Corriere Canadese

 
TORONTO - Who are these Developers, and  Why are they tearing our Centre, and us, down? This is the salutation with which an ever-increasing number of people greet me and the Corriere Canadese staff - on and off the record. Some well up with tears, unable to hide their frustration at aggressive resolve of the “Developer(s)” to tear down the Columbus Centre, and to prepare to the way for a massive redevelopment of the southwest corner of Dufferin and Lawrence.
 
Whether they are Residents on the campus, Residents in the extended subdivision surrounding the Centre, members of the Health Club or Donors who gave for an ideal that went to the heart of their being, they are unanimously against the demolition – a regrettable, inevitable conclusion in the minds of some, given the application now before the Ontario Municipal Board.
 
On the surface, the project appears rife with inconsistencies, unclear messaging, program mismanagement and “misuse” of public funds. The Government of Ontario has called for a pause in the planning, to be followed by more “acceptable” proposals. It has a $32.8 million stake in the game – the cost to build a new school, whose justification is beginning to beg credulity.
 
The Province reveals skepticism because relationships with those who run/own the Columbus Centre have not always met expectations. In fiscal year 2012-2013, the Ontario Trillium Foundation gave them $455,700 to “renovate the roof of this 180,000 square foot community facility…” The owners of the premises now repeatedly describe it as dilapidated.
 
In 2014, a combined “team of investigators” from the Ministry of Education and from the City’s Child Welfare Services descended upon the Columbus Centre Day Care facilities following complaints by parents.  A forensic audit, going back five years and lasting five months, found evidence of egregious malpractice and misallocation of funds, prompting the investigators to allege “potential fraud”.
 
The Day Care Program was placed under government supervision for the next five months. Funds were withheld for 2014. 
 
Villa Charities, hired a law partner of the Chair to handle all Press enquiries and to “negotiate” away the potential consequences of the audit and any infractions of the law. They reached a settlement. No charges were laid. Villa Charities was allowed to pay back a portion of the grants claimed and received during the period under audit. 
 
The amount including interest and penalties exceeded a million dollars. Neither Board members nor staff returned calls to the Corriere. No members of the Board were held responsible.
 
In the interim, two senior staff members were unceremoniously dumped. Law suits ensued.
 
The long-serving CEO was eased out, but allowed office space in the facility, from which to exercise his role as associate editor of a Montreal based magazine, now considered a “house organ”.
 
Villa Charities restructured itself in the late summer of 2014 (the Plan had been in the works for some time) in a restricted Annual General Meeting, closed to the public and the Corriere Canadese.
 
Broadly speaking, two entities emerged: Villa Charities Foundation and Villa Charities Incorporated (VCI). Two “affiliated” organizations, Vita Community Living and Mens Sana, withdrew from Villa Charities. Legal wranglings over the assets, estimated to be in the 80 to 100 million dollar range, if unresolved may yet end up in Court.
 
VCI “owns” the Columbus Centre (among other “assets”), it is a real estate developer specializing in Seniors’ housing. That is a euphemism for studio or one bed-room condo units. Perfect for empty nesters, young people starting out on their own, or International students looking for abode nearby an educational institution. There are five such [private] schools in a four-kilometre radius from the Columbus Centre campus. Six, potentially, if one considers a reconfigured Dante Alighieri Academy.
 
A new CEO, the former COO, was hired. He lasted a year. His replacement, recruited from the private sector, seems to have taken seriously “the opportunity to help Villa Charities reaffirm its special place in the GTA’s Italian community”. 
 
In less than a year, he and VCI parted company. Whereupon yet another CEO was hired. His task? Probably “to sell” the project to the interested public, including the Seniors in the two buildings VCI owns on campus. 
 
I attended one of those meetings. Had the audience been a mere ten years younger, they might have been difficult to restrain. His answer to their repeated question of “why are you pushing to do what nobody wants?” was a lame, I paraphrase, “it is what the Founders envisioned”. 
 
Of the seven Founders, three are still with us.
 
