General Articles

TORONTO? E-r, u-h..

Toronto started out radical, grew up conservative. Or did it? An adopted son finds some odd skeletons in the closet

J. B. McGEACHY November 15 1947
General Articles

TORONTO? E-r, u-h..

Toronto started out radical, grew up conservative. Or did it? An adopted son finds some odd skeletons in the closet

J. B. McGEACHY November 15 1947

TORONTO? E-r, u-h..

Toronto started out radical, grew up conservative. Or did it? An adopted son finds some odd skeletons in the closet


THE WORD TORONTO, as I have learned only recently by modest research, has an exciting history. When Governor Simcoe chose the place as the capital of Upper Canada in 1791, he called it York in honor of the son of King George III; and it wore that royal and ancient label for about 40 years. The town grew, prospered and presently took on the dignity of a city. At that point in its history, some of its rebellious spirits had a daring idea. The new city, they proposed, should resume its old Indian name of Toronto, signifying “place of meeting.”

The Tories of that day were horrified by this suggestion. What!—they exclaimed—are we to discard our proud regal designation and call ourselves by these barbaric syllables, this wild and woolly tongue twister? The rebels, of course, won the argument and, more than that, elected as Toronto’s first mayor that nightmare and scourge of Tories, William Lyon Mackenzie.

Thus was Toronto cradled in radicalism. The name which now suggests a dowager among cites, sedate, elderly and strait-laced, once called up a horrific vision of redskins doing a war dance.

Inside every fat man, it has been said, a thin one is struggling to get out. Can it be that inside every Toronto Tory lurks a frustrated reformer? And can this be the clue to the city’s strange personality, a subject which has baffled many good observers?

For certainly Toronto does present odd contradictions, visible to the most casual student. Its population is more British in make-up than that of any other large city in North America; it retains some of the fuss and punctilio of the viceregal system; even its hotels rejoice in royal names, like the King Edward, the Royal York and the Prince George. Yet its boosters and bathing-beauty contests, its neon lights, skyscrapers and corner drugstores, its juke boxes, blue-plate specials and rainbow-colored drinks make it hard to tell apart— at least for a European visitor—from a place of similar size in the United States.

Not So Easy to Love

TORONTO people drink hard and live well, hut they have a Methodist conscience about selfindulgence and their Sunday is notoriously dull. They are called reactionaries, but their socialized streetcar and electric light industries are among their most revered sacred cows. Their city is known as Toronto the Good, but it has a sordid underworld and its psychopaths can think up just as queer ways of behaving as their fellows in towns better known for wickedness.

Truly a paradoxical city, Toronto, and one not easily understood or loved.

Its name, in fact, is still a fighting word as it was a century ago. About one in every 12 Canadians lives in Toronto or its environs. The other 11, according to popular belief, regard Toronto with feelings ranging from tolerance to active dislike. Nobody loves Toronto, it is said, except Toronto people themselves who dote on their town with the complacence of a fat squire surveying his acres or a miser counting his gold.

But I don’t accept either half of this Canadian legend. Toronto, to my mind, is not particularly smug; its intelligentsia are more self-critical than Montrealers or New Yorkers. They’re constantly

talking of their city in a deprecating way, apologizing for what they call its lack of taste, explaining that the school system has a wonderful façade but doesn’t really educate, and remarking: “One thing about Toronto—it’s handy to Montreal and New York.”

I heard a Toronto citizen explaining its good points to a newcomer. “Toronto will grow on you,” she said. “Yes,” added a second citizen, “like moss.” I don’t find Toronto a notably self-satisfied community.

I should make it clear, before going any farther, that my knowledge of the city is by no means extensi ve and peculiar like Sam Weller’s knowledge of London. I was a student at the University of Toronto in the days when the bearded and eccentric Professor Jimmy Mavor and other noted characters of a nearly bygone age were still extant. I returned to Toronto as a resident in 1946, having visited the place many times in the meanwhile. I never felt a desperate longing for Toronto when away from it, nor a passionate enthusiasm when I got back. In me Toronto stirs a feeling of comfortable friendliness, of warm and genial but not particularly exciting familiarity.

Plenty of people, however, must feel differently, because according to Lister Sinclair’s radio skit, twice broadcast by the CBC, “We All Hate Toronto.” But it is significant that this program was written, acted and produced in Toronto itself. It was really another example of the city’s habit of self-dispraise. I don’t believe other Canadians hate Toronto; they wouldn’t come to see her so often if they did.

