Biting snow, wind and bragging rights

AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR: Marek Botbol plows out his laneway off Atlantic Ave. in
Toronto, March 8, 2008. The storm might blow the city over its record for a season’s snowfall.

"It’s a huge event. … I can’t emphasize enough that it’s a mammoth storm," Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips said yesterday at the height of the Blizzard of ’08, a two-day lashing that included everything winter has to offer – gusting winds, below-freezing temperatures, sleet and snow, so much snow that scores of streets and area highways were reduced to single lanes of snow-clogged traffic for much of the day.

As we begin shovelling and plowing and digging our way out, Phillips said, the experience will become epic, especially as we’re on course to break the record for snowfall in a single winter.

"I think what will happen is people will start cheering for their record," Phillips predicted, "because, if there’s any comfort in a winter of misery, it’s in at least having something to talk about in the warm days, to brag to your grandchildren, `I remember the winter of 2007-08.’"

White-outs. One accident, on average, somewhere in the GTA every two minutes. Flooded streets in Hamilton after a water main broke. Hundreds of delayed flights at Pearson International Airport on one of the busiest days of the year as March Break travellers headed for the sun and surf of warmer climes.
But there’s a flipside to all that misery. The best tobogganing in years. Bragging rights, as we’re on the verge of smashing the 207.4 centimetre record snowfall for a Toronto winter, set in 1938-39. The simple joy of a hot chocolate after shovelling out the neighbour’s driveway. Cross-country skiing that won’t stop. A walk in the park.

"I love this day because it really puts you in touch with nature," said Anthony Garbuio as he hiked through High Park yesterday with his Labrador-terrier Leila. "You are out, feeling the majesty of nature."

And just in case you missed it yesterday, there’s more of the same in store for today – blowing and drifting snow and a 40 km/h wind that will make it feel like, oh, about —20C, and then a slight warming trend that will bring us to 5C by Thursday.

The weekend storm, spawned amid tornadoes in Florida earlier in the week, swept up the eastern seaboard packing freezing rain, ice and sleet ahead of the snow, creating white-outs in Arkansas and heavy rains in Georgia and South Carolina.

As it swept up the Ohio Valley the weather system dropped more than 50 centimetres of snow in some regions, closing airports, highways, even delaying trains.

We had our own problems with delayed trains here – the TTC cancelled its Scarborough LRT line between McCowan and Kennedy after snow began interfering with the electrically powered system.

Pearson remained open, although thousands of stranded passengers might argue otherwise, and most area roads remained passable, if accident-clogged.

Police spent Friday and yesterday pleading with motorists to stay off the roads, but there were enough of us with "must-make" trips to create traffic chaos.

Naomi Da Silva, 22, had her own "must-make" trip, coming in from Mississauga with friends to take in last night’s Leafs-Devils game at the Air Canada Centre.

The drive in took more than an hour – more than twice as long as usual, she said.

No serious accidents or injuries have been reported, although Ontario Provincial Police officers expressed concerns over two missing snowmobilers – one missing on Lake Simcoe, another missing on a lake near Orillia.

Police said they expect to record more than 1,000 accidents – most of them fender-benders – by the time they finished tallying the damage from the last two days.

On the highways, Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Bruce Pritchard said, there’s a single colour – white.

"All I can tell you is I’m looking out the window now and I can’t see a thing," Pritchard said as he spoke from his office on Memorial Ave. in Orillia. "Normally I can see Highway 12 from here, only two miles away – and it’s all white."

The same colour scheme took over Toronto, where, by 4 p.m. yesterday, winds whipping through the downtown area sent horizontal waves of snow flying off the tops of buildings and onto the streets below.

Pedestrians tucked their heads deep inside the hoods of their jackets as they slipped and slid, bracing themselves against the force of the biting wind as they braved snowdrifts and the snowy salty slush thrown up by cars.

In the south building of the Toronto Convention Centre, sisters Renu Don-Liyanage, 33, and Dimple, 32, watched night descend on the snow-covered city through floor-to-ceiling windows.

