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Friday November 13, 2009

Toronto civil servant worked tirelessly to make the city a more livable place

Everyone loved her - except for tour bus drivers with idling engines and people with snowy sidewalks

Toronto's homeless knew Barrie Chavel. So did the kids who came to the gay and lesbian pride parade and wound up drunk and drugged out on the street. Ms. Chavel was there with coffee at dawn to comfort them and find them safe places to sleep.

Generations of community activists knew her, as did the rich and poor inhabitants alike of Toronto's Cabbagetown, where she lived.

She was a driving force behind the creation of appropriate housing for people who lived on the streets, neighbourhood democracy movements and the Riverdale enclosure for farm animals in the city's heart.

Tour bus drivers who parked with their engines idling longer than the city allowed, they knew her, too - as Barrie the Bylaw Bitch. So did the people who tried to sleep on the civic square and those who didn't shovel their walks free of snow. (Ms. Chavel wore a button through the winter that read: Be Nice, Clear Your Ice.)

And Toronto's politicians knew her - her steel-shattering whistle, no-limits humour and raspy, gravelly voice one writer likened to paint-stripper.

City councillor Kyle Rae said: "I loved her so much. I loved her. She hated most of the councillors, all the ones I hated. She wasn't one of those silo'd bureaucrats. She was a city official, and she took that seriously in every way, and that was what was so splendid about her."

Mayor David Miller called her "a huge personality, funny, charming, tough. She could make things work. She was the epitome of a civil servant."

Together Mr. Miller and Mr. Rae presented a condolence motion to Toronto City Council, which was passed unanimously a few days after she died. The councillors stood up when Ms. Chavel's two sons, Matthew and James, entered the chamber to hear the motion read.

Ms. Chavel officially was the city's supervisor of street events in the transportation department until her retirement two years ago.

But as Mr. Miller's and Mr. Rae's motion noted, "It is impossible to capture Barrie's contribution [to the city] by describing her job titles. Her scope always exceeded description. Anyone who worked with her agreed that working with Barrie was a unique, memorable and incredibly fun experience.

"She had energy and enthusiasm and a true love and dedication to public service. Every Business Improvement Area respected her; every street event organizer adored her, the myriad homeless people she helped remembered her years after she met them."

Former councillor David Reville, for whom she worked as an executive assistant before joining the municipal public service in 1985, said: "She could make city hall deliver on whatever city hall was meant to deliver on, and quite a few things it was never meant to deliver on."

Hundreds of people showed up at Massey College at the University of Toronto to celebrate her life. She died four weeks after being diagnosed with lung and brain cancer. Her two sons nursed her at home until her death. She was divorced.

Ms. Chavel, named for her Scottish maternal grandmother, lived almost all her life in Toronto, attending Havergal College and the Ontario College of Art and Design.

She and her then husband, OCAD professor David Chavel, moved into Cabbagetown in the late Sixties.

The neighbourhood, with its superb Victorian houses, is now home to many leading members of Toronto's arts community, but in the Sixties and Seventies was a rooming-house district marked by the presence of police cruisers and ambulances on Friday and Saturday nights.

Ms. Chavel organized a community council out of the local public school that included parents and neighbours without children. She helped create a co-operative daycare. She worked hard - although unsuccessfully - to keep the neighbourhood a mix of rich and poor.

She did succeed in blocking a massive high-rise development in the central city, instead persuading councillors and planners to a redesigned neighbourhood of parks, townhouses and public and co-operative housing.

As the city's community relations co-ordinator for the massive redevelopment of the Toronto Port Lands - the Ataratiri scheme - she and her team won a gold medal from the Canadian Institute of Planners for their public consultation on a complex and politically charged project.

Mr. Miller, in an interview, recalled saying no to Ms. Chavel only once, when she told him on Dec. 31, 2006, she was retiring. "I said 'No. We can't lose you.' "


Barrie Ramsey Fraser Chavel was born on May 9, 1942, in Montreal. She died Oct. 19, 2009, of cancer. She was 67. She leaves her sons Matthew and James, grandchildren Leah and Luca, brother John, and nieces Jessie, Kate and Clara.

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