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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Toronto’s fictional insecurity

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My psychogeography column in Eye Weekly this week explores the strange civic fiction that maintains Toronto has an insecurity complex. I admit my position is somewhat biased as I’m surrounded by people who truly like and love this city — from the people I work with, the ones I socialize with, and the people who contribute to this blog with comments — but as I write in the piece, I think it’s simply a lazy default position to fall back on, and something perpetuated by various media reports looking for a story. As we saw during 175th birthday, when given the chance to express their civic feelings publicly, Torontonians go gaga over their city.

On March 6th we celebrated Toronto’s 175th birthday. I say we because anybody that lives in Toronto gets to celebrate, as there are no rules on who gets to be a Torontonian. People show up and like the Mel Lastman-era bumper sticker says: “You Belong Here.” A city like Toronto is yours for an hour, or a lifetime, unlike some small towns where if your great-grandparents didn’t live there, you’re still considered “new.”

One hundred and seventy-five years is not that old when compared to some cities, but it’s old enough to cause us to wonder where this city’s infamous inferiority complex comes from. It’s widely held that Torontonians don’t like their own city, or are at least a little ashamed of it. It’s a curious condition considering the equally powerful and widely held belief that the rest of Canada hates this city and its self-possessed inhabitants. Don’t they know Torontonians supposedly feel the same way about their city? More curious is how this condition has lasted so long considering Toronto keeps adding new people who presumably don’t have any of this strange baggage. Read the rest over at Eye Weekly.

By coincidence when writing this I saw an interesting response to our 175th birthday video on this Montreal blog that stated: WARNING: Watching this video may provoke uncontrollable fits of anger. Watch at your own risk. While the video is certainly open to criticism and debate, I don’t understand (and neither did many of the comments on the Montreal blog) why Torontonians talking about what they like about their city would induce “fits of anger” in Montrealers. In Toronto I can’t think of the last time I heard somebody utter an ill-word about Montreal (other than those that are hockey-related). People here, generally, truly like Montreal and, dare I say, are proud of being in the same country as that city. I end the column thinking about Charles Pachter’s mural “Hockey Knights in Canada” found in the College Subway Station, complete with Habs players. Nobody minds that it’s there, and it’s a Toronto landmark. I wonder how a similarly bold representation of Toronto would be received in other Canadian cities. I’d welcome examples if you have any.

The disdain directed towards this city from all parts of Canada is rarely reflected back. In fact, I feel more attached to the rest of Canada now, living in Toronto, than I did when I lived in a provincial Ontario city because my social and and professional circle is filled with people from every part of this country and they’re constantly talking about those places. The “idea of Canada” is alive and well and on the streets of Toronto everyday. That “Hockey Knights” exists, and that Torontonians don’t speak ill of the rest of Canada, is testament to a city that is very confident in itself.

Photos by Craig James White.



  1. Hmmmmm. Is it insecurity in the wider world context where we really are a “B” level city with broader aspirations or is it a result of bullying from efforts such as:

    “Let’s All Hate Toronto”.


  2. I once lived in Rotterdam. I noticed a similar relationship between comments people would make about Rotterdam compared to Amsterdam.

    Many people who didn’t live in the city just didn’t get the gritty but lovable nature. I might suggest that Rotterdam has little claim to high culture but a huge claim to economic function and life blood of the country.

    Could both instances be considered a healthy case of sibling rivalry? Toronto is the big brother who knows better than to bash it’s smaller siblings on the head?

  3. The insecurity complex is easy to explain — for almost all of Toronto’s history, it was a newer, poorer, smaller city in a newer, poorer, smaller country. No different than the mythical Canadian inferiority complex vis a vis UK/US.

    For its first century, Toronto was always smaller, less rich and less endowed than nearby Montreal, Buffalo, even Cleveland and Detroit. Midcentury, Toronto started to surpass those cities but then cast its eyes on Chicago and New York and again felt insubstantial. Today, Toronto is arguably approaching top-tier rank in terms of population, skyline and international prestige but on the global list of cities it still comes up short in many indices whether it be the small size of the subway, the lack of billionaire mayors, the frayed grandeur of its open spaces and streetscapes. You nailed it right on the head — “Toronto’s built form is forever trying to catch up to the kind of city that it has become.”

