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Toronto: A Global City or My Home Town

sunny 16 °C

Writing about London as “a global city” recently got me thinking about Toronto, and why I felt I couldn’t become “an international citizen” while still living in Toronto.

One can’t read much about Toronto before hearing it linked to multiculturalism. The City of Toronto has a webpage celebrating the diversity of the population, and the last census revealed that 49.9% of the population was born in another country. It is a city with a rich diversity, and one can easily hop around town to experience various cultures - from China to Italy to Greece to India all for the price of a TTC day pass.

Monument to Multiculturalism, Union Station

Monument to Multiculturalism, Union Station

As an example of this, I recall the fourth of July, 2004. On that day Greece was playing Portugal in the final of the UEFA Euro 2004 football (soccer) tournament. I decided to go and watch the game with folks who had a vested interest in the outcome. The only question was whether I should head over to The Danforth to watch in Greektown, or head over to Ossington Avenue to watch with the Portuguese in Little Portugal. I ended up choosing the larger Greek population, and celebrated with the local Greek population on a closed Danforth Avenue after Greek won one-nil.

Toronto is very multicultural, but frankly so are many cities. What is it about Toronto that makes people equate it with multiculturalism more than other international cities?

Pico Iyer addresses this in the book The Global Soul: Jet-Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home which I read recently. In a chapter on Toronto entitled “The Multiculture,” he writes:

The first time I ever met the word multiculturalism was while reading an essay of Jan Morris’s, about Toronto, from 1984, in which she described meeting the word herself for the first time in a city that seemed to be built around it. The singular promise of Canada, for her, lay in the fact that it was no Promised Land, hand no torch-bearing statue, no vision of a City on a Hill nor constitution guaranteeing the pursuit of happiness. Canada seemed to her a vast and all-accommodating open space, “all things to all ethnicities,” with “Canadian nationality itself no more than a minor social perquisite, like a driving license or a spare pair of glasses.”

I think Jan Morris, whom Iyer quotes, was definitely on to something. The Canadian identity is a bit of a blank slate, without much of the history of European countries, nor the underlying ideology of self-made individualism that defines the American identity. Canadianism mixes the social collectivism of Europe with the Individualism of America. Being Canadian is about being an individual as part of a collective, but allowing others in that collective to be who they want to be. So one can easily come to Toronto from Delhi, and experience both the comforts of India in local shops, restaurants and clubs, and also the international experience that the rest of the city can offer.

I wrote in my recent blog entry “The Global City vs. This Other Eden,” that “I didn’t move to England looking to take on some new national identity, but rather to take on an international identity. I don’t want to be English and Canadian (or British-Canadian, if such a thing exists). I want to be global.”

If I wanted to be global, why then couldn’t I stay in Toronto and do that. After all, there was much opportunity to get out and experience other cultures. There was opportunity to be part of the global world in my work, and even in my personal life. Why did I have to leave to become a “global citizen?”

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The answer, I think, lies in the consciousness with which I was living my life in Toronto. I was born in Toronto, lived there by the accident of birth rather than through a conscious choice to move there. As much as I wanted to see Toronto as the future, as a wide open outward looking place, the fact was Toronto was my history and wasn’t my choice. I was connected to Toronto as a locality, the physical place where I grew up. As global and multicultural as the city was, I was never able to shift my perception of the place as being the place town where I live.

I was unable to see the wider world contained within Toronto from within my own world. 

And so, perhaps unfairly to Toronto, I had to leave Toronto to be able to see the world contained within a city.

Some day I will probably return to Toronto - not just as a visitor but for good. I wonder if I will see the global, multicultural city or if it will still be the town in which I grew up.

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Posted by GregW 15:30 Archived in Canada Tagged books migration_philosophy existential_migration

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