Murray Koffler’s Legacy

The Koffler Scientific Reserve, Joker’s Hill, King, Ontario, CANADA

The beginning of his obituary says it all: KOFFLER, Murray Bernard On Sunday, November 5, 2017 passed on at his home. Murray Koffler – A man who lived his vision to leave this world in a better place than when he entered it. A man who loved and was loved by his family, his friends and all those he touched globally regardless of race, religion, or status.”

One of those better places is at the Koffler Scientific Reserve right here in King. Most of us who love living or walking or just visiting in King know what a jewel it is, like a breathing, purifying oasis above the city of Toronto. And most of us want to protect it from the surging growth spreading north.

It was to that end originally that Murray and Marvelle Koffler decided to protect their Jokers Hill equestrian centre from development. The Kofflers first bought Jokers Hill in King in 1969, using it as their country home and the site of a variety of equestrian and charitable events.

The original patchwork of small 1880’s farms were consolidated in a purchase made by Major General Clarence Mann in the 1950’s. He and his wife, Billie McLaughlin, developed their new estate as a horse farm, putting in a race track, horse barns and opening up pastures.

Today those barns are being remodeled as research pods for University of Toronto students and professors. When I was there on the very cold morning of November 10, workers were just installing a new set of modern energy efficient windows on the old stables, much to the joy of the research staff. Beyond the building renovations, the race track and pasture lands have been turned into ecological science research sites to study the effects of accelerating climate change on evolving ecosystems.

As well as the Koffler Scientific Reserve that takes up most of the 350 hectares on the Oak Ridges Moraine, there are 50 hectares on the eastern portion off Bathurst Street that have a variety of public hiking trails. The main Reserve, however, is closed to the public for very good reason. It contains one of the largest stands of old-growth maple beech forests in Ontario, and an equally sized portion of second-growth forest that now serve as living scientific laboratories for the University of Toronto. Sacred spaces.

I had the privilege of touring the property with KSR director Professor Arthur Weis and Steph Schneider, the property manager who jokingly refers to himself as the onsite “gentleman scientist.”

Professor Weis took over from founding Director, Professor Ann Zimmerman in 2007, when he left the sun-drenched University of California and his role as Professor of Evolutionary Biology. Under his guidance, the former “racing barn” was turned into a state-of-the-art Laboratory for Biodiversity and Global Change Biology. The morning we watched the windows going in on the former stables to block out the -20ºC winds, I wondered if he was doing some California dreaming. But not at all.

Weiss showed me his current project, in layman’s terms what I will call a thermal acceleration experiment in the natural environment. Picture two identical growing plots side by side, with exactly the same species of plants growing in exactly the same pattern. While one plot is subject to the regular vagaries of weather; the other plat has infrared heaters that come on via a computer sensing system that adjusts the temperature over their plots by exactly +2ºC. This gives Weis an experimental, controlled window on the effects of accelerating climate change on plant growth and the variety of predators they attract.

Similarly, on the old pasture lands, the research team has set up cages of plants in fenced protected pods to study the growth patterns of different species as they respond to climate change variations. “We couldn’t do any of this on campus in Toronto,” said Weis. The inference being that without Koffler’s donation, this kind of research could not have taken place.

So unique is this site, that every year 100 – 150 professors, post-doctoral scholars, and students at both the graduate and undergraduate level, trek to the reserve to study the ecology and evolution of species ranging from slugs, to prairie grasses, to hummingbirds. ”

Not to be outdone, Steph Schneider was equally enthusiastic about the 36 identical mini-ponds that had been dug adjacent to a main pond. Here they study the variants in aquatic life and vegetation as they respond to changes in the ecosystem. Remembering the enthusiasm of my students for pond studies, it was refreshing to see this same sense of wonder in two adults marveling at the complexities of the greatest show on Earth – the evolution of natural systems in response to accelerating climate change.

Weis is not only completely immersed in the site and its potential, he feels deeply honoured to be carrying on the vision of Murray Koffler. He confided to me that when Murray and his wife Marvelle made the $18 million land gift to the University of Toronto in 1995, it was totally spontaneous. Originally, the Kofflers had offered it the Province of Ontario as a Provincial Park, but funding was tight and the Province was unable to provide the infrastructure to protect and conserve the area. During an event at Jokers Hill one day, the U of T Chancellor at the time suggested Koffler could always give the lands to the University. “Done,” replied the philanthropist, and the most valuable land gift ever given to a Canadian University was completed over a handshake.