    Most tangible evidence of the inferiority complex? Pick up a few issues of Condo Guide over the last decade and read the through the names of the buildings, noting the geographic references. Let’s just say that in New York and Chicago they aren’t exactly opening sales centres selling dreams called “The Lawrence Park”, or “The Bloor”, or “The Torontonian”.

  4. Thanks for mentioning the history in your Eye article — I think it’s too easy to forget how much smaller a role Toronto played only 50 years ago. Yes, the built form is trying to catch up to the city, but people’s expectations of the city are growing even faster. Ultimately high expectations are a good thing, but early on they can come across as a sort of insecurity.

    But I also think there are real insecurities here. If someone says “I wish we had a better selection of street food”, that’s healthy. But if someone says — and I have heard this often enough recently — “It’s so embarrassing that tourists can’t get anything other than hot dogs from street vendors”, that is an insecurity. The silly thing is people so often misread how others see the city. E.g. the hot dogs seem pretty popular among the journalists who cover TIFF, with Esquire mentioning world-famous sausages and film blogger Jim Emerson enthusing that the dogs are “one of the best things about Toronto”.

    I’m sure someone will mention abuse of the term “world-class” so I’ll just mention in advance I’ve noticed that term gets overused a lot in one other city: London. (England, not Ontario.) Maybe urban insecurities aren’t so rare.

  5. “Let’s All Hate Toronto”, more gimmick than film, was made by somebody who lives in Toronto.

  6. Montreal and Toronto are both small cities and I think thats why they are so good. They still have authentic hoods and a human scale. I have always found that Toronto people love Montreal.

  7. If you watch “Let’s All Hate Toronto”, you might be surprised to discover which city hates Toronto the most (or not).

  8. uskyscraper, I never read too much into condo names. Though I prefer the many condo names that do reflect something local (M5V, Bloor Street Neighbourhood, One City Hall, Market Wharf, etc.), I think referencing New York places is a universal appeal that is equated with wealth and prestige, the kinds of things condo owners want to be associated with. I’ve seen such names for buildings in many cities in Europe, in South America, and other locations. I don’t think it means much.

  9. I have this new theory that if your city sheds off its inferiority complex to develop “hometown pride” (or whatever you might want to call it), it’s probably already too late; your city’s glory days are over and it’s time to rally around collective symbols that are perennial and unchanging because your city isn’t changing that much either.

  10. Inferiority complex? Don’t think so. Toronto equates itself with Canada and gives barely a thought to the ROC. Much of our “national” news is composed of local Toronto stories. Most Torontonians couldn’t tell one prairie province from another or place their major cities to the correct province.

    Every time Mayor Miller or someone puffed away about how Toronto is THEE economic engine of the country didn’t help either. The largest economic centre – fine. But hardly THEE one and only.

  11. Most great cities have had massive public works projects and urban masterplans completed before the era of true democracy, when everyone gets to vote. These cities have had massive public works projects by the brightest architects. These were done when there was no democratic nag of spending on public spaces. Toronto could use $30-50 billion in funds for public spaces over, say, 10 years. But alas, it ain’t going to happen. Unless we obtain some natural resources.

  12. Toronto is the a great city for distinct, interesting neighbourhoods, but as a whole it’s a dog’s breakfast. (Mike Harris did us in by making us “one”.) I find that if people come to Toronto and are shown around they’re usually impressed by the communities we have. If we could accept this wondrous nature of our city, that would be enough for us to be proud of where we live. It’s when we get hung up on being world class that problems arise…who cares?! The more you talk about it the less likely you’ll ever get there.

    As for those who say Toronto is arrogant, I don’t believe that’s true. If anything, Toronto-hating shows the insecurity of other Canadian cities who, like Toronto at its worst, worry about measuring up. And contrary to what Boris says, my experience of Torontonians is that they know and care a lot more about what’s going on in other places than most. If anything I find that many people out west, in BC and Alberta, are willfully ignorant when it comes to Toronto. If Toronto comes up in a conversation they couldn’t care less. Whether this is an act or not, the overall effect is to show how parochial their interests as Canadians are.

