Toronto's mishandling of a transformation

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Toronto the good? Not so much.

Many define Toronto as the 'centre of Canada', including Toronto: Biography of a City author Allan Levine. But what happens if you don't live in Toronto or, really, anywhere near it, and say in a different city that is also fighting for Canadian city superiority?

Through this lens is how reviewer Daniel Francis deconstructs and evalutes this book.

While Levine champions "Toronto the Good," Francis scoffs at the "breezy arrogance" displayed in the text -- something all Canadian metropolises are guilty of -- and the silence around certain disparaging moments in Toronto's development.

Yes, the age-old battle of Toronto vs. Vancouver is alive and well in this review; however, once we look past the feud, Francis exposes much richness and history from the crusading moralists to the Rob Ford Show and from the city's violent history to the faux-multicultural mecca.

Read on for Francis' fantastic review.


In the introduction to his new book, Toronto: Biography of a City, Allan Levine writes that "the story of Toronto is really the story of Canada. Like it or not, the adage 'as goes Toronto, so goes Canada' is all too true."

So obvious does this claim seem to Levine that he does not even bother to prove it. From the get-go, then, this book is bound to irritate a reader like myself who lives not at the centre of the Canadian universe but on one of the lesser planets apparently orbiting around it (i.e., Vancouver).

However, once you have swallowed your bile at Levine's breezy arrogance, there is much here to amuse and instruct.

For example, where did that idea of "Toronto the Good" come from? According to Levine, it was William Howland, mayor during the late 1880s and a crusading moralist, who first used the phrase. And it certainly seemed to fit, at least for a while.

A series of puritanical business leaders (Timothy Eaton, Hart Massey, Joseph Flavelle) dominated local society, and so renowned was the city for its strait-laced probity that when George Drew, Toronto politician and Ontario premier, allowed cocktail lounges to open, the backlash from the moral brigade sent him down to defeat in the 1949 election. It was 1961 before movie theatres were even allowed to open on Sunday.

Of course, Toronto is a different place today, as the Rob Ford Show illustrates, and Levine's book does a good job of showing how the arrival of immigrants from all over the world changed the character of the city.

This was not a peaceful transformation. Toronto's history has been surprisingly violent, not because of criminality (an aspect of the city about which Levine is disappointingly silent), but because of religious and ethnic animosities spilling over into street brawls and rioting. Toronto the Good? Not so much, not if you belonged to one of the minorities struggling to establish itself against the ingrained prejudices of the smug majority.

In that sense Levine is correct that Toronto is a model for the rest of Canada. All our cities have gone through the same transformation and it is interesting to read how the largest one (mis)handled it. 


Daniel Francis is a member of the editorial board for Geist Magazine and writes a regular column there on books. He is author of several books on Canadian history and has contributed reviews and articles to numerous Canadian periodicals. He can be found on his blog Reading the National Narrative.

The review originally appeared in Geist Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

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