My university roommate then was a die-hard Torontonian. She asked me what I thought. All I could muster was, "It's OK." I wanted to believe it was a terrible city where robberies took place in the daylight and people walked with their noses in the air. I wore my mantle of Western Canadian pride and couldn't bring myself to say anything positive.
"They think they're the centre of the universe!"
"It's just a big, sprawling metropolis with no trees." Those were the comments I was more comfortable spouting. I still hear them today. It's a national sport in Canada to diss Toronto. In the United States, people go to New York City to "make it there," while in Canada, Toronto repulses them in droves. New York holds a historical and glamorous place in American hearts, perhaps because it has been the doorway to the American Dream for so many people. Ellis Island was where thousands of new immigrants were processed on their way into the city and beyond. Then, there's Toronto. Many early Canadians were barely off the boat before they were sent into the hinterland to settle the country. The country grew around the metropolis. The metropolis grew to become the centre of business. It represented money, not people.
Toronto symbolized the arrogance of bankers, the Eastern Establishment and, most of all, a lack of consideration.
For me, growing up in Alberta, Toronto had been demonized by the press and the provincial government. I remember the references to the "Bay Street Boys" who manipulated the country's financial and public policies from their comfy clubs in Toronto. Toronto symbolized the arrogance of bankers, the Eastern Establishment and, most of all, a lack of consideration – did the people living there know or care about the rest of the country?
When I worked in Corner Brook, Nfld., it was a relief to be an Albertan. Ask any Newfoundlander about Canada's most populous city and the response will be, "Those Torontonians think they're the centre of the universe!" or "Too many cars and people. It's heartless," and so on. Most people had never been there. Some had visited for a few days and had seen the CN Tower and Yonge Street, and eaten at an expensive restaurant. Other Ontarians also despise Toronto. When I told people in Ottawa three years ago that I would be moving to Toronto, some would ask, "Why would you ever want to live there?"
The first time I lived in the city, I had an encounter I would never forget. One night, as I was taking the bus to work, a native guy started a conversation with me. In a short span of time, his entire life unfurled. John grew up with jazz musicians in the city, he was on his way to have his leather jacket painted by a friend. The jacket was part of his street show – he juggled bowling balls for a living. On the side, he painted. All this on a 10-minute bus ride. That same year, I encountered a street-corner drummer banging his heart out on buckets and cymbals. My friend, a music writer, told me that was Graeme Kirkland. I still see him on different street corners now, CDs displayed close by. I don't even think he stops to sell his music. Graeme is part of the street life here.
Verica Jokic, an Australian journalist who worked in Canada recently, told me only two places in the world have this special buzz: Amsterdam and Toronto. She says both cities have a bohemian feel to them with a mixing of cultures and ideas. Will Straw, a professor of culture at McGill University, described on CBC Radio the je ne sais quoi of certain cities like Toronto: "You're living in a city and you're thinking about writing a screenplay. The act of thinking is what creates that buzz in the city. Everyone is in an act of creation – thinking about writing a play, doing a film... all these things create that energy." Most people don't stay long enough to feel that vibe.
Pico Iyer, a world traveler and award-winning author, dedicated a chapter in his book The Global Soul to Toronto. Iyer says the city and its multi-ethnicity allow artists and writers to flourish, such as Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) or Rohinton Mistry (Family Matters). In an interview with Powells.com, Iyer says he traveled to Toronto because "every few months I'd get a book through the mail, and it would be the most exciting and unprecedented book I'd run into. When I looked at the back ... the author was always from Toronto." Iyer calls Toronto a "mongrel city," and says it provides the greatest hope for a city of the future – something, he says, that seems to surprise Torontonians.
What is Toronto? It isn't the centre of the universe, but it has the universe at its centre. I love it. It's the place I now proudly call home.