After finishing a day of work in Toronto I ran out to a barber shop for a quick trim. The barber was from Libya, his wife from Mexico and their young, Canadian-born son, trilingual! Wow. I have visited Toronto many times over the years and in guiding tours I have of course learned its history and its story. Mighty Toronto – Canada’s largest city – even among North America’s largest, has transformed from a tiny Empire Loyalist / British outpost to arguably the world’s most ethnically diverse city. Much of this evolution has occurred in the last 40 years. There is no end result, but rather an incredible experiment in process.
Starting July 10, Toronto will be hosting the Pan American Games and undoubtedly even athletes from the smallest of nations will find Toronto residents from their homes to cheer them on! Toronto’s large Jamaican community must be excited to welcome that country’s amazing runners. Toronto may even be the best place in the world to enjoy World-Cup Soccer (football) – despite Canada almost never qualifying for the event. Here, every country in the world is represented and, overall, people really do get along. They manage to support their country of origin while uniting around an evolving Canadian culture. Torontonians also unite around a veritable lost cause – their beloved Maple Leafs. Of course as a life-long Calgary Flames fan I enjoy nothing more than joking about the Leaf’s lack-lustre performances, but in truth I would just be happy for the Stanley Cup to finally return to Canada… But I digress.
In so many ways Toronto is the embodiment of ‘unity & diversity’ – a model discussed back in the early 1980’s when the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was drafted. Of course there are lies, damn lies and statistics, but in most measurable terms Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in the world with upwards of half of its population born outside Canada. Immigration can work and Toronto’s experience suggests a global perspective can encourage global values. Yonge Street – the longest street in the world – divides Toronto east / west and its vibrant pedestrian culture is friendly, busy, polite and unrelentingly diverse. Standing on the corner of Dundas Square one can see faces from around the world, laughing, holding hands and ignoring the crazies delaying the end of the world! In 2014, Colin Boyd Shafer, an excellent local photographer set out to photograph one person from every country on Earth here in his home city, the photography is enticing, but the ease with which he found his subjects telling.
Modern Toronto is too big for my taste. Traffic is horrible, I find it too humid and the countryside very flat. Winters can be harsh and summers incredibly hot. I have a virtual hate-hate relationship with the enormous and poorly signed airport – YYZ, Pearson International (honestly! – who designs an airport where arriving international passengers can walk two opposite directions once in the main terminal?). The city famously elected a crack-cocaine smoking mayor – Rob Ford. His tenacity brought shame to the city and to the country. I believe his election had more to do with traffic policies than values, but his obtuse language exposed dying attitudes of an old guard incapable of embracing a modern world. Overall, it is easy for me to understand why Toronto sits firmly in the list of top-ten cities in the world. Greater Toronto is home to over 5.5 million people and succeeds in providing a very good quality of life to most of it residents. In Canada’s extreme climate this is already something to be proud of, but add in a rainbow of diversity, Toronto really can serve as a model for how we may all get along (at least a little better).
June 2, 2015 was an important day for aboriginal Canadians. The commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation committee tabled their troubling reports of shockingly widespread abuse and cultural genocide. The theme of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas is one I reference often in my blogs, but to think that a country capable of engineering a culturally diverse success such as Toronto, could be equally responsible for genocide is shocking. We must collectively (and individually) apologize and finally begin to complete the mosaic by honouring the First People’s of this land and inviting them into the nation-building exercise. A few days in Toronto often renews my hope for humanity. Along with this city’s cultural diversity has come cuisine from around the world. Everything is available (I had Turkish for lunch). In fact, food seems to remain with ethnic groups even longer than languages. I love talking to people about their home countries and generally they are complimentary about life in Canada, but everyone complains about the food! Our own comfort foods stay with us for a lifetime – which is probably why I still make pancakes with maple syrup on Sunday. Of course, even tastes change and, for Finn, comfort food is clearly sushi!