Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Toronto the heartbroken :(

If you had told me when I was 10, or 16, or even 20, that I would wind up spending my adult life in Toronto (or, more accurately, the Greater Toronto Area), I would never have believed it. I grew up on the Canadian Prairies, during the 1970s, when the oil boom was on in Alberta. The premier of Alberta, Peter Lougheed, was my political hero (seeing him walking down the steps of the office tower where I worked, a decade or so later, remains one of the great thrills of my life), and I wrote papers for my college poli sci classes on the subject of western alienation.  Pierre Trudeau (Justin's dad) was prime minister, and universally loathed beyond the 100th meridian (particularly after posing the rhetorical question, "Why should I sell the Canadian farmers' wheat?" and implementing the National Energy Policy, which cut into provincial rights and oil companies' profits).

The West was what I knew, and as I entered my teenage and young adult years, it was where the action was. After graduation, my high school classmates who didn't stay in Manitoba went to school and found work in Saskatoon, Calgary & Edmonton. Nobody I knew was from Toronto, or ever went to Toronto (except one high school friend, who came back from a summer trip sporting a "1050 CHUM" T-shirt. So pervasive was (is) the influence of Toronto on Canadian life that we all knew about 1050 CHUM, even in those pre-Internet days.). Toronto, we all believed, considered itself the centre of the universe -- much as New York City is disdained in some parts of the U.S. for its overwhelming influence on business and culture. (How many Torontonians does it take to change a light bulb? One to hold the bulb, while the room revolves around him.)

But life is full of surprises. I met a really nice, really cute boy from Toronto at university, wound up marrying him, and set up housekeeping in a one-bedroom apartment just off Yonge Street, the city's main north-south thoroughfare, in the midtown district.  It was a great place to live, particularly in those "yuppie years" of the late 1980s, with tons of boutiques and bookstores and movie theatres and chic little restaurants, not to mention banks, grocery stores, the library, streetcars and the subway, all within walking distance. (And we walked, everywhere -- we'd go for days & days without using our car.)  Occasionally, we'd take the subway up to the North York Centre, on Yonge between Sheppard & Finch, to the huge, newly opened library there. The local genealogical society's holdings were housed there and I would spend hours scrolling through endless reels of microfilm while dh browsed the stacks.

"So, how do you like living in TORONTO??"  friends and relatives "back home" would ask me, somewhat suspiciously, with raised eyebrows. I would tell them that I've lived a lot of different places in my life, big & small, and there is good & bad to be found everywhere -- it's all what you make of it.

I could say the same, of course, to the people here who makes endless jokes to me about "Winterpeg."  ;) In many cases, the people rolling their eyes about Toronto have never set foot in the city, and likewise, many people here (although they will jet off each winter to Florida or Mexico or Cuba) have never set foot on the Prairies, winter OR summer.

There was, and is, much to make of Toronto. I have often said, you have absolutely NO excuse to be bored in this city...!  There's an abundance of great theatre, museums, art galleries, concerts, sporting events, movie theatres, bookstores and libraries. There is excellent shopping, both of the mall/chain store variety and smaller specialty boutiques. Restaurants of all kinds abound. There are three excellent universities here, and several fine community colleges. The waterfront is slowly being revitalized, and there are some nice parks -- including, the Toronto Islands (accessible by ferry) and, on the eastern fringes, Canada's first urban national park, Rouge Valley. While the transit system has been underfunded and underbuilt for years, it still gets an awful lot of people where they need to go, and is relatively safe and clean. It's not a perfect city -- not as beautiful as Vancouver or as cosmopolitan as  Montreal or as friendly as Halifax -- but as cities go, it's a pretty damn fine one (and a great place for tourists to visit, by the way!).

The city's motto is "Diversity our Strength," and this city probably comes closer than any to live that ideal.  It can be a shock if you grew up in small towns where diversity means Ukrainians, Icelanders and Mennonites living with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants -- and perhaps a lone Chinese family running the only Chinese restaurant for miles around. I remember standing at a bus stop in Scarborough in the late 1990s with my mother and about two dozen other people. She looked around & whispered to me, "We're the only white people here!"  And we were! There were people around us whose backgrounds were obviously Caribbean, Asian, south Asian and Middle Eastern.  I just hadn't really noticed, because it's not unusual hereabouts. Nobody blinks to see an interracial couple holding hands on the streets. I will admit, I used to gawk at the gay couples on Yonge Street holding hands when I first moved here, but gradually, it ceased to be a novelty. The city has its share of racial and cultural tensions, but for the most part, people get along together pretty well.