Murray Koffler will be remembered for many things. Most of us knew him as the CEO of Shoppers Drug Mart, and an Order of Canada recipient. Many of us were aware of his philanthropy through innovations like the U of T’s Koffler Institute of Pharmacy and the Koffler Student Centre, the Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre and the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto. Fewer still knew of his generosity towards the Toronto Outdoor Art Show and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

But for me, as an environmental educator and science journalist, his greatest legacy will be the gift of Jokers Hill. The mission of the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill is very clear:

“toward a sustainable future through research and education on the environment, in the environment.”

 Yes, Mr. Koffler, I believe that you have indeed left this world in a better place than when you entered it. Your passion, humility and philanthropy are an inspiration to your family, friends and community. And, in the current darkness of deniers. the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill will be a beacon of scientific literacy for generations to come.


Skid Crease, Caledon


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My Home Town

I was born in Windsor, Ontario, but lived, went to school and worked most of my life in North York. When the North York Board of Education built the beautiful Mono Cliffs Outdoor Education Centre near Orangeville I moved northwest and spent ten years working there in the spectacular Headwaters Region of Dufferin-Caledon. After a brief return to the Toronto area to teach at York University, I was once again asked to manage an outdoor centre. This time it was at the Bolton Conference Centre and Camp location in Caledon.

That was in 1997, and this marks our 20th year here in Caledon, so I can safely say that Bolton is now my Home Town.

When we moved here the housing boom hadn’t started and in February we could still hear the coyote packs singing from the farm fields to the south of us. A lot can happen in twenty years, and as old industrial areas and development lands were rezoned, the little country Town grew. But not too big – just big enough to attract the attention of Toronto Life Magazine and get voted as one of the Top Twenty Hot Neighbourhoods in which to live. Here’s their evaluation of my rurban home town:

Anyone who yearns for rustic small-town life with the convenience of the big city should consider a foothold in Bolton—it’s quiet and picturesque, with plenty of modern amenities to keep it vibrant. Bolton, the densest chunk of Caledon, has a small cluster of restaurants and cafés that quickly give way to an expanse of strip malls and big-box stores. The housing stock is largely made up of newer homes on narrow lots, and while it’s a bit further from Toronto than Brampton, it’s both prettier and cheaper. Among the area’s most enticing rural charms: the Bolton Fall Fair, an agricultural expo with midway rides, giant gourds and a tractor pull.

Not to mention the Humber Valley Heritage Trail, the Trans-Canada Trail (The Great Trail), the Caledon Trailway, the Bruce Trail, the Albion Hills Conservation Area, and the Albion Hills Community Farm, where local residents can grow their own local produce and learn the benefits of local food production.

So, how do we keep our Home Town “rustic” but with plenty of “amenities” as the pressures from Toronto and Brampton push north looking for healthy space and more affordable housing? We espouse sustainable development over exponential growth.

There are limits to growth, but there are no limits to development. Let me explain: a human being can only grow to a certain size, but that same human being can learn to write, sing, build rocket ships, dance, train a horse, compose a symphony, paddle a canoe, deliver a speech, design an energy efficient building, develop green technologies to take us beyond fossil fuels, turn swords into ploughshares. There is no end to the development that one simple human being can achieve.

How do we nurture sustainable development over growth? We keep our citizens well-informed about the current and future state of our community. We elect a Municipal Council that is intelligent and aware of the big picture beyond their own limited self-interest. We avoid being drawn into misinformation debates and inflammatory social media rants by a rabid minority who would find fault with the way the Little Drummer Boy played his song to a baby in a manger.

It has been my privilege over the past few months to interview the administration team in the Town of Caledon. From the Chief Administrative Officer to the Town Clerk, these are people who are dedicated, hard-working and more than competent at their jobs, who work daily with the best interests of the entire population of Caledon in mind. They are not in the slightest the tax-dollar wasting, entitled incompetents that the rabid misinformed minority, and a few partisan journalists would have us believe.

