An interview with Juanne Hemsol, SERRA’s first president

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same.

Please read this interview with Juanne Hemsol, SERRA’s first president and decide for yourself what has changed in our neighbourhood in the past 54 years. This interview written and conducted by Mary Turcotte.

SERRA Mandate:

SERRA was formed (1965) for the purpose of furthering and protecting interests of its members in matters relating to real estate, zoning, municipal planning and any other matter touching on or relating to real property within the membership area. Boundaries: Yonge-Eglinton-Bayview-Merton (M4S postal code)

Juanne Hemsol founded the South Eglinton Ratepayer’s Association (SERA) in 1965 (‘Residents’ would be added to the acronym at a later date). The story of how she founded the group, and her involvement in municipal politics as a community member is an inspiring one.

The year was 1953, and Juanne Hemsol was a 23-year-old newlywed in England. She and her late husband had just decided to make Canada their new home: “There was a big discussion in the UK whether the family would go to Australia or [Canada],” and ultimately they decided on Canada due to the closer proximity to England, as well as having some family in Toronto who had already made the journey.

However, even though her brother-in-law had already paved the way, Juanne didn’t really know what to expect of her new home: “It was rather amusing – on the boat we would say ‘we’re going to Forest Hill’” and others would react with oohs and ahhs, thinking they must be wealthy. However, “that really meant that we were living in an attic of one of the houses on Dunvegan Road, and it was 90 degrees when we woke up.”

“Then we moved to a basement apartment on Winnett Avenue to save up money to buy a house – 464 Merton Street. We paid $14500 for the house, we had to put $4000 down.” They would also eventually buy the neighbour’s house (466 Merton) when it went up for sale – 466 has since been torn down and rebuilt and 464 still stands but they’ve added a second story.

Davisville was an attractive neighbourhood because of its location, as it was accessible to both the highway as well as downtown Toronto: “there used to be stores at Davisville and Cleveland – in a way it was more convenient [then] than it is now.”

It wasn’t long after settling in the neighbourhood that Juanne recalls the events that led to the creation of SERA in 1965: “There began to be these groanings, moanings and threats from real estate people who would come to houses and ask people to sign an ‘option’. They’d say ‘if you don’t sign, we’ll build an apartment next door.’” In the 60s, this was a real threat to the residential way of life as they knew it. The underlying challenge was that there was no representation for residents and they felt bullied into selling or agreeing to terms that they didn’t really understand.

“I would go to these public meetings before an election and I couldn’t understand why [some people] would get more attention than people like me.” Juanne approached the current Alderman (an elected member of municipal council – today’s City Councillor) Paul Pickett and asked who these people were. Juanne recalls the conversation going something like this:

Paul: “They’re a ratepayer group.”
Juanne: “Do we have one of those?”
Paul: “No.”
Juanne: “How do we get one?”
Paul: “You’ll have to start it.”

“So that’s what happened. That was 1965. I think there were about 11 people that came [to the first meeting],” recalls Juanne. At the time, there was no ratepayer group from Merton up to Eglinton, and from Yonge to Bayview, which is how the group started by Juanne ended up representing such a large area.

“I found myself going down to city hall and phoning planners” to figure things out on the fly, because things were already happening, and she was starting to receive phone calls from people as word spread that she was now the one in charge. “I can remember someone yelling across the street “you’ve taken on too much, haven’t you?” and I said no – I wouldn’t have said yes anyways. But it was a lot of work, and I didn’t know anything about city hall [in those early days].”

By 1969, SERA had 500 members, gained membership through newsletters and meetings at Hodgson School.

Juanne speculates that the typical public meeting would be made up of 50/50 with those either for or against development in the area. As for the mandate of SERA, Juanne resents those who only see the group as anti-development, or overly ‘NIMBY’ (Not In My Backyard), as “we always supported 100% the Eglinton Appraisal” – a planning document similar to today’s ‘Secondary Plan’ – which assessed the neighbourhood, its infrastructure, demographics and proposals for development.

The goal of the public meetings and regular public surveys was to discuss the findings of the appraisal, get a sense of what the community wants and ensure that discussions were happening in a public forum, which is still very much the mandate today. The idea was to ensure that development was happening in a thoughtful, carefully planned out way.

Something striking about many of the discussion topics and issues Juanne remembers from the 60s and 70s when she was building up the SERRA community is that they are still things that are discussed in the Davisville community today.

Not everyone understood the need for balance and research before moving forward with development, and Juanne became a bit of a lightning rod for those with strong opinions: “I’d get calls in the middle of the night telling me to go home or go to the cemetery – It got very hot. People thought they’d made a lot of money by selling and that we were stopping them. It sounds like today, many things haven’t changed.”

Juanne’s work wasn’t all about residential development planning. One major project was the founding of our local Mount Pleasant Library. Before the library was opened, Juanne remembers that “the ‘bookmobile’ used to come around once a week, though we were always pushing to have an actual library.” She recalls one volunteer in particular, Eva Bursey “really pushed on the library – she worked so hard on it.” According to the Winter 1987 copy of ‘The Owl’ (SERRA’s Newsletter): “After two years of searching for a home for a branch library in our area, a location has been found.” The library opened in 1992 at 555 Mt. Pleasant Road, where it still operates today.

Another initiative that Juanne remembers as a huge victory was something we take for granted today. “It was SERA combined with the school association who proposed that the speed limit should be lowered in school zones.” Lowering the speed limit from 50km/hr to 40km/hr was considered “EXTREMELY radical.”

Five years after founding SERA, Juanne was ready for her next challenge. Juanne was nominated to join the City of Toronto Planning Board – a group made up of citizens, but with legislative power. Eventually, Juanne would be elected as the first and only female Chairman of the Board. “The City of Toronto Planning Board had real power – I think that’s why the city moved to get rid of it. The City Councillor at the time did not like ordinary people to have power,” says Juanne. “The first meeting that I chaired, I sat down and there was this letter from Mayor Crombie. He was proposing that the Board should move to take action to dissolve the City of Toronto Planning Board. I was just horrified – to me, this planning board represented real citizen power.”

After fighting against this suggestion, the Planning Board was maintained for a few more years, but in the end, the city went to the province to force the dissolution of the Board. Today’s ‘Planning and Growth Committee’ is made up of Councillors and the closest thing to the amount of citizen involvement would be the Preservation Board, though it doesn’t give citizens the same level of influence as the Planning Board that Juanne knew.

Today, Juanne still keeps tabs on the goings-on in the neighbourhood, though she lives farther west now. She remembers her relatively short time with SERA fondly, despite the challenges she faced as an advocate for thoughtful development. “I didn’t think of myself as a trailblazer, I just thought that the residents should be able to express our rights. I just did what I thought was needed.” When asked if being a woman ever played a role, Juanne reflected: “Being a woman never seemed to be a problem with the ratepayers group – though it was more of a challenge when it came to city hall. I never really thought of it like that, but I guess the ratepayer group was progressive in that way.”

464 and 466 Merton Through the Years

(Images from Google Maps)

Interview written and conducted by Mary Turcotte