Bar Bills: the Other Victims of York’s Recent Strike

Picketing may have ended, but the effects of the recent labour disruption are still impacting businesses across campus.

By Ethan Saks | Featured image courtesy of Pixabay | April 21, 2019

Dust hangs in the bar’s beer-scented air, twinkling through the naturally lit room like falling stars. Rickety chairs and scuffed tables shows the age of the pub.

On March 5, 2018, the Absinthe pub (known by patrons as “the Ab”), an aging bar hidden in the basement of one of York University’s nine colleges, is having one of its busiest days of the year.

Students order pint after pint. A lone bartender tries to keep up, running from one side of the bar to the other, pouring shots of vodka, tequila, rum, shaking cocktails, filling pint glasses with cheap beer and scraping the cascading foam off the top with a knife. But despite the smiles and laughter filling the room, the pub’s management team is grim. Students are celebrating the beginning of the third strike that has occurred at York University in the last 10 years.

Discussions about a labour disruption at York had been brewing long before the beginning of the 2017 school year. CUPE 3903 members—York’s local union representing teaching assistants, contract faculty, and graduate assistants—are unhappy with their current contracts, despite the university administration declaring that it is one of the best in the sector. Picketing began on March 5, and saw union members blocking every major roadway leading to the university. An anonymous union member says that they’re “one of the only unions in Ontario who are willing to strike.”

Two weeks later, the sprawling campus will be abandoned, and Ian Pedley, general manager of the Ab for over 30 years, will be praying that the pub can sell more than just a couple of pints each day. Campus restaurants, bars, convenience stores, and everything in-between struggle to stay afloat. This kind of thing tends to happen when over 50,000 students are forced to stop attending classes.

“Here’s how it works,” Pedley says. His office mimics the financial state of the pub. Paperwork covers the entire desk—Sky Vodka and Budweiser signs hang loose and angled on the walls. He takes hits from an e-cigarette the size of his hand while explaining everything that’s gone wrong since the picketing began.

“During a strike, the first week of business is okay. Students know there’s no classes, and that there’s nothing to do, so they want to socialize in the pub. After the strike drags on they start to wonder why they’re spending all their money at York without learning anything. Then they go home. You know what I mean?”

Once the students started to go home, and the restaurant was left empty, Pedley says that next to nothing was done to help the businesses on campus survive. Not a single thought was given about the impact that the strike might have had on their profits.

“There was no support,” he says. “None.”

The Absinthe Pub located in Winters College at York University. | Image courtesy of Excalibur Publications.

Shopsy’s Sports Grill, a popular student bar located in the middle of one of York’s bustling food courts, also fell  victim to the university’s lack of support. Since picketing began, their profits have plummeted. Only one week after the beginning of the labour disruption, the expansive pub is nearly empty.

Laura Bannon, a server, bartender, and occasional administrative assistant at Shopsy’s since August 2016, says that the lack of support from the university made a significant impact on how the restaurant has had to operate.

“We cut hours and had to lay people off. We had to let go of all the bussers and hostesses, and the servers were cut in half. That’s over 15 people,” says Bannon.

The Ab tries to figure out ways to bring in customers before letting anybody go. Around the beginning of April, over a month since the strike began, Pedley tries to fill his empty bar by offering the CUPE 3903 picketers a place to relax, eat, and drink. He refers to these events as “picketing parties.”

There is irony  in the fact that the union members who are sitting at tables, drinking, laughing, and helping the Ab survive, are simultaneously contributing to the downfall of one of Ontario’s last student-run bars. The decline of what used to be a diamond in the rough for social culture at York—a place where students could meet up, drink, study, and party, sometimes all at the same time. The strike is tearing The Ab to the ground.

“I’ve cancelled our Christmas Party,” Pedley says in the midst of explaining all the small things he’s had to do to keep the business afloat. “We open at three in the afternoon because we lose more money than we earn if we open earlier. The strike continues to impact us because our customer base is no longer here.”

Eventually, Pedley did have to let some of his staff go. Less business means less money for the employees. He laid off close to half of his staff because their payroll was becoming too cumbersome. “They’re students,” Pedley says. “They need the money just as much as the restaurant.”

Bannon shares the same concerns as Pedley regarding the staff who were let go.

“Most of our staff are students,” she says. “They have tuition and bills to pay.” Besides the lack of classes, some students are now also out of work.

Some restaurants remained closed for the entirety of the strike, leaving all of their staff jobless. Me-Va-Me Kitchen Express, a popular Mediterranean restaurant attached to one of York’s new residence buildings left a note on their doors that they would reopen at the end of the labour disruption. The restaurant did not survive.


“Nobody fears the looming shadow of a future strike more than the businesses that are still recovering from the last one.”

