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LIFE: Harbord Village’s Sue Dexter makes a difference (Mar. 2020)

March 24th, 2020 · 1 Comment

Crusader lauded for her contributions

Sue Dexter (left), with Jessica Bell, has championed the preservation and greening of Harbord Village and worked tirelessly to better the community. COURTESY JESSICA BELL

This article is the second in a series about local residents making a difference in our community. These unsung heroes were brought to The Gleaner’s attention by MPP Jessica Bell, who honoured them at her Annual Community Celebration, in December of 2019.

By Nicole Stoffman

Susan Dexter loves a challenge, especially if it involves designing a system that could help slow climate change. These days she’s asking herself how to get Harbord Village to net-zero. 

“Is it possible to get property owners to spend money to get rid of fossil fuels in their houses,” she wonders, “even though there will likely be subsidies and loans from the city and the feds?”

The likely answer is yes, if Dexter is on the case. A founding board member of the Harbord Village Residents’Association (HVRA) she co-authored the group’s Green Master Plan, which was passed into legislation and led to in-street planters at four intersections, with more village greening initiatives on the way. 

Now she’s working with TranformTO to dramatically reduce Harbord Village’s carbon output through home retrofits. 

“Sue is a leader in the work we all must take on to make our cities sustainable,” says MPP Jessica Bell, who honoured Dexter’s work at her recent Community Celebration.

Dexter also helped change the direction of Koerner Hall from north-south to east-west, which saved some of the forest in Philosopher’s Walk. 

When the provincial government cut City Council, Dexter banded together with residents’ associations from across the city to protect councillors’ staffing levels. 

“She puts in a lot of hours to try to understand the issues and find solutions,” says Councillor Mike Layton.  “Although you might not always see them, Sue’s fingerprints are on many of the positive changes in our community.”

Susan Dexter’s activism began when she saw that construction of the Spadina LRT was hurting trees. She started working with Olivia Chow on tree policy. Soon after, she joined the U of T’s City Liaison Committee to represent local residents’ concerns about green space preservation on campus.  

That’s where she was plucked for the HVRA board one day.

In the intervening years, the HVRA has completed two tree inventories, installed 30 solar home energy systems, cleaned up graffiti, completed an award winning oral history project, and won Heritage Conservation designation for 349 houses. “When a residents’ association is really working, it’s capturing the imagination of the residents,” explains Dexter. “It’s a very progressive and early-adopter community.”

Gail Misra, chair of the HVRA Board, calls her “the biggest thinker and doer in the community.” 

Yet the ecologist and former journalist is not comfortable in the spotlight. “The main thing is it’s not about me, it’s about the people in my neighbourhood,” Dexter insists. 

When pressed, she will admit that she understands policy. Her journalist’s ability to research complex problems and her love of the natural world born of childhood summers in the Gatineau Hills, inform her activism. 

Journalism was the family business. Her father was legendary wartime political reporter Alexander Grant Dexter of the Winnipeg Free Press. 

Over a 30-year career, Dexter wrote for the Globe and Mail, the Star, TVO, Maclean’s, and covered public affairs for the CBC. 

In 1975 she moved to Washington with her husband John Young, an economist, who worked for the International Monetary Fund. Upon his death, she returned to Toronto and settled in Harbord Village. In keeping with her lifelong interest in the health of trees, she signed up to study botany at the University of Toronto. 

Susan Dexter is optimistic about the future of local activism. She sees a “rising tide” among residents and residents’ associations.

 “The journalists will have you think we’re just a bunch of NIMBYs who complain about development, but we do a whole bunch of other stuff that’s really trying to realize a city that’s prospering, functional, and environmentally responsible, with a creative class. These are huge issues.”

Tags: Annex · Life

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 David Harrison // Mar 29, 2020 at 8:01 am

    Sue is a national treasure. Surely an Order of Canada or at the very least an Order of Ontario.