Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Why We All Hate Toronto

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Why We All Hate Toronto

In 1987 Anthony Hyde, an Ottawa-based reviewer of Michael Ondaatje's now-iconic Toronto novel In the Skin of a Lion, expressed his unhappiness not merely with the novel itself but with the city in which it was set. Describing Toronto as "a catastrophe," he emphasized, "ugly, formless, without character, it sits upon the banks of Lake Ontario like some diseased organ in the body, spreading pollution around it."

Rather than eliciting disapprobation, Hyde's comments tapped into a Canadian cultural Zeitgeist whose origins are as old as the city itself. Lister Sinclair's 1946 radio play "We All Hate Toronto," for example, imagines an Aboriginal legend in which Toronto is named for the place where Hiawatha washed his sweaty socks. The play goes on to declare that "Toronto is the greatest unifying influence in this country today. [...] We all hate Toronto! It's the only thing everybody's got in common."

Scott Gardiner sums up this Canadian phenomenon in his 2007 novel King John of Canada, observing,

It’s an ancient joke among Canadians that the only thing they could all agree about was how much they hated Toronto. Torontonians themselves would typically chuckle at this, and dip their heads politely and say ha ha very funny, and try their best to treat the whole thing as if it really were an exercise in good-natured familial bantering. But it wasn’t. People from outside the city honestly and unreservedly loathed the place.

That Canadians are unified by their loathing of Toronto is widely and well documented. What is not as well known is that hating Toronto is a recognisable trope in the city's own literature.

In Francis Pollock’s 1936 novel Jupiter Eight, the protagonist, an aspiring stock-market mogul, muses of Toronto,

He had been accustomed to abuse his city, as all his friends did. All the sporting set, all the arty crowd vilified it as one of their staples of conversation. The sportsmen despised it because it did not sufficiently resemble Chicago and Havana; the artists because it did not sufficiently resemble Paris and Munich. They called it a slow place, a dull place, where English snobbery met American vulgarity and each thrived on the other; where the police would not let you drink standing up, and where there was no subsidized theatre. They called it a half-grown city, a nest of Methodists and Orangemen, of Puritans and Pharisees, who had not yet learned that Queen Victoria was dead. They called it a rube town, a hick town, an overgrown tank-town, with half a million people who confused Dada with Santa Claus.

In Self Condemned, a scathing indictment of a renamed but otherwise thinly fictionalized version of wartime Toronto first published in 1954, Wyndham Lewis writes,

Momaco was so ugly, and so devoid of all character as of any trace of charm, that it was disagreeable to walk in. It was as if the elegance and charm of Montreal had been attributed to the seductions of the Fiend by the puritan founders of Momaco: as if they had said to themselves that at least in Momaco the god-fearing citizen, going about his lawful occasions, should do so without the danger of being seduced by way of his senses.

In City Boys, a collection of stories about ambitious young men chafing against the confines of early-1960s Toronto, David Lewis Stein’s narrator intones simply,

How could one be sensitive, important, alive, in Toronto? The city was the original backwater of western civilization. Toronto was where they would put the pipe if they wanted to give the world an enema.

The protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye offers a similarly scathing sentiment, evaluating how much—and how little—the city has changed during her absence:

Once it was fashionable to say how dull it was. First prize a week in Toronto, second prize two weeks in Toronto, Toronto the Good, Toronto the Blue, where you couldn’t get wine on Sundays. Everyone who lived here said those things: provincial, self-satisfied, boring. If you said that, it showed you recognized these qualities but did not partake of them yourself. […] Now you’re supposed to say how much it’s changed. World-class city is a phrase they use in magazines these days, a great deal too much. All those ethnic restaurants, and the theatre and the boutiques, New York without the garbage and muggings, it’s supposed to be.

Underneath it all, Atwood's narrator goes on, "I could see it's still the same:"

Underneath the flourish and ostentation is the old city, street after street of thick red brick houses, with their front porch pillars like the off-white stems of toadstools and their watchful, calculating windows. Malicious, gruadging, vindictive, implacable.

In his novel Your Secrets Sleep with Me, Darren O’Donnell draws these sentiments toward their logical conclusion, describing Toronto simply as a city whose greatest desire is to be any place other than itself:

It wishes it were other cities: Chicago, New Delhi, Istanbul, Mexico City, Montreal, San Jose, Algiers, Moscow, London, Karachi, Caracas, Tokyo, Kathmandu, Barcelona, Bogota, Cairo, Perth, Berlin, Kinshasa, Manila, Singapore, Shanghai, San Francisco, Brussels, Paris, Seoul, São Paulo, Stockholm, Rome, Marrakech, Sarajevo, Cape Town, Lahore, Taipei, Athens, Prague, New York City, Casablanca, Kiev, Madrid, Nairobi, Dublin, Tijuana, Lisbon, Hanoi, Calcutta, Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Santiago, Bombay, Copenhagen, Addis Ababa, Los Angeles, Helsinki, Kuala Lampur, Las Vegas […], Colombo, Havana, New Orleans, Mecca, Beijing, Managua, Jakarta, Oslo.

