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Toronto’s Cold War Sentinel

May 2007

Toronto’s Downsview Park has been in the forefront recently as the premier place in Toronto for hosting large outdoor events. World Youth Day and the Rolling Stones mega-concert to benefit SARS relief are two major events held at Downsview Park, Canada’s first urban Federal Park. Perhaps it is important to remind people about the history of Canada’s first urban Federal Park.

In 1997, one of the last walls of the Cold War fell, but it was not in Europe; it was in Toronto. The fences surrounding the newly created Downsview Park were torn down and citizens of Toronto were allowed to walk the land that for 50 years had been forbidden territory. From 1947 until 1996, Downsview Park, served Canada’s Air Force as a major transportation and logistical base.

Canadian Forces Base Toronto, as it was known in later years, was established on land occupied by DeHavilland’s aircraft factory and airfield in Downsview in 1947 as Royal Canadian Air Force Station Toronto. The base served as a supply base of Air Material Command, in addition to providing operational and logistical support to the RCAF’s Regular and Reserve Force squadrons in the Toronto area, including the RCAF Staff College (later the CF Staff College) and the Avenue Road Detachment. The station would also become home to several former World War II squadrons.

400 Auxiliary Squadron was re-activated as a part of the Air Reserve, with the squadron’s Headquarters Unit occupying space at the Avenue Road site. The Squadron was equipped with Vampire MKIII jet fighters, flying them initially from the RCAF station Malton, today the site of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. In acquiring land for the new air station, the RCAF found it necessary to close Sheppard Avenue, so as to expand the airfield. The remains of the former Sheppard Avenue became the main east-west road across the station, renamed Carl Hall Road. When DeHavilland moved into their new facilities at the south end of the airfield, the RCAF took over the old plant facilities, except for Plant #3 which was still occupied on a leased back basis, an arrangement that would continue until 1989.

On 1 October 1950, 411 Auxiliary Squadron was also re-activated and both squadrons began training for their role as auxiliary fighter-bomber squadrons on various fixed-wing aircraft, including the Avro 621, the Tomahawk, Mustang, Mosquito, Spitfire, Sabre and others over the years. The base also became the home of No. 1 Repair Depot and No. 1 Construction Engineering Depot. VC-920 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service Reserve arrived in 1953, remaining at Downsview until disbanded in 1964. No. 1 Supply Depot moved from the Weston Road Site in September 1953 as did the Canadian Air Crew Selection Unit. 436 (Transport) Squadron re-located from RCAF Station Dorval on 1 July 1956.

Some of the other units in the early days of RCAF Station Toronto were 14 Wing Headquarters, later renamed 2 Tactical Aviation Wing and No. 14 Movement Control Detachment. The Defence Research Medical Laboratories, later re-named the Defence Research Establishment Toronto, was established at the Avenue Road Detachment on 1 May 1950. The facility moved to Downsview in October 1953.

In 1954, the RCAF officially assumed control of the airfield from DeHavalland and flight activity increased at the station. The C-10 Heavy Transport Aircraft, flown by 436 (Transport) Squadron, were active at the station from 1956 until 436 Squadron relocated to RCAF Station Uplands in 1964. The last Lancaster Bomber, FM104, was flown to Downsview for retirement in 1964. It now sits on the Toronto waterfront as a memorial to the RCAF.

The station was re-named RCAF Station Downsview on 1 October 1958 and re-designated as a base of Air Transport Command. By early 1958, 400 and 411 Squadrons took on a new role as transport-search and rescue squadrons and the Beechcraft C-45 Expeditors replaced the fighter aircraft. No 1 Mobile Support Equipment Maintenance Depot, who had the responsibility of maintaining the RCAF’s fleet of vehicles, moved to Downsview in 1965. Following the disbandment of VC-920 RCN Squadron, the Headquarters Unit of 400 Auxiliary Squadron moved to Downsview in October 1964 and occupied the VC-920’s former quarters.

In July 1966, with the impending closure of RCAF Station Centralia, aircrew selection training was transferred the RCAF Personnel Applied Research Unit (RCAF PARU) at Downsview’s Avenue Road Detachment, a part of the Aircrew Selection Unit located at Downsview itself.

As a result of the Unification in 1968, the base was re-named CFB Toronto and its support role was expanded to include all Regular Force, Reserve and Cadet units (Army, Navy and Air Force) in the Toronto Garrison. The RCAF PARU was re-named the Canadian Forces PARU. CFB Toronto also assumed administrative control of Canadian Forces Reserve Barracks Hamilton, once Canada’s third most important naval training facility, establishing a detachment at the site.

When the Allen Expressway was constructed, the east-west runway on Downsview’s airfield had a quarter of its eastern portion dissected by the new highway. Toronto Police now use the severed portion of the runway as a driver training area for their police vehicles.

