"Sometimes I wonder how my family- how my father and mother- survived with six children. But, we are all thankful for what they did for us."
John Letnik was born in Slovenia shortly before it was invaded by Axis powers that would fracture the country into several occupied territories. Tens of thousands of Slovenians would be exiled, killed, imprisoned, transported to labor and extermination camps, or drafted to the German military. To keep their six children safe and their family together, John's mother and father persevered through constant uprisings, resistance movements, and guerilla warfare. Even after World War II they were forced to endure life under communist rule in Yugoslavia.
"In 1956, I was not even 15. I saw no future because my family were not in the communist party. I decided to escape. I escaped through Austria."
Under pressure, John was forced to mature quickly, and at a young age he realized there was no future for him in Yugoslavia. On August 8th, 1956 he would escape into neighbouring Austria and become a refugee. John was lucky to have escaped when he did, because he soon fell ill and was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with cancer. He had a large tumour on the left side of his neck that had to be surgically removed, and he received several rounds of radiation treatment. John began to accept that the cancer would probably kill him, it this was the first time he felt hopeless to change the outcome of his life, but he recovered both in health and determination.
"I became ill. I was treated for cancer in '56, '57. I received radiation treatment in the city of Graz, Austria. I had a big tumour on my neck, a big growth. I lost all my hair. I accepted that I was going to die... I guess the timing wasn't right."
On August 8th 1957, one year to the day of his escape to Austria, John Letnik stepped off a boat and onto Canadian soil in Quebec City. From there he boarded a train to his new home of Toronto, Ontario. Unable to speak English and with only two dollars in his pocket, John was determined to make a life in Canada. One of the local German-Canadians took him in and brought him to a local Slovenian church. The church found John a place to live and put him in contact with organizations that could help him find work. Soon John was able to find a job at the Toronto Golf and Country Club working as a houseboy until the club closed for the winter. Luckily, one of the managers would help him get a job at the St. Georges Golf and Country Club in Etobicoke that was open all year.
Over the winter John worked as a dishwasher, learning the ways of the kitchen and English along the way. Over many months he worked his way up to cook and his English was getting better. John would work for several years as a cook, living on the grounds of the country club for a period, before being promoted to sous chef at the age of 19. After saving enough money, John brought his girlfriend to Canada and married her in 1959 (though they later divorced). John decided it was time to move on from the country club and develop his skills. He felt as if there were two roads in front of him: he could either put himself through school to learn proper English and become a certified chef, or he could take the daring chance to make it on his own and open his first restaurant.
"One of the German people brought me to the Slovenian church on Manning and Bloor. They found me a room on Euclid Avenue. I was there for four days and I found a job at Toronto Golf and Country Club in Long Branch."
John made his bold leap into the restaurant business in 1961 and opened "Pop-In" at Dundas and McCaul. It was a local restaurant and cafe, only serving simple foods. One of John's most popular dishes was the pork chop and fried potatoes, which sold for 45 cents at the time. John may have not been breaking any new culinary grounds but he was making a living as a restaurant owner and chef. Even more importantly, he was making it under his own power.
"I bought a little restaurant at in '61. It was just simple food. Just a local breakfast area, lots of coffee and take out services. I was there for seven years, and in '67 I was able to buy the building."
By 1966 John had become a successful business man and restaurant owner. He felt the time was right to travel back to Yugoslavia to visit his family. John used his savings to purchase a brand new '66 Chevy Impala and passage to Europe. He drove from Toronto to New York and boarded the SS France. After a short six day trip John disembarked in La Havre, France, and drove over 1,500 kilometers to Yugoslavia where he would be reunited with his family for the first time in 10 years.
After three months in Yugoslavia, John returned home to Toronto, purchased the building that had housed his restaurant for the previous seven years and sold his business. His trip aboard the SS France had given him a new found love for ships. It was this trip that inspired him to open the first floating restaurant in Toronto. John knew it would be not be simple, but he was also determined enough to make it happen.
"In '66 it was my first trip back to Yugoslavia to see my parents, my family, my brother, my sisters. After 10 years, I went from here to New York. I put my car on board the ship, and the ship was the SS FRANCE."
"I spent three months with my family. Back to France, back on the same ship. Back to New York, back to Toronto. At that time I decided if I stay in this business, which is my hobby, my profession, and my life, I'd like to have a ship."
"I was the first one in the harbour when nobody looked at the harbour. When I first started in '69 Harbour Commission was a handshake. That's the way I started. They said 'go ahead, if you can make it, fine.'"
