Bill Dempsey was the driving force behind the creation of the Centennial Community and Recreation Association (CCRA) 75 years ago. Top: Bill with MP Dan McTeague at the 2004 Canada Day parade.

By Gay Cowbourne,
Former CCRA president

Everyone who had the privilege to work with Bill Dempsey knows that he was a walking encyclopedia of the Centennial and Highland Creek areas. They also know how long and hard he fought to protect this community with its rivers, streams and wildlife, as it grew from a sleepy farming community into a bustling corner of Toronto.

In 1999, the City of Toronto recognized his decades of conservation efforts  by creating the William Alexander Dempsey Eco Park near Ellesmere and Meadowvale.

I first worked with Bill when he chaired the Highland Creek Village Mural Project in the early 1990s, and the mural adjacent to the Methodist Cemetery was created. Later, as members of the CCRA executive, we worked together on many projects, including the CN Pedestrian Underpass, the Village Common, the Waterfront Trail and the remediation of the Johns Manville property.

These huge endeavours involved regular meetings with all three levels of government, and sometimes they became quite heated. That was when I fully realized why Bill was so well-respected by all and affectionately referred to as “Senator Bill” by politicians and bureaucrats.

He was the epitome of the elder statesman and he always stayed calm. He behaved with respect, dignity and integrity, and he strongly believed that those in any trusted position had a duty to behave with decorum. If meetings became heated, Bill would use his diplomacy to calm the troubled waters and find a solution to move ahead.

I remember one particularly frustrating meeting with two politicians who each blamed the other for stalling a major waterfront project. Bill listened to their heated argument, then he banged his hand on the table, looked at them sternly and reminded them both that they had an obligation to this community to make this project happen and a duty to make it happen fast.

They were both stunned but, miraculously, the issue was quickly resolved so that Mayor David Miller and I could officially open Phase One of the Port Union Waterfront Park on September 29, 2006. Unfortunately, Bill had already retired to his birthplace in Manitoba and wasn’t able to attend.

A year later, he briefly visited the Centennial area to receive an award from the Toronto Region Conservation Authority in honour of his 50+ years of work on the Port Union Waterfront. TRCA publicly acknowledged that in the early 1950s, Bill had taken the Reeve of Scarborough to the Lake Ontario shoreline at Port Union and told him that the public should have a tunnel under the CN tracks with access to their waterfront. “Perseverance is key” was Bill’s motto, so in later years he also took Toronto Mayors David Crombie and Mel Lastman there and told them the same thing.

Following the TRCA’s award ceremony, I arranged for Bill and his wife, Evelyn, to ride along the trail with members of the CCRA and the TRCA. Bill was visibly moved to see that his vision of the last half-century had finally become a reality and Lake Ontario could now be easily accessed and enjoyed by all.

When he was in his mid 80s, I once suggested to Bill that he write a book about his Centennial experiences. He chuckled and told me that he didn’t have time to write about it because he was still far too busy doing it!

Bill Dempsey was instrumental in making Centennial into a true community with accessible open spaces, parks and rivers – a place we can all be proud to call home.