After five years in our midtown apartment, we bought a house and moved out of the city proper to a community east of the city. Of course, to anyone who doesn't live here, it's all still "Toronto," and we spent the next 26 years commuting to our jobs in the city's downtown financial district.  We were both at work in our 68-storey office tower when the Twin Towers fell in New York City on 9-11-01.

There were a lot of changes after that. More and more security guards began making their presence known.  Huge planters were installed on the sidewalk outside our towers, forming a barrier along the street. The windows of our offices were covered with a protective film, "to increase energy efficiency," we were told -- but we also knew it was to minimize flying glass in the event of an explosion. I started becoming hyper-aware of the other passengers around me on the commuter trains, in the subway and in the food courts, and did not hesitate to get off at the next station or move to another car if I thought someone was behaving strangely. Wending our way through the crowds along the underground PATH and through the train station, twice a day, I sometimes felt like I was wearing a target on my back. :(

After 9-11, we in Canada, and in Toronto specifically, understood that we were not immune to acts of mass violence and terror. And there have been mass shootings & terrorist acts in Canada (and others that were thwarted), albeit not with the same frequency or casualty levels as in the States.

That doesn't mean, however, that's it's not shocking and heartbreaking when something does happen in your city.

I did not know anyone who was directly affected by Monday's events. (At least, I don't think I do... so far...) But still. Besides being shocking and heartbreaking, it's kind of weird & unnerving, when you know exactly where the violence unfolded. Not only did we used to hang out at the library, along the same stretch of Yonge Street where the van driver so brutally mowed down unsuspecting pedestrians, we drive along that same route several times a year, en route to dentist and optometrist appointments in our old neighbourhood, a few miles further down Yonge. This was familiar territory to us. It's not downtown Toronto (as some reports suggested) -- and indeed, one of the puzzles of this whole story is, why there??  It's a busy, diverse area and densely populated, full of office towers and condo buildings, albeit not as busy and dense as further downtown. It was a beautiful day, one of the first really mild, sunny ones we've had here so far this year, and so perhaps more people than usual were outside, soaking up the sun and enjoying the nice weather on their lunch hour.

Thank goodness for hockey. :)  The Toronto Maple Leafs were playing against the Boston Bruins that evening in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup playoffs series. The Leafs have been Cupless for 51 years now (and counting), and they've only been in the playoffs a handful of times over the past 25 years.  (If you ever want to see an entire city go completely insane, for a good/positive reason, come to Toronto if/when the Maple Leafs ever win another Stanley Cup...!) The game went ahead, albeit with some stepped-up security and road closures, and a very emotional pre-game O Canada and moment of silence.  And the Leafs won! (Thanks, guys, we needed that. ;) ) (Game 7 tonight!)

Life goes on. It can, it must, and it will. (Eventually.) (Those of us who have known grief for other reasons, know this to be true.)

But the shock and sadness will linger for a long, long time. :(


  1. I immediately thought of you when I heard the news. This, though, is a wonderful love letter to Toronto. I hope you heal together.

    I had to laugh - Canadians speak of Toronto the way we speak of Auckland! And the way people in the South Island, where I grew up and went to university, speak of Wellington too, amazed that I liked living here. (In the early years, it's much more popular now.)

    So where did you go to university?

    1. LOL, people are alike everywhere, aren't they? (My longtime NZ penpal lives in Auckland. ;) )

      I did my undergrad degree at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, which is where I met dh. He did his undergrad at University of Toronto and came to U of M for a pre-master's course in immunology -- but then he decided to go for his MBA. he went to University of Windsor for that for two years. Meanwhile, I finished up my degree at U of M and then did a year-long graduate program in journalism at the University of Western Ontario in London (Ontario).

  2. I'm sorry this kind of ill was visited on your home. It sounds like a lovely place to live.

  3. You were the first person I thought of when I read this news. I am very sorry. I wish I knew what to do about senseless acts of violence. Until I figure that out, I try to live my life lovingly with friends and strangers alike, promoting connection as much as my feeble efforts can. I very much enjoyed reading about Toronto. Thank you. <3

  4. I'm so sorry for this loss in your beautiful city -- to know exactly where it was and be so familiar with it must amplify the horror. I love your descriptions of Toronto through the years, and the wisdom that things will go on despite the awful loss of life and brutality, but sadness will linger. I was in Toronto last February to meet up with my dad, and just loved the city. I can see why you do, too. Thinking of you -- Canada has had a rough go of it lately.