It took John two years of searching before he found the MS Normac. The Normac had already served several years with the Detroit Fire Department and then as a ferry between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island. After several trips he was able to orchestrate a deal, and with the help of the previous owner, sailed the boat from Detroit to Toronto. John didn't have a place to dock his new ship, but was able to find a temporary spot while he searched for a permanent location. He worked with the Harbourfront Commission and was given a location at the bottom of Yonge street that would eventually be named "Captain John's Pier" and where he would stay for over 40 years. At that time the Toronto harbour was not a tourist area, or even a business area. It was a shipping port filled with warehouses, large cargo ships, and dock workers. But John's livelihood was dependant on the success of his floating restaurant.
"We had a great business in the early 70's, 80's. Sure we had a lot of ups and downs, but that's the way it is in the business. I managed to survive somehow."
On August 8th, 1970, John Letnick opened Captain John's Floating Restaurant aboard the MS Normac. John transformed the boat into a five-star restaurant and enjoyed paramount success throughout the 70's and 80's, attracting tourists, politicians, and famous Canadians, including the likes of Brian Mulroney, Mel Lastman, Robert Campeau, Steve Stavro, George Chuvalo, and Bob Hope. The Normac and Captain John's restaurant was a beacon of success attracting other businesses to the harbour front.
"I had over 200 people on board the Normac at the time the Trillium struck (it). I couldn't even open the access door. I had to use a crowbar to open the door. There was no casualties, everyone got off, but I lost everything else that was on board. And a week later she sunk."
In May 1981, during a full dinner service, the MS Normac was struck by the Trillium, a ferry operated by Parks and Recreation Toronto. Diners were caught by surprise as the Normac twisted, sending dishes, tables, and people to the floor. John was not aboard at the time of the collision and rushed to the Normac, where he had to evacuate staff and customers. Everyone made it off the ship safely and nobody was seriously hurt, but the Normac would sink to the bottom of the harbour as a result of the collision. John took the city to court to seek damages, but he wasn't awarded enough to raise the boat. He appealed in a federal court and won, but the city would take the case all the way to the supreme court before agreeing to a settlement. The Normac was underwater for 6 years, but John eventually raised, refurbished, and sold the boat.
"I was in court with the city for eight years. We went to trial... then I went to the appeal court two years later with another lawyer. We had another appeal... in the federal court in front of three judges and all three judges favoured me. I received a unanimous decision, and that was not enough for the city of Toronto. They took me to the Supreme Court... just the transcript to prepare cost me $35,000."
Background image: Wikipedia - MS Normac
News articles from the June 3, 1981, edition of the Toronto Star (1, 2) via The Grid T.O. - Retro T.O.: The Sinking of Captain John's
"In the '70s and '80s, there were a lot of Christmas parties, weddings, company functions, and office parties here. Around November and December, we were booked up every day. From May through September, we had more American tourists than Canadians. It was a high-end restaurant. People dressed up. It's a lot of good memories from those days."
The Grid T.O. - The Ballad of Captain John
The Jadran was a luxury cruise ship, which operated for several years in the Adriatic and Aegean seas. John purchased the ship in 1975 for a million dollars from the Yugoslav government and brought the boat to Toronto. The Jadran opened in May of 1976 as a second location for his restaurant servicing private parties, banquets, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. After the sinking of the Normac in 1981 John had to open a second level of the Jadran for general dining that would eventually remain as the main dining area for over 30 years.
Over the past 20 years John's business has been shrinking. He's been hit by recessions, poor tourism, and even SARS. The restaurant no longer attracted the local Torontonian foodies or famous faces and the lavish corporate parties and weddings disappeared. John worked out deals with nearby hotels and tour companies to bring French tourists from Montreal and Japanese tourists looking for novelty restaurants. John kept his head high and did everything he could to survive but he was barely able to the bills.
"For fifteen years I used to help feed the homeless with the Salvation Army. I know what it means to be hungry or line up at the food bank. I'm grateful for all I have been given... It's always better to give than to get."
There were still some notable events aboard the Jadran up until 2009, such as the annual New Year's Eve bash, dance parties held by local artist Tyler Clark Burke, and Murder Mystery Toronto performed its weekly CodFather dinner-theatre show there. Despite his money problems John continued hosting dinners with the Salvation Army for the city's homeless population.
