Pretty Mean City

A new “biography” charts the dark side of Toronto’s prosperity

Allan Levine calls his history of Toronto a biography—a chronicle of the city as a personality—and, to underscore his intention, he places a quote from Robertson Davies just behind the title page that reads: “I think of Toronto as a big fat rich girl.” Well, that’s RD for you, reminding me of a focus group The Globe and Mail conducted 25 years ago, when I was its deputy managing editor, which inquired into why its readers were overwhelmingly men. We asked a group of women to personify the paper and one responded, “I think of The Globe as an older man you marry for his money.” In other words, nothing to inspire passion.

So who is Toronto-the-person that Levine distills from 220 years of multicultural occupation since the 17th-century visit of French bad boy Étienne Brûlé and the Seneca village of Teiaiagon on the Carrying Place trail and the arrival in 1793 of John Graves Simcoe? Hint: You are not going to like him—and Toronto is a “him” regardless of what RD says—unless you are into the election of eccentric mayors, exploitation of working people, the celebration of unchecked capitalism, pretentiousness, religious bigotry, big dollops of xenophobia, a lot of bad policy decisions on public transit and policing that has not been positively interested in the exercise of democracy and civil rights, because that is pretty much what defines the city through the 435 pages of Levine’s book.

Levine is not a Torontonian; he is a Winnipegger.

It is a very readable device he has employed, the city presented as biography. “Like any biography,” he writes, “it offers a selective, sometimes arbitrary chronicle of Toronto’s collective character in all of its different forms and contexts.” Nevertheless the collective character he has chosen for the most part seems an accurate portrait of Toronto’s identity (up to a point), although it means he has written a “who” and a “what” book, not a “why” book.

In other words, reading it does not explain why the early members of Toronto’s Eaton family loathed unions and Jews, and The Globe’s George Brown detested Roman Catholics and the Irish (and unions and Jews), and why most of 19th-century and a huge chunk of 20th-century Toronto’s narrative is a history of religious bigotry (with lots of discrimination against blacks and, of course, Jews), and why the city from its genesis—except for brief interludes of new-broom-sweeps-clean politics—has been shaped by politicians who placed public assets and regulations within convenient reach of private entrepreneurs, and why most of the city’s newspapers have been huge champions of ruling-class orthodoxy while nothing has yet explained definitively the election of Rob Ford.

“The story of Toronto is really the story of Canada,” Levine writes. “Like it or not, the adage ‘as goes Toronto, so goes Canada’ is all too true.” Meh. “The city,” he goes on, “fixes the pulse of the rest of the country and has done so for a long time.” Meh again. Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal and indeed Winnipeg today have cultures very different from Toronto’s. The values of their social strata may be identical to those of their Toronto counterparts—urban Canada is urban Canada and the commanding culture coast to coast is bourgeois liberalism—but they march to different rhythms and the pulse of Toronto is increasingly irrelevant to what happens elsewhere in the country as Canada’s parts uncouple.

But that is another subject and this is an entertaining book. Levine has made an energetic career—I hope a successful one; he deserves it—of popularizing Canadian history with a big reach embracing everything from Christian fundamentalist broadcasting to the campaign for women’s right to vote, to William Lyon Mackenzie King, to the history of Canadian-Soviet sports rivalry, Quebec intolerance, senate corruption, the Maple Leafs, the behaviour of the media on Parliament Hill, Winnipeg’s winter weather and so on. He writes chatty history, stuff largely already given birth in newspapers and other people’s books. That’s fine. He is bringing it alive again.

However, we will not find out from reading his biography of Toronto how the city actually functions as one of the most multicultural places on Earth, how everyone gets along together or does not, how much influence the city still has on the country, what life is like in its ethnic enclaves, how well the city is run today, what the state is of its social cohesiveness and who has clout and who is marginalized. Although he does report that, rich-girl-wise, Toronto is home to five billionaires, 1,184 multimillionaires (those with US$30 million or more in net assets) and 118,000 millionaires—28 percent of the Canadian total.