It is understandable for people across the country to hate Toronto--for its arrogance and cultural domination in particular--but why do Torontonians exhibit such a persistent self-loathing?

In his illustrated 1956 satire Let's All Hate Toronto, John McLaren suggests his readers engage in some self-reflection:

In order to do a really first-rate job of hating anything, we must know why we hate. Perchance, in the past, you have said: "I hate Toronto"--without really knowing why?

McLaren offers many good reasons to hate Toronto, claiming, for example, that its first mayor, a skunk, has provided the model for all subsequent municipal administrations. But his thesis was not explored fully until the makers of the 2007 documentary Let's All Hate Toronto took up McLaren's challenge.

In let's All Hate Toronto, filmmakers Albert Nerenberg and Rob Spence travel across Canada hoping to discover why hating Toronto is such a rewarding national pastime. Posing as “Mr. Toronto” and hosting “Toronto Appreciation Day” events in such Toronto-hating cities as Halifax, Calgary and Vancouver, Spence compiles (and then attempts to rebut) a list of the top ten reasons Canadians hate Toronto.

Among the predictable—and predictably valid—reasons Toronto deserves to be loathed, two are startlingly prescient:

  • first, that nobody hates Toronto more than Torontonians ourselves; and
  • second, that Toronto is a city whose inhabitants do not know ourselves.

In "Mapping Wonderland," a 2005 essay tracing Toronto's quixotic relationship with its own literary heritage, literary scholar Germaine Warkentin suggests that one reason the city does not know itself is because it suffers from a perverse and persistent form of cultural amnesia. Warkentin writes,

A key difficulty in constructing the city’s metaphors is the handling of meaning from one generation to the next, or across barriers of birth, class and circumstance. For a large part of its history, Toronto has been in a state of near-amnesia, seeking desperately for its own memory.

Warkentin connects Toronto’s amnesia to a city-building compulsion that has “destroyed and rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt” the city’s monuments as well as its memory in competition for colonial, corporate and cultural attention. Her thesis is compelling because it identifies not only a plausible cause of Toronto’s literary forgetting (strikingly reminiscent of Toronto’s well-known propensity for destroying its own heritage buildings) but accounts for many of its symptoms as well. As Anne Denoon writes in the Toronto novel Back Flip, “It seemed that progress, not content with destroying the material evidence of the past, had to demolish memory itself.”

And that is the crux of Toronto's self-hatred: that what we do not remember, we do not know, and that what we do not know, we hate.

In Six Cures for Literary Amnesia, an essay I wrote for Open Book Toronto in 2007, I suggested that engaging more openly with the city's literature -- the most direct chronicle of Toronto's cultural landscape -- would help us recover from our collective cultural amnesia. My suggestions: (1) that we all become literary genealogists, looking for connections among literary works engaging with the city; (2) that we 'abandon the canon' by reading beyond the Atwood, Ondaatje and Michaels novels for which the city is already well known; (3) that we expose ourselves to some of Toronto's great genre fiction; (4) that we embrace local tropes (even the CN Tower); (5) that we support diverse, autonomous, local presses; and (6) that we stop comparing Toronto to New York.

To know ourselves is not necessarily to love ourselves, but at least it makes room for the possibility of beauty -- or if not beauty, at least truth.

On Wednesday I'll move more pointedly in this direction, writing about Robert Rotenberg's new legal thriller (in stores tomorrow), The Guilty Plea, a follow-up to his 2008 international bestseller Old City Hall. Both books are must-reads, transcending genre to provide compelling, humane accounts of a city struggling to be nothing other than itself.

Sources

Atwood, Margaret, 8 August 1982. "The City Rediscovered." New York Times
Atwood, Margaret, 1988. Cat's Eye. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Denoon, Anne, 2002. Back Flip. Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill.
Gardiner, Scott, 2007. King John of Canada Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Hyde, Anthony, 1 August 1987. "Turning Toronto the Terrible into Myth." Ottawa Citizen
Let's All Hate Toronto. Written and directed by Albert Nerenberg and Robert Spence. CBC/Elevator Films.
Lewis, Wyndham [1954] 1983. Self-Condemned. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press.
McLaren, John W., 1956. Let's All Hate Toronto. Toronto: Kingswood House.
O'Donnell, Darren, 2004. Your Secrets Sleep With Me. Toronto: Coach House.
Pollock, Francis, 1937. Jupiter Eight. Toronto: Thomas Nelson & Sons.
Sinclair, Lister, 1948. We All Hate Toronto. In A Play on Words & Other Radio Plays. Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons.
Stein, David Lewis, 1978. City Boys. Ottawa: Oberon.
Warkentin, Germaine, 2005. Mapping Wonderland. Literary review of Canada, 13(10: 14-17.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page