    In my mind Toronto’s biggest insecurity right now is that it so wilingly sells itself out for cash. The evidence for this is the blight that is the waterfront. They tell me we’re on a lake, but if you live downtown, you’d have to walk to about 10 feet of it to know it exists there are so many high rises old and new and being built. That our politicians, especially our Mayor, doesn’t have the guts to preserve a few scraps of waterfront is the biggest shame and sign of insecurity I can think of. Citizens come second to business too often in this city. But that’s true in most places, whether it’s the Walmarts and others sucking downtown’s dry in just about every small town with a population of 10,000, or the ruin of Hamilton’s waterfront by hydro towers, or the selling off of public highways to private companies in the GTA.

  13. I agree with Peter except for the stuff about Miller. Those condos went up under Hall’s and Lastman’s reigns. Only a few are under the mayors time. The one to blame is Olivia Chow, who as councillor, could have cared less about urban design. A pity, really.

    Miller has done good on the waterfront for the most part (though most will argue this). Even the Sun did a profile on the waterfront recently and discovered that the plans are no longer just plans, as action is happening. Check out the Wave Deck and the Queens Quay promenade starting construction this summer.

    I would argue the deconstruction of the Gardiner near East Bayfront community is one of Miller’s few blemishes on the waterfront. Not that I want it to stay up, but it may affect the construction of East Bayfront for years while an analysis of taking down the highway is examined. I’m not too sure we need to do much more studying. Traffic models can figure that out for the most part. Its been examined to death.

    Just got back from out west and met lots of people, most of whom were kind and receptive to me being from Toronto. Only a few invoked regionalism BS. Toronto’s self-loathing will always be there — its part of the Canadian Complex we have living beside an arrogant neighbour like the US. We’re proud not to be American (which is the Cdn identity) so we try not to be like them. One of those characteristics is not being arrogant about ourselves as a people. Thus, we’ll always have some form of a inferiority complex. And I’m fine with that.

  14. Moya,
    Regarding what condos went up during who’s watch, no other mayor has had as many condo units go up during their watch as Miller has. That’s not necessarily a bad thing… though many would say that the development has taken place far too quickly and far outpaced the City’s ability to provide proper infrastructure, including transit.

  15. I think Boris is fairly spot on here.

    As to the idea that Torontonians somehow “do not speak ill of the rest of Canada”, try telling one that you happen to be from Alberta.

  16. Boris and Smith need to be with better people. Apart from some gentle ribbing now and then (mostly over politics, since Harper branded himself as the Firewall from the West) there are no bad reactions when I say I’m from AB. That’s what I like about Toronto.

  17. The mural in College St. station is the second mural isn’t it? I thought there was a previous one on the walls and the Pachter work is now covering up the first work.

    I’m not a hockey fan and I wonder if the first was subject to vandalism.

    It helps to remember that when the subway opened in 1954 there were only 6 teams in the NHL and the Montreal-Toronto rivalry was really intense.

    I seem to remember some mural going up–perhaps around centennial year or shortly thereafter.
    Maybe someone can shed light on this.

  18. There was never a pre-Pachter College mural.

    And re

    “Toronto is the a great city for distinct, interesting neighbourhoods, but as a whole it’s a dog’s breakfast. (Mike Harris did us in by making us “one”.)”

    Maybe Mike Harris can take the blame for the thuggishly heavy-handed implementation of Megacity, but I wouldn’t blame him for the “dog’s breakfast”; even before amalgamation, “Toronto” was more strongly identified in terms of “Metro Toronto” than a lot of Mega-critics might wish for. And yes, all backwoods/reactionary outer-municipality politics aside, it was in its way richer, not poorer for the fact–or at least, little or no more “dog’s breakfast” than Greater London, or NYC’s combined five boroughs…

  19. Nice post.

    I grew up in Toronto but went to school at McGill, where I befriended people from literally every province. Most were neutral or positive about Toronto. Those who were negative about it usually had the impression that Torontonians actively disdain or hate the rest of Canada (a variation on the “centre of the universe” theme) — I had to disabuse them of the notion that we spend our time making fun of people from Saskatchewan.

