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culture

Diversifying Toronto’s History

Heritage Toronto introduces Heritage Diversity Stories, an initiative aimed at collecting the stories of the city's different cultural communities.

An oral history of Italy's 1982 World Cup victory, and its effect on Toronto's Italian community. The video was made as part of Heritage Diversity Stories.

“Cultural diversity has become a defining feature of this city and a fundamental part of its identity,” begins the introduction to Heritage Toronto’s new initiative, Heritage Diversity Stories. The project aims to shed light on the stories of communities that have helped transform Toronto from a very British locale (and one that frequently discriminated against newcomers) to a diverse, multicultural metropolis.

Supported by a grant from the provincial Ministry of Tourism and Culture and corporate assistance from RBC, the first wave of Heritage Diversity Stories consists of 26 written pieces spotlighting nine of the major non-English language groups in the city. Some are contextual essays written by project coordinator Tyson Brown, while others are oral histories prepared by students. The stories, which are presented on the revamped Heritage Toronto website in English and the relevant language, aim to show how immigrants brought their cultures to Toronto and adapted them to a new setting. Besides text, the entries incorporate archival photos and video interviews.

Oral histories are key to preserving records of these communities. That’s because coverage in the mainstream press used to be—especially prior to the Second World War—non-existent, or dripping in stereotypes. A flip through any of the major daily papers prior to the 1960s can be a cringe-inducing experience. Acknowledging the change in the cultural makeup of the city was a slow, awkward process that sometimes resulted in well-intentioned but patronizing work.

“Heritage Toronto has wanted for some time to make sure that the stories we tell about this city reflect the full diversity of the city,” notes project director and Heritage Toronto Chief Historian Gary Miedema.

The project has served as a mutual bridge-building exercise. Heritage Toronto wanted links to groups it had previously had little connection with, while community cultural groups sought ways to assemble their organizational histories—an especially tricky process in groups with longer histories in Toronto, whose first-generation leadership is aging. “All of us were in the right place at the right time to realize that this is something we can all work together on,” says Miedema.

The initial batch of stories covers topics ranging from Filipino caregivers, to the evolution of Lahore Tikka House. One tale that stood out for Miedema was one about the celebrations surrounding Italy’s victory in the 1982 World Cup. Beyond providing a model for other communities around the city to celebrate future wins in the soccer tournament, the victory provided local Italians a chance to demonstrate their self-confidence. “I hadn’t realized fully how important that moment was to Toronto’s Italian community as a moment when they could really feel like this city was theirs as much as anyone else’s, and that they felt immense pride at being Italians and Torontonians,” Miedema says. (A video of an oral history of the soccer victory, assembled as part of the project, is embedded above.)

Those behind Heritage Diversity Stories hope that the launch material is just the beginning. As strong relationships build, more unheralded pieces of Toronto’s history will, if all goes as planned, be uncovered for a wider audience.

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