The personality portrait? He draws a face of Toronto seldom accentuated, the face of rather a provincial, unexceptional place that has not accomplished a whole lot beyond enabling a good number of people to get wealthy while providing a more or less comfortable home for hundreds of thousands of others, either Canadian born or those who have left worse lives to create a good future for their children.

He writes that the beginnings of Toronto were aesthetically dull; the original planning surveys ignored the features that gave character and beauty to the venue, Toronto’s hills and wooded ravines, and instead stamped the place with a useful but boring gridiron layout. So Canadian.

Dullness, in fact, has stamped more than the city’s map. As Leopold Infeld, a Polish physicist, colleague of Albert Einstein’s and a professor at the University of Toronto between 1939 and 1950, wrote in 1941, “it must be good to die in Toronto. The transition between life and death would be continuous, painless and scarcely noticeable.” Indeed, exciting is still not a word one would choose quickly to describe the city. Safe. Comfortable. But exciting? Not so much.

The first colonial administrator, Peter Russell, was an acquisitive plodder who made sure that he and his friends and associates, members of the community’s rising upper class, were rewarded with government stipends, offices and lands, setting a pattern that would imprint on the relationships between politicians and entrepreneurs in Toronto for decades and decades to come.

In York, as Toronto originally was called, Russell and provincial secretary William Jarvis, the senior member of the colonial executive council, were major slave holders in the face of an abolitionist movement gathering force elsewhere throughout the British Empire.

Toronto’s police throughout the city’s history have beaten and jailed the unemployed and political protestors, arrested people for speaking Yiddish at public meetings, stood with stopwatches in the wings of the Royal Alexandra Theatre, prepared to pull down the curtain if onstage kisses lasted longer than 20 seconds and, of course, trampled appallingly on civil rights during the G20 protests.

William Lyon Mackenzie was elected the first mayor of Toronto in 1834, creating the mould for a raft of eccentric chief magistrates who would follow him through to today.

As mayor, Mackenzie—labelled “a cantankerous and quarrelsome little cad” by an early city ­historian—was an ineffectual administrator and served only one term, but in 1837 he inspired a chaotically led armed rebellion against the colonial authorities resulting in two of his followers being hanged for treason and his own flight to exile in the United States with a £1,000 price on his head.

In the same 1837 rebellion, Toronto’s fifth mayor (1838–41), John Powell, fired a revolver point-blank at Mackenzie but fortunately the gun malfunctioned. Tommy Church, the 37th mayor (1915–21), opposed bilingual money. Sam McBride, 41st mayor (1928–29 and 1936), grabbed a councillor by the throat and banged his head against a wall because he objected to some of his comments. He alsoauthorized the police to arrest anyone at communist meetings who spoke any language other than English—an edict aimed primarily at socialist, Yiddish-speaking garment workers. Ralph Day, 46th mayor (1938–40) denied welfare to the families of Italian-Canadian men interned during the Second World War. “This country is at war with Italy and Italians cannot very well expect us to spend money for war purposes for the purpose of maintaining alien enemies,” he said. Allan Lamport, the 50th mayor (1952–54), was known for his malapropisms, such as “it’s hard to make predictions—especially about the future” and “it’s like pushing a car uphill with a rope.” Les Saunders, the 51st mayor (1954), was a virulent anti-Catholic. William Dennison, 55th mayor (1967–72), was the last of a long line of Toronto mayors to belong to the Protestant Loyal Orange Lodge. Mel Lastman, 62nd mayor (1998–2003), welcomed world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma to Toronto City Hall by playing with a yo-yo.

The 64th mayor is You Know Who.

A long, long, long chunk of Toronto’s history was given over to violent clashes between the city’s Irish and Scots-English occupants (more or less but not entirely proxies for Roman Catholics and Protestants), with Jews—who for many years were the fourth largest group in town—being the focus of second-tier conflicts, and a foray now and then against the city’s Asian residents.