On July 25, 2018, over 140 days after the official start of the longest labour disruption in Canadian post-secondary history, CUPE 3903 members stop picketing as the newly elected Conservative provincial government passes back-to-work legislation. Union members, students, and university staff are left confused about what happens next. Discussions about the future begin to brew. Devin Lefebvre, recently appointed chairman of CUPE 3903, insinuates that another strike might not be far away.

“A lot of work needs to be done to make sure that, come 2020, we don’t have to do this all over again and the same mistakes aren’t made,” Lefebvre says. CUPE 3903 is already preparing for battle.

Nobody fears the looming shadow of a future strike more than the businesses that are still recovering from the last one. Restaurants like the Ab and Shopsy’s are still trying everything they can to get back on their feet.

“During the strike was the hardest,” Bannon says. “We’ve gained back a fair amount of business, but it’s still nothing like it used to be. It’s been especially hard because enrollment is down now too, which of course impacts the amount of customers we see on a daily basis.”

Enrollment numbers traditionally fall after a strike. Following CUPE 3903’s 2008 labour disruption, the beginning of the 2009 school year saw high school applications to York fall from 6,331 students to 5,891, a drop of almost 500 students.

After a month long labour disruption that occurred in March 2015, enrollment numbers decreased by over 4,500 students in arts, humanities, and social science programs compared to the previous year. Science programs also followed this downwards trend and decreased by over 900 students at the start of the 2016 school year.

Less students means less customers. They are the reason campus restaurants are able to exist in the first place. Bannon, who has been serving students for over three years, says it also doesn’t help that the students who are enrolled seem to be fed up with the university.

“Students don’t want to be on campus,” she says. This is a regular opinion among her customers. “Instead of staying on campus and going to its bars and restaurants, they’d rather leave when they’re done class and go somewhere else.”

The Ab is doing everything it can think of to bring students into the pub, and keep the establishment running. Aside from taking a loan from one of the university’s college councils, Pedley is also trying to bring in local bands, hoping that the members will bring friends to support them and buy a few pints. Furthering the fight for survival, Pedley is also trying to think of new events, and is pushing some of the past favourites, such as lingerie night, and karaoke competitions, more than he ever has in the past.

“We’re trying to survive,” Pedley says. “We’re trying everything we can to keep the doors open. A strike changes everything.”

Shopsy’s and the Ab still stand. They struggle to survive more than usual, but both establishments seem to be pulling through. The possibility of another strike is frightening, and neither restaurant may survive another 140 days of picketing without customers.

For the Ab, Pedley says that another strike “is not an option.” It would be debilitating, and without question, the Ab would go under.

Ethan Saks is a freelance writer, Senior Submissions Editor and Developer for The Scribbler. For inquiries, please contact him at ethans@my.yorku.ca.

How to Save a Marsh

With Canada’s wetlands disappearing at an alarming rate, the fight to save the Rattray Marsh became even more important.

By John Wilson | Featured photo courtesy of David Dibert from Pexels | April 19, 2019

Nina Munteanu, an ecologist and writing instructor at the University of Toronto, was devastated when she heard that long-time Mississauga City Councillor Jim Tovey had died suddenly on January 15, 2018 at age 68. In November 2017, Tovey had taken Munteanu on a guided tour of the proposed site of Inspiration Lakeview. The plan for the site is an ambitious one, calling for the rezoning of the land previously occupied by the Lakeview Generating Station to make way for a 26-hectare man-made wetland along the eastern shore of Mississauga’s waterfront, a short drive from the Long Branch GO Station. Munteanu says Tovey was “so in his element” that day, “joyful and inspirational.”

Inspiration Lakeview was Tovey’s brainchild, and the project will be carried out by the Credit Valley Conservation authority (CVC) and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), according to the City of Mississauga’s masterplan for the site. It is going to be modelled after the only remaining natural wetland along the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario, Rattray Marsh, which is a few kilometres to the west.

Munteanu notes that Canada has lost nearly 70% of its natural wetlands as a direct result of human interference. Rattray Marsh is a rare success in the conservation of these sensitive ecosystems, making it an example for the Inspiration Lakeview team to follow.

For many years, the key figure in the conservation of Rattray Marsh was Ruth Hussey. In 1954, Hussey, a thirty-eight-year-old veterinarian by trade, moved to the southwest corner of Toronto Township (now Mississauga), with her young family in tow. She soon fell in love with the nearby lakefront property owned by Colonel James Rattray, who encouraged Hussey and her children to swim and fish in Lake Ontario. Rattray offered to sell his 148-acre property to the township in the mid-1950s, for use as a conservation area, but the offer went unanswered by the township council.

