Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Lister Sinclair and Andrew Allan in the CBC studio. CBC Still Photo Collection/Gilbert A. Milne.
“Toronto is the greatest unifying influence in this country today,” a hobo philosophizes in a Toronto park. “Without Toronto, let me tell you, this country would dissolve into the red ruin of domestic turmoil and civil war tomorrow! Or this afternoon even! Toronto is the one thing that holds the place together.” The soap-box philosopher’s audience is Charlie, a bewildered newcomer to the city and the hero of Lister Sinclair’s We All Hate Toronto, a satirical radio play produced by Andrew Allen and broadcast on the CBC’s Trans-Canada network on January 17, 1946. The hobo continued: “We all hate Toronto! It’s the only thing everybody’s got in common. You hear a dreadful quarrel start up between English Canadians, and French Canadians, or Maritimers and Manitobans, or some such thing…As soon as anybody mentions Toronto, all enmity is forgotten, all scars are healed, all thoughts of violence and discord are swallowed up in warm brotherly love.” That same joke, with slight variations, has been handed down by stand-up comics and repeated by, among countless others, columnist Chris Zelkovich and humourist Arthur Black.
It is just one instance of what has become an enduring theme in Canadian culture: animosity towards Toronto. We All Hate Toronto—which the Star of June 19, 1948 called “a malice-edged bit of spoofing” when it was reprinted in Sinclair’s A Play On Words & Other Radio Plays (J.M. Dent & Sons Limited, 1948)—was certainly not the first to poke fun at Toronto’s quirks. But, giving expression to an existing sentiment, the play was broadcast at a significant moment in the city’s—and the country’s—artistic and economic development. It was one of a number of anti-Toronto cultural artefacts that appeared at the same time as Toronto assumed a greater role at the leading edge of the country’s post-war economic boom.
“About one in every 12 Canadians lives in Toronto or its environs,” J.B. McGeachy wrote in the November 15, 1947, issue of Maclean’s. “The other 11, according to popular belief, regard Toronto with feelings ranging from tolerance to active dislike,” he added as he investigated the post-war anti-Toronto phenomenon. About a decade later, Let’s All Hate Toronto (Kingswood House, 1956) was the contribution of Scottish-born advertising executive and caricaturist Jack McLaren. While travelling the country as a member of the Dumbells theatrical group, he discovered that the further he got from Toronto, the less complimentary locals became towards his adopted town. Inspired, McLaren produced an irreverent history—aimed more at Torontonians than anyone else—providing tongue-in-cheek interpretations of John Graves Simcoe, the first streetcar ride, and the rivalry between Timothy Eaton and Robert Simpson. The themes explored in these works provide a portrait of a city undergoing massive changes and the enmity they promoted in the rest of the country.
Jack McLaren, Let’s All Hate Toronto (Kingswood House, 1956)
Lister Sinclair is best remembered today from his sixteen years as host of CBC Radio One’s Ideas and as a long-time panellist on Front Page Challenge. But his association with the CBC goes back much further. Bombay-born and London-raised, Sinclair and his mother were stranded in North America while visiting the World’s Fair when war broke out in 1939. They moved to Vancouver, where an eighteen-year-old Sinclair—instantly feeling at home in the coastal city—studied mathematics and physics at UBC. There, he also wrote for The Ubyssey, was drawn to the theatre by an interest in classical drama, and developed a life-long friendship with Pierre Berton. Arriving at the University of Toronto to continue his studies, Sinclair took part-time work as a voice actor for CBC radio to make extra money.
His aspiration to be a dramatist was encouraged by producer Andrew Allan, who Sandy Stewart wrote in From Coast to Coast: A Personal History of Radio in Canada (CBC Enterprises, 1985) was “mainly responsible for bringing excellent radio drama to Canadians during the Golden Age” of Canadian radio between 1944 and 1954. Until the 1940s, the CBC hadn’t shown much interest in developing Canadian talent but, as producer of innovative CBC programs like the Stage series, Allan gave tremendous freedom to Sinclair and other writers to produce dramas that explored the country’s heritage.
Beginning in 1944, Sinclair would compose more than seven hundred radio plays. Never one to shy from controversy, one of his early plays, The Case Against Cancer, demystified the disease for a popular audience, while another, Hilda Morgan, prompted debate in the House of Commons because it concerned a young, pregnant widow exploring her options. As his later career would illustrate, the young Sinclair was really—as Claudia Calabro put it in the Ryerson Review of Journalism—”a teacher and thinker disguised as a radio playwright.”