What is their advice for winter? "I would say make sure you keep your fitness up," said the younger of the two, who apparently is in charge of shovelling at their Toronto home. "Snow is not just fluffy white stuff, it’s heavy."

Back out on King St. W. a quartet of out-of-towners scoffed at the suggestion this was all a hardship.

"People treat winter like it’s a trauma," said Kelly Wells, 34.

Wells, who moved to Saskatoon seven years ago, said her new hometown has had some six weeks of —20C temperatures. And that’s before the wind-chill is factored in.

Companion Aaron Beattie, 36, also from Saskatoon, took a winter veteran’s perspective when asked how to deal with the winter blahs.

"People have got to get out and do stuff," he said. "Otherwise it’s a really long season, especially in our case."

Visiting Montréal residents Agata Michalska and Ryan St. Cartier, both 28, also had some advice for effete Torontonians.

"Be prepared. Have proper snow tires," said Michalska, sipping apple cider at a Second Cup.

"You have to give yourself extra time if you are going someplace," said St. Cartier.

"You can’t be on someone’s case if they are going at their own pace," he said.

And speaking of pace, Toronto is well on the way to smashing that snowfall record set 69 years ago. With the most recent 25 centimetres of snow – to 8 p.m. – Environment Canada’s Phillips said, "we’re going to be close. It’ll just take a couple of flurries to do it." 

 

207.4: 1938-39 snowfall in centimetres

195.2: 2007-08 snowfall in centimetres, as of 8:30 p.m. last night

12.2: Centimetres of snow between us and the record

Weekend Weather Wreaks Havoc

And, the worst is yet to come, with the heaviest snowfall and strongest winds set to hit the city tonight.

There have been about 550 collisions in the past 24 hours, said OPP Const. Dave Woodford, who was showing a little frustration with drivers who won’t slow down and drive to conditions.

"Unacceptable. People just have to learn how to drive," he said.

"I know people are going to be out on the roads, but just give yourself a bit of time."

Woodford reminds drivers to charge cell phones and to make sure your car has a shovel and extra windshield washer fluid. He also says to keep the gas tank full, as the OPP have had a few cases today where cars stuck in slow-moving traffic simply run out of gas

The weather has caused a series of cancellations across the city, even though it isn’t a school day.

York University has cancelled day classes at the Keele and Glendon campuses, as well as the Keele Campus March Gala. Continuing Education classes at George Brown College are also cancelled. All classes and activities at Seneca College are cancelled. Afternoon classes, and admissions meetings, are cancelled at all Humber College campuses. Peel District School Board continuing education classes are also cancelled.

Ryerson University and the University of Toronto remain open.

The Toronto Zoo also closed at 11 a.m. Saturday, but plans to reopen as usual at 9 a.m. Sunday.

The city also activated its Extreme Cold Weather alert program, which opens extra beds for the homeless and provides supplies for outreach workers to drive around the city core, offering rides and food to those stuck out in the cold.

Environment Canada’s winter storm warning for Southern Ontario continues.

The storm headed for the region is moving through West Virginia this morning, and will hit Ontario later tonight. About 30 cm of snow is forecast for the Toronto area during the storm, which began last night and is expected to last about 36 hours. Blowing snow and winds gusting to 70 km/h are also forecast.

At Pearson Airport, major airlines have already reported cancellations and delays.

Trish Krale, a spokesperson for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said the situation could snowball throughout the day.

“There have been a few cancellations in anticipation of the storm,” Krale said.

“People should definitely call ahead. It could get worse through the day as the storm gets worse.”

Travellers are urged to go to www.gtta.com to check for updates.

Air Canada and WestJet are asking customers to check on the status of their flight before driving to the airport.

They are also reminding travellers that alternative flight arrangements can be made without penalty because of the weather.

Air Canada can be reached at 1-888-247-2262. WestJet customers should call 1-1-800-538-5696.

Cancellations and delays are expected to last throughout the weekend.