The Jadran is more than just a floating restaurant. It's a Toronto landmark, a symbol of the flourishing success of the harbour front, and most of all it's John's home. He has spent over 30 years living aboard the Jadran, decades of hard work, and just about every penny he earned. The boat is filled with John's possessions and the walls are decorated with his memories. He's losing more than just his business, he's losing everything.
After 40 years in the business Captain John was forced to close after the city cut off his water and forced the shutdown of his restaurant and only income source. Devastated, John had to cancel four buses of tourists from Montreal. On the same day he was given four weeks to remove his fixtures from the sidewalk including his gangplank, effectively evicting him from his home. The gangplank decision was later rescinded by Waterfront Toronto, and John was allowed to stay, but he's been ordered by the Toronto Port Authority not to move his boat until he's paid what he owes.
CBC News - Captain John's floating restaurant shut down
"All of the sudden they just wanted to get rid of me. I had a problem with the realty [property] taxes and I'm behind on rent right now, which I stopped paying some time ago. I stopped paying realty taxes four years ago, when I took them to court. In '69-'70, I received a realty bill that was less than $1,000 a year. Now it's $40,000 a year plus rent, and I don't have any realty. They gave me a break a few times, but now, all of a sudden, they shut the water off. It's an easy way for them to shut me down."
The Grid T.O. - The Ballad of Captain John
Captain John currently owes the city of Toronto over half a million dollars though his dispute over the property taxes goes back over 4 years ago when John first took the city to court. His argument is the simple fact that that he doesn't live on land, nor does he own any of the property around or under his boat, yet the city continues to tax him to the sum of $40,000 every month. His boat has floated in the harbour for over 40 years, tethered only by a few mooring ropes and a city water connection that has since been severed. John has essentially been taxed out of business, and his home.
Global Toronto - Captain John Faces Eviction
"I had a buyer for the boat. The buyer is not the problem. But they don't want to give me a location. They don't want to give me a lease."
"I'd like to see new blood come in, a younger version of me from 40 years ago. I'd like to see the boat continue as a restaurant and banquet facility. It needs a facelift from the inside and outside."
The Grid T.O. - The Ballad of Captain John
"I'm still hoping that something may come out of this. Get someone to buy it and take it over, so I can settle my obligations and walk off the gang-plank with pride."
The Grid T.O. - The Ballad of Captain John
John has placed the boat and business for sale at 1.25 million dollars, barely enough to clear his debts and allow him to retire with dignity. He has found several buyers for the boat but complications with the city and Harbour Commission have prevented any deals from succeeding. The main problem surrounding the sale is that the commission is only willing to provide a month-to-month lease while buyers are seeking a 10 year lease. The Harbourfront Commission has a plan for the lakefront, and it doesn't matter if you're successful business or not, in fact another longstanding business in the area has been given the similar treatment. Walter Oster is the owner of Wallymagoos Pub at the Pier 4 Storehouse and says the Harbourfront Centre refused to renew his lease unless he agreed to invest 1.5 million dollars for a new concept. Oster has a successful business and has never missed a lease payment, but the Harbourfront Centre would hold a 1.5 million dollar ransom on his lease. Oster says he has no choice but to close his restaurant after 35 years and will be auctioning off its contents, the largest private collection of nautical artifacts in Ontario.
CBC News - Abandon Ship?
Please visit www.savecaptainjohn.org and donate to help fight against the injustice done to this decent hardworking citizen. Call, email or write your representatives at all levels of government and voice your disapproval.
Also, please help spread the word.
In an unprecedented and cruel move the City of Toronto shut off the water supply to Captain John’s Harbour Boat Restaurant. With no water supply, the City’s Health Department ordered that the restaurant be shut down. This cut off all cash flow and shut down the financial life blood of the owner John Letnik.
While led by the City of Toronto, this action was part of what appears to be an orchestrated plan by the various government agencies that are fighting for control of the development of Toronto’s waterfront lands and are determined to squeeze out anyone they have decided should not be there.
After escaping from Communist controlled Yuogoslavia at the age of 15 in 1956, John Letnik immigrated to Canada. When he opened his floating restaurant known as Captain John’s in 1970 it was one of the first attractions on the downtown Toronto water front and became a landmark. For more than forty years John Letnik has served as an exemplary citizen and displayed generous public behavior by providing free meals to Toronto’s less fortunate and needy. Now he is being kicked to the curb.
This treatment is a disgrace and standing by and doing nothing to help him is unconscionable.
Please visit www.savecaptainjohn.org to donate and to learn the full story about Captain John Letnik.