Some Great Idea: Read an Excerpt From Ed Keenan's New Book About Toronto
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Some Great Idea: Read an Excerpt From Ed Keenan’s New Book About Toronto

Charting the development of a city that's still just a few years old.


For many years, Ed Keenan has provided some of the most incisive, fair-minded, and well-researched commentary on the state of affairs at Toronto City Hall. In Spacing, Eye Weekly, and now at the Grid, Keenan reliably adds context and writes from a position of empathy. He’s put much of his thinking about post-amalgamation Toronto—its mayors, its animating principles, and its future prospects—in a new book, Some Great Idea, now available in bookshops around Toronto and from its publisher, Coach House Press.

We’ll have a review next week, but if you want a sneak peek at the book itself, Coach House has kindly allowed us to reprint an excerpt from one of our favourite sections—

Besides his work as an Anglican priest, [Henry] Scadding was a writer and historian, and his favourite subject was the history of Toronto. In his capacity as one of our earliest historians, he gave us one of our fondest myths: the one about what Toronto means. When I say myth here, I mean it both in the sense that it’s factually inaccurate and also that it informs our lives and explains how we see ourselves and what we value. A good kind of mythology isn’t so much factual as it is true, and that’s what Scadding gave us. In his 1884 history, Toronto: Past and Present, he ventured that the name of the city came from the Huron word toronton, apparently meaning ‘place of meetings’—a location for different tribes to gather. This is the origin of the name I was taught in grade school, and the one I would have given if you’d asked me while I was working in Scadding’s old house. It’s an impression of Toronto, and an interpretation of its name, that’s been persistent and widely repeated, despite the clarification from subsequent historians that the name of the city almost certainly comes from the Mohawk word tkaronto, meaning, ‘where there are trees standing in the water.’ The vision of those trees standing in the water, picturesque as it may seem, doesn’t say much to us about present-day Toronto. Whereas, even if it is inaccurate as history, the definition of Toronto as a gathering place for various tribes is great as mythology: it’s a definition that seems truer with each passing year.

An update of that founding myth can be found in a factoid that many Torontonians thought true around the turn of the millennium: that the United Nations had declared Toronto the most multicultural city in the world. You would hear that honour cited in speeches by at least three Toronto mayors, trumpeted in the city’s official publicity materials, in federal and provincial reports, in both local newspapers and the foreign press, including the New York Times. Yet, as Ryerson geographer Michael J. Doucet detailed in a 2001 paper, no such declaration had ever been issued. The United Nations compiles no official ranking of the most multicultural places in the world.

But it’s easy to see why the myth took hold: Toronto is certainly among the most ethnically diverse places on earth. (In 2004, after the ‘most multicultural’ claim had been debunked, the United Nations did compile a list of cities with the highest percentage of foreign-born residents; Toronto was second after Miami.) Almost 45 per cent of Toronto’s population was born outside Canada and, as of the 2006 census, 47 per cent of the residents were classified as visible minorities. The visible-minority population is diverse within itself. Just over a third of non-white residents are Asian, about the same number are South Asian, roughly one in six are black, with Arabs, Filipinos and Latin Americans, among others, rounding out the list. The 311 phone line run by the city offers service in 180 languages.

So, UN declaration or no, Toronto’s still an incredibly multicultural place, and fairly harmoniously so, too. It isn’t like we’re a post-racial Shangri-La—foreign-born professionals still have a ridiculously difficult time getting their credentials recognized, for instance, and plenty of racialized residents, Caribbean blacks in particular, still experience a high degree of poverty, crime and profiling by police, among other things. And in Toronto’s city government, only five of the forty-four councillors are from visible-minority populations. But one can note the persistence of such problems and still acknowledge that by global standards, Toronto enjoys racial and ethnic peace. The sort of open opposition and ghettoizing one sees between white and black Americans simply doesn’t occur here; the sort of ethnic nationalism that’s caused recent wars in Africa and Eastern Europe is non-existent; the degree of otherness that characterizes immigrant populations in Japan, say, or that’s led to rioting and violence in France, is unheard of in Toronto. Casual racism, or even ethnic stereotyping, is among the ultimate Toronto taboos, and being from elsewhere is considered to be among the most quintessentially Torontonian qualities one can possess.

A whole line of thinking proudly insists this multicultural identity demonstrates how tolerant and open-minded we are. The whole phenomenon is too often framed, both by those bragging about our virtues and those pointing out our faults, as a social-justice issue, a reflection (or indictment) of our charitable (or uncharitable) nature, a statement on the moral status of our society. It’s a misguided, or at least incomplete, argument. Absolutely and obviously, tolerance and open-mindedness are laudable qualities, and fairness and justice are important reasons to fight prejudice and xenophobia. But, really, evidence of our upstanding character is among the least noteworthy things ethnic diversity contributes to the city.

As a source of civic strength, ethnic diversity, particularly from the new immigrants who comprise about half of Toronto’s population, gives the city a set of ideas and perspectives to build on that draws from the knowledge, history and traditions of virtually every culture in the world. Joseph Conrad, who achieved fame writing in his third language, English (and had some working knowledge of six languages altogether), reportedly said he couldn’t fathom the limited perspective of a unilingual person—his knowledge of different languages allowed him to think different thoughts, in different ways, leading to greater understanding. As a unilingual anglophone, this makes perfect (and lamentable) sense to me.