The good news is, this Town of Caledon and it’s urban centre of Bolton are doing just fine thank-you, and we know what we need to do to get better. We need our GO Train. We need to dedicate Queen St to local traffic only, and divert the through traffic to the Emil Kolb by-pass it should be taking. We need to ensure all future developments, residential, employment, and industrial are built to LEED standards – energy producing, greywater reusing, and waste recycling. We need to apply a Prince Edward Island style of pride and beauty to our store fronts, our heritage buildings and our homes.

We need to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t listen to or re-elect the rabid in-between.

My Home Town – it was once voted “the Greenest Town in Ontario” and now we’re one of the hottest.  If we want to claim both of those titles in the future it will come through leadership focused on sustainable development, and a citizenry that is well informed and takes pride in their community. The mud-slingers? As the old Conestoga wagon masters used to say when the covered wagons got stuck in the mud, “Either get out and push, or get out.”


Skid Crease, Caledon


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Before the Flood


A version of this review was first printed in the King Sentinel newspaper, October 19, 2017


“If you consider the vastness of this universe, this Planet Earth is just a small boat. If this boat is sinking, then I think we will all have to sink together.” 

Ban KI-moon, former Secretary General of the United Nations


This somber message was delivered to a rapt audience of King and Caledon citizens in King’s magnificent Country Day School Performing Arts Centre. The occasion was a viewing of Leo DiCaprio’s film Before the Flood presented by National Geographic on Wednesday evening, October 11, 2017. A partnership consisting of the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust, the Arts Society of King, and the Country Day School brought the movie and Chris Ballard, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, together to learn and to dialogue.

The movie opens with a story and a painting that hung on the wall of Leo’s childhood bedroom. It was titled “Before the Flood” by Dutch Renaissance master Heironymous Bosch. The original was on three hinged oak panels that closed to reveal an unusual outer painting of Earth as a single globe, an amazing intuitive feat when you consider that Magellan had yet to complete his first circumnavigation of the planet. The three inner panels depict the innocence of the Garden of Eden, the Seven Deadly Sins of humankind, and the wasteland that follows our overindulgence and consumption.

The film expands on that theme as DiCaprio takes us on a journey of celebration and degradation. We see the magnificence of this gift of life called Planet Earth and then we bear witness to the squandering of resources that our very selfish species has inflicted on all of the other systems with which we share this Home Planet.

This journey is inter-spliced with clips of DiCaprio speaking with Ban Ki-moon and taking the podium at the United Nations as their UN Messenger of Peace with a special focus on climate change. He also meets with Pope Francis when the Earth Encyclical was enacted, and talks with President Obama in the heady days of environmental hope following the world’s commitment to the Paris Accord.

The movie is a cautionary tale, much like the British TV series “Black Mirror” is to the dangers of the electronic drugs of cell phones and flat screens. Before the Flood shows us the garden of Eden that we inherited and what we have done with it in a few short millennium. Will we descend into social chaos as the many without food, water, health care and shelter turn their anger towards the 1% who seemingly have it all? And like the ancient Romans that didn’t get it until the Barbarians really were at the gates, will we realize too late that we could have turned the tide?

The hardest part to watch, of course, is the build towards a positive ending with the hope of the Paris Accord being signed by united nations equally concerned about the impacts of accelerating climate change on their countries and the global commons. There was real hope seen in the sincere conversations between DiCaprio and John Kerry and Barack Obama, and in the innocent cry to cast your vote for a secure future.

But as the film concluded, the audience sat in silence, and in the depressed knowledge that the U.S. had just elected a science illiterate as President, who then appointed climate change deniers to head the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. A President who withdrew his country from the Paris Accord, quickly began to dismantle every environmental security advance made over the last decades, and reinstated the glory that was coal to the US economy – a fossil fool for the fossil fuel industry.

Of course, the film is not without its critics either. One of the most poignant segments is when DiCaprio tours Indonesia and meets displaced peoples and animals from the areas that have been deforested. Deforested so that they can grow lucrative plantations of African palm oil trees that provide the palm oil that saturates almost every one of our processed foods. However, it turns out that a lot of the financing for DiCaprio’s movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street” came via palm oil profits from an Indonesian investment group linked to their Prime Minister, prompting cries of hypocrisy and asking DiCaprio to step down from his UN role.

