In Memoriam: Pam McConnell, 1946-2017

Pam McConnell was a warrior for the values that she believed in.

When she took on a cause she was fierce in winning the day, carefully developing a winning strategy, putting forward the case in public or council settings and making the necessary background phone calls and connections to make it happen. Pam McConnell died July 7. She was 71 years old.

To Pam, the most important number at City Hall was 23, the number of council votes needed to win. She was marvellously adept at building a coalition to get her to that magic number. 

Whether it was stick-handling policing during the turbulent transition out of the Fantino years, outsmarting colleagues out to scuttle plans to build the Wellesley Community Centre and Library in St. James Town or opposition to the regeneration of Regent Park, Pam’s tenacity shone through. 

Pam was a principal architect behind the Regent Park redevelopment. The multi-million dollar, multi-year project was a complex one. Not everyone was on board on how best to revitalize Toronto’s oldest social housing experiment, create affordable housing and build community in the process. Leveraging the land, creating a mixed-income neighbourhood and ensuring strong community amenities like Artscape’s Daniels Spectrum and the Regent Park Aquatic Centre was visionary. It was Pam’s creativity and ability to bring together a variety of players that made it happen.

During the tumultuous Rob Ford years, Pam resisted the temptation to go head on into battle against him, unlike many councillors and public figures.  

“Ford will fall on his own,” she rightly predicted. “The better attention,” she said, should be spent on the projects that mattered in the life of our communities. 

A veteran councillor and former school trustee who was a believer in the idea that “all things will pass,” Pam’s prescience calmed everyone down during the Ford term, helping ensure waterfront redevelopment stayed on track in the face of Island airport expansion plans.

Her tactical know-how was complemented by some very clever diplomatic skills. Most mayors over her political career saw this in Pam and thus placed her in key positions to help bridge divisive issues.

After John Tory was elected mayor,  for example, poverty reduction became her mission as the Mayor’s deputy. 

Pam used the five fingers on her hand to explain that Toronto needed a multi-pronged strategy to address five key areas to fight poverty: housing stability, access to services, transit equity, food security and quality jobs with living incomes. 

The plan’s implementation was key and she ensured that as much funding as possible for poverty reduction was made available each council budget. Free access to recreation programs for all Torontonians was another mission she successfully fought to enhance.

Also dear to Pam was the leadership of women in politics through her work with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. She championed mentorship programs across the country. Pam believed that gender equity at decision-making tables made for better public policy. She was a widely respected figure nationally, speaking annually at the national FCM conference on the state of women’s participation in political work. She established the annual Women’s Breakfast with FCM and the Canadian Labour Congress to raise scholarship funds for aspiring young political women.

One of Pam’s favourite expressions, which she used with political supporters and opponents alike, was to “find the island,” which was her way of explaining that we all come to political work from our own perspective, and that we need to swim to that place where common purpose can be found. It was her way of explaining the theme of politics as the art of the possible and finding the most progressive place achievable at any given moment in the city’s life.  

For all her victories, there were also defeats. Losing the vote on taking down the eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway hit her hard (only 21 votes came to the table).  

Pam’s life showed a deep commitment to a socially and economically just society. She was the complete package. 

Always kind and caring, it was Pam who invited new and returning councillors to her condo after the 2010 election, and it was Pam who bought the bouquet of flowers and a book for then Councillor Rob Ford when his son Dougie was born.  

There were many tears at City Hall when Pam’s death became known, as she had the deep respect and affection of so many city staff with whom she had worked.  

Pam showed us how to live and struggle with the right combination of ferocity and gentleness.  

We are especially thankful to Pam’s family for sharing their Mom and Nana with the rest of us. We are better for their sacrifices.

Her legacy lives on in the communities and causes she supported toward building a better Toronto.

Paula Fletcher and Joe Mihevc are Toronto city councillors.

A Celebration of Life for Pam McConnell takes place at Cathedral Church of St. James (65 Church) Friday, August 25 at 1 pm. In lieu of flowers, the McConnell family encourages donations to Collective of Black Artists, Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services or Riverdale Housing Animation Programs. | @nowtoronto

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