 
 
In March 2002, when I joined the Columbus Centre (CC), it was a safe haven and an important way for me to stay focused, calm and healthy. You see, my Holocaust Survivor father had just had a major stroke, and I needed all my strength  to bear the unbearable, and weather the storms to come.  
Our long-time athletic director Jan Sebek welcomed me with open arms, and squash and our squash league became my immediate salvation. I made new friends.  I ate in the cafeteria. I enjoyed our art gallery. I went to the gym. I built a tall, cat climber for my feline; two CC members chipped in, and Tony, our maintenance manager who plays a mean accordion, lent me a staple gun to secure the carpeting to the structure. When our parking system was first introduced, and mayhem prevailed, I helped direct members and guests for weeks to come.      
CC became a second home to me, and I became an ambassador and advocate. As I grew up with Italians at the corner of Briar Hill and Marlee Avenues, the fit was seamless. I belonged, and I would add, so does everyone.
Our community is warm, diverse and accepting with members who come from or have roots in Europe, South America, The Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia/Oceania. In other words, our membership represents the world.    
For Holocaust Education Week 2010, I presented with an all-Albanian team to a 400-strong audience at the elegant Sala Caboto. Our original venue could not accommodate our multi-media presentation, so I asked our then President/CEO for help. He graciously donated the venue, and closed our spectacular evening. Many in our community attended.  
In August 2013, I focused on Habitat for Humanity GTA, Women’s Build, and the generous support I received from CC staff and members helped me become that year’s Top Individual Fundraiser. Some of my most cherished memories are of collecting loonies and toonies from nonnas; you could hear my pockets jingling throughout the gym!       
June 2017 saw the peaceful passing of 96-year-old Jacqueline Garsonnin. She frequented Caffè  Cinquecento every Tuesday night for dinner with her son, Eric. To commemorate her life on Facebook, Eric posted a lovely photo of his mother standing gently beside a luminous wall of art at our main entrance.   
My question to all of you is, do we need to change everything, and make it new and shiny? Does new automatically equate to better? The answer is a resounding no. And I am not alone in my desire to keep CC as is, and to preserve, regenerate and rejuvenate the existing structure, inside and out.    
And let’s not forget about our glorious park. It’s sacred ground for many, including wedding parties, and the birds and squirrels who drink from our fountain and live in our trees. Our wildlife gratefully receive food from a multitude of community feeders. In fact, our squirrels are so tame, some eat out of your hand and follow you to your car! 
Let’s venerate our prodigious history, and all of our important experiences, friendships and shared memories. Let’s continue to celebrate what we’ve built and nurtured over the years at the Columbus Centre. For me, it’s simple. There’s no place like home.   
 
Vera N. Held, M.Ed., 
President, VNH Communications 
 
I had forgotten. In my own defense, it is perhaps as it should be: a public service should be discharged without expectations of accolades or recriminations. 
 
Then, yesterday morning, I received a text from a friend: “Ernst Zundel died, you were the Minister that kicked him out of Canada”. It now seems a long time ago. Tempus fugit. Issues change. Core principles shouldn’t.
 
In his day, Zundel’s activities and publications struck raw nerves and “poured salt on fresh wounds”. Today’s Millennials may find it hard to believe, but, in the seventies and eighties, memories of the Second World War and the manifestations of man’s capacity to perpetrate atrocities against fellow human beings were still vivid in the minds of those who lived through that period of human infamy. The survivors are fewer in number today
 
He insisted that State-sanctioned mass murders and ethnic cleansing were improbable figments of anti-Nazi, post-war propaganda. According to him, the Holocaust never happened. 
 
Zundel became the poster boy of a strategy of denial, one that offended those who survived and insulted the memory of those who did not. He tested the concept of free speech, using it as a weapon to stir self-serving antagonisms and vile prejudices and to distort images of “right and wrong” on a massive scale.
 
But Murder is never justified. Can it be more so when it is the expressed means – genocide- to attain a political goal by a totalitarian government run by a band of organized criminals?
 