However, for the purposes of raising sensibilities for this move night, those details were kept from the audience. Instead, at the end of the film, the audience got to turn their angst towards our newly appointed Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Chris Ballard. MP Ballard had already fielded pre-film questions from the audience and some very intelligent questions from Grade 11 and 12 Country Day students that left him responding, “Look, I’ve only been on this job for ten weeks. I promise to get back to you.” And to be fair, Chris Ballard’s portfolio is huge. As an educator and journalist, it has taken me 25 years to come close to understanding the science and anti-science surrounding accelerating climate change and its impacts, so we should be more than willing to give Chris a few more weeks.

The realities of energy production – and Ontario can be quite proud that we have no more coal fired power plants – was one of the things that Ballard touched upon, acknowledging the anger that many Ontarians were feeling over high electricity rates. He also explained that part of that increase was due to the fact that the government had to replace thousands of kilometers of aging infrastructure, including the basic wires, that previous governments had simply passed on to the new kids at Queen’s Park.

The Minister tried to calm the audience’s fears about accelerating climate change impact by telling them some good news – that human related CO2 emissions had stabilized. However, he forgot to mention that the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were continuing to rise, possibly because the natural ocean sinks were saturated. Besides fielding questions, Minister Ballard also got a lecture from renowned climate scientist Hans Martin – probably the smartest guy in the room when it comes to understanding accelerating climate change. Yes Chris, a lot to learn, and no time to waste.

This event was a classic in partnership planning between the King City, Country Day School, the Arts Society of King (ASK), and the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust (ORMLT) whose MC, Susan Walmer, was an articulate host. As a special guest speaker, Chris Ballard did a fine job of handling questions as honestly and as completely as he could. Steve Pellegrini, Mayor of King City, was gracious and brief in his welcome to guests, and Mr. John Liggett, Head of School for Country Day School, gave a warm greeting and a strong endorsement to the role that “grumpy scientists” play in our modern world, acknowledging that he preferred hard science to analogies and stories.

Interesting, that meteorological and climate change scientists at Environment Canada contacted me to translate their hard science into analogies and stories that the public could understand. As Albert Einstein once said:

“I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

We’re going to need both if we are going to get through the next flood safely.


Skid Crease, Caledon

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Apocalypse Rising

When a storm is coming, there are usually warning signs. A drop in temperature,  a shift in the wind, a greenish tinge to the sky, and a feeling in the backs of our necks that something big and nasty is coming. If we are aware, we will have been watching the warning signs building, have prepared ourselves for the storm, stocked up on supplies, and taken shelter.

There are equally warning signs when the collapse of civil society is about to happen. In Syria over the past decade, it occurred when thousands of  people moved from the drought stricken countryside  into the cities and exploded in a civil war. In Europe it happened with the rise of the far right and their fear of “the others” as expressed in their anti-immigration rantings.

In Venezuela it happened in an instant with the sudden rise of a brutal dictatorship. In North Korea, it built slowly over fifty years from narcissistic bombast to nuclear bombs. But the signs are all there: a big storm is coming.

In the United States of America, it is more than obvious in the tragi-comedy playing out daily on The Trump Show. But the irrational tweets and rally rants from a misogynistic, megalomaniac, white supremacist President are only the tip of the iceberg. More frightening are the cheers of support and chants of fanaticism coming from flag waving crowds of “the base”, the deplorables who enable this emperor who wears no clothes to rule over what was becoming one of the greatest democracies in the world.

When 96% of practicing climate change scientists say we’ve accelerated the natural process to catastrophic levels, and the President of the United States appoints climate change deniers to head up the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA, a really big storm is coming.

When crowds of chanting Nazis are given a free pass, and opponents of racial inequality are ridiculed and insulted in public, and the mothers of every NFL player who took a knee are called a bitch by the President of the United States, a storm is coming.

When a Stanley Cup winning hockey team thinks it is an honour to accept an invitation to the Trump White House, not only is it confirmation of how serious brain damage concussions are in the NHL, it is proof positive that a storm is coming. That’s right, Sid the Kid, not a lot of white hockey stars getting swept up and shot by police in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. Wake up boys, a storm is coming.