Central Militia Area Headquarters (CMA HQ) moved to Downsview after CFB Oakville closed in 1971. 400 and 411 Squadrons were re-named 400 “City of Toronto” Squadron and 411 “County of York” Squadron and both became part of 10 Tactical Air Group, a unit of Force Mobile Command – the newly created Canadian Forces designation for the Canadian Army. The Defence Research Establishment Toronto merged with the CF Institute of Environmental Medicine to form the Defence and Civil Institute for Environmental Medicine in 1971. In 1979, Aircrew Selection Unit was re-named the Canadian Forces Aircrew Selection Centre.

In 1980, 400 and 411 Squadrons switched from fixed-wing aircraft to CH-136 Kiowa helicopters, and by 1982, both squadrons had been re-named as 400 Tactical and Training Helicopter Squadron (400 T & THS) and 411 Tactical Helicopter Squadron (411THS). The role of both squadrons by this time was to conduct security and transport duties during such events as the visit by Pope John Paul II to CFB Toronto in 1984 and the Toronto Economic Summit in 1988.

In 1990, a restructuring of the Armed Forces resulted in the base being transferred from the Air Force to the Army. Although this transfer ended 43 years of Air Force control of the base, CFB Toronto was still very much an active Air Base. Land Force Central Area Headquarters (LFCA HQ) was formed at Downsview the same year as part of a new regional command structure for the Army, replacing CMA HQ which was disbanded.

The Army’s Toronto District Headquarters (TDHQ) moved to Downsview in 1994 from the Avenue Road Detachment, taking up residence in the Otter Building. TDHQ was disbanded in March 1997 and replaced by 32 Canadian Brigade Group Headquarters.

The introduction of the Wing Concept at Air Bases in 1993 resulted in CFB Toronto being designated as 2 Wing, although this was to be short lived as more change was in the wind. By 1994, CFB Toronto’s operational importance was declining and with Department of National Defence (DND) budget reductions, there was little interest in maintaining a full size base. Combined with the desire of local politicians to acquire some of the land for development, Downsview’s fate was effectively sealed. Plans were made to reduce CFB Toronto to a Detachment of CFB Kingston, but this was later changed to outright closure of the base.

CFB Toronto closed on 1 April 1996, the 72nd anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force. 400 T & THS re-located to CFB Borden, where they currently fly the CH-146 Griffon helicopter, and now fall under the command of 1 Wing Kingston. 411 THS, 2 Tactical Aviation Wing and 2 Tactical Aviation Support Squadron were disbanded and 1 Canadian Forces Supply Depot closed. LFCA HQ had previously re-located to leased office space on Yonge Street in 1994. The Canadian Forces Aircrew Selection Centre relocated to 8 Wing Trenton in 1997. Canada Lands Corporation assumed control of the property and began the process of its disposal.

Garrison Support Unit Toronto, later re-named Area Support Unit Toronto, was established at the former base in 1996 to provide the local Reserve, Cadet and remaining Regular Force units in the Toronto Garrison with administrative, logistical, medical and Military Police support services.

On 26 May 2000, the former base was officially became Downsview, Canada’s first Federal Park within a city.

Today, a significant portion of the former base remains. The east side is a commercial-industrial centre, with tenants including DeHavilland, who continue to occupy the airfield and two hangers, The Toronto Wildlife Centre and the Toronto Aerospace Museum. The former Supply Depot building is currently used as a movie studio. Most of the buildings on the west side have been torn down to create a passive park.

In July 2002, the Department of National Defence opened a new armoury, nanmed The Denisnon Armoury, on a vacant piece of land at the former CFB Toronto to house all elements of ASU Toronto, 32 CBG HQ, 2 Intelligence Company, 2 Field Engineer Regiment, 25 (Toronto) Service Battalion and The Governor General’s Horse Guards as well as their respective cadet units. The old Denison Armoury, located just south of Downsview’s airfield on Dufferin Street, formerly occupied by 25 Service Battalion and The Governor General’s Horse Guards, was closed and demolished a year later. Most of the PMQs are still occupied by military families and will be for the foreseeable future. As well, DCIEM remains at the corner of Sheppard And Allan Road.

In 2002, Downsview Park hosted the World Youth Day festivities, including a big outdoor mass hosted by Pope John Paul II. On 30 July 2003, a SARS relief benefit concert was held, with the Rolling Stones headlining the day long event.

In December 2006, Downsview Park is scheduled to be officially turned over to Parc Downsview Park Inc., the Federal Crown corporation which oversees the park. However, speculation is the the Federal government is reconsidering relinquishing control of the property. The former base could possibly be used in the future as a staging area for crisis management for terrorist, war or disaster response.


About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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