Yet it certainly has to he admitted that Toronto is not the nation’s best-beloved; and the reason why is quite clear. It is Toronto’s wealth. In Mr. Sinclair’s piece a young man horrifies his family by announcing that he is off for Toronto and the only explanation he can offer for this peculiar conduct is that he wants to make money. He finds Toronto’s citizens singing as they go to work:

Sing a song of moola,

Pocket full of scratch.

Piling up mazuma,

Watching nest eggs hatch!

Toronto’s riches and its concentration on becoming richer are indeed

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Toronto? E-r, u-h ..

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the most salient facts about it. This material prosperity is, of course, not evenly divided. Toronto is no believer in the theory of human equality, but it practices a sort of rough justice which leaves very few out. in the cold. Its mean streets are not so squalid, its millionaires’ palaces not so fabulously opulent, as those of, let us say, Chicago.

Between the extremes live the great majority of Toronto folk, with more telephones, motorcars, bathtubs, radios, pianos, refrigerators, butter and eggs than any other community in Canada. These, it may be noted, are United States standards of welfare; and Prof. Arthur Lower, best of contemporary Canadian historians, says that. Toronto’s secret ambition is to become less and less unlike New York. Whatever may be in Toronto’s secret heart, this is a well-heeled city on its way to becoming more so; and that, 1 think, is the reason for whatever animosity it arouses in the breasts of less fortunate towns.

Were Toronto’s gains ill-gotten? In the Canadian Parliament it has been said that they were, that Toronto is a heartless racketeer of a town and that Bay Street is a robber barons’ citadel.

In these matters everything depends on the vantage point. I have heard Toronto men say that the place to be fleeced properly is St. James Street, Montreal. I have listened to Canadian prairie radicals denouncing Winnipeg —that austere city—as a Babylon of wicked, high-living men who fatten on the miseries of the farmers. Every rich metropolis is the target of brickbats of t his kind. The big had wolf seems to he a necessary character in the drama of capitalistic production. I suppose Toronto has as many buccaneers as any other place like it, but it has certainly put in as much hard work and shrewd thinking.

Just why Toronto became rich and a million strong, rather than one of its rivals in Ontario, is a question for the historians. It has an excellent, harbor, it was the southern terminus of an old fur traders’ trail and it was Simcoe’s choice for capital. These advantages all helped—but the human source material of Toronto is not to he overlooked as a factor.

Many people think that Toronto is a very Scottish city and indeed it has two Highland regiments of its own, complete with pipers, which is more than any city in Scotland can boast. But there are more Irish than Scottish in Toronto; and there are many more English than there areScottish and Irish put together. Naturally, I am talking about what the census calls “racial origin” and not suggesting that 1 oronto citizens are anything but Canadian in nationality. But heredity counts for something.

Stupid and Arrogant

By descent, then, the mass of Toronto people are mixed in something like the proportions of the British Islanders, with an English majority to keep a firm hand, watch the investments and see that the bills are paid, and Scottish and Irish minorities to supply the Celtic dash. This is a formidable combination, as history has shown. When outside observers used to wonder, as they often did, why the British with their tiny country had made such a stir in the world, they overlooked the astounding talent of the islanders for making money. Toronto has the same gift.

It is an excellent quality but it does not bring deep affection to its posses-

sor. The material success of t he British, by concealing their gentle charms and romantic nature, often repelled admirers. Toronto is in the same fix and can do nothing about it except be gracious.

The great question is whether Toronto is in fact gracious and lives up to its rank in other ways. Only foolish people can be angry with a rich capital for being one. The question is: Is it

vulgar, stupid and arrogant? Or is it a handsome place worth looking at, offering its visitors civilized entertainment, cultivating the arts and good works, ventilating ideas and behaving in a generous and tolerant way? (One must take it for granted that Toronto does efficiently its economic job of banking, transport, and so on.. If it did not, it would die on its feet.)

It is certainly a less beautiful place than it ought to be. In this sphere Toronto’s record should read like the child’s school report: “Well ahead in

class hut. could do better if he tried. In downtown Toronto the nearly cloud-capped skyscrapers are graceful and the city hall with its clock tower is an interesting old museum of a place. But in general the business streets have a squashed look, and nearly all their buildings are undistinguished. 1 he street corners lack character. They are so much alike that even the old-timer must sometimes look to be sure where he is. Toronto should have a civic square with a noble approach and keeps promising itself that someday it will have. Its main artery should be spacious and elegant.

A City in a Forest

It. is farther afield that the beauties of Toronto are found—just nort h of the business section in the groves of Queen’s Park and the University campus with its lovely buildings; the beaches on the water front’s eastern and western reaches; the sylvan retreats of High Park, marred only by the occasional murder; the lakeshore drive; and across the north end the elegance of St. Clair Avenue and the fine rollercoaster sweep of Eglinton.

