If there’s anything good that comes from the colorful antics of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, it may be the global public attention that is being drawn to such a unique city.
To be only 90 minutes away from Chicago by air, Toronto, Ontario in Canada, may as well be a galaxy away from the Windy City in terms of outlook, culture and population.
Toronto looks like a typical major American metropolis – bigger than most, in fact – except for one thing. The lack of Americans. We’re there, of course, as visitors and expatriates, but this bustling burg is a microcosm of the entire planet.
It’s said that you can travel the world just by traveling to Toronto.
With 2.8 million people (compared to Chicago’s 2.7 million), Toronto’s multi-cultural population is heralded as one of the most diverse in the world. Nearly all of the world’s culture groups are represented in Toronto, where over 140 languages and dialects are spoken, over 30 per cent of residents speak a language other than English or French at home, and where 47 percent of the population have a mother tongue other than French or English.
Therein lies the charm of the city – the mixed-bag mosaic made up of its people, just under half of who were born outside of Canada and half of who have lived in Canada for less than 15 years.
In addition, just under half (47 percent) of Toronto’s population is what the Canadian government’s statisticians call “visible minorities” – which is defined as “non-Caucasian in race or non-white in color.”
According to city statistics, the top five “visible minority” groups in Toronto are South Asian, at 12 percent of the population; Chinese at 11.4 per cent; Black at 8.4 per cent; Filipino at 4.1 per cent; and Latin American at 2.6 per cent.
Add to that mix the top five languages spoken in homes other than the “official” English and French, which are: Chinese, Tamil, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Put that all together and you have some kind of an international gumbo and the setting for some of the most fascinating people watching in the world.
But not only watching…people “experiencing” might be an even better term in rubbing up against the many cultural differences of the various individuals you encounter on your travels through the city, as filtered through the lenses of the typical “American” mindset.
Wash Your “Race” Worries Away!
N’DIGO visited Toronto in August and was floored by the way so many of Toronto’s diverse residents view life and some of the cultural differences of those people and of the locale itself.
The most notable and probably welcoming, but none-the-less offsetting difference observed by a visitor from Chicago, long one of the world’s most segregated cities, is that life in Toronto is not overridingly viewed through the prism of race. In Chicago, in America, everything is.
So when we arrived and checked in at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel right in the heart of the downtown Financial District, it was surprising to see that the whole front operation was run without a Caucasian person in sight.
But that started the whole guessing game that went on for the entire five-day stay in Toronto of… “Well, what is he?” about the guy checking us in, and “What is she?” about one of the financial managers.
“He” turned out to be Mandarin, while “she” identified herself as Persian, from a wealthy family of Iranian entrepreneurs; she came to Toronto to study finance and ended up staying there to live.
On the people-watching front, where you see the typical Black dude/White chick in American cities, in Toronto it was anybody/everybody. “That guy is brown-skinned, but he’s not Black, and she’s what, Dutch-Asian?” the guessing game continued.
The international cosmopolitan population of Toronto fortunately is not consumed by such American thoughts. And you know, it makes for an extremely comfortable environment to be in.
Another cultural difference you can easily observe is that these Canadians are almost immune to the smug air of American superiority we, their neighbors to the south, must always bring to their city.
They gently explain that Canadian money is significantly preferred over American (because it’s stronger, with a higher exchange rate) and will direct you to many money exchanges that can help you convert.
We met one very helpful and knowledgeable exchanger who moved to Toronto from her native Northern Africa 40 years ago and has been working in the same currency exchange booth ever since.
In another instance of American racial insistence, we were standing at the hotel’s help desk as a White woman from Texas beseeched the Moroccan-looking concierge for help on planning her last day in Toronto, which was free, after a long business trip.
He outlined a nice little routine for her, all sites and activities within walking distance. “But is it safe?” she asked…and you could almost hear her mind finishing the sentence – “because I see so many Negro-ish and non-Caucasian people walking around here!”
The concierge calmly answered, “Well madam, unless you’re walking around with dollar bills hanging out of your pockets, I’d say it’s pretty safe!”
Which it is. That’s another fascinating thing about Toronto…it’s one of the safest places on Earth. It was recently ranked as the safest large metropolitan area in North America by Places Rated Almanac.
Being in one of the safest urban environments in the world was another mind-blower to a cat blowing into Toronto from not-so-safe Chicago just down the way.
“Oh, the Windy City, huh?” said an Ethiopian cabdriver, hearing our response to the most-asked question in Toronto. But he said it like Chicago was as far away and mystical as the North Pole instead of a mere hour’s plane ride away.
