A league of her own
“We have all, voluntarily, poured in our time and money, made alliances with other community groups, environmental groups and legal experts, all while having day jobs, children and families … our children were exposed to some of the most toxic chemicals known to mankind. That was what kept us going. We knew too much at that point. We couldn’t back out.”
March 21, 2019
Next time you take a stroll through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, a popular spot for cyclists, joggers and walkers, you can have a say in how it’s run thanks to one Seneca grad and her neighbours.
Lorraine Tinsley, who graduated from the Sustainable Business Management program, has been looking out for the environment her whole life. When she was a teenager, her family moved to Egypt. There, she found herself helping workers who collected garbage on donkey carts in the streets of Cairo. Later, as an adult back in Toronto, Tinsley got involved with the city to ramp up its recycling collection.
“The environment sector is an area that has always fascinated me,” she said.
Recently, following a five-year legal battle, Tinsley and her neighbours celebrated their victory in holding the operator of one of Toronto’s largest green spaces accountable to the public.
In a decision, Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice ruled that Friends of Toronto Public Cemeteries (FTPC), a citizen group co-founded by Tinsley, was “substantially successful” in its application against the Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries (MPGC) “to vindicate an important public interest.”
“We were over the moon,” Tinsley said.
MPGC operates 10 cemeteries, nine funeral homes and four cremation centres on more than 1,222 acres of green space across the Greater Toronto Area. One of them, the historic Mount Pleasant Cemetery, borders the Moore Park neighbourhood in which Tinsley has lived since 2000.
In 2013, two years after she graduated from Seneca, Tinsley co-founded FTPC to challenge the way MPGC was run by a private board of directors and not by publicly appointed trustees in accordance with a historic statute first enacted in 1826.
“It came out of years of citizen activism against MPGC,” said Tinsley, a self-employed sustainability risk adviser and local historian for Moore Park.
At the time, Tinsley had just returned to school after taking time off to be a stay-at-home mom. For years, she had worked as a policy consultant for the provincial and federal governments while volunteering in the environment sector.
“The Sustainable Business Management program was new at the time but already considered one of the best in the industry,” she recalled. “The instructors were practitioners in their fields and the program provided a tool kit to help businesses and individuals reduce energy use and improve their environmental footprint. We were literally thinking globally, acting locally.”
One of the many valuable lessons Tinsley said she learned at Seneca was that businesses and organizations, both private and public, must actively embrace the fundamental principles of social and environmental responsibility to be sustainable.
So, when the Mount Pleasant Cremation Centre planned to replace (but not relocate) an old crematorium built in 1972, Tinsley joined her neighbours and local councillor to express concerns over risks of emissions, hazardous waste and industrial accidents from operating an incinerator next to residential homes.
It was not their first fight against MPGC. In the early 2000s, residents were upset by the corporation’s removal of trees and paving of the cemetery for a new visitation centre. Despite support from city council, which turned down the cemetery’s planning request, the Ontario Municipal Board eventually sided with MPGC.
“A fight like this takes your life away. You put every ounce of yourself and your spare time into fighting for your children.”
“We’ve lost numerous challenges against this corporation over the years. We have all, voluntarily, poured in our time and money, made alliances with other community groups, environmental groups and legal experts, all while having day jobs, children and families to look after,” Tinsley said.
“With the crematorium being so close to our homes and emissions coming out daily for 42 years, our children were exposed to some of the most toxic chemicals known to mankind. That was what kept us going. We knew too much at that point. We couldn’t back out.”
According to MPGC’s website, as of 2014, Mount Pleasant became “the first of our locations, and the first in North America, to be upgraded with the most technologically advanced cremation equipment — complete with an emissions abatement system that eliminates nearly 100 [per cent] of all emissions and particulate matter.”
Tinsley welcomed the abatement measures. However, she would have liked to see MPGC relocate the crematorium as per city zoning bylaw and international best practices.
While the Superior Court of Justice declined to make declarations regarding the crematorium business in the aforementioned decision, which stated that MPGC “has not acted in bad faith,” it did find that the operation of funeral homes was outside the objects of its entity as a public trust and that none of the current directors has been validly appointed.
Since MPGC has appealed the decision, Tinsley said more work lies ahead and others will need to take it forward.
“A fight like this takes your life away. You put every ounce of yourself and your spare time into fighting for your children,” she said. “But even if we lose the appeal, we won’t lose the fact that this trust is now publicly accountable for the responsible stewardship of more than 1,200 acres of cherished public cemetery lands. The most important thing has been won.”