On top of the Bank of Commerce on King Street, tallest building in the British Commonwealth as any proper article on Toronto must note, one gets the best idea of what Toronto has made of itself physically. From this perch, visited by many tourists hut few residents, there is a conspectus of the cramped business area. Looking south across the harbor to Toronto’s island, a precious summer asset that in these crowded times has also become a winter colony, one sees how the water front which might have been a park has been pre-empted by the railways.

The poet Rupert Brooke when he was here in 1913 (and his Toronto notes in “Letters from America” are still worth reading) complained that he could reach the lake front only by weaving through a complicated maze of railroad lines and shunting cars. There is an easier path now—subways carry traffic beneath the tracks; but there the tracks still are, and the warehouses, and the machine shops which send billows of smoke over the city when the wind is from the south as it usually is.

It is the view away to the north which really enchants the eye and may he unique among city vistas anywhere. ! Northward from the latitude of about College Street, which is perhaps one j eighth of the way from the lakeshore to | the city’s farthest edge, Toronto looks ¡ like one vast green forest with only an i occasional building thrusting a turret through the foliage.

It was this remarkable sight which led someone to exclaim, “A million people living in a forest!” The guide-

j book says that Malcolm MacDonald I produced this phrase but I am assured j j it was the late Sir Henry Wood. Whoj ever it was the words are apt. The ! trees of Toronto are its glory, and they are almost everywhere except in the j downtown sector. They flourish most thickly in the Rosedale ravines which wind their way out of the Don valley and cut their way northwest across the city, but they line every street and blossom in thousands of back yards.

! Here the air is like country air and the i leaves shade not only the mansions of j the rich but the humbler dwellings of ! many a struggling salary earner.

But the struggle is worth it, even the I ride home in a jammed Toronto street: i car is worth it, if it yields the comforts ! of life on one of Toronto’s gracefully, flowery, tree-shaded avenues.

Socialites and Hermits

What manner of people live in Tor| onto? They are sometimes said, by those who really dislike the town, to be purse-proud, unduly reserved, sanctimonious and narrow. In particular, they are reputed to have very little interest in what goes on outside their own bailiwick.

Of course it is nonsense to generalize in this way about the people of a city as big as Toronto. It. long ago reached the size when every human variety could be found among its citizens. Debauchees and ascetics, socialites and hermits, intellectuals and film-star worshippers, stamp collectors, ballet fanciers, pickpockets, beekeepers, antiquarians, birdwatchers, dramatists, tramps, old salts, bridge players, horse traders and radio announcers—they are all here in bun;

! dreds and they are as variegated as the i human race anywhere else.

If there’s one pervading quality Toronto people share, I would say it j I is their restless devotion to the great | business of making fife more comfortable and luxurious. For example, they are a home-owning people and they seem to be forever mending and paint| ing their houses or acquiring new gad! gets for them. They are not very good at taking it easy and they don’t rely heavily on providence.

Comfort and plenty are the aims in ! view—but not pursued selfishly. I find | Toronto people (speaking as a newI comer among them) good neighbors, j lavish in hospitality, forthcoming in j help for good causes—a kind-hearted j j folk who only need a little encouragej ment to be as warmly congenial as the j ! more breezy inhabitants of the prairie ! towns. Street manners in Toronto are j i good. People don’t push and they’re j polite to strangers who ask the way. i 1 Pedestrians have at least a sporting j chance in Toronto traffic.

The Radical Spirit

Nobody would call the Toronto citi! i zen especially merry or carefree— except when he relaxes at a party behind closed doors; and that, after all, is what doors are for. He wears his business face in the office and the j street. The eccentric or the bibulous i man on a Toronto st reet or public conveyance is apt to be abashed and therej fore awkward. My analysis of this is ! that he expects to be disapproved of. He does not look for smiles, which he would get in London, but for slight yet unmistakable frowns. Everything in its place, say Toronto folk.

But t hey are certainly not intolerant.

In fact, Toronto has a splendid record in defense of civil liberties. Upper Canada was the first state in the world to pass an antislavery law (about a generation before Britain). Not that this had much direct importance but it

meant that fugitive slaves could find sanctuary here. They did so in great numbers and some of their descendants are in Toronto now.