After Rattray died in 1959, at age 72, part of his property was sold to developers. For a time in the 1960s there was a plan to develop the entire property into a subdivision, marina and yacht club—it was envisioned as a resort for the rich and famous, a “Florida of the north,” as Jean Williams, chairperson of the Rattray Marsh Protection Association (RMPA), dubs it derisively. The appeal of the Rattray property, with is dense deciduous forests, cobbled beaches and diversity of wildlife, was intense for Hussey, and she refused to let the property be developed without a fight. Thanks largely to the determination of a band of local citizens under Hussey’s leadership, the municipal government eventually saw the wisdom in acquiring the remaining 95 acres of the property.

Williams, who succeeded Hussey as chairperson of the RMPA following Hussey’s death in 1984, has been involved with conservation efforts at the marsh since she moved to Mississauga in 1975. Fortuitous timing, for that was the same year the City of Mississauga, under its first mayor, Martin L. Dobkin, finally saw the wisdom of purchasing the Rattray Marsh property, south of Lakeshore Road West and a few kilometres west of the Credit River. “Though Dobkin’s tenure was brief, administration significantly changed the city’s evolution,” John Stewart, a retired Mississauga News columnist, wrote in 2014.

Dobkin was an early proponent of including greenspaces in urban planning. In addition to the marsh, his administration oversaw the acquisition of many other parks and public lands in Mississauga, an expensive move that was derided at the time, but the value of which in the decades since has been incalculable. Munteanu says it was the acquisition of such properties decades ago that allows people today “to connect with, and develop an appreciation for, nature in urban centres.” If anything, building cities around the natural environment enhances the tranquility of greenspaces. Without leaving the city, Rattray Marsh provides people with an escape from the busyness of life on the west side of Mississauga’s waterfront.

“The marsh, according to CVC, is currently home to 428 species of plants, 227 species of bird, 26 mammals, 18 reptiles and amphibians, and 11 species of fish.”

Beyond Hussey’s efforts, there were other factors that influenced the newly-formed Mississauga City Council to purchase the Rattray Marsh property in the early 1970s for use as a conservation centre. The CVC website states that, in 1969, the marsh was recognized by the federal government “as an environmentally significant Area, a provincially significant wetland, and an area of natural and scientific interest including a number of protected species at risk.” More importantly, Stewart says that heavy rains flooded the marsh in 1973, which reduced the asking price for the property from nearly two million dollars to a little over one, more in line with the new city’s modest budget.

Nonetheless, Williams and Stewart both say the real savior of Rattray Marsh was Hussey. At the entrance to the marsh from Old Poplar Row, one of several side entrances from the surrounding neighbourhood, there is a plaque that reads: “Ruth Hussey—because of her, Rattray Marsh is ours.” When Stewart interviewed Hussey in the late 1970s, she was blind, had a guide dog by her side, and had difficulty moving, due to advanced arthritis. But she still took him on a tour of the marsh, and showed him the highlights from memory. A short time before their interview, Hussey’s doctor told her she should stop walking. She ignored her doctor’s advice, telling Stewart that she had been walking all her life and did not want to stop. Because of her, people today continue to enjoy walking the trails at Rattray.

Urbanization, and the resulting build-up of sediment in Sheridan Creek, which flows through the marsh out to Lake Ontario, poses a significant threat to the diversity and sustainability of wildlife at Rattray. It is a threat made worse by the presence of invasive exotic carp, which, as Williams explains, disturb the sediment in the water to feed. The marsh, according to CVC, is currently home to 428 species of plants, 227 species of bird, 26 mammals, 18 reptiles and amphibians, and 11 species of fish.

As the only natural lakefront wetland along the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario, Rattray Marsh is a priority area not just for CVC and the City of Mississauga, but also the federal and provincial ministries of natural resources. There are a lot of stakeholders invested in seeing the continued preservation of Rattray Marsh. This has been helpful for funding projects at the marsh, because the volunteer-run RMPA no longer has to rely on the generosity of wealthy, anonymous local benefactors to carry out conservation projects. Canada 150 signs, signalling support from the federal government’s Community Infrastructure Program, are now sprinkled throughout the property.

No matter the involvement of higher levels of government, the community surrounding Rattray Marsh remains heavily involved in its upkeep, as Williams is quick to point out. Many local residents have homes that back directly onto the Marsh and they are quick to report sightings of invasive species of plant and animal life and assist in cleaning up waste. RMPA organizes spring cleanup days, which are well-attended each year. Freyja Whitten, the invasive species coordinator for CVC, says that, in the last seven years, volunteers from the local neighbourhood have put in over 500 hours cleaning up the marsh, helping to restore its biological diversity and ensure its long-term health and sustainability.

Rattray Marsh is one part of the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail, which extends from Niagara-on-the-Lake in the west to Brockville in the east. The Waterfront Trail was opened in 1995, following a 1988 report from the Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, chaired by former Toronto Mayor David Crombie. Williams caught up with Crombie, an old friend, last October, when they were on the 2017 Conservation Authorities Biennial Tour, a guided tour of sites controlled by CVC and Conservation Halton. During their chat at the marsh, Crombie lamented the fact that the Waterfront Trail is not as natural everywhere as it is at Rattray, that in many places the trail is obviously manufactured.

