Cabinet has appointed a friend of Premier Doug Ford — who also has significant experience with Toronto's waterfront and has served as a well-connected political fundraiser for conservative politicians — to chair the Ontario Place board as the government undertakes to redevelop the publicly-owned waterfront property.
Jim Ginou (pictured left, with then-premier Mike Harris at a 1990 Tory fundraiser in a Torstar file photo) helmed the Ontario Place board from 1997 to 2003, and will reprise that role for a period of one year, according to an order by cabinet posted online.
“Based on his past experience, and his knowledge of the Ontario Place site, we know that he will serve the people of Ontario well in his new capacity as member and the designated chair of the board," said Tourism Minister Michael Tibollo's office in a statement. "We look forward to working with Mr. Ginou as we move forward with our plan to turn Ontario Place into a spectacular world-class destination."
Ginou has extensive experience with governance and Toronto's waterfront, including serving as the City of Toronto's appointee on the Port Authority when Premier Doug Ford was a city councillor and his brother Rob Ford was mayor. According to a story in the Toronto Star, Ginou was on a "secret" list of the Ford mayoral administration's desired appointees obtained by the paper in 2012. The paper noted at the time Ginou was a "prominent provincial conservative fundraiser and close friend of former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris" as well as someone who had sat on a number of boards, including the Toronto Raptors Foundation and the George Brown College Foundation. He was also a founding director of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation.
Ginou told QP Briefing in a phone interview he knows Premier Doug Ford and knew his brother, Rob Ford.
On a podcast recording during Rob Ford's mayoralty and after the news broke that Rob Ford had been caught on video smoking crack, Ginou spoke publicly about his relationship with Rob Ford and his performance as mayor of Toronto.
"This guy has the greatest character and integrity of any person, any politician I've ever met. On an Einstein scale, and a big bang theory scale, he's not one of those guys. So he experiments," Ginou said on the podcast, explaining the then-mayor's drug use.
Ginou said on the podcast Ford had done well for the City of Toronto and he'd work to help get him re-elected.
On the same podcast, Ginou also spoke about being involved in politics including his role in helping fundraise "hundreds of millions" for politicians over the years, including former prime minister Brian Mulroney. News reports spanning years detail his successful fundraising for conservative politicians including former premier Mike Harris, former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman and former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day.
While Ginou says he has a relationship with Doug Ford, whom he likes, he told QP Briefing that's not why he was appointed.
"The reason I'm appointed as chair of Ontario Place, there's no doubt in my mind — and it's hard to say this humbly — I am the best person for the job," he said.
Ginou said he's looking forward to the job. He touted his record of wrangling Ontario Place’s deficit and said he plans to bring sound fiscal management back again. But he acknowledged there are challenges ahead of him.
Ginou said he went down to Ontario Place last weekend and what he found was "disgraceful."
"Everything is in complete disrepair, there is nothing that can be saved," he said.
"Because it has to be rebuilt, it can be rebuilt in any way that Ford wants it to be rebuilt," he continued, adding that he wants to get direction from the government on how to proceed with the site's future — which he described as more of an “amusement” destination than a waterfront one.
However, there have been some recent improvements to the site. The Cinesphere has undergone renovations and is operational and described as “glorious” by at least one film critic. The previous Liberal government was in the process of revitalizing the site and created the Trillium Park and William G. Davis Trail in 2017.
The appointment comes as the Ford government has promised to move forward with a "bold" plan for Ontario Place, passing legislation in December that winds up the public corporation that had been overseeing the property and ordering the board to prepare a plan to transfer the assets directly to the province.
But the Ford government has not been clear on what it intends to do with the site.
When Ford was a city councillor he proposed a vision of waterfront development that included a casino and a Ferris wheel. In November, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli did an interview with CBC’s Metro Morning and was asked if a casino could come to Ontario Place and while he said he knew of no such plans, he also said that “nothing's off the table” and the government would look at every possibility for the site.
