From the endless scandals of Rob Ford to the endless hits of Drake, Stephen Marche reveals the secret of his hometown’s transformation into the 21st century’s great post-industrial city.
The definitive moment of the “new Toronto” took place, somewhat inevitably, in New York. On the TV variety show Saturday Night Live in May, Toronto’s hip-hop icon Drake played a gameshow contestant named Jared – a cheerful goof with dreadlocks and a red check shirt with a slight Caribbean lilt.
The skit, called Black Jeopardy, was a take on the long-running game show Jeopardy, using a series of African American cliches: uncles who wear long suits to church, the cost of hair weaves, the popularity of Tyler Perry movies, and so on.
In this matrix of stereotype, however, Jared didn’t quite fit. To the answer: “This comedian was crazy in the 80s with his Raw and Delirious routines,” (clearly indicating the question: “Who is Eddie Murphy?”) Jared instead asked, to the perplexity of all: “Who is Rick Moranis?”
When they also didn’t know hockey legend Jaromir Jagr, Jared was stunned: “The man won the Art Ross trophy four years in a row, fam.”
Jared is black, but not a kind of black that the host or the other contestants recognised. “I’m from Toronto,” he explained.
“Wait, you’re a black Canadian?” the host asked.
The miscomprehension built from there to a confrontation in which Jared angrily demanded: “Why do I have to be your definition of black?”
Was the host’s confusion understandable? To Americans, and outsiders in general, the new Toronto and its people can seem disconcertingly familiar and strange at the same time. It’s a city in mid-puberty, growing so rapidly, changing so suddenly, that often it doesn’t quite know how it feels about itself.
Last year, the increasing population of Toronto passed the declining population of Chicago. Comparisons come naturally. What Chicago was to the 20th century, Toronto will be to the 21st. Chicago was the great city of industry; Toronto will be the great city of post-industry. Chicago is grit, top-quality butchers, glorious modernist buildings and government blight; Toronto is clean jobs and artisanal ice-creameries, identical condos, excellent public schools and free healthcare for all. Chicago is a decaying factory where Americans used to make stuff. Toronto is a new bank where the tellers can speak two dozen languages. You feel a natural ease in time when you touch down from another city; you don’t have to strain for hope here. The future matters infinitely more than the past.
Toronto’s growth has been extravagant. If you approach from the water, almost every building you see will have been constructed in the past two decades. The city has been booming for so long and so consistently that few can remember what Toronto was like when it wasn’t booming. There were 13 skyscrapers in 2005; there are now close to 50, with 130 more under construction. The greater Toronto area is expected to swell by 2.8 million to reach almost 9.5 million by 2041.
A line has been crossed. Toronto is now grown-up enough to be rife with contradictions – and its contradictions are making it interesting. It is, for example, by far the safest city in North America – an extraordinarily law-abiding place by any measure. It also produced Rob Ford, the world’s most famous crack-smoking mayor, a man whose criminality did little to affect his popularity.
Other contradictions reveal themselves only on closer examination. Toronto’s dullness is what makes it exciting – a tricky point to grasp. Toronto’s lack of ambition is why the financial collapse of 2008 never happened here. The strong regulations of its banks preventing their over-leverage meant they were insulated from the worst of global shocks. In London and New York, the worst stereotype of a banker is somebody who enjoys cocaine, Claret and vast megalomaniac schemes. In Toronto, a banker handles teachers’ pension portfolios and spends weekends at the cottage.
The worship of safety and security applies across all fields and industries. A reliable person is infinitely more valued than a brilliant one. The “steady hand” is the Toronto ideal, and Toronto’s steadiness is why people flock here – and all the people flocking here are making it exciting. That’s why Toronto is the most fascinating totally boring city in the world.
The fundamental contradiction of the new Toronto, however, is that it has come into its own by becoming a city of others. In the Canadian context, Toronto is no longer first among equals in a series of cities strung along the railroad between the Atlantic and Pacific. It has become the national metropolis, the city plugged into the global matrix. At the same time, Toronto is 51% foreign-born, with people from over 230 countries, making it by many assessments, the most diverse city in the world. But diversity is not what sets Toronto apart; the near-unanimous celebration of diversity does. Toronto may be the last city in the world that unabashedly desires difference.