Travellers using GO Transit bus service in and around Toronto can expect 20 to 30 minute delays. TTC service is running normally.

The biggest snowstorm we’ve weathered so far this winter dropped 33 cm on Feb. 6 and 7. This weekend’s snowfall could also crack a seasonal record. The snowiest winter on record was 207 cm in 1938/39. This morning at Pearson airport there was 176.8 cm.

The Niagara region, Kingston and areas near Ottawa, will get somewhere between 30 and 50 cm of snow during the storm, which is expected to last 36 to 48 hours.

Meteorologist David Phillips believes the city is on track to break the record.

“If we get 30 cm we’ll break the record,” he said, “and we still have six weeks to go.

It’s not unusual to have snow in April. I would bet money we’ll break the record.”

Last year, Toronto experienced its second lowest snowfall on record, with just 60 cm.

“It really is a world of difference,” Phillips said. “The contrast from this year to last is quite the head shaker, even for myself. And it takes a lot to shock me.” The near-record levels continue to strain road crews across the GTA. "Everyone’s getting a little tired," said Peter Noehammer, director of Transportation Services in Toronto.

Noehammer’s department has spent $40 million of its $67 million annual budget in just two months this year. However, there’s also a $12 million winter reserve fund that city council can fall back on, he said.

The regions are also facing a province-wide shortage of road salt. Durham Region was forced to order an emergency shipment of salt, which won’t arrive until Sunday.

In the meantime, Durham will mix salt and sand if needed, said Susan Siopis, the region’s director of transportation.

"We will use straight salt on the more dangerous spots – hills bridges, things like that," she said, adding the additional salt shipment should get them through the winter.

Toronto also expects its reserves will last, Noehammer said.

City crews will work around the clock this weekend to keep roads clear, using 200 salters, 600 street plows and 300 sidewalk plows.

"It’s been a heavy winter. It’s been tiring,” Noehammer said.

“We’re hoping spring will eventually come.”

With files from Emily Mathieu

Corner of contrasts at Queen and Sherbourne

Three of the city’s largest homeless shelters are found nearby, meaning on any given night, as many as 1,000 homeless gravitate toward the corner of Sherbourne St. and Queen St. E.

The building on the southwest corner is boarded up. It’s vacant, like many of the commercial shops in the area, and has been for some time. There are alleys behind those buildings that don’t look like the kind of place you should walk alone.

On the northwest side, there’s Moss Park. Police are in a constant battle to curb street crime around here: drugs, prostitution, theft, fighting. Last week, the owner of the local Coffee Time was charged with selling crack.

The corner is an area of opposites. In 2006, seven people working at a Dollarama there became millionaires after winning the 6/49 lottery. Drug dealers and prostitutes may call Moss Park home, but Yorkville-worthy boutiques dot the area as well. The local rink, Moss Park Arena, has one of the only free hockey leagues in the country. And the baseball diamond is one of the few downtown. When the lights are on in the summer, it’s as pretty as any park in an Iowa cornfield.

"Yeah, it’s quite the neighbourhood. I saw someone getting mugged on the way here," said dog-walker by day, opera-singer by night Andrea Wiltzius. The muggers were well-dressed twentysomethings, she said. Wiltzius was on her way to the park with dogs Kanop and Benny – it’s one of their favourite spots – when she saw a woman getting robbed while waiting for the Queen streetcar. "She had a rolling bag and put it down and was getting her Metropass when two guys came by and just grabbed it. It was great: she freaked out and attacked them. At one point, she had one by the neck. She was screaming for help. One guy jumped in, but then they pounded him. No one was stopping to help," Wiltzius said. "But I was proud of her."

Many of Wiltzius’ clients live in nearby luxury condos. "Except there’s prostitutes outside," she said. Still, Wiltzius said she never feels unsafe in the area – at least not around the homeless people.

"I normally see the same homeless people every time. They’re nice and always friendly," she said.

Yesterday, Paul Creaner brought students from his Grades 6-8 class at Lord Dufferin school to a free skate session at Moss Park Arena.