    In response to Boris, big-city dwellers around the world have reputations for being ignorant about the less densely populated areas of their countries. The same is true in New York / Chicago / LA and probably many European countries that are dominated by one or two very large cities.

  20. Count me as one who thinks Charles Pachter’s mural is substandard, it looks like a high school student traced it out from photos with no thought to composition. None of the figures tie into each other, they’re just dropped onto a flat surface.
    His moose were embarrassing and had nothing to do with Toronto but I laughed when the antlers were immediately stolen from each piece.

  21. I rather like Pachter’s murals. They resemble simplified hockey cards that emphasize colour and form. While the placement of the figures may appear arbitrary at first, they nevertheless imply the idiosynchratic movement of a hockey game.

  22. Angus: presumably you’re talking about “Mel’s moose” from 2000, but other than as a probable source of inspiration, Pachter had nothing to do with their conception.

  23. Matt L: Does that mean Pachter actually conceived the broad idea of Toronto moose, or that he decorated a few of them?

    The impression I got from Angus’s comment was that he thought Pachter invented the whole concept.

  24. I have to disagree with Smith. I’ve never had a bad reaction from anyone in Toronto when I tell them I’m originally from Alberta.

    In comparison, during my trips to Vancouver, the instant I mention I’m from Toronto I can practically feel the temperature drop from the cold shoulders I get.

  25. Haha.. i agree with anyone here that’s saying Torontonians are a little bit “colder” than other places across the nation.

    I live in Toronto and have also traveled(and lived) in other towns aswell. I think generally people are “colder” here because it’s way more stressfull. Way more competition(*work wise) higher rent/home costs, ect..

    In comparison, Montreal’s more “chill” because rents lower and the competative mentality isn’t as in your face. This goes with any other small town in Canada(*and Vancouver has the mountains to de-stress themselves. GOtta thank nature don’t you?)

    Folks who “dis-like” the rest of canada, don’t KNOW Canada. So they shouldn’t talk till the actually leave the 416/905. This ignorance is what makes the rest of Canada hate Toronto(*and rightfully so)

  26. I’ve been all over Canada and gotten the Toronto attitude from everywhere, except Winnipeg. Winnipeg seems to be the only place where it’s OK, completely, to be from Toronto, and is one of the reasons why I like the city so much.

    I never saw anywhere where people were more insecure than Vancouver, though. Non-stress from the mountains? I didn’t notice that, just the big chill from them, when I lived there.

  27. I like the murals but think it might be time for them to move a few stations south when the Union Platform 2 goes live… especially if Loblaws ever pull the trigger on the Maple Leaf Market.

  28. Parkdalian, you’re blowing smoke when you say, “This ignorance is what makes the rest of Canada hate Toronto (and rightfully so).”

    First, you’re going to have trouble demonstrating that people in Toronto are more ignorant of places they don’t live than anyone else.

    Second, even if the city were full of ignorant Canada-haters, which it’s not, hard-core anti-Toronto grumblers wouldn’t know. Their keenness to denigrate Toronto may not actually be born of ignorance, but it’s entirely compatible with it.

    My favourite anti-Toronto remark dates from the mid-January power failure that Twitter fans know as “#darkTO”. Under a CBC News article about the failure, someone posted a comment that read, in its entirety, “That’s what you get for living underground like rats.”

    For some people, Toronto is an imaginary place to which they can attach their negative feelings about, well, anything.

  29. Graffiti on the Sidewalk

    (a poem about the Toronto inferiority complex and reciprocal bitterness created by anti-Toronto bitterness)


