It’s 45 minutes after the event was supposed to have started. The organizers are pacing, trying to get everything ready. The speakers are being briefed and readied for their turn at the podium. The stage is lit, and organizer George Tory, the mayor’s son, is at the mic.
All that’s missing is the guest of honour.
“The reason Justin is always late is that none of the six cellphones he keeps on his belt have access to a bus schedule, so he has no idea when he’s going to get anywhere,” said Tory, in reference to Van Dette’s efforts to get printed schedules at every TTC bus stop.
The crowd follows his gaze toward the star of the event, Justin Van Dette, as he dramatically shuts off his phone and, with a laugh, thrusts it into his belt (accompanied by only two other phones). The main attraction is ready to take the stage.
Tory’s good-natured jab was one of many shared by big names like his father, Mayor John Tory, along with Ontario Premier and Don Valley West MPP Kathleen Wynne, former Toronto police chief and MP Julian Fantino and Canadian hockey icon Don Cherry. They hurled their friendly barbs at a roast for Van Dette, held on March 2 at the Peter Street venue downtown called UG3 Live.
Van Dette is a staple of community activism in East York. He’s been a behind-the-scenes political operative for several local politicians. He’s the omnipresent community relations manager for the Michael Garron Hospital Foundation (formerly the Toronto East General foundation). He’s a tireless advocate for East York, most recently rallying residents for better TTC service at a December protest and then advocating for an East York “Hall of Fame” at the February meeting of the Kinsmen club. Columnist Joe Warmington of the Toronto Sun affectionately refers to him as “The Shaker,” for the way he likes to rattle cages.
The MC of the night was Ken Reid of Sportsnet. While introducing the roastee, Reid showed the crowd a long list of over 25 community organizations — and explained that this was page one of two of Van Dette’s community service resume.
For his part, Van Dette recalled his “rebellious” high school days, when he would skip classes to attend community meetings at the East York Civic Centre
“To me, it’s very addictive to give back and make a difference,” Van Dette said in response to the various jokes about his nearly insane level of community involvement.
The most popular cheap shots centered around Van Dette’s friendliness with both Conservatives and Liberals, his skinny physique and its inability to move gracefully, his relentless calling of people to promote events or solicit contributions to a cause, and his seemingly insane love of the Montreal Canadiens (despite living in the city of the Leafs).
Don Cherry couldn’t attend the event, but instead pre-recorded a video capturing his love of Van Dette and his disapproval of the subject’s hockey loyalty.
Aside from all of the banter and wit, everyone who stood up to the mic had an equal amount of material that spoke to the brilliance of Van Dette’s character.
“There has been no more loyal supporter than Justin,” said John Tory (whose campaign Van Dette worked on). “He is a volunteer extraordinaire and there is no event honouring Justin that I wouldn’t attend.”
Julian Fantino got a laugh borrowing from Donald Trump; Fantino said Van Dette is trying to “make East York great again.” But after the laughter and applause faded, he voiced his serious sentiments to Van Dette.
“Justin has incredible energy, tremendous energy that makes him who he is,” Fantino said. “This is leadership, people.”
Kathleen Wynne said she drew close to Van Dette through his endless activism. She saw him volunteering, contributing and campaigning everywhere she went in Toronto. Wynne said she loves Justin’s infectious charisma and respects how much he cares for his city.
“Justin gives to the community all the time. Everywhere I go, I see him volunteering,” Wynne said. “He is just a terrific community activist and guy. He really walks the talk.”
Van Dette responded: “When people ask me where I’m from, I always say ‘East York. It’s a strong, vibrant community within our great city.”
Although the event was in the spirit of comedy, the cause was more serious. Proceeds from the night went to the AIDS Committee of Toronto, an organization that Van Dette advocates for. During his speech, Van Dette read out the cost of AIDS medications for someone without a drug plan: $1,461.60 per month.
“I think it needs to be on the public agenda,” Van Dette said to the crowd — no longer laughing.
The event raised $250,000 for the AIDS committee, surpassing expectations.