While man-made green spaces are the cause of concern for Crombie, they are not for Munteanu. A limnologist with a degree from Concordia University, meaning she is trained in the study of inland waters, Munteanu now teaches writing courses at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. The author of the 2016 book Water Is…, a critical look at the importance of Canada’s wetlands, Munteanu says that we have our work cut out for us if there is to be any hope of preserving wetlands. In her words, they are among the “least-appreciated” ecosystems, because of their hybrid nature.

“With the loss of more than two-thirds of Canada’s wetlands, we have also lost much of the services these spaces offer.”

In Munteanu’s field, the technical term for wetland is ecotone—a term referring to the convergence of two ecosystems into one. In particular, the convergence of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. With the loss of more than two-thirds of Canada’s wetlands, we have also lost much of the services these spaces offer. Wetlands serve as natural combatants to climate change. The fertile soil in wetlands acts as a “carbon sink,” in Munteanu’s words, storing carbon and other pollutants that otherwise would be in the atmosphere. So, manufactured green spaces like Inspiration Lakeview have become necessary to fill this important role.

By mixing terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, wetlands also provide a balance and complexity that would otherwise be lacking in our ecosystems. This allows them to act as a refuge for plant and animal life. But a diversity of wildlife can only thrive at places like Rattray Marsh thanks to the efforts of CVC’s Whitten and others in her field.

Whitten defines invasive species as any species of plant or animal that is not native to an area and outcompetes and outgrows the native wildlife. By the time Whitten and CVC were getting involved with invasive species management at Rattray Marsh in 2009, it was too late to reverse the damage that had been done by the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), a beetle that infected the ash trees in the region. The effect the EAB has had on the canopy at Rattray has been, in some areas, devastating, leaving gaping holes in the sky where a few short years ago there were tall, healthy-looking trees.

Even if Whitten’s team had come aboard the struggle with the EAB sooner, it is unlikely they would have been successful in affecting a meaningful change—a chronic lack of dedicated funding for CVC means there is only so much she can do, regardless of support for other conservation projects from the federal and provincial governments.

On other fronts, Whitten’s team has enjoyed greater success. Purple loosestrife, a beautiful flowering plant that takes over waterways and crowds out virtually all other organisms, is under control at Rattray, thanks to years of effort. And invasive carp are now blocked from swimming up Sheridan Creek by a mesh fencing where the creek flows out to Lake Ontario. Those efforts have been so successful that Whitten now provides advice to other conservation authorities on the best management practices for dealing with those invasive species.

By coordinating with other conservation authorities, Whitten is accomplishing a key goal of the Ontario Invasive Plant Council (OIPC). As OIPC’s chairperson Kellie Sherman explains, ten years ago there was a crying need for an umbrella organization to “bridge municipalities” and coordinate the battle against invasive species among all of the province’s conservation authorities. OIPC has provided that service and, while a lack of money is still an issue, Sherman says the organization is “getting there” in in terms of funding.

Back at Rattray, for Whitten it is a case of getting one step ahead and then falling back again in the fight against invasive species. The carp are under control, but high-water levels in the marsh last spring resulted in the reintroduction of invasive plants, such as the tall perennial grass Phragmites, in areas where Whitten had gotten their presence under control. So high were the waters in 2017, Williams said that she cannot recall a worse year for flooding in the marsh in the four decades she’s lived in the area. It’s an uphill battle to maintain the health and biodiversity of Rattray Marsh and other wetlands, but for Whitten the fight never ends.

About the outlook for the marsh, Williams is optimistic. She is in her late eighties, though her vigour belies that fact and she prefers to say, “I’m as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth.” Young people give her a reason to be optimistic in the twilight of her years. In a transatlantic accent similar to the actress Angela Lansbury’s voice in its patrician air, Williams speaks enthusiastically about involving students from the local elementary schools, many of them first-generation Canadians, in conservation projects. “They are the future, and they care about this place. And they get their parents to care. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”

Projects like Inspiration Lakeview give Munteanu reason to be hopeful about the future of wetlands in general, since she says that conservation happens at the local level. When Inspiration Lakeview is completed, it will join Rattray Marsh in providing refuge for the birds, insects and other species of wildlife that rely on the shoreline of Southern Ontario as a stopover area on migratory routes. Mike Puddister, the restoration and stewardship coordinator for CVC, described the Lakeview site to The Toronto Star as his organization’s own “field of dreams,” saying that if they build it, wildlife will come. That will be Jim Tovey’s legacy. In Munteanu’s words, “what a cool way to honour a man who dedicated his life and career to making this world a better place for everyone.”

John Wilson is a Toronto-based freelance editor and writer. For inquiries, please contact him at editor@thecompass.ca.