Toronto sprawls along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, its pulsating centre encased by a jangle of satellite townships and industrial zones which cover – as the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) – no less than one hundred square kilometres. In recent decades, successive city administrations and a raft of wealthy benefactors have lavished millions of dollars on glitzy architecture, slick museums, an excellent public transport system and the reclamation and development of the lakefront. As a result, few would argue that GTA has become the cultural and economic focus of English-speaking Canada, and its five and a million inhabitants share what must surely be one of North America’s most likeable, liveable cities.

The city has its share of attention-grabbing places to visit and the majority are conveniently clustered in the centre – either Downtown or Uptown. The most celebrated of them is the CN Tower (until 2010 the world’s tallest freestanding structure), which stands next to the modern hump of the SkyDome stadium, now the Rogers Centre. The city’s other prestige attractions kick off with the Art Gallery of Ontario, which possesses a first-rate selection of Canadian painting, and the Royal Ontario Museum, where pride of place goes to the Chinese and First Peoples collections. Yet it’s the pick of Toronto’s smaller galleries that really add to the city’s charm. There are a superb collection of ceramics at the Gardiner Museum, a fascinating range of footwear at the Bata Shoe Museum and the small but eclectic Gallery of Inuit Art. You’ll find absorbing period homes too, most memorably the mock-Gothic extravagances of Casa Loma and the Victorian gentility of Spadina House, as well as the replica colonial fortress of Fort York, where Toronto began. Spare some time also for the good-looking buildings of the lively St Lawrence neighbourhood and the Distillery District, the city’s brightest arts complex, sited in a capacious former distillery. Indeed, there is an outstanding programme of performing arts, from dance to theatre and beyond, as well as exciting festivals, a vibrant club scene and literally hundreds of cafés and restaurants.

Toronto’s sights illustrate different facets of the city, but in no way do they crystallize its identity. The city remains opaque, too big and diverse to allow for a defining personality and this adds an enticing air of excitement and unpredictability to the place. Neither is its layout predictable: Toronto may have evolved from a lakeside settlement, but its growth has been sporadic and mostly unplanned, resulting in a cityscape that can seem a particularly random mix of the old and the new. This apparent disarray, when combined with the city’s muggy summers, means most visitors spend their time hopping from sight to sight on the transit lines rather than walking. Yet, if you’ve the time and determination to get under the skin of the city, take to your feet and Toronto will slowly reveal itself.

Brief history

Situated on the slab of land separating Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay, Toronto was on one of the early portage routes into the interior, its name taken from the Huron for “place of meeting”. The first European to visit the district was the French explorer Étienne Brûlé in 1615, but it wasn’t until the middle of the eighteenth century that the French made a serious effort to control Lake Ontario with the development of a simple settlement and stockade, Fort Rouillé. The British pushed the French from the northern shore of Lake Ontario in 1759, but then chose to ignore the site for almost forty years until the arrival of hundreds of United Empire Loyalists in the aftermath of the American Revolution.

In 1791 the British divided their remaining American territories into two, Upper and Lower Canada. The first capital of Upper Canada was Niagara-on-the-Lake, but this was too near the American border for comfort and the province’s new lieutenant-governor, John Graves Simcoe, moved his administration to the relative safety of Toronto in 1793, calling the new settlement York. Simcoe had grand classical visions of colonial settlement, but was exasperated by the conditions of frontier life, noting “the city’s site was better calculated for a frog pond … than for the residence of human beings”. Nicknamed “Muddy York”, the capital was little more than a village when, in 1812, the Americans attacked and burnt its main buildings.

The Family Compact – and William Lyon Mackenzie

In the early nineteenth century, effective economic and political power lay in the hands of an anglophile oligarchy christened the Family Compact by the radical polemicists of the day. The Compact’s most vociferous opponent was a radical Scot, William Lyon Mackenzie, who promulgated his views both in his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate, and as a member of the legislative assembly. Mackenzie became the first mayor of Toronto, as the town was renamed in 1834, but the radicals were defeated in the elections two years later and a frustrated Mackenzie drifted towards the idea of armed revolt. In 1837, he staged a poorly organized insurrection, during which a few hundred farmers marched down the main drag, Yonge Street, fought a couple of half-hearted skirmishes and then melted away. Mackenzie fled across the border and two of the other ringleaders were executed, but the British parliament, mindful of similar events that led to the American Revolution, moved to liberalize Upper Canada’s administration instead of taking reprisals. In 1841, they granted Canada responsible government, reuniting the two provinces in a loose confederation, prefiguring the final union of 1867 when Upper Canada was redesignated Ontario.

Toronto the Good

By the end of the nineteenth century, Toronto had become a major manufacturing centre dominated by a conservative mercantile elite, which was exceedingly loyal to the British interest and maintained a strong Protestant tradition. This elite was sustained by the working-class Orange Lodges, whose reactionary influence was a key feature of municipal politics, prompting a visiting Charles Dickens to complain about the city’s “rabid Toryism”. Other commentators were equally critical, referring to Toronto at one time or another as “Hogtown” and – with more than a slice of irony – “Toronto the Good”. Nevertheless, these same Protestants were enthusiastic about public education, just like the Methodist-leaning middle classes, who spearheaded social reform movements, principally suffrage and temperance. The trappings, however, remained far from alluring – well into the twentieth century Sunday was preserved as a “day of rest” and Eaton’s department store drew its curtains to prevent Sabbath window-shopping. Indeed, for all its capital status, the city was strikingly provincial by comparison with Montréal until well into the 1950s, when the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway gave the place something of a jolt and the first wave of non-white immigrants began to transform the city’s complexion. Indeed, Toronto today is perhaps one of the world’s most diverse cities – more than 130 languages and dialects crowd the airstream here, and half of Toronto’s residents were born outside Canada.

Modern Toronto

In the 1960s, the economy exploded, and the city’s appearance was transformed by the construction of a series of mighty, modernistic skyscrapers. This helter-skelter development was further boosted by the troubles in Québec, where the clamour for fair treatment by the francophones prompted many of Montréal’s anglophone-dominated financial institutions and big businesses to transfer to Toronto. Since then, Toronto’s economy has followed the cycles of boom and retrenchment common to the rest of the country, but politically Ontario took a turn to the right in the mid-1990s with the election of the Progressive Conservatives led by Mike Harris. Nothing if not hard-nosed, Harris pushed through a major governmental reorganization, combining the city of Toronto with its surrounding suburbs to create the “Mega City” of today. The change was deeply unpopular in Toronto itself, but Harris still managed to get himself re-elected in 2000 with the large-scale support of small-town and suburban Ontario. In 2003, Ontario returned to the political centre, ejecting the Progressive Conservatives in favour of the Liberals, heralding a move towards more moderate, consensual politics.

When Independent Rob Ford was elected in 2010, that ideal flew out the window. While he ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility, he was soon caught up in a conflict of interest scandal, and others concerning his use of alcohol and drugs. The controversies reached a climax in an internet video in which, visibly high, he admitted to smoking crack cocaine. He initially refused to step down, but a stint in rehab and a tumour diagnosis forced him to pull out, and things have been a bit more stable since, with the election of John Tory in 2014 and the successful hosting of the Pan American Games in summer 2015.

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