"They love it. It’s a lot of fun," said the teacher, whose school is a few blocks east.

Toronto designer Shernett Swaby, who you may recognize from Project Runway Canada, set up a boutique across from the arena about

8 months ago. Poshly dressed mannequins wearing thousand-dollar garments adorn the small shop.

"I was on the Danforth for six years and I had a shop in Yorkville, but I realized it really doesn’t matter. My clients will follow me here. And we’re going to New York and I’d rather save the overhead costs," she said. "Some mornings, I look out and see a limousine. Sometimes, I see a bum."

Over at the nearby Good Neighbours’ Club, a day centre for homeless men, a room full of guys gathers around the television, while others sit and play poker.

"They come here because it’s safe," said support worker Gary McCrimmon. "Here, they can keep away from the younger ones – the crack heads. They don’t have to deal with the intimidation they have to face at the centres."

The club was established in 1933 and was largely used by WWII veterans until the last few decades.

"These are all good guys. They just like to keep to themselves."

While the local residents may get a bad rap, they’re the ones saving the community, police said. "It was a resident who called in about the Coffee Time," said Staff. Sgt. Frank Bergen. "We work very closely with the community. The fact is, it’s a very engaged community that’s quite concerned about making a better partnership with police."

 

Origineel artikel: http://www.thestar.com/News/GTA/article/294436

Tale of a last-minute Christmas shopper

National purchasing volumes are supposed to peak at this hour – and already I’m behind because I can’t find the Prime Suspect series I want. Then I discover that the trilogy of Bourne movies is sold out and won’t be available until after Christmas. Sigh.

Move to the crowded CD section, where two men giggling over their musical choices won’t move out of the way. I lean around them to pull out Violent Femmes and Velvet Underground CDs. Past experience tells me that the line-up will move slowly, but amazingly, the crowd parts and I walk straight up to a cashier. Brian Mancini, a store clerk, called it a "record" day for sales so far, saying that suddenly, crowds are heading in that afternoon.

2:08 p.m.

West 49 sells skateboards and clothes and has become the only store my 12-year-old son will enter. He would rather shop here alone with his friends, but feeling old-fashioned, I decide to forego a gift card, and buy a real present to wrap and leave under the tree.

I am at a loss as to what discerning 12-year-old boys feel is cool enough to wear. The teenage salesgirl discovers my son has a Jackass skateboard and immediately makes the connection between the show’s star, Bam Margera, and Element, the clothing line that sponsors him.

This is high-level anthropological insight into the mysterious world of prepubescent boys, who, despite trying to emulate skater dudes, still end up looking like preppies.

2:30 p.m.

Joyson Puvnasingham is lounging on a bench, chatting to his girlfriend on his cellphone. He’s got a huge smile on his face because he just bought her (spoiler alert) a certain electronic gaming system that cost him $300, and two games, one of which is Medal of Honor.

When I asked Puvnasingham, a University of Toronto sociology student, whether he or his girlfriend liked Medal of Honor better, he laughed.

2:35 p.m.

Discover there are not many toy stores in the mall and head to the Sears children’s department. I cannot find any Battle B-Daman toys, which my 8-year-old son loves. He put it on his Christmas list but decided he would wrap it and give it to a child who needed toys more than he does. This makes my heart swell, but I cannot find the toy anywhere.

Happily, a rack of children’s waterproof snow pants appears, so I can check that off my list.

I wait for three minutes at the service counter and decide to buy a chocolate bar made with 70 per cent cocoa.

Back in the mall, the crowds are filling in. Manoeuvring around slow walkers becomes trickier, especially as the bag count per shopper increases.

The Salvation Army musician is playing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" on a tuba.

Nearby, Santa Claus is waiting for the photographer to ready the camera while the first parents in line hold their baby in the air for an advance peek at old Saint Nick.

Shoppers are starting to bump into each other, but strangely, most look fairly serene. Maybe everyone has found parking spots.

