Bill Teron, 1932-2018: 'Father of Kanata' left his mark around the world


William “Bill” Teron was, among other things, a developer, a building innovator, a patron of the arts, a philanthropist and a senior public servant.

But to many, he was nothing less than a visionary with a grasp of both the sweeping picture and the small details.

Teron was the last surviving member of the “big three” developers of postwar Ottawa who helped to shape the rapidly-expanding city, along with the Greenbergs of Minto and Robert Campeau. Teron had been hospitalized twice in recent weeks and died early Monday. He was 85.

Known as the Father of Kanata, Teron’s claim to fame in Ottawa was creating the “garden city” that became Beaverbrook. Announced in 1964, it was a small town on land gently carved out of the farm fields, woodlots and rocky outcrops Teron had assembled for development outside the greenbelt. Teron would later disparage the “berry box builders” and “garage architecture.”

“This was Tom Thomson,” he explained in one interview. “This was the rugged romantic. The houses are meant to be cottages in the woods. They’re not meant to be peacocks.”


Bill Teron, right, points to a model of Kanata as architect Ian Johns looks on. Johns was the main staff architect who worked with Teron in Kanata and for many years later.

Teron not only built homes, he offered land to technology companies for the price of servicing. Atomic Energy, Northern Electric and Mitel signed up. It was the nucleus of Silicon Valley North, and latecomers would have to pay more.

His influence went far beyond Ottawa. In 1970, he turned over derelict industrial lands in Toronto to the federal government at cost on the promise that the land would be turned into an urban park. The result was Harbourfront.

He was invited by former prime minister Lester Pearson to chair a building committee for a new school for international understanding and co-operation near Victoria, B.C. His company, Teron International, developed building block-type technology, and Teron travelled around the world. He even spent seven years living in an apartment overlooking the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he was helping to renovate the museum.

“I would be working in the czar’s cathedral, his personal church that no one has seen,” he said in a 2005 interview. “It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.”

Teron was an honorary fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, but he never formally studied architecture. Born on a homestead in Gardenton, Man., he and his family moved to Winnipeg when he was 10. He left school after Grade 10 and would later say that everything he built came from deprivation, not privilege.

He arrived in Ottawa at the age of 18, eager to get a slice of the post-war housing boom. His father was a farmer-turned-carpenter who impressed on Teron the idea that the plans were what created the magic. In high school, Teron developed an interest in drafting. “Because that’s where magic is made,” he said in 2005.

Kanata North Coun. Marianne Wilkinson, whom Teron often jokingly called the Mother of Kanata, has lived in the same Teron home since 1968. As part of the purchase agreement, homeowners had to agree to be part of the community association, she says.

“We came here because we understood the concept. You didn’t buy a house. You bought into a community. The attitude is still there.”


Pentland Crescent in Kanata, circa 1976.

Teron began his career as an architectural designer for builder Charles Johannsen, designing custom homes in the Civic campus area and Rothwell Heights. He got his big break at the age of 22, building a house for Jim Scott, then the director general of the Defence Research Board.

Soon after, in 1955, he married Jean Woodwark, the daughter of a United Church minister. The couple had four children: Chris, Kim, Will and Bruce.

Teron’s contracts proliferated. In 1956, Teron’s Lynwood Village in Bells Corners development sparked a kind of gold rush — he sold 218 lots within a few hours. That led to buying up and developing more land in Bells Corners and Qualicum. He next turned his sights on leapfrogging outside the greenbelt, with the idea that he would have to build an entire community, not just the houses.

The Kanata land — 3,000 acres — was held by a conglomerate and valued at $33 million. Teron had only a $12,500 down payment, he recalled an interview with this newspaper.

The Queensway didn’t even exist at the time, says Wilkinson. “His idea was to create a satellite city. There wasn’t even a village there. The whole idea was the city in the country. Open spaces, preserving the rock outcrops when possible. There were pathways to where the schools were going to go. Kids still use them.”

March township, as it was then, didn’t have a recreation department, she says. Teron offered tennis courts, a swimming pool, a nine-hole golf course and a riding stable. But Kanata was designed to be exactly the opposite of an upper-class enclave — it was supposed to be a diverse city of apartments, townhouses and single-family homes.


Bill Teron visits one of the homes in his first development project in 2011.

“He always pointed out that his initial plan was more than just large, single-family homes,” says Bruce S. Elliott, a professor of history at Carleton University and author of The City Beyond. Still, Teron believed that his new community needed a strong base of professional-class residents. By 1965, there were already 27 engineers living in Beaverbrook, Elliott notes.

The infamous “covenants” between Teron and home buyers are much-mocked. Among these was an agreement that paint colours must remain in muted shades. “I wanted the community and the homes to be sympathetic to each other and to be organic,” Teron once explained. “So much architecture is shock treatment. I wanted this to be poetic. That’s why I didn’t want straight streets or street curbs. I wanted the streets to echo nature.”