The truth of the matter is that Zundel essentially asked all of us to ignore the question and avoid the answer. He did not ask us to “forgive and forget” – as difficult as that is.
 
His writings, had they been unchallenged, would have been like a malignant tumour undermining the vigilance that Western Democracies, and civilized societies everywhere, need to maintain the value we place on human dignity and to sustain political freedom. 
 
What is also true is the fact that, very objectively, “our court system”, the “rule of law”, found Zundel’s activities and writings to be both against the public interest and criminal.
 
Thankfully, the government of Canada then did the right thing and opted for the surgical removal of a societal cancer. 
 
I have been following with interest and some concern the skirmish between Villa Charities/the TCDSB on one side and the Dufferin & Lawrence Community on the other side regarding the ill-conceived plan to demolish the Columbus Centre.
As one of the many financial contributors to the construction of the Centre I wish to express and explain my own position on the matter.
In the fall of 1979, a few months after I opened my law practice, the late Emilio Gambin, Q.C., came to visit me in my office.
I had articled for his firm (Gambin & Bratty) and, out of respect and seniority, I  addressed him as Mr. Gambin,. He  called me “Chich” just like my old friend John Guido used to call me when working together at Gambin & Bratty.
I still remember the conversation which went as follows:
“Chich” he says, “we are going to build a community centre at Dufferin & Lawrence and we need you to help…. we’ve got you down for a $10,000.00 pledge”.
“Mr. Gambin” I say, “you’ve got to be kidding me.  In case you forgot I opened my office in May” and I don’t think I’ll take home $10,000.00 this year.
“Don’t worry Chich, you can pay in five yearly instalments of $2,000.00 and you don’t have to pay your first $2,000.00 until the end of next year.  And by way, we’ll throw in a free membership for five years”.
The $10,000.00 donated to the Centre are arguably the best and most significant donation I have ever made.
For over twenty years after the completion of the Centre, I enjoyed its facilities, playing squash with the likes of Frank Soppelsa, Tony Lecce, Rocco Russo, Bruno Bertolin, Robert Galati and many others. The Centre also gave me the opportunity to strengthen my friendship with Con Di Nino, Tony Fusco, Tony Pascale, Tony Di Poce, my old school buddy Pal Di Iulio and many other regulars of the Centre.
I still remember the black & white picture taken on a flatbed truck at Varsity Stadium hanging on a wall in the Caffè Cinquecento of Pal and I taken in 1970. As members of the St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, we came first in the Home Coming Parade with the slogan “ Make Wine Not War”.
One of my friends I used to play squash with is now a member of the Villa Charity board and tries to justify the plan to demolish the Centre on the basis that it has not been self-sustainable for many years.
While this may be true I am not sure that demolishing the Centre is the only way to fix  Villa Charities’ balance sheet.
Villa Charities should focus its efforts on how to make the Centre sustainable rather than seek its demolition.
The Centre was built, in large part, by the community and for the community.  I don’t believe that Villa Charities ( and certainly not the TCDSB ) have the legal and moral right to demolish it!
Regards,
 
Ralph Ciccia
Barrister and Solicitor

TORONTO - Community anger to save Columbus Centre heats up. The association ’’Save Our Columbus Centre’’ delivered to the Corriere a copy of a flier that will be distributed in many churches in Toronto. Corriere Canadese decided to publish it.

“Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Catholic Community:
 
We plead with you to help us prevent the demolition and destruction of our beloved Columbus Centre, at the hands of Villa Charities and the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
 
The Columbus Centre is the heart and soul of the Italian Canadian Community. It is a serene place. It was built with contributions and donations from the entire Italian diaspora. It is a place that was built by the Italian people for ALL people.
 
With the demolition of the Columbus Centre, Villa Charities and the Toronto Catholic District School Board will be guilty of nothing less than the cultural genocide of the Italian community.
 
We must point out that we were totally unaware of the tragedy that was about to unfold. Villa Charities and the Toronto Catholic District School Board, operating like thieves in the night, with no warning whatsoever, unloaded this disaster on the community.
 