Different cultural perspectives let you think differently. I’ve heard that a number of times in a number of ways from business people in my career as a reporter. For instance, from Hadi Mahabadi, who heads up the innovation headquarters of Xerox Canada in the GTA. Mahabadi was born in Iran and moved to Canada as a young engineer after the 1979 Revolution. “I was very well-known, and I had offers from Japan, Germany, the Netherlands,” he told me in 2010. “But I knew Canada was a very multicultural place. I knew the social programs were good, how nice Canadians are.” Mahabadi also knew something about innovation—he’s the holder of more than seventy U.S. patents personally, and the staff of eighty-nine researchers he leads at Xerox patents about 140 ideas every year. He told me diversity is a key to innovation. “Innovation is impacted by many factors,” he said, “but one of the key factors is diversity of thought. When you have a diverse group of people brainstorming, you come up with more and better ideas.” This isn’t just a platitude for him, it’s his corporate practice: his research centre employs people from thirty-seven different countries, most of whom were educated in their homelands. After the centre introduced its ‘diversity of thought’ policy to aggressively seek out differences in background for the team in 2004, it saw a 17 per cent yearly increase in the number of patents it produced.

Take that idea out of the corporate realm and apply it to a city. You can see that the density of different backgrounds in Toronto is likewise a resource available to governments and businesses and allows for more and better ideas to take root, for varied experiences and ways of thinking to shape decisions and progress. Our neighbourhoods, too, are shaped by the blending of those different backgrounds. This is evident in the restaurant options available in Toronto, to cite one obvious example: you can take a culinary trip around the world simply by travelling the TTC lines. Kimchee, beurre blanc, wasabi, tabbouleh and chili are all commonplace. Which creates a richer diet for epicureans here, but also sets the stage for innovation: one of Toronto’s most celebrated chefs, Susur Lee (an immigrant from Hong Kong), is renowned for a cuisine that effortlessly merges Asian and European techniques and ingredients to create something new.

In 2008, Ted Corrado, the head chef of C5 restaurant at the Royal Ontario Museum, laid it out, explaining how he blended the traditions he learned at his Italian immigrant mother’s knee with the internationalism of the city he was raised in. “Growing up in Toronto, you can’t help but be exposed to all the different cuisines, all the cultures we have here,” he said. “These are things we take for granted—Chinatown, Little Italy, India Bazaar, Koreatown. There are so many options for us. It’s what we know and personally it’s what I know, and it’s how I relate to food.”

This kind of cultural contribution can seem trivial but has a huge impact on how the city functions and feels. When I worked in restaurants, we were always astounded at the love Torontonians have for sidewalk patios – inevitably there comes a day in February when the sun is shining and customers ask you to set up a patio table for them even though it’s so cold you can still see your breath in the air. Many of our main streets are characterized by people sitting out on the sidewalk eating dinner or having a drink. This is hardly unique to Toronto, but it is a thing that immigrants brought here: the waves of Italians who arrived after the Second World War were harassed by police when they set up to drink coffee and chat on the sidewalk in Little Italy and (back then) the Danforth. Over time, al fresco dining culture became not just an accepted quirk, but a defining feature of Toronto’s streets.

As we talked, Hadi Mahabadi highlighted another way that recent immigrants contributed to his corporate ambitions. In an increasingly global market, he said, employees with experience from around the world bring valuable insight into differing regional needs and preferences, as well as bringing contacts to their home country and knowledge of how to navigate its culture and institutions. It’s true of Xerox’s innovation office, and truer still for Toronto’s business culture. I have heard similar stories over and over again from entrepreneurs. Jeffrey Min, an immigrant from Korea, founded the grocery store chain Galleria in Toronto using contacts back home to open up a supply chain between his native country and his adopted one. In addition to the grocery stores here, he built an empire on a Korean import business and a customer-service management technology that connects consumers here directly with suppliers in Asia. Another example: Toronto clean-tech nanotechnology company Vive Nano was founded in 2005 by Filipino immigrant Jordan Dinglasan. By the time it opened a second office in Toronto in 2010, two thirds of its staff of eighteen were made up of immigrants. The company employed an ‘India strategy,’ since the giant South Asian nation was known to be interested in nanotech environmental solutions. They said they pursued that strategy largely by networking in the South Asian community in Toronto, bringing on board Torontoborn, ethnic Indian consultant Hari Venkatacharya to help out. Soon the company had contracts in the subcontinent, the bedrock for a long-term strategy based on international sales.

If the world is now defined by global communication and trade, Toronto has within it detailed knowledge of virtually every other country on the planet, fluency in virtually every language, and direct familial and cultural ties to every corner of the world. Like some kind of civic Kevin Bacon, we are connected to the rest of the globe through personal contact. What we’re talking about is a cosmopolitan retooling of—and improvement on—the ancient idea of Empire, one based not on conquest and colonization but on immigration and incorporation. It’s the strength of embrace: the sun never sets on the Toronto empire.

One further distinct characteristic of Toronto’s demographic makeup—and a huge asset to our self-definition as a ‘meeting place’—is that the city is overwhelmingly populated by people who have chosen to live here. Only a quarter of Toronto’s adult population was born in Canada to Canadian-born parents, and of those a large number moved here from elsewhere in the country. They say there’s no Catholic like a convert. Toronto’s a city of converts.

Some Great Idea officially launches with a party at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor Street West) on Thursday, January 24, starting at 8:30 p.m. It’s free, and will feature Keenan in conversation with former mayor David Crombie.