I’ve known Pam McConnell for over 35 years and she was always leading the call for action. Action that was directed at providing decent and affordable housing for all. In Toronto and across Canada, among her many accomplishments, she was a champion for improving conditions for residents living in social housing and building a stronger co-operative housing movement. She didn’t just “talk the talk” – she “walked the walk”. Her experience was also deeply informed by living and working in co-operative housing and moving into the revitalized Regent Park community. As a Toronto City Councillor she saw that there were childcare centres built, homeless shelters opened, new parks for children, programs to reduce poverty, new affordable and co-operative housing built, poverty reduction measures, and a wide-range of initiatives to support women, children and young people. Like many who knew her I am deeply sadden by her passing. In saying goodbye to such a special and unique local and national champion let us also continue to be inspired by her leadership and passion to work for a better city, a more caring country and justice for all.
Pam and I met when I moved into Spruce Court in the mid 70’s. She and her husband, Jim McConnell were already residents, and the 3 of us bonded as we worked together to turn these first world-war era low-rise apartments into a co-op. It was in the early years of CHFT, and Pam became the first co-ordinator for the co-op. She often reminisced with me about how much she loved those years and how impressed she was with early CHFT staff like Marianne Moerschel and Jean Stevenson. Inspired and trained by them, she went on to become a co-ordinator at Tommy Douglas co-op as well, and got involved for many years as a Board member and President of CHFT.
We became fast friends and collaborators for life, and raised our families in the co-op. Progressive politics at the municipal, provincial and federal levels was a shared commitment for us, and a logical outlet for her passion for social justice and community development. When she became involved directly as a school trustee, then Chair of the Board of Education and finally as a City Councillor for her community, Pam remained firmly grounded in the co-op housing movement. Her advocacy for affordable housing, inclusive communities, and co- ops never diminished.
It seemed only appropriate when, many years later, Pam initiated and championed the move to build Toronto’s first housing co-op after the long years of inactivity and lack of funding that began in the late 90’s. The new co-op was an integral part of the planning for the first phase of the Regent Park revitalization. As the City’s housing planner for the revitalization, I took a secret delight in the opportunity to collaborate again with Pam to include that co-op in the City’s decisions. Now I am grateful that Pam didn’t stop there. She later persuaded the City to add a requirement to include at least one more co-op in the Regent Park re-building.
But for Pam, the most important thing about building co- ops and inclusive neighbourhoods with community schools at their heart was always about the people, and the better, more vibrant and caring lives we can lead if we do it together. Pam acted, and lived, as she advocated. And the thousands of people in her community, in the co-op housing family, in politics and across the City who knew her simply as “Pam” and who miss her already, are the demonstration of that legacy.
When I first began working at Don Area Co-operative Homes in 1980, Pam was the most experienced co ordinator in the neighbourhood. I regarded her with awe, having arrived in the job with nothing but determination and CHFT’s manual How to Run a Housing Co-op. When the board consistently took more interest in co-op politics than co-op business, Pam came to the rescue with advice and practical help with bookkeeping.
After I left DACHI, I usually encountered Pam only in the newspapers, but clearly she hadn’t changed. She was incapable of backing down on any matter of principle. Pam and her family lived at Spruce Court Co-op for many years.
When the Harris government forced “the megacity” on Toronto, three progressive ridings suddenly became two. Powerful people—many of them her friends—decided that she should graciously withdraw in order to ensure the election of a favourite son. Little did they know Pam, but Pam knew her constituents. Whenever I start to doubt that right will eventually prevail, I think about that election, which Pam won.
One of the fierce women that co-op housing seems to breed, Pam was also an original. My life is richer for having known her and seen her service to the city and the movement.
Diane Frankling Co-operative Homes has been fortunate to have the support, advocacy, and friendship of Councillor Pam McConnell for the past 20 years. Pam’s long-term commitment to the housing co-op sector in general, and specifically to the co-ops in her own ward, is legendary. Whenever Pam attended one of our co-op events, she always arrived in her trademark rainbow-coloured jacket, brimming with enthusiasm and positivity. Pam was a determined advocate for her constituents, and their quality of life as individuals. From her tireless work for poverty-reduction in our city, to her challenging role as chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, Pam was there for the people – in person. Her ongoing support of our co-op has been greatly appreciated. Pam helped us with various neighbourhood issues, expressed her delight when we decided to change the co-op’s name to honour our late Manager, and was never too busy to pen support letters for our grant application process every year. Pam attended our co-op’s 25th anniversary celebration in December of 2016, and spoke thoughtfully about our long-term association. She shall be especially missed by us, and the people of Toronto.
Pam was legendary. She battled tenaciously for what she believed in – the rights of Canadians to life of dignity and social justice and the right to live securely in housing they can afford. In particular she was a great friend to co-op housing. Not living in the same city I only met Pam a few times, but she made a lasting impression on me. Toronto and all of Canada have lost a great one.