Observers have sometimes criticized that not many radio scripts of the golden age have stood the test of time. “But the critics have missed the point,” Stewart argues. “They forget that these scripts were not intended to ‘hold up.’ They were written of and for their time,” mirroring the contemporary social life of the country. While many of Sinclair’s jokes in We All Hate Toronto could’ve applied to prewar Toronto, this anti-Toronto satire was timely. During the Second World War, servicemen from across the country flooded into the city and frequently complained that it was dull and puritanical—and they’d likely have agreed with Sinclair’s barbs.
McLaren’s view of city traffic.
Upon the first of the show’s several broadcasts, Torontonians were outraged and huddled around water coolers for incensed chit-chat. Frank Tumpane recalled, in the Globe on April 26, 1951, that “anguished cries” of Torontonians denouncing it “as an attack on the city of their birth or adoption” echoed “in the press throughout the land.”
“We All Hate Toronto simply scintillates with some of the worst cliches ever to be dredged out of a notebook,” Tumpane wrote. He complained of misfired jokes so “shopworn and hackneyed” that they might’ve been repeated since “back about the time of the Boer War.” He felt the play was so juvenile that being offended by it would be “about on a par with complaining publicly about the kid who sticks out his tongue at you as you walk down the street.” On the other hand, Gordon Sinclair writing in The Star in late 1951 ranked the radio play “as one of the four best broadcasts ever aired.”
The story concerned Charlie, a young everyman from a nameless Canadian locale, who decides to move to Toronto to pursue the “sacred principle” of money. After hearing the news, his parents let out “a dreadful shriek,” bemoaning that their “respectably brought up” son would choose “the city that nobody loves.”
Being outfitted at the local department store, Charlie is assisted by Mr. Beelzebub—a native Torontonian—who offers Charlie advice. He suggests, for example, that Charlie sew fish-hooks in his pockets to prevent the pick-pockets of Bay Street. And, in a comment that foreshadowed one of the most ridiculed incidents of the Mel Lastman years, Beelzebub warns that Toronto winters could be tough because councillors had “voted that it wouldn’t snow there any more” and sold all the snow-clearing equipment. And since no satire about mid-century Toronto would be complete without ridiculing the city’s notorious puritanism, Beelzebub launches into song, with the music provided by the CBC’s Lucio Agostini:
The people are pure, and vengeance sure
Descends on a budding Lothario.
So any whose folly inclines to the jolly
Tries not to get caught in Ontario.
Later on, another character, standing in the shadows of the tallest building in the British Empire and the largest hotel in the British Empire, gripes that gossipy and judgmental Toronto was also “the largest small town in the British Empire.” In this city, alcohol was so difficult to obtain that the hobo in the park continuously offers Charlie nail polish remover and hair tonic. Toronto’s reputation for rigid respectability, forged in the 1830s and 1840s with the rise of middle-class moral reformers, had long been enshrined in law. But civic authorities were beginning to be relaxed.
McLaren showed the continuity of the joke through the ages by repeating the same joke three times.
After the war, locals who’d grown accustomed to being served alcohol overseas during the war and other groups in the changing city increased pressure to liberalize liquor laws—although it took a hard fight against dry forces. McGeachy was correct in pointing out that citizens of Toronto were far more diverse than Sinclair’s “unduly reserved, sanctimonious and narrow” populace. But his protestations seem to miss out on Sinclair’s humour.
Overcoming the objections of one and all—even the train conductor suggests he’d much prefer to disembark at Port Credit—Charlie pulls into Toronto, “the swarming, seething tumultuous sky-scraper-ridden heart of Ontario,” expecting “an endless throng of eager, excited, happy, bustling people!”
“Only,” as the narrator punctuated a vast radio silence, “he happened to arrive on a Sunday.” Another tried and true Toronto joke motif, the success of the sabbatarian movement in Toronto—with fights over Sunday streetcars and tobogganing—had long made the city the butt of jokes. In about 1890, T. Hadley McGinnis opined that Sunday was “a terror…unless one happens to enjoy going to church, walking about the quiet streets, reading, or sleeping.” That same quip, in a 1955 Maclean’s article, was harnessed in the name of reform. As with puritanism, Toronto’s sabbatarian laws were weakening in the post-war period.
By 1947, agitation grew for a loosening of restrictions against Sunday sports, eventually achieving success (albeit by a bare majority) in a January 1950 referendum. Although being pushed to the fringes by a new middle class and increasingly diverse population, the old conservative, religious order would not give in without a fight.