When Ball Boy and Rocket Man start trading insults about how they are going to destroy each other’s countries with nuclear bombs, you had better believe that a storm is coming and the rest of us are all downwind and downstream of the chaos that will follow. So, just like Winston Churchill read the warning signs and tried to warn England and Europe about the rise of the Third Reich, take it from an old storyteller. You might want to get  ready for a reallly, big nasty storm.


Skid Crease, Caledon


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Caledon Councillors Get Cracking

To paraphrase Shakespeare and with apologies to Hamlet, I call upon Caledon Town Council to “Avenge this fowl and most unnatural by-law!”

Or perhaps. “To lay eggs, or not to lay eggs? That is the question.”

Alright, I may have been cooped up over my keyboard for too long, but this ongoing debate seems to be “full of sound and feathers, signifying nothing.”

Well, the chickens are coming home to roost, so to speak. On Tuesday, August 28, 2017, Caledon Councillors held a lengthy, confusing, and, at times, heated debate on the pressing issue of the right to lay eggs. Specifically, why does Caledon, a boastfully glorious rural area, not permit its citizens to have backyard chickens?

It is absolutely unnatural indeed for a rural municipality like Caledon to be dithering about whether residents should be allowed to keep backyard chickens. There are plenty of successful case studies elsewhere in Ontario. Kingston, Kitchener, Niagara Falls, Newmarket, and Guelph have all allowed backyard hens, although each municipality has slightly different rules. Urbane Brampton seems to be dealing with backyard chickens, and Toronto is wisely running a pilot project to see if it flies. So, why not Caledon?

The debate on Tuesday was very revealing. Most Councillors were trying to find a reasonable middle ground, looking to the Town staff for more details. However, there was also some disturbing misinformation and incomplete information coming from two councillors.

To save them total embarrassment I will refer to the two councillors in question only as Chicken Little and Henny Penny. Chicken Little is of course famous for “The sky is falling!” false alarm that threw the entire barnyard into a tizzy. In this case it is the threat of avian flu spreading from tiny backyard coops into the large factory chicken farms of Caledon. And, Foghorn Leghorn forbid, what if families started producing their own healthy egg supply. Why, all those huge factory chicken farms could go out of business!

Henny Penny had earlier clucked about her fears of death by salmonella poisoning. Oh, the horror! The Horror! And to the astonishment of every intelligent hen in the flock, Henny Penny added that it seemed a lot of fuss to go through this by-law process because the hens would only lay eggs for two years anyway. Hold the hollandaise!

When I started at the Mono Cliffs Outdoor Education Centre in 1986, we had a small agricultural program with a herd of Highland Cattle, and a coop of chickens. My favourite job was to gather the eggs in the morning. Some went to our kitchen, some to staff, some to friends. I got to know those Bantams and Rhode Island Reds and Guinea Fowl very well, and those girls laid eggs steadily from 1986 until I left in 1995. Sure, they slowed down in winter, and as they got older, but they had clean nesting boxes, a big run, the best of feed and lots of love from the over 20,000 students and teachers who visited our Centre over my tenure. And not a single case of avian flu or salmonella poisoning.

Of course, we washed our hands and cleaned our boots after every visit. That is exactly what the Centre for Disease Control recommends, along with not kissing your chickens on the beak, or rolling in their feces, and other common sense tips like that. So, both Chicken Little’s falling sky and Henny Penny’s egg production news were not eggsactly accurate.

When Foghorn Leghorn, the rooster responsible for the flock, asked for the names of the chickens in the flock who had been giving Henny Penny her information, she squawked, “No.” That really ruffled my feathers. So much for transparency.

I am going now to get my own protest flock from Frey Nurseries in St. Jacobs. I am naming my Golden Comets (also known as Golden Buffs, or red sex-links) after three women from Canada’s Famous Five: Nellie McCluck, Henrietta Eggwards, and Irene Plucky. The by-law officers will have to pry that organic free-range produce from my cold, dead fingers! I will not surrender their right to bear eggs.

The cluck stops here!


Skid Crease, Caledon

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