Derek Nighbor, spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada, said that the last Friday before Christmas is always a busy shopping day, since many shoppers leave work early and arrive at malls by mid afternoon.

Last Sunday’s snowstorm also affected shopping, Nighbor said. Far fewer people shopped during the storm, but the fresh piles of snow put people in a shopping mood, he said.

"It puts people in a Christmas frame of mind," he said.

The number of people shopping at at Yorkdale yesterday was not available, but property manager Robert Horst said traffic counters showed the number of shoppers at the mall in November increased 4.9 per cent from the previous year. November’s sales volume was up by 8.2 per cent over the same time, Horst said.

Mall management, Horst said, expects today to be the busiest shopping day before Christmas, anticipating 100,000 shoppers will walk through the doors. Boxing Day may be busier yet, with 110,000 shoppers expected, Horst said.

2:47 p.m.

The Source by Circuit City is one very busy place, but there is a display of remote-controlled cars at the entrance and I am sure one of them would appeal to an 8-year-old built for speed.

Which one to choose?

I ask three teenage guys to recommend the coolest car. School let out for the holidays a few hours earlier and they were starting their own Christmas shopping.

One liked the hovercraft. Another liked the car that turned into a Transformer.

Lance Richardson, 18, grabbed an indoor/outdoor radio controlled flying bat. "It’s sick," he said. This I understand. It is the one that must be purchased.

Good deed done, Lance heads out of the store with his most important Christmas purchase in mind – earrings for his mom. "I’m going to get my shopping done today," he says, and disappears into the crowd.

3:10 p.m.

I have passed the 3 p.m. shopping deadline looking everywhere for that Battle B-Daman toy, to no avail.

A quick dash into a crowded Hallmark store produces pretty little boxes to hold crystal earrings for friends.

Shopping is almost done.

3:20 p.m.

At Sportchek, I discover that most women have being bought Under Armour underwear for their tall, handsome boyfriends. The shelves are almost empty. With the help of a kind saleswoman, I discover one perfect black pair.

Mission accomplished.

Except for my son’s gift.

Which means I’ll be shopping at Toys "R" Us today, the final Saturday before Christmas.

Market was the hub of law and order

Once a week until the mid-1830s, drunks and public nuisances were put in stocks and thieves were flogged at well-publicized and well-attended events. It was all done at the market because it was town’s social and commercial centre, the site where city and country came to buy, sell and socialize.

In 1803, when Lieutenant Governor Peter Hunter set aside two hectares of land between King and Front Sts. and Jarvis and Church Sts., he decreed that the space should be used for "exposing publicly for sale cattle, sheep, poultry and other provisions."

The first market was an open space, but a roofed structure was built in 1820 and later enclosed on three sides.

Off to one side were the stocks and pillory, medieval devices used to punish minor offences. In a small community, offenders were well known, increasing the shame factor. The colonial government didn’t want to lock people up because it was a nuisance, expensive, and deprived families of breadwinners. Public censure, peer pressure and ridicule were better to keep order. The sentences were usually carried out for just a few hours at a time. The stock allowed the offender to at least sit `stock still’ with his legs held in place. The pillory forced the accused to stand bent over with his or her head and arms through a hinged frame.

Part of the fun for the crowd was mocking, verbally abusing and otherwise humiliating the criminals on show. Sometimes, the victims were dishonest merchants whose scales were an ounce short or whose goods were shoddy or dangerous. It was fair game to pelt them with anything at hand, from rotten fruit and vegetables to mud, excrement, small dead animals and stones.

Henry Scadding, the social commentator and cleric who came to Toronto in 1821 as a young man, witnessed a whipping at the market and could barely stand to watch it.

"The sheriff stood by keeping count of the stripes," Scadding later wrote. "The senior of the two bore his punishment with stoicism. The other, a young man, endeavoured to imitate his companion but soon evinced fearful cries."

In 1804, a woman named Elizabeth Ellis, sentenced to six months for being a repeated public nuisance was ordered to stand in the pillory on two market days for two hours at a time. That same year, a man got the same sentence for sedition – calling for the overthrow of the King and colonial government.