To this day Toronto has, or rather ought to have, a good reputation for respecting the rights of minorities. The dispossessed Japanese who were driven from British Columbia have found more chances to live and work in Toronto than anywhere else. Canada’s only Communist daily paper is published in Toronto. When, as happens sometimes but not often, a bumbling and timid civic official takes an action which infringes freedom of speech, the Toronto press can be relied on to make a great row. Recently the Toronto hospitals showed reluctance to accept negresses as nurses. The newspapers made strong protest and the students at a Toronto high school promptly showed where they stood by electing a Negro girl president of their student council.

Toronto shows a fine and healthy respect for the liberties and rights that are supposed to mean democracy; and is seldom praised sufficiently for that.

This is one expression of the radical and reforming spirit which, 1 believe, burns with a hard gemlike flame under the bushel of what is called Toronto Toryism. It finds other outlets in a fierce zeal for education and in wellmeant though ineffectual efforts to prevent people from drinking too much.

Toronto, however, is too comfortable and too busy to be deeply interested in philosophical radicalism. Despite its reputation, it is not an intellectual city, not concerned in ideas for their own sake or in coherence of thought. Its most circulated newspaper can cultivate Catholics and Communists with equal zeal and presumably equal scepticism, and hardly raise an eyebrow in a million.

The city’s true intellectuals, and especially those of a pink hue, seem to liveina kind of half world on the fringe of actual events. The University, that


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deservedly famous institution, sends out brilliantly trained men in all the faculties but remains somehow remote from the life of the town.

The greatest Toronto figures have not been cloistered philosophers but contributors to the graces and comforts of civilization. George Brown running his newspaper, Sandford Fleming devising standard time, William Osier teaching medicine, Frederick Banting discovering insulin and Adam Beck creating the Hydro—these are mighty men of whom Toronto can be proud. They are all in the tradition of a comfort-loving town, for, of course, good health, electric light and a convenient way of running the clock all make life more agreeable. Not yet does Toronto meditate deeply, as a town like Dublin

does, on the mysteries of life and death and the tragic themes of the highest part.

That, I must quickly say, is one of those rash generalizations. One can find in Toronto, as everywhere else, men wrestling with the eternal truths —but not many of them.

Not Lively but Honest

In politics, as in everyday life, Toronto prefers the homely virtues to flights of fancy or profundity ot thought. The theorist, the high-brow and the young enthusiast do not cut a great figure in Toronto public affairs. The voters like men of paunchy, aldermanic quality, burgesses of solid worth with practical ideas and no nonsense about them. They are, with some exceptions, not very lively figures but t hey have a good name for honesty and for getting things done. Toronto politics, if dull, are at any rate pure and tolerably efficient .

It is in patronage of the arts that Toronto lets itself go. To the city’s publishers come the manuscripts of most of Canada’s poeta and novelists; and it is in Toronto that they find most generous acclaim if their work is good —or even if it only shows promise. The Toronto Art Gallery has a first-rate collection of Canadian and foreign work and the town is kind to its yet unrecognized young painters and sculptors. They are an eager and exuberant crew, so far as I have known them, and they have a distinctly Canadian attit ude to what they are doing. Whatever talents they have won’t be spoiled by a tradition or style alien to their country.

Whether Toronto is a good theatre town is an open question. I remember when the city had seven playhouses (including two, I admit, for the patrons of the lewd and raucous) and now there is only one of them left—plus a burlesque show for the lewd and raucous. But the same decline has happened in many another city and in vain do old fogies lament it. The legitimate theatres have gone with the sailing ships because the films, like steamboats, serve more people and make more money. Still, Toronto cannot be said to be dead to the theatre arts when it is offered, as it was this fall, Shakespeare and Sophocles in the same week. The University’s little theatre at Hart House, and amateur groups like the New Play Society keep the flag fl>ing.

But music, according to the most learned critics, is the art in which Toronto chiefly excels—both in performance and appreciation. There is a great public here for everything from Bach to Gershwin and the city is blessed with choirs, orchestras and conductors whose fame has travelled far. How much pleasure they have given season after season in the costly antique atmosphere of Massey Hall and the other auditoriums of the town!

Yes, Toronto is a pleasant place and it worries the average inhabitant that other Canadians do not take his city to their hearts. Never suspecting that he is tarred as a plutocrat, he muses on possible causes. Do the strangers lose their way in a town without legible street signs? Or do they choose the wrong restaurants and find that Toronto public cookery can be as heartrending and ruinous to good temper as any in the known world?

Toronto people, you see, are not troubled by these little matters. They rely on the faithful TTC to take them to their front doors in its swift, impetuous streetcars and then they dine at home, comfortable and happy as larks —or at least happy as canaries—to belong to the Queen City. +