During his last tenure as Ontario Place chair, Ginou became the focus of a controversy over a $50-million food services contract Ontario Place awarded to Cara Foods, on his watch. Question period debates saw both Liberal and NDP politicians highlighting connections between Ginou and the Tory government, and between Ginou's printing business and Cara Foods, in their questions to the government about the controversial contract, which ultimately saw taxpayers on the hook for significant costs when it was cancelled a few short years after it was signed, according to a report in the Star.
Ginou’s previous tenure as board chair ended in 2004, when he was removed by the Liberal government of the day. "I'm a Conservative appointee and the Liberals are now in power," Ginou was quoted by the Star as saying at the time. "I understand that."
Opposition politicians have been critical of the Tory government's Ontario Places moves.
Liberal MPP Michael Coteau said Friday the site was originally meant to capture the inspiration and ambition of Ontarians, and that was the perspective that Coteau said he always tried to bring to bear when he was the minister of tourism and responsible for the site.
He said he fears that the Ford administration will change that and open Ontario Place up to the highest bidder.
Coteau took issue with Ginou’s characterization of the site in disrepair, and said he should look at the refurbishment of the Cinesphere and the development of the new park.
“It’s not up to Doug Ford to decide what he wants to do with it, it’s up to Ontarians,” he said, adding that Ontario Place is one of the few “Crown jewels” that belongs to the entire province.
As for Ginou’s appointment, Coteau also said the Conservatives had complained for years that the Liberal government made partisan decisions that weren’t in the best interests of Ontarians — and he now accuses the new government of doing just that.
“Now that they’re in power, they are blatant in the way they appoint people,” he said. “We’ve seen that time and time again in the first six months of the Ford government.”
Meanwhile, NDP MPP Chris Glover said in a statement to QP Briefing that his party is “deeply concerned about the fate of Ontario Place following the appointment of Ford friend, ally and Conservative fundraiser James Ginou to be the chair of its board."
"This is just the latest Ford-insider appointment, and it comes at a critical time with the cherished waterfront site slated for revitalization," he said. During his time as a city councillor, Doug Ford mused about building a megamall on the waterfront. Then, we learned that he was working with an Australian mega-mall corporation."
"Especially concerning is Ginou’s comment to QP Briefing that, ‘Because it has to be rebuilt, it can be rebuilt in any way that Ford wants it to be rebuilt.’"
Glover compared the appointment to other allegations that Ford has "meddled" in Hydro One, Ontario Power Generation and the Ontario Provincial Police.
"People deserve better than Doug Ford’s backroom deals with developers and schemes for casinos, Ferris wheels and megamalls," said Glover. "This is not Doug Ford's private property. Ontario Place was built and paid for by the people of Ontario to celebrate this great province. The people of Ontario should be consulted about their vision for the space."
In advance of Ginou's appointment, the citizen group Waterfront For All had already planned a community event on Jan. 12 to discuss Ontario Place. Interest was so strong in the days following Christmas that Waterfront For All vice-chair Cindy Wilkey, a longtime advocate on the issue, told QP Briefing that they had to seek a larger venue.
Informed of Ginou's appointment, Wilkey expressed some concern about community consultation.
"The worst case scenario is that we get a closed working out of alternatives with a bunch of business people and we get a casino and a giant Ferris wheel and all that kind of stuff," said Wilkey, warning against a return to ideas Ford had floated at city hall.
"A much better possibility is that we get a real attempt at how you might make this [something that both] meets community needs and something that can sustain itself, that has some attractions," she said, adding the hope that the government gets in touch with the community to build a consensus rather than trying to "impose something on Toronto."
Wilkey also said that it should be in the government's interest to reach out to the community, describing it as an approach that would match the "for the people" mantra. If that doesn't happen, she said Ontario Place advocates will be ready to fight. "If it doesn't roll out in a way that people see is constructive then obviously there's going to be pushback. If the choice is to roll it out in a way that is constructive then people are going to be ready and engaged."
Asked if she would invite Ginou and Tibollo to the Jan. 12 community event at Metro Hall, Wilkey said "absolutely."
-with files from David Hains
Editor's note: This story has been updated since its initial publication with additional information and comments.