The wooden market building was replaced in 1831 with a brick structure, and when Britain banned the stocks and pillory in 1837, they disappeared too. A fire burned the building down in 1849 and after it was rebuilt it remained a symbol of law and order: the new building housed the city’s first police station with holding cells in the basement.

No Crocs for docs and nurses?

Many nurses and doctors swear by the hugely popular shoes that were originally intended to be boating or outdoor footwear because of their non-marking, slip-resistant soles.

But whether or not hospital staff should wear them is a hot topic inside the province’s hospitals.

William Osler Health Centre would rather they not be worn. The Ottawa Hospital and the Hospital for Sick Children doesn’t want staff wearing Crocs with holes in them.

And the Ontario Hospital Association even sent a memo on the matter to members of the OHA Safety Group, a voluntary group of approximately 100 hospitals.

At issue are the holes in the top of the shoes and the strap on the back. Blood or bodily fluids can seep into the shoe holes, causing an infection control risk. Sharp objects could go through one of the holes.

If the straps of the shoes aren’t worn properly, health staff transporting patients can inadvertently slip out of the shoes.

"They are great for the beach or gardening, but not here," said Andrew Anderson, William Osler’s occupational health and safety manager.

"Transporting a patient, your shoe can pop off."

Case in point: Recently, one of Osler’s safety committee members was trailing behind a nurse transporting a patient down the halls when her Croc came off.

The committee member scooped up the shoe and gave it to the nurse.

"It’s simple physics," said Anderson, citing the lack of support in the back end of the shoe, especially worn without the strap.

"If I’m slipping around in the back of my shoe, how can I move people? Folks in maintenance wear steel-toed (footwear). Healthcare workers need appropriate footwear."

It’s up to each hospital to set safe standards regarding footwear and to make sure their employees are safe, said Christopher McPherson, OHA director of public affairs.

The main issues with the shoes concern the models with large vent holes on top and a strap on the heel, the OHA footwear memo notes.

"The first concern is that blood and bodily fluids spilled on the shoe will result in direct skin contact. This raises the potential of exposing a health care worker to a blood-borne disease."

The second concern is the potential for the shoes to generate a static charge that could disrupt medical equipment, the memo noted.

In Sweden, it is suspected the shoes may be to blame for equipment malfunctions due to static electricity generated from wearing them, according to a report from the Guardian Unlimited.

A spokesperson for Crocs couldn’t be reached.

For years, surgeons and operating room nurses and staff have worn clog type shoes in the operating theatre. But clogs traditionally worn in the OR had closed toes.

"Health-care workers now often think of Crocs as a kind of substitute for clogs, though if you apply the shoe standard, with the clog meeting most of the requirements, the Crocs fall short because of their open toe," the OHA paper states. "Thus, Crocs should not be worn in patient care areas or in the laboratories."

The covered toe Croc-type shoes are the shoes Sick Kids allows, said Helen Simeon, a spokesperson for the hospital. "It’s a trend," she said. "They are permitted in patient units and clinics, but the closed ones. With the strap on the heel up."

Walk down hospital row on University Ave. and you’ll see many health workers with them on.

"I like them," said Sarah Coughlin, an operating room attendant at Sick Kids. "They clean off easily. You can wipe them down. Compared to some of the street shoes some people wear in the OR that are just filthy, that is more of an infection control issue than these, I’d think."

People have worn clogs in the OR for years, said Coughlin, who owns two pairs of the shoes. "This is the same sort of thing."

Editorial: Dutch bungle diversity

The Dutch government says the plan, which would also bar other face-concealing clothing such as helmets with visors and ski masks, is aimed at promoting security.

But the timing of the proposal, just days before tomorrow’s national elections, is a clear indication that minority rights are under siege in Europe. The issue has become more pronounced as Europe comes to terms with growing Muslim populations, especially following terrorist bombings in London and Madrid.

