McDonald’s Canada founder George Cohon says teams of Torontonians did the good works that got him the official key to the city, and he can’t wait to share it with them.
Cohon, a tireless philanthropist and volunteer since he immigrated to Toronto from Chicago in 1967, received the key from Mayor Rob Ford in a city hall ceremony Thursday, the first time Ford has chosen to bestow the honour.
Ford read a long list of Cohon’s community work that included founding Ronald McDonald House for sick children and their families receiving hospital treatment, co-chairing the Santa Claus Parade, and volunteer roles with Young People’s Theatre, Ontario College of Art, York University, Ontario Science Centre, Exhibition Place, Variety Village and more.
“That’s just exhausting reading it all out,” Ford said to laughter from an audience that included Cohon’s wife, Susan, and son, Mark, the CFL commissioner. “George is a true community builder.”
Cohon, 75, said he gets credit for work done by teams of people and he will share the oversized shiny key with them, including Santa Claus parade volunteers. He will also show it to kids at Ronald McDonald House, including a 15-year-old waiting for a heart transplant and a 2-year-old from the Caribbean undergoing chemotherapy.
“I’ll show them the key and sort of say, ‘Wow, this is the key to the city. Can you shut the city up? Can you open the city? Can you say to the media you guys are locked out for a day?’ he said to chuckles from the crowd.
“This is a wonderful, wonderful honour . . . I’m humbled and I’m touched.”
The tradition of cities giving keys to important people dates back to the days when cities were protected by locked gates.
According to the City of Toronto, “the act of giving the key of the city is symbolic, since the city has no gates to unlock. Today, the presentation honours outstanding civic contributions of the recipients. Historically, it is at the discretion of the mayor to determine who receives the key to the city.”
Ford’s predecessor, David Miller, gave only two keys — one to the Dalai Lama in 2010 and one to former police chief Julian Fantino, in 2005. The list doesn’t include a key made of ice he gave U.S. talk show host Conan O’Brien in 2004.
But Mel Lastman, the mayor before Miller, practically showered them on notable Torontonians and visitors, presenting 52, mostly to entertainment figures, between 1998 and 2003.
The first went to Hollywood star Mickey Rooney. Those who followed include: author Margaret Atwood; race car driver Bobby Rahal; retail and theatre legend Ed Mirvish; columnist and talk radio host Charles Adler; former South African president Nelson Mandela; Mickey Mouse; singer Céline Dion; children’s band Sharon, Lois & Bram; the Barenaked Ladies; Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling; former Star photojournalist Boris Spremo; film legend Sophia Loren; action star Jackie Chan; golfer Tiger Woods; local priest Father Tom Rosica; boxer Muhammad Ali; comedy star Mike Myers; “the people of Prince Edward Island”; the Rolling Stones; and then-deputy mayor Case Ootes.