What is maybe surprising, looking in the rear-view mirror from the second decade of the 21st century in multicultural Toronto, is how open the xenophobia, religious bigotry and anti-Semitism were. “‘Foreign trash,’ ‘heathens,’ ‘vermin,’ ‘indolent social parasites,’ and ‘foreign scum’ were just a few of the ‘colourful’ ways the newcomers were contemptuously depicted in speeches, government documents and newspaper and magazine articles’,” writes Levine. “Speaking in the House of Commons in early 1914, E.N. Lewis, a Member of Parliament from Ontario, was more succinct. ‘We do not want a nation of organ-grinders and banana sellers in this country,’ he declared.”

Goldwin Smith, Toronto’s leading public intellectual at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, wrote anti-Semitic and anti-black articles published in all the leading newspapers (and was a mentor to William Lyon Mackenzie King, grandson of Toronto’s first mayor and Canada’s tenth and longest-serving prime minister, who also wrote anti-Semitic articles).

Scottish-born George Brown today is revered as the founder of The Globe (in 1844) and a father of Confederation (from 1864 onward), but he was also a hating man who called the Pope “a great foreign tyrant.” A contemporary Catholic reform weekly, the Toronto Mirror, said of Brown, “his anti-Popish tendencies preyed upon his brain like feverish disease.” Almost from the moment that Irish famine victims arrived in Toronto in 1847, Brown’s Globe declared that they would be “unaccustomed to the habits and occupations of Canadians” and would “sink down into the sloth to which they had been accustomed at home.” Said an editorial in 1858: “Irish beggars are to be found everywhere, and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor. They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poor houses and our prisons, and are as brutish in their superstitions as Hindus.”

The department store Eaton family in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a kind of cherished nobility in Toronto, the folkloric narrative about them blissfully skipping over the fact that it ran garment sweatshops and waged relentless war against unions and refused to hire Jews. The Eatons paid sub-subsistence compensation but offered half wages to single male employees and full wages to married employees who signed up for the slaughterhouse of the First World War, a gesture that cost the company $2 million over four years.

Eaton’s and Bell Telephone would not hire blacks. Most hotels would not rent rooms to blacks until well after the Second World War. And, as Levine notes, racism targeting blacks has shown a continuing resilience in the city, although I want to argue that his swipe at one of my Globe and Mail columns is not an accurate paraphrase of what I wrote (and I have the advantage of being able to defend myself, given that I am reviewing Levine’s book). Following the killing of a young woman in a downtown café (the Just Desserts case), Levine says I suggested “that civilized Toronto, as well as other large Canadian cities, were being invaded by a dangerous and cowardly underclass.” What I said, citing the Just Desserts killing and a street shooting in downtown Ottawa, was that people in our gentrified inner cities would see the killings—the narrative, as criminologists say—as acts of “the barbarians inside the gate.” Which, in Toronto’s, case they did.

But to continue, on the same page as the Robertson Davies quote, Levine places a quote from the celebrated Toronto urbanist Jane Jacobs. “I am frequently asked,” she said in 1969, “whether I find Toronto sufficiently exciting. I find it almost too exciting. The suspense is scary. Here is the most hopeful and healthy city in North America, still unmangled, still with options.”

Is it? Exciting, as I wrote earlier, is not a word that would come smoothly to the lips of most Torontonians. For the most part comfortable, safe, an easy place to live, all those things, yes. But I am writing as a white, middle class WASP male of a certain age.

What about the fact that three quarters of Toronto’s poor are Canadian newcomers? Or that so-called immigrant disease has become pandemic in Toronto—newcomers who arrive in the city collectively healthier than native-born Canadians but within seven years are less healthy because of the stresses of attempting to integrate themselves and their families into Toronto life? Or that young Torontonians face not being able to afford to live in the city in which they are growing up, largely because of the cost of housing? Or that Toronto is turning into two cities—one for the very rich and one for the poor, with the middle class being squeezed out? Or the gridlocked traffic, the third world state of downtown streets, the appalling inadequacy of public transit, the exorbitant cost of child care, the fact that 40 percent of all jobs in greater Toronto are labelled precarious?

The personality of Toronto still needs biographical character development.