    “You weren’t born here, that’s why you don’t care
    You’ve come to make your money
    Laugh to relatives back in Nepean,
    Antigonish, Victoria, about dirty old Hogtown
    Suck us dry, you south-of-Bloor daytrippers
    Short-lived big smokers
    your tax-farming parents enjoy their $9-billion Xmas present?
    Please, ride our subway day and night—we built it just for you
    So you shouldn’t bring a car
    No you’re afraid of the traffic,
    Drive on the 401?— barbaric
    Study, play, dream on the College St. scene, it’s ok
    You post-grad potheads don’t pay taxes anyway
    Go, end up somewhere in Brampton, or Pickering, nowhere
    Feed the bedroom ant colonies with
    your upper-middle downtown jobs
    —like those 905 leeches—
    You’ll drive an SUV by then, you
    won’t mind clogging the DVP and Gardiner
    on your way to Bay St. then
    But you’ll flip at the prospect of road tolls
    And won’t vote in our elections
    Don’t go to town hall, hell
    you don’t go north of Dupont (Jane and Wilson? No way, I’ll get shot!)
    You bastard Canadians, fair-weather urbanites, it’s YOU with the identity crisis, you
    hypocritical shits, your naked envy makes me blue in the face
    Condescending visits to our ‘ethnic’ neighbourhoods
    Giddy and nervous in a city so off-white
    Oh it’s so exotic on Queen Street
    Oh, Toronto is home to all kinds
    But the pierced pale-skin young folk, getting tattooed on West Queen West? that’s YOU
    from Sudbury, St. John’s and the Soo—
    escaping those empty shitholes
    ’cause this is the only place would tolerate freaks like that
    But I am sick of it; sick of you hick transplants and your bigoted provincial parents
    You’re why we got 5,000 homeless—so your uncle’s pig farm doesn’t go under;
    why we can’t extend the goddamned subway tunnels,
    Why we got crumbling sidewalks; while your cousins drink subsidized Molsons on the back forty
    So go head back to Sarnia and Red Deer and Moncton and Kelowna for the holidays
    And hear mom and dad bitch, how big fat and ugly Toronto is
    And crap on the Maple Leafs, and piss in our Lake poisoned with acid rain
    …But don’t forget to make phone reservations
    for Mirvish’s ‘Mama Mia’—the Mother’s Day, matinee showing—
    and you’ll wander on after to Eaton Centre food court for
    maybe some spring rolls and a raspberry smoothie, and
    maybe we’ll take the rickshaws dad, you’ll say, but only
    if the smog’s not too bad, and so
    the hobos won’t assault
    you with their cap-rattling guilt trips”

    (does anyone pay attention to graffiti?)

  30. “freaks” “shitholes” and “hick transplants”. How charming. And how is this about a supposed Toronto inferiority complex?

  31. Bitter Torontonians attacked by Insecure Rest-of-Canadians. Insecure Torontonians attacking bitter Rest-of-Canadians. It feeds on itself… This poem is about people who were born in the city responding to people who have recently moved to the city and love to hate it.

  32. I’ll offer a couple of anecdotes as a born-and-bred Albertan aren’t definitive but do caution against statements of certainty re: Toronto “vs” ROC

    1. Worked in Ottawa for a summer during the 1997 election. Roommate — from Toronto — thought the Reform Party was more of a danger to national unity than the Bloc Quebecois (recall they had an equal number of MPs and were fighting over Official Opposition status). This was less than 2 years afer the referendum. I’m not a Conservative but that seemed a little extreme.

    2. I was accepted to both UBC and U of T for grad school. Some of the strongest supporters of UBC around me in Alberta had never actually been to TO and yet described it as, for lack of a better word, a cesspool. Stereotyping weasels, I thought. [I chose U of T.]

    3. While at U of T, the student paper, whose name I’ve blocked from mind, published an article from the U of A student paper which was in favour of students paying more for their own education. The local editor contributed his/her own perspective, that the writer was a rodeo-loving country bumpkin from the sticks. I knew the author; he was a proudly urban, vegetarian student who, by the way, was gay. Who’s stereotyping now?

    4. Overheard in the tunnel connecting Manulife to Bay-Bloor mall: “Didja see the MTV Music Awards last night?” “Yeah.” “How? I thought you were in Calgary. They don’t get cable there.”

    Bottom line — when I was in Toronto I saw no evidence of the Toronto-centrism that everyone complains about. The minute I moved back to Edmonton, it was even more obvious than before. It’s not an expression of disdain, just a conscious knowledge that much of what you see and read comes from Hogtown and needs to be filtered through the lens of “not relevant to my daily life.” I say this, by the way, as a fanatic reader of Spacing and the blog, and one who loved living in TO and yearns to come back.