The Dutch are hardly the first to consider restricting Muslim dress. France has banned the hijab, or Muslim head scarf, and other religious symbols in public schools. Germany bars school teachers from wearing head scarves.

And former British foreign secretary Jack Straw recently caused a stir when he revealed that he asks Muslim women to show their faces when they come to his riding office. Straw called the veil "a visible statement of separation and difference."

Many feminists consider the burqa demeaning to women, while other critics see it as the most visible sign of some Muslims’ resistance to Western values.

But throughout this controversy, many critics seem unwilling to accept that some Muslim women wear religious coverings by their own choosing, both for cultural and religious reasons.

They also appear to forget that a great strength of Western democracy is that it can, and should, respect difference as long as it does not infringe on others’ rights.

On that count, the Dutch proposal to ban burqas is difficult to understand, except as a vote-getting measure that plays on fear and hatred. As few as 30 of the 1 million Muslims in the Netherlands wear burqas.

If the Netherlands truly wants to promote social cohesion, it should welcome diversity and embrace minorities as full citizens with full rights. Suppressing minority religious and cultural practices, under the guise of security, will only alienate them further.

Dutch vote creates coalition `chaos’

 

The Dutch appeared split between a government coalition that has been tough on immigration and pro-business and socialists — led by the Labour party — promoting a softer approach.

And no combination of left- or right-wing parties will easily muster full control of parliament, state-funded broadcaster NOS predicted following early returns from more than 80 per cent of the vote.

The emerging result portends weeks, possibly months, of coalition haggling with smaller parties in a position to exact a heavy price for their support. Even if negotiations are successful for one side or the other, the outcome could be an unwieldy and unstable government that would have difficulty completing a four-year term.

"It’s chaos. It is extremely difficult to distill a government out of these results," said Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm of the free-market Liberal party, Balkenende’s current government partner.

"The jigsaw can still be laid in many different ways," said Labour’s No. 2 candidate, Nebahat Albayrak.

The country has been engaged in a tumultuous debate over immigration and the threat of Islamic terrorism following two political murders tied to Islam in recent years.

But immigration and Islam were barely mentioned until the final days of the campaign, when Balkenende’s hardline immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, said the government intended to outlaw burqas and other face-covering apparel.

Plucking a jewel from lakefront drab

Nowhere more so than on Toronto’s sleeping beauty of a waterfront. That became wonderfully clear this week when the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp. handed over its annual general meeting to four of the planet’s leading landscapists, remarkably, all of them working in this city. By the time they’re finished, this quartet will have transformed the waterfront, and with it, Toronto. About time, too.

While most eyes have been focused on the so-called Cultural Renaissance — we’ll see about that — the TWRC has quietly assembled a team that could make this city’s waterfront the envy of the world. Of course, given the petulance and lack of sophistication of all three levels of government, anything could go wrong between now and then. But if these practitioners are allowed to do what they can, the results will be a splendid renewal of the relationship between Toronto and Lake Ontario.

The four — West 8 (Rotterdam), Field Operations (New York), Claude Cormier Architectes Paysagistes (Montreal) and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (New York) — are responsible for hundreds of hectares of prime real estate, much of it now a post-industrial wasteland. To them, that’s nothing new. Indeed, much of the rebuilding of cities this century is all about reclaiming disused shipyards, abandoned harbours, old factories and the like.

Toronto has no shortage of sites, especially on the waterfront, much of which has sat empty for decades. But done intelligently, these derelict properties could become the saviour of the city in the years ahead. The possibilities of these modern man-made landscapes are vast. Even a small scheme like Van Valkenburgh’s 16-acre Don River Park will anchor a new neighbourhood of 6,000 residential units. Located on the west side of the Don, south of King St. at the east end of an extended Esplanade, the facility will include open lawns as well as sports fields, a marsh, playground, trees and an urban prairie. More than that, the space will be a local park and a city icon despite being cut off, mostly from the south and east. Situated atop a berm now being built to stop flooding, it will begin construction next year.