“Windy City. Lots of crime, right?” “Yes, unfortunately,” we said. “Lots of guns. You have guns here?” we asked. Now, this guy looked like the rapper/actor Ice T and seemed to have just as much smarts and street savvy, but he was astonished by the question.
“No. Guns are for the police,” he said with genuine earnestness, and then asked just as sincerely, “You have a gun? Did you bring your gun?” as though just because I’m from Chicago I could be packing heat on the airplane across international boundaries.
That’s another thing about the residents of Toronto, particularly the immigrants – you’d naively think they’d want to be coming to America, since Americans assume that’s where everyone wants to go.
A cab driver from Kashmir who was explaining the city’s vast and humming Entertainment District to us, admitted that was his original plan when he arrived in Toronto 15 years ago, but found the city such a nice place that he ditched his plans to continue on to the States.
As we passed a group of women exercising in a park on the way to the airport – the city is notably health conscious and bike riders abound everywhere – another cabdriver from England echoed that Toronto is a great place to stay. “It’s peaceful, always something to do, great quality of life, and if you want it, it’s easy to get work here,” he said.
Sociabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival
While the city itself looks prototypically American, with the strip malls and Walmarts, there are the local nuances. While the McDonald’s don’t necessarily sell the “Royale with Cheese” burgers of Pulp Fiction fame, they do offer lobster sandwiches.
And the locals dig on this thing called poutine – French fries and cheese curds covered with gravy – as well as peameal bacon sandwiches – bacon cut from boneless pork loins, sweet-pickle cured and rolled in a golden cornmeal coating. The sandwich originated in Toronto and is one of the city’s signature dishes.
The most famous venders of both delicacies can be found in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. Carousel Bakery has been at the same location in the Market for over 30 years making the peameal bacon sandwich, while Poutini’s House of Poutine raves about how it makes its gravy fresh daily.
The St. Lawrence Market itself is one of the world’s great markets, as rated by National Geographic Traveler magazine, where for over 200 years, more than 120 vendors, merchants and artisans have offered truly great food, crafts and collectables.
N’DIGO was there to visit Caribana, the annual festival of Afro-Caribbean culture and traditions that has been going on since 1967. The three-week festival is highlighted by a street parade held the first Saturday in August. It consists of costumed dancers (called “Mas players”) along with live Caribbean music being played from large speakers on the flatbed of 18-wheeler trucks.
Billed as North America’s Largest Street Festival, Caribana, according to one of the festival’s organizers, Stephen Weir, “draws over a million people a year and more than 500 media members to cover it.”
Can’t miss events associated with Caribana are the King and Queen competition on the preceding Thursday night – where Weir says, “Under the lights, you can see the total beauty of the big queen and king costumes, some of which are 40 feet high.” – and the street Parade of Bands, featuring up to 1,000 musicians playing in calypso, soca, reggae, hip hop, chutney, steel pan and brass bands.
Represented at Caribana are island nations such as Trinidad, Tobago, Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados and so many others – there are thousands of Caribbean islands – and if you really want to see beautiful island girls in all their glory, there is no better place to be. So Caribana attracts a lot of young partying singles, but it is also equally family friendly, to boot.
One of the best times to visit Toronto is during Caribana because it coincides with Canada’s Civic Day/Simcoe Day holiday, which is a four-five day long holiday weekend when almost everything in Toronto just shuts down and everybody basically chills. Makes for an extremely relaxing visit.
You should plan now to visit Toronto in the summer of 2014, especially for the very, very laid-back Caribana/Civic Day weekend. And when you do, for another unexpected leisurely pleasure, rent a car and take the three-hour drive over to Niagara Falls to see the big gusher and visit the almost fantasy-like city that has sprung up around this natural wonder. It’s a definite charmer for the children, which our kids found more entertaining than Toronto itself, and even taking in the beauty of the topography during the drive is a nice experience.
Vanessa Somarriba, a spokesperson for Tourism Toronto encourages N’DIGO readers to come down (up, in this case) from Chicago.
She says, “Summer in Toronto is like no other time in the city; you can feel the vibrant energy in the city’s diverse and eclectic neighbourhoods. Whether it’s the endless number of events and festivals taking place on the Waterfront, or the first-rate restaurant and shopping offerings on Queen Street West or Kensington Market, or catching a Blue Jays game at the Rogers Centre, summer in Toronto really has something for everyone.
“Chicagoans can easily escape to Toronto given it’s only a 90-minute flight away, and when they arrive they’ll get lost in all of the city’s many offerings, and leave knowing they must come back.”
(Tourism Toronto’s website, www.seetorontonow.com, is a great resource for anyone planning a trip to the city.)