This openness is unfortunately unique. In a world in which Australia runs “You will not make Australia home” advertisements, Donald Trump is the presidential nominee of a major American political party, and a British MP was killed by a man shouting “Britain first”, Canada has largely escaped this rising loathing for others. A 2012 study, by the chair of Canadian studies at Berkeley, found that “compared to the citizens of other developed immigrant-receiving countries, Canadians are by far the most open to and optimistic about immigration.” The lack of political xenophobia (which must be distinguished from the various crises of integration) has emerged for reasons that are peculiar to the Canadian experience, and not because we’re somehow better people.
Toronto’s success in 2016 began in the national near-catastrophe of 1995. The 1995 referendum on Quebec independence brought the country within a photo finish of not existing anymore. In an infamous drunken ramble of a concession speech, the then premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, blamed the loss on “money and the ethnic vote”. I was 19 when he said that, and I knew even then that for the rest of my life, Canada’s future would be built on money and immigrants. I wasn’t wrong. Most Canadian business headquarters had already taken the five-hour drive west. After 95, the rest followed. Montreal decided to become a French-Canadian city. Toronto decided to become a global city.
The gaze into the abyss separated English-speaking Canadians from the rest of the Anglosphere. The most important finding from the Berkeley study was that “in Canada, those who expressed more patriotism were also more likely to support immigration and multiculturalism. In the United States this correlation went in the opposite direction.” That’s the key difference between Toronto’s relationship to immigration and the rest of the world. Canada can only survive as a cosmopolitan entity. Blood and soil rip it apart rather than bind it together.
With the US border to the south and three brutal oceans on the other sides, Canada is protected, as few places are, from uncontrolled immigration. There are no desperate huddled masses, yearning to breathe free here. Instead we cull the cream of the world and call it compassion.
To take the case of the Syrians, the federal government took 25,000 refugees since the Trudeau government came to power last year, which sounds impressive when you compare it to the 2,800 that the US has allowed.
It isn’t when you consider the specifics of the case. There are already plenty of Muslim families in Toronto and they are as boring as any other Canadians. In my own existence, the people of Muslim heritage I have known have served some of the following roles: they were my father’s business partners; they have prepared my taxes and my will; they gossiped constantly in the cubicle beside mine at a legal publishing house where I used to work until I had to buy noise-cancellation headphones; they gave me tips on how to pass my special fields examination while I was doing my PhD; they looked after my children at the local daycare centre. So when I heard that 25,000 Syrians were coming, I did not imagine 25,000 poor angry men. I imagined 25,000 accountants and dentists. Which is exactly who has come.
Toronto’s multiculturalism no doubt has its crises, and those crises are accelerating. When the province of Ontario (of which Toronto is the capital) announced a new sex education curriculum that included open discussions on homosexuality, recently arrived socially conservative Muslim and Chinese-Canadian Christian parents pulled their children from public school in protest. The premier, Kathleen Wynne, responded with a statement that basically amounted to: “Tough.” The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, passed in 1982 – the same document that established multiculturalism as national policy – has been very clearly interpreted by the Supreme Court as indicating that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is un-Canadian. There is a strain of granite in Toronto’s much-vaunted tolerance.
More serious are the issues around race and policing, which have consumed the city for the past two years. The carding scandal, in which the police were revealed to be racially profiling the black community, exposed profound problems with our police force, which is in dire need of reform.
This is a story that has been playing out in American cities as well. But Black Lives Matter here has been distinctly Torontonian. Activists protested outside the police headquarters for 14 days, received a meeting with the mayor and the premier, and then disbanded peacefully. There was no hint of a riot, nor even of bad behaviour. Toronto’s activists sought redress for poor government in an entirely orderly fashion, and their demands, which were utterly reasonable, belonged to the best traditions of polite Canadian politics. The activists were pursuing, just like Canada’s modus operandi enjoins them to, “peace, order and good government.”
On any given morning on the Sheppard subway line in the north of the city, you can sit down in perfect peace and order, although you will find little evidence of good government. As the latest addition to Toronto’s fraying infrastructure, the Sheppard subway is largely untroubled by urban bustle. The stations possess the discreet majesty of abandoned cathedrals, designed for vastly more people than currently use them, like ruins that have never been inhabited. Meanwhile, in the overcrowded downtown lines, passengers are stacked up the stairs. The streetcars along a single main street, Spadina, carry more people on a daily basis than the whole of the Sheppard line, whose expenses run to roughly $10 a passenger, according to one estimate. A critic has suggested that sending cabs for everybody would be cheaper.
This ludicrous state of affairs – money wasted in one corner of the city while it’s desperately needed elsewhere – is the typical result of Toronto City Hall’s idea of consensus. The council is a pack of hicks and rubes, a visionless amalgam of small-c conservatives and vaguely union-hall lefties, all of them living resolutely in the past. Both sides want to stop what’s happening in the city.