We are trying to understand the purpose of this disturbing alliance between Villa Charities and the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
 
At the meeting of June 13, 2017 of the North York Community Council, one of the speakers said, "the plan to demolish the Columbus Centre is a monstrosity conceived by barbarians who have appropriated a community asset for their own nefarious gains and designs”.
 
Brothers and Sisters, please visit the Columbus Centre while it is still there. Walk the beautiful grounds. Visit the Rotunda and the Art Gallery where artists from all backgrounds exhibit their work. Listen quietly and you will hear its heart beating. Listen and be still and you will feel its very soul. There is no place like it in our city.
 
It is beyond comprehension that the Trustees of the Catholic District School Board would destroy this place. The most despicable outcome of this tragedy will fall on the frail shoulders of those that can bear it the least, the Seniors living at Villa Colombo, Cabot Terrace, and Casa Del Zotto.
 
Their beautiful grounds, ideal for the use of walkers, will disappear. The seniors will be confined in their units to live like rats in solitary confinement. Why is it okay to treat people with such cruelty? Of course, we know that your suffering means nothing to the barons of Villa Charities and Toronto Catholic District School Board trustees. In their plans, you are nothing more than collateral damage. They do not give a fig about the mental anguish that will be your constant companion.
 
Shame on you Villa Charities! Shame on you Trustees of the Catholic Board! In the hearts and minds of thousands upon thousands of people, you will forever live in infamy and shame.
 
Looking into the future, one can foresee tragic and frightening consequences of traffic congestion on Dufferin Street, already statistically one of the worst streets in the country for traffic accidents.
 
At the north-east comer of Dufferin and Lawrence, on completion, the new condominium will house about 5,000 people. At the south side of Lawrence a new project will take place. We do not have the statistics for the population of this new place.
 
Slightly to the east, the Lawrence Heights project will house 60,000 people. The new high school will be surrounded by a jungle of buildings. It will be like a small mushroom in a forest. In this type of environment, traffic fatalities are bound to happen - actually they already have.
 
Allow us to give you some highlights about what has been happening in this saga.
 
The Toronto Catholic District School Board and Villa Charities presented the project to the public at the Yorkdale Secondary School. Upon learning that the Columbus Centre was destined for Demolition, people were horrified. They responded and made it abundantly clear that they wanted nothing to do with this proposal. Many people were actually screaming in opposition.
 
At the meeting of June 13, 2017 held by the North York Community Council, the lawyer for the developer Villa Charities was not even able to answer very simple questions.
 
Who owns the property? He did not know. Who is Villa Charities? He did not know. How many members sit on the board of Villa Charities? He did not know. Who is entitled to elect board members? He did not know. A truly bizarre and embarrassing performance! 
 
No less embarrassing was the performance of the Toronto Catholic District School Board representative, Trustee Maria Rizzo, who was unable to answer many of the councillors’ questions. But, she went on to declare that the project was totally "botched up from the very beginning’’. You really cannot make this stuff up!!
 
At the end of the meeting, council voted unanimously to oppose the project and refer it to the full Toronto City Council. The full Toronto City Council voted unanimously to oppose the project and has appointed their solicitor to represent the city at the OMB hearing.
 
A word of thanks and gratitude must go to our MPP Mike Colle for his courageous fight in order to save our beloved Columbus Centre. 
 
We are grateful to the Minister of Education, Mitzy Hunter for freezing the funds budgeted for Dante Alighieri and for taking a stand.
 
Trustees of the Catholic Board, please understand that with your actions you have planted the seeds for the destruction of Catholic Education in the City of Toronto.
 
The Columbus Centre was built with the blood, sweat and tears of Italians. Trustees of the Catholic School Board, we ask you to abandon this insanity. LEAVE THE COLUMBUS CENTRE ALONE!!! You DO NOT OWN IT! It is not yours to destroy. CAPISCI???
 
HELP US SAVE OUR BELOVED COLUMBUS CENTRE!
 
Corriere Canadese reached out to Villa Charities for comments. We did not received any answer.