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'I'm choked': Community grieving after Ward's Island Association Clubhouse destroyed in blaze

Ward's Island Association Clubhouse, and the Island Cafe it housed, was completely gutted by a fire early Sunday morning. A firefighter is pictured on scene. (Claudette Abrams/Facebook - image credit)
Ward's Island Association Clubhouse, and the Island Cafe it housed, was completely gutted by a fire early Sunday morning. A firefighter is pictured on scene. (Claudette Abrams/Facebook - image credit)

Locals are grieving after a long-standing community hub on the Toronto Islands got completely destroyed by a fire early Sunday morning.

Malachi Oliver, who's lived in the area for almost 30 years, said she couldn't believe the news. The Ward's Island Association Clubhouse has been around for generations, and isn't something the community can easily rebuild, she said.

"I had to come out and see it because I just couldn't, I couldn't imagine it," she said, calling the clubhouse's demise the "end of an era."

"I'm choked because ... it's such an integral part of our community."

Toronto Island residents Malachi Oliver (left) and Alison Gzowski (right), who is also the president of the Ward's Island Association, said they were devastated to learn the association's clubhouse has been completely destroyed in a fire Sunday morning.
Toronto Island residents Malachi Oliver (left) and Alison Gzowski (right), who is also the president of the Ward's Island Association, said they were devastated to learn the association's clubhouse has been completely destroyed in a fire Sunday morning.

Toronto Island residents Malachi Oliver (left) and Alison Gzowski (right), who is also the president of the Ward's Island Association, said they were devastated to learn the association's clubhouse has been completely destroyed in a fire Sunday morning. (Cristian Gomes/CBC)

According to its website, the clubhouse was built in 1937 by volunteers and has been used by members to host gatherings and events such as birthdays, anniversaries, galas, funerals, seminars and reunions. It housed a cafe, a main hall, kitchens and countless memories over the eight decades its been standing.

Alison Gzowski, an island resident and president of the Ward's Island Association, said the loss of the historic building is "devastating."

"It's where people go to get married. It's where we have community meetings and dances and pumpkin carvings and bingo," she said.

"I was and probably still am in disbelief because it's been around so long. I couldn't imagine this would ever happen."

Toronto Fire investigating

Doug Hamburgh has lived on the island for about 70 years. He remembers going to the clubhouse for dances as a kid, and later, was the venue for his son's wedding. That's why when he saw the flames from his window down his street, he came to see the damage for himself.

"When I got here, it was like, surreal," he said. "It's very psychologically hard to look at this."

Toronto Fire crews are expected to stay on scene overnight after a blaze destroyed the Ward's Island Association Clubhouse early Sunday morning.
Toronto Fire crews are expected to stay on scene overnight after a blaze destroyed the Ward's Island Association Clubhouse early Sunday morning.

Toronto Fire crews are expected to stay on scene overnight after a blaze destroyed the Ward's Island Association Clubhouse early Sunday morning. (Cristian Gomes/CBC)

Toronto Fire said crews responded to a blaze in the Ward's Island neighbourhood shortly before 2:30 a.m. Matthew Pegg, chief of Toronto Fire Services, said while there were no reported injuries on scene and crews successfully stopped the fire from spreading, the building couldn't be saved.

Now, it's about finding out what sparked the fire in the first place.

"Our crews will remain here on scene overnight," he said. "They'll make sure that it remains safe and then once we have the equipment that we require on scene, the investigation will continue."

Community hopes for answers, new centre

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow called the loss of the building "tremendously sad."

"The islanders have been here for a long time, and the clubhouse captured the history of the local residents," she said.

"[I came] here to be with the local residents and also say to the owner of the cafe that hopefully he can rebuild quite soon."

In a post on Facebook, the owner of Island Cafe Zorah Freeman-McIntyre called the loss of the building and their restaurant a "huge loss to the island and greater Toronto community." Freeman-McIntyre said the business was family-run and has been operating out of the clubhouse since 2010.

"We've been humbled by the outpouring of love and support we've received from near and far," the post reads.

"While the Clubhouse and Island Cafe are in ashes, the spirit of each is intact. As we mourn, we dream of a future site of summer fun. We dream of a season opening dance at the new Clubhouse, and the first cup of coffee at the new Island Cafe."

Alison Rogers, the chair of the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust Corporation, helps manage the island's assets and land. She said the building was a "total loss," with nothing left to save. And while she doesn't yet know how much the damages come out to, she said the loss to the community is "incalculable."

But she said the community is resilient and can band together to put another centre in its place.

"Hopefully we can find some answers as to how this happened, and how to prevent it in the future," she said.

"This club house will be back and it will be in the same image I imagine, but it will be up to the community how that comes together."