The biggest of the four projects, Lake Ontario Park, extends 37 kilometres along the shoreline from the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant west to Cherry Beach and the tip of the Leslie Street Spit. Though big at 965 acres, it is long and thin. It will encompass a variety of conditions and features from sandy beaches to thickly treed stands.

"It’s all edge," said Ellen Neises of Field Operations. "There’s no interior."

Though the master plan won’t be ready until early next year, she talked at the meeting about "transects and outposts," ways of moving through the landscape to a wide variety of zones and destinations. The idea is to create a signature park for Canada as well as Toronto. The potential, she said, is enormous.

To the north, Cormier’s 46-acre Commissioners’ Park will be an essay in the contemporary urban landscape. Using the idea of camouflage, he has devised an approach that allows for an overlay of dedicated spaces — playing fields — with a more "naturalistic" sensibility. Cormier also worked on HtO, the innovative urban beach now taking form at the foot of Simcoe St.

The fourth firm, West 8, was represented by founder Adriaan Geuze. He and DTAH of Toronto won the competition to redesign the central waterfront last summer. Their proposal will narrow Queen’s Quay from four lanes to two and add thousands of trees to the area. It also focuses on the slipheads, which will be expanded and bridged.

The scheme was tested in a 10-day trial last August. Most visitors thought it a success. Work on the central waterfront will start next summer. Though most of the attention here has been lavished on projects like Frank Gehry’s redo of the Art Gallery of Ontario and Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, the truth is that their works are instantly familiar. By contrast, the landscape never repeats itself; every park is unique. With cities needing renewal more than new buildings, this is good news.

The big guy’s back in town

As the clowns came into view — their jolly bellies jiggling — a crowd of snowsuit-bundled children surrounding Isabella Desario broke into a chorus of high-pitched squealing. The 4-year-old wiggled her arms and legs madly as the tinsel-haired men and women strode along the parade route hitting adult spectators on the head with squishy hammers, spraying liquid string on the unsuspecting and pelting children with packs of candy.

So began the 102nd Santa Claus Parade. "I like them because they’re silly," Desario said of the clowns, from inside a red plastic wagon, perched yesterday on a Queen St. curb. "And, I like the candy." Drawing her bounty close in one mitten-clad hand, the Hamilton girl waved an envelope addressed to Mr. Claus. It attracted the attention of Canada Post mail carriers walking along the crowd-lined street. Putting envelopes gingerly into a sack, Harold Bird smiled at the children. "I love their excitement," he said, before nearly being thrown to the pavement by one of some 175 clowns, who pay $1,000 for the privilege of being in the parade.

Chants of "Merry Christmas" came from the crowds lining the 5.7 kilometre route, 10 or 15 people deep in front of the Canadian Opera Company at Queen St. and University Ave. and near Old City Hall. Cradling coffees, shivering and rocking strollers back and forth to quiet little ones, spectators craned their necks as the parade rolled past. Mark Pugash of Toronto Police Services said hundreds of thousands of people came for the spectacle, making yesterday’s turnout one of the largest in recent memory.

More than 1,000 volunteers dressed as almost every animal and character imaginable, including cows, bears, fish and skunks. "Phew," Aino Brown, yelled as people dressed in black-and-white-tailed costumes rolled comically on the ground. "Yuk." The grandmother of three rushed from her Mississauga home yesterday, securing her prime curb seat by 11:15 a.m., helping children draw chalk pictures on the pavement until the parade, which began at Bloor and Christie Sts. rolled by nearly three hours later.

"We’ve been coming for over 40 years," said her husband, Bruce Brown, who was a volunteer clown in the parade 50 years ago. "We used to come before we had kids, we came with them and now we come with our grandchildren." Wearing matching felt antlers, the couple called out to children on the 21 floats, sang along to carols drummed out by the 21 marching bands and gasped when a particularly impressive float rolled by. "It’s a tradition," Bruce said, of planting himself snugly on a cold stretch of pavement for several hours each year. "Santa always seems to come at the end for some reason. I wonder why?"