The lefties want to slow gentrification, and the conservatives think we’ve all been taxed enough. Of course, when most people think of hicks and rubes in Toronto City Hall, they think of Rob Ford, who died of cancer earlier this year. But Giorgio Mammoliti, councillor for Ward Seven, has proposed a floating casino, a red-light district on the Toronto Islands, and an 11pm curfew for children under 14. He has blamed a few of his erratic comments on a brain fistula he had removed in 2013, but nobody has since been able to tell the difference in his behaviour. Add another contradiction to Toronto’s growing list: it must be the best-run city in the world run by idiots.
The current mayor, John Tory, is not an idiot, although he is hardly a figure of the “new Toronto”. He represents, more than any other conceivable human being, the antique white anglo-saxon protestant (Wasp) elite of Toronto, his father being one of the most important lawyers in the city’s history. The old Wasps had their virtues, it has to be said – it wasn’t all inedible cucumber sandwiches and not crying at funerals.
After the Rob Ford years, the attractions of a “steady hand” have been stronger than ever. Last week, Tory finally took the step of acknowledging that Toronto needs new revenue-generating streams, which took immense political courage even though it is obvious to everyone. Then, almost immediately, he proposed a“net-zero” budget with no new revenue streams – the steady thing to do, the gutless thing to do, the traditionally Toronto thing to do.
The cost of having narrow-minded representatives in power is to limit the city. The catastrophic state of transit has had a host of unintended consequences; the explosion of downtown construction is due largely to the fact that commuting from the suburbs has become more or less unendurable. The poor infrastructure is symptomatic of larger problems. Because somewhere deep in its heart Toronto has not planned for growth – because Toronto hasn’t expected to be a real grown-up city – it keeps making the same mistakes.
Billions of dollars are being used to build more subways in suburban Scarborough where ridership will carry, at one stop, an astonishingly low 7,300 people at peak hours. Just last week, it was announced that another C$1.3bn will be spent on the project. It is very easy to blame the political class for this small-minded nonsense, but in their lack of ambition they represent a truth of the city. It is the most diverse city in the world and one of the richest, but it is unclear what its money and its diversity amount to. There is no Toronto sound. There is no Toronto flavour. There is no Toronto scene. There is no Toronto style. Rather there are sounds and flavours and scenes and styles borrowed from elsewhere.
At the corner of Spadina and Bloor Street, there is a small series of panels commemorating the activists who prevented the Spadina Expressway – a megahighway into the urban core – from being built in the 1970s. Those activists weren’t wrong. That proposed highway would have destroyed some decent neighbourhoods. But only Toronto would commemorate not building something. It’s proud of what it hasn’t done.
Go to the waterparks in this city on any hot summer day and you see the true potential of Toronto. The meaning of multiculturalism in Toronto is not theoretical; it is not found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or in the decisions of the refugee board. The meaning of multiculturalism is found in the waterparks, among the slides and fountains, and lazy rivers and wave pools: a collection of various people of various shades speaking various languages, lounging in the shade, drinking overpriced rum drinks, eating greasy food, staring at each other’s naked and tattooed flesh, and shouting at their kids to stop splashing.
History in Toronto does not bend toward justice. It bends towards the hot tub. There is something radical about these people leading their quiet lives out together, without much fuss. Are they one people? Does it matter if they aren’t? It is a city whose meaning is not found in shared history but in the shared desire to escape history. It is a light city, a city floating up and away from the old stories, the ancient struggles.
Again Chicago makes a good comparison. In Chicago, they once changed the course of the river – one of history’s greatest feats of will and engineering. In Toronto, for a hundred years, the authorities let the construction companies just dump their landfill into Lake Ontario, until it turned into a pile of rubble so large that it attracted deer and coyotes and warblers in migration. So, reluctantly, they turned it into a rather gorgeous little park, the Leslie Street Spit. Chicago has dreams, dreams that mostly fail but sometimes triumph. Toronto keeps any dreams it might have to itself, stumbling into much more reliable happiness.
Toronto’s place in the world is not fixed. That is what is so exciting about it. The question that Toronto faces, the question that its various crises and contradictions pose, is whether the city will rise into a glorious future of a mingled and complicated humanity, an avatar of a singular cosmopolitanism, or whether it will shrink back and be swallowed by the provincial miasma that inveigles it. This is a real question – the city could legitimately go either way. How much longer can Toronto endure its terminal lightness? How much longer can a city so interesting insist on being so boring?
This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.