Toronto the Traditional: “New York Run By The Swiss”

Story and photography by
Nancy & Eric Anderson 


Toronto’s titles have varied from the intimidating: Hogtown and Muddy York to the suffocating: Toronto the Good, Toronto the Bland. Once described as “the squarest city in Canada” and lampooned as a “dull, stodgy place where residents fled across the border to Buffalo, NY for a good time,” the Toronto people didn’t have to labor to change their image. The immigrants who flocked to Toronto after World War II did it for them.

So many then came to this city, for example 35 percent of all immigrants to Canada in 1988, that the United Nations declared Toronto the world’s most ethnically-diverse city. Today Toronto is home to more than 200 different ethnic groups speaking 140 different languages.

“They have liberated us,” says a guide, “from our stuffy Victorian primness and Methodist piety.” Peter Ustinov, the actor, once called Toronto “New York run by the Swiss.”

Now 467,000 Italians live in the Greater Toronto area of 5.5 million -- only Rome has more. The Greek community has grown to more than 100,000; Poles number 166,000 and the Korean community is now 45,000 strong. Many Jewish immigrants came after the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 to settle in the York and Richmond area now one of the financial districts. The city has the largest Chinatown in North America, after San Francisco and so many Portuguese, who maintain dual nationality, that it’s said politicians from Portugal sometimes pay Toronto a visit to court votes.

“We see the United States as a melting pot,” said John Hamilton, the one-time communications manager for the Metropolitan Toronto Convention and Visitors Association. “Its immigrants become Americans. Canada, however, is a salad bowl with many different elements making a whole.”

He looked up over his cup of coffee and continued: “There’s a cost to all this, of course. Taxation is very high. It has to be -- Toronto offers city services, for example, in 12 different languages. It offers more. It offers tourists, especially American ones, an unusual experience, a city that has changed but not in basic traditional values. It delivers to visitors a vast yet human-scaled comfortable cosmopolitan city without the common negative aspects of a large urban area.

Said Hamilton, “We’ve been called ‘the city that works’ and furthermore, we have the lowest crime rate of any major city in North America. Our gun control laws arm only the police.” Asked why its crime was the lowest of any major North American city, a Tourism Toronto guide answered, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, "It would be bad manners to have it any other way."

In addition, Toronto opens up a great gateway to the Canadian outdoors. An hour’s drive to the north brings visitors to delightful countryside and another hour to true wilderness. Yet, arts and sports are not neglected. The visitor could never be bored here. Toronto has the third-largest theater industry in the English-speaking world, after London and New York: 140 professional companies on 44 stages producing 50 different dance shows and plays each month. In addition, before there ever was a Colorado Rockies, the Toronto Blue Jays were the biggest draw in baseball having sold more than 3 million tickets to home games when they moved into the SkyDome in 1989. And in 1993 they were the first team outside the USA to win a World Series.

Furthermore, in Canada’s national obsession, hockey, only the Montreal Canadiens have won more Stanley Cups than the Toronto Maple Leafs. A wag once claimed the most important religious building in Canada was Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens! The Hockey Hall of Fame relocated to magnificent premises at BCE Place. All hands on -- the most interactive sports hall of fame in North America -- it could keep Canadian fervor alive when hockey is out of season except hockey fervor is never out of season in this land of 26 million enthusiasts.

Toronto is also golf country: 180 public courses all within a two-hour drive, no surprise where such Scottish ties bind Ontario to the country where the traditions of golf began.

Medical traditions are entrenched in Toronto’s history too. The discoveries of Banting and Best at the University of Toronto in 1921-1922 are documented on a plaque at the site of their old lab at the Medical Science Building. It commemorates, of course, their discovery of insulin at a time when Best was only a medical student.

Banting, however, had won the Military Cross for conspicuous bravery in World War 1. He died in 1941, tragically in an airplane crash over Newfoundland on his way to Britain to enlist again for his old country. A sad reminder at the University of Toronto of those days of war is the memorial carved into the imposing walls of the Soldier’s Tower on campus.

You read:

            In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

            Between the crosses, row on row,

            That mark our place; and in the sky

            The larks, still bravely singing, fly

            Scarce heard amid the guns below.

            We are the Dead. Short days ago

            We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

            Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

            In Flanders Fields.

Underneath is carved the name of the physician-poet, John McCrae, BA 1894, MB. 1898.

Your memory surfaces. You now recall the details of the poem so familiar to British high school students in the past. McCrae, a pathologist at McGill University, had published his poem in 1915.