By 1969, Teron had developed Beaverbrook, but 90 per cent of the undeveloped Kanata land still remained, and he needed cash to move ahead with the project. His next move would be the first in a chain of events that end with Teron’s leaving Kanata. He agreed to a merger with Maurice Strong of Power Corp, with the agreement that Teron could veto design ideas. If Strong disagreed, he could buy out Teron’s shares based on the value of the company that day.

Paul Desmarais succeeded Strong at the helm or Power Corp. and proposed merging with developer Campeau Corp. Teron declined to work with his archrival Robert Campeau.

“Campeau and I were like tigers who needed separate cages,” he would later say.

Desmarais opted to veto Teron’s veto, and Teron’s shares were sold to Desmarais for $4.7 million.

Teron was head of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp from 1974 to 1979, taking on the additional role of deputy minister of urban affairs starting in 1976.

“We had a lot of developers who thought inside the box. Bill was always looking for the new thing and new directions,” says Elliott. “I think that’s why (prime minister) Pierre Trudeau appointed him as head of CMHC.”

Teron was especially proud of CMHC’s Assisted Home Ownership Program, which was designed to appeal to first-time buyers, stimulate the housing market, and help low-income people get the opportunity to buy a home. At the time, mortgage rates hit as high as 18 per cent, says David Crenna, who was then the director of CMHC’s policy development division. Teron understood both the public-sector and private-sector perspectives in this conundrum, he says,

“He played a fundamental role in making housing affordable.”

Among his honours, Teron was an Officer of the Order of Canada, and he was given the Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 by the Canadian Urban Institute for his broad contributions. “There are few people who have a résumé as well-rounded as Bill Teron,” said Glenn Miller, a senior research associate with the institute.


Bill Teron and his wife, Jean, in 2015.

Duncan Edmonds, then a lecturer at Carleton University, met Teron in 1961 when Edmonds was raising money to bring African students to Canada. Teron wrote him a cheque.

“He never said no. He always looked at any idea and tried to examine it as positively as possible.”

Much later, as apartheid was falling in South Africa, Edmonds invited Teron to South Africa to see whether Teron’s modular building system could help with a housing shortage in South Africa. The two returned many times. “He designed, wonderful, low-cost housing,” says Edmonds. “He really was a humanitarian.”

Teron’s son, Chris and daughter, Kim, worked with their father in the company from the time they were teens. Chris said his father would have been horrified at the concept of retiring and worked almost to this last day.

“When the average person thinks of my father, they think of Kanata. That was one of his biggest and best legacies. But that was 50 years ago. There have been a number of things since then,” says Chris.

Even in recent years, Teron was never far from the headlines.

A supporter of the arts, Teron was one of the founding trustees of the National Arts Centre. In 2003, he proposed building a world-class concert hall for free if the city would donate land on Elgin Street.

That same year, he announced that he was leaving the prestigious Canal 111 apartment complex that he built on Echo Drive to return to Kanata to build a 5,600-square-foot home on three-quarters of an acre of woodland in the Kanata Rockeries enclave, part of a parcel he had kept aside for himself. The house had a rooftop garden, and its south side was almost all glass, angled to reflect the sun’s rays in summer and collect them in winter. The north side was buried in a hillside for insulation and to obscure it from public view.

“The reason is as simple as the fact that I’m looking forward to more contemplative time, to more gardening time,” he told this newspaper.

Still, Teron could not refrain from jumping into debate. In a 2007 speech, Teron pitched an idea about developing land in the greenbelt, which had originally been envisioned to control urban sprawl.

Teron proposed that the National Capital Commission sell off about 6,000 acres of the greenbelt to create a 37-kilometre long “belt inside the belt” for medium-density housing with access to rapid transit. It would likely net the NCC around $3 billion, which could be used to buy land for a secondary greenbelt, said Teron, who envisioned small “villages” of 5,000 to 10,000 people, each with industrial or commercial venture.


Bill Teron and Marianne Wilkinson celebrate Wilkinson’s municipal election win in 2014.

In 2011, Teron gave an impassioned speech, arguing that infill projects were bringing too much density into neighbourhoods without much thought.

“There’s an unfortunate policy in the City of Ottawa right now, in which it appears that our city government actually encourages and approves random spot zoning anywhere, any place,” he told hundreds of Kanata residents who had gathered over a proposal for a condo tower. The audience gave him a standing ovation.

That same year, he ripped into the National Capital Commission for its refusal to help save a mature forest in Kanata from development. The NCC risked becoming irrelevant by focusing on “nice small” projects, Teron warned. “The NCC mandate was shaping the character of the national capital.”

Later in life, Teron reflected on his disappointments. In 2005, looking back on his 50-year career, he said he regretted that his plans for a Kanata town centre never materialized, and that the rest of Kanata was developed in a conventional fashion. “The greatest regret in my life will be that I didn’t stay, because the rest of the place would have been a cross between Beaverbrook and Kanata Rockeries,” he said.

Teron was passionate about what he did, and the results have stood the test of time, says Wilkinson.

“Bill was a guy who really, really cared about what he did. We love our community because of it.”

Teron’s family will hold a private memorial and internment at the Pinecrest Cemetery.