs many of the swimsuits herself and gets them made in Italy, while Joe’s experience in the fashion manufacturing business rounds out the skill set for this popular business.

Mary explained that a life change was in order after working twelve hours a day seven days a week. She wants to do things more on her schedule. As a result, the colourful and eclectic store will close its doors in the middle of February. However, Mary’s design and fashion experience will not go unused: she will offer her services as a personal shopper and will still continue her design fashion swimwear “from a loft somewhere”. Joe is the President of the Beaches Business and Professional Association and very involved in local projects. After closing the store the couple will be heading to Sicily for a few weeks.

While Michael had a chance to catch up with Joe, Mary showed me a famous picture of hers in the back of the store: Mary, dressed up in disco attire in the 1970s. She informed me that she is having a store-closing sale where some items will go at 70% off and $10 door crasher specials will be offered. Just this week, several women in their eighties came to shop at Ups and Downs and they each picked up several fashionable pieces of swimwear at highly reduced prices.

As Michael’s parking meter was running out we had to leave, but I had just spent about three hours that were really fun. Michael Prue is a gregarious, outgoing and approachable individual, and for a few hours he shared his world and his stories with me.

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