Did he survive the most dreadful war in history? You can’t remember. You can only hope. But your eyes are forced inexorably to the 613 names beside the poem, the names of students and faculty killed in World War I, They jump to the letter “M.” And there you see it. Just another example of Toronto’s contribution to tradition:  The name, “Lt. Col. J. McCrae, Canadian Army Medical Corps.” He died on active service 1918, the last year of the war. as did a further 556 university students and faculty in the Second World War.

Some of today’s cynical student bodies, and many of today’s antiwar demonstrators might be puzzled by such devotion to duty and such sense of tradition. But those were the far-off long-gone days when “the sun never set on the British Empire.”

A Personal Toronto Top Ten

•CN Tower: The city’s best known symbol, 1815 feet high, it’s the tallest free-standing structure in the world with an elevator that reaches the observation deck in 58 seconds.

•Harbourfront: A 92-acre warehouse redevelopment area, it has won international awards for merging the city’s waterfront into the lifestyles of its people: flea markets, antique shops, boutiques, galleries, jazz festivals. It even has a certified sailing school.

•Eaton Centre: The first shopping mall in North America to cover a city block, this development now claims one million visitors a week. Named the world’s busiest shopping complex when it opened in 1979, it has now expanded downwards into Toronto’s famed underground city of subterranean shopping.

•Chinatown: Because of political turmoil in Hong Kong, the Chinese population has increased so much five separate Chinese communities now make their race the fastest growing ethnic group in Metro Toronto. Within Chinatown lies the bustling enclave of Kensington Market, first Jewish, then Portuguese, then West Indian, now “perpetual motion.”

•Art Gallery of Ontario: A great Canadian art institution revamped as a dramatic example of what galleries will be like in the future, it sits right in the middle of Chinatown. “With its location,” says Hamilton with a grin, “You get culture coming and going.” What visitors also get is the greatest public collection of Henry Moore sculptures in the world.

•Theater: Millions have been spent to restore the buildings that once dazzled theatergoers in the early 1900’s. The Royal Alexandra Theatre was, in fact, rebuilt particularly for the needs of “Miss Saigon,” the only theater outside London to have the special stage preferred for that production.

•Toronto Islands: North of the city, accessible like most attractions to public transport, lies Canada’s Wonderland. Somewhat like Six Flags, it advertises “Canada’s only stand-up roller coaster.” Ontario Place, rather similar, sits a bit closer on the waterfront. But places widely enjoyed by the locals are the Toronto Islands, it's a simple ferry ride across the harbor. Centre Island there has another amusement park and is popular for picnics; Ward’s Island has a community of about 300 people living in 1940’s cottages—like a little Britain; and Hanlan’s point in season allows swimming on a pleasant beach.

•Afternoon tea: Toronto, born of British traditions, has perfected the one the old country gave the civilized world: afternoon tea. The best place to try it lies two blocks north of the Royal Ontario Museum on Avenue Road: the Four Seasons, our favorite Toronto hotel. Its afternoon tea with scones, strawberry jam and clotted cream is the best we’ve had outside Devon, England. Give yourselves enough time: afternoon tea is an Old World event. Let it run in its own time. Don’t be caught looking at your watch or, God forbid, reading a newspaper.

•Museums: What’s available varies from the unique Bata Shoe Museum (4500 years of footwear) to the long-established Casa Loma, Toronto’s castle on the hill.

Toronto offers other tourist walks. One run designed by architect Norman Yip called, naturally enough, Toronto Architecture Tour gives a fascinating exposure to the old and new buildings in the city but talk to the guide first or the description will become over-detailed.

•Touring the countryside: Visitors with an automobile might want to check out The Beaches, the neighborhood to the east, with a two mile boardwalk, neat restaurants, great beaches, and attractive homes.

An impressive gallery of wilderness paintings has been created about 45 minutes by car north of Toronto at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg.  The work, the output of Tom Thomson and his Group of Seven, combines the style of the French Impressionists with the spirit of the Canadian north country.

An unusual restaurant opened in Kleinburg in 1993 as The Doctor’s House. It does indeed occupy renovated premises doctors had occupied since 1867. Its last occupant was Dr. Thomas Harvey Robinson who practiced from it for 32 years. A tinted photograph of his horse and buggy, dated 1905, hangs in its lobby.

Below Toronto sprawls its wine country, with 25 vineyards the largest in Canada after British Columbia. “Our wines used to be thought of as turpentine,” said Hamilton,” now they’re winning awards all over Europe.” And, of course, an hour or so beyond, Niagara Falls thunders -- one of the great wonders of the present day world. And insiders will say, you haven’t seen Niagara Falls until you’ve seen the spectacle from the Canadian side. – END