On Monday morning, Charlie awoke to a whole new city—because, as the narrator put it, “on Mondays, Toronto makes money!” Torontonians sang as they passed Charlie on the way to work:
Debits and debentures;
Assets, files and dockets.
Off to put our hands in
Someone else’s pockets.
Sing a song of money
Pockets full of dough;
Out for filthy lucre
Off to work we go!
Sinclair’s most trenchant critique was that “the curse of financial prosperity hangs over Toronto like some miasma from the low-lying swamp on which the luckless city was originally built.” In the decade following the war, Toronto was well on its way to surpassing Montreal as the economic engine driving the country. In this era, the city entrenched itself as the banking and financial capital of the country; the TSX became the country’s preeminent exchange; and more and more corporations chose Toronto for their headquarters.
McGeachy agreed and cited jealousy as the primary cause of animosity. But, with the sort of smugness that’d be sure to breed resentment in any non-Torontonian reader, McGeachy concluded: “Only foolish people can be angry with a rich capital for being one.”
But Sinclair hit the mark where McGeachy missed the point: it’s not just that Toronto was wealthy but that its wealth was perceived as having been achieved off the backs of the rest of the regions. On the trading floor of the stock exchange—”the heart of the Dominion, pumping the life blood of commerce through all the arteries of the land”—a broker tells Charlie: “It’s good for Ontario; everything that happens here is good for Ontario; we hope. You see, all the profits come to Toronto. That’s why people dislike us. If we weren’t in the Stock Exchange, I could explain to you that it’s the old story of the argument between the haves and the have-nots; in other words, the class war!”
McLaren’s view of the city’s new subway on day one.
McGeachy set himself up as a dispassionate observer, but his article contained a crucial flaw. Thinking it significant that the program was produced in Toronto, McGeachy assumes that We All Hate Toronto was just another instance of the city’s intelligentsia “talking of their city in a deprecating way.” Where else could it have been produced, a westerner might’ve bitterly retorted, when English Canada’s cultural industries were so highly concentrated in Toronto?
But Sinclair, having attended university in a hot-bed of anti-Toronto sentiment, surely would’ve known that this sentiment was real and deeply held. In places like Vancouver, it is bred in the bones, a kneejerk reaction that—depending on the cultural or political circumstances at a particular moment—can be tongue-in-cheek or deadly serious. Yet Sinclair’s radio play also contained obvious affection for his adopted home.
McLaren addressed some similar themes as Sinclair. But in the decade between Sinclair’s play and McLaren’s book, the city had continued to grow up. So the cartoonist added his own digs. Foregoing the easy gibes at Bay Street plutocrats, McLaren took aim at post-war consumer culture.
McLaren’s view of the city’s new subway on day three.
To illustrate the city’s grouchiness, he poked fun at the opening of the subway: the cause of a gleeful holiday mood and good neighbourliness among commuters—for three days. Afterward, he writes, “Torontonians went back to their usual morose glumness,” glaring “at each other suspiciously and sudden venom [filling] their tongues with malice.” McLaren also targeted the latest suburban development, dubbed “Monotony Gardens,” which turned “a pleasant meadow with wild flowers and trees” into an “illogical development of rigid, unvaried, wearisome, regimented rows of toy-like houses.”
Pierre Berton offered a mid-century thesis, which was quoted in Beverly Fink-Cline and Leigh Cline’s The Terrific Toronto Trivia Book (Nelson, 1979). He said that, because most Torontonians come from somewhere else, “Torontonians don’t give a damn what anybody says about Toronto.” But the furious reaction against We All Hate Toronto seems to contradict this idea. For each new instance of anti-Toronto sentiment over the years, the local press duly recorded it, and journalists would initiate another round of finger-wagging and hand-wringing.
Sometimes the coverage could take a sly pride. “We harbor a suspicion,” the Peterborough Examiner theorized in a November 1954 op/ed, “that Toronto secretly prides itself on being thought of as the bete noire of Ontario and has deliberately encouraged the belief that it has a cloven foot.”
At other times, this defensive brand of civic boosterism revealed the city’s deep-seated post-war status anxiety. Historian A.R.M. Lower suggested to McGeachy that “Toronto’s secret ambition [was] to become less and less unlike New York.” Fuelled by Sinclair, McLaren, and others, this anxiety was so deeply ingrained that in the late 1950s when a CBC crew set out to interview Torontonians for a radio documentary they actually expected to hear nothing but vitriol towards the town. Surprised to learn the crew had heard nothing but praise, Star columnist Dennis Braithewaite tied the city’s need for love with its city-building aspirations: “Maybe we are all growing up at last.”