History of Toronto

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If you think that Toronto, like so many other North American cities, is a relatively young centre, think again. More than 8000 years ago, the spot on the northern shores of Lake Ontario was home to prehistoric humans hunting the dense woods for bears and elk. They were followed by a rich and diverse Iroquois culture spread across nearly 200 villages in the Toronto area alone.

British and French fur traders and explorers arriving in the late 16th century changed the power balance in the region. At first, Toronto was interesting for them only as the end of the canoe route from Quebec City. Etienne Brulé, the first European known to visit the canoe "carrying place" the Hurons called Toronto, had no idea he was standing on the site of Canada's largest city-to-be. In fighting between the Iroquois tribes and their Huron neighbours, the British sided with the former and the French with the latter. When the Iroquois declared victory over the Hurons in 1749, it also threw back their allies, the French.

In 1751, the French erected Fort Rouillé where Toronto stands today, thus making the city's earliest European roots French rather than British. Destroyed only eight years later in the Seven Years' War, the fort lay burnt until hundreds of British loyalists, fleeing the newly formed United States following the War of Independence, populated the Lake Ontario area.

Swampy Garrison Town
John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada (now Ontario), set up a strategically well-positioned but swampy garrison town of 12 cottages on the lakeshore around the former French post and, in 1793, the town was named Fort York in honour of the Duke of York. Fort York (now an open-air museum) was soon made the capital of Upper Canada, and later of Ontario, but never became the capital of Canada itself.

Ironically, Simcoe's family decided to leave "Muddy York" in 1796, thinking that the stagnating settlement didn't have much of a future. Nevertheless, by 1800, the rectangular grid-iron that still defines Toronto was laid out, largely ignoring the deep ravines, hills and small rivers that shaped the landscape. One of the few existing features taken into consideration in the creation of the new city was an old Indian trail that became Davenport Road.

The 700 inhabitants of York came under American occupation for a few days during the British-American War of 1812. But the Americans quickly retreated when the war started to go badly for them. In 1834, it took another influential politician to switch the city's name back to Toronto. However, it wasn't all clear sailing for William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of the 9,000-population city under its new (old) name. In 1837, the fiery Scot was forced to flee to the U.S. after leading a failed rebellion to achieve political reform against the so-called Family Compact, a group of British nobles who ran the city at their discretion without any checks or balances. The group was finally brought down thanks to public outcry, and Mackenzie returned to Canada 12 years later following a pardon.

Reflecting Puritanical Roots
Looking at a map of Toronto in the late 19th century, you can see an urban area reflecting its puritanical roots in the conservative layout. It also lived up to its nickname of "The Big Smoke" with a New World version of industrial London: a busy, polluting harbour, factory chimneys spewing untreated soot into the air, coal-black railways chugging away and the obligatory slums as well as mansions, Victorian colleges and churches. The nickname took on a tragic significance in 1904 when a fire destroyed more than 100 buildings in the downtown core. Fifty years earlier, nature had actually helped create a part of Toronto: The Islands, a 15-minute ferry ride from the downtown Harbourfront, were formed by a heavy storm cutting off a spit of land from the mainland.

Toronto lost 10,000 lives when many of its British immigrant inhabitants volunteered to fight in World War I. Then came the Great Depression of the 1930s, bringing hunger, homelessness and an unemployment rate over 30 percent. World War II again meant Canadian men trooping off to fight in Europe, but also British children fleeing the bombings and European refugees coming to Canada, with many settling in Toronto.

Post-war Toronto, even though it claimed close to 1 million inhabitants, was nothing like the city of today: no skyscrapers, no large Chinese, Portuguese, Greek or Italian communities, no extensive subway system, no bars and closed and curtained shops on Sundays. The new council of Metro Toronto, joining the city and its suburbs in 1953, initiated an unparalleled construction boom in the 1960s. Nowhere do old and new Toronto come closer together than in its two city halls. The castle-like old city hall, in the Romanesque Revival style favoured at the time, opened in 1899; the modernist arched towers of the new building created a central political and public space in the downtown area in 1965.

A City of Superlatives
Torontonians are proud of their superlatives and sometimes see life as an extension of the Guinness Book of World Records, an attitude that helps puff up the city's collective chest but also lends some credence to its reputation for egocentricity (as in the long-standing joke in the newspaper headline: Toronto Unscathed in World-Wide Nuclear Holocaust!). The city lays claim to the tallest free-standing structure in the world (the CN Tower at 553m), the first fully-retractable roofed stadium (SkyDome), the longest street (Yonge Street, more than 1,900 km), Canada's biggest museum (Royal Ontario Museum) and university (University of Toronto), the biggest castle in North America (Casa Loma), North America's second largest public transit system (the TTC), and an 11-km maze of underground malls.

Peter Ustinov once called modern-day Toronto a "New York run by the Swiss." Now that New York seems itself to be run by the Swiss, that label might no longer be appropriate. Nevertheless, the city prides itself on its clean and safe streets and large, open green spaces. More importantly, it is the cultural and financial centre of the country, an economic powerhouse with a budget bigger than that of the province of Saskatchewan, and home within a 160-km area to a full one-third of all Canadians.

Toronto is a prime example of late-20th century, early-21st century history in motion, an "accidental city" as it has been called by former Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford. The over 50 percent non-white population is shifting the city's ethnic neighbourhoods around; old Victorian areas, once rundown or abandoned, are being gentrified; the skyline glitters from afar with bank towers and shopping skyscrapers like the 65-storey Scotia Plaza; and urban development is about to radically change the lakeshore, especially if Toronto wins its bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Outdoor festivals, patios, a new openness and willingness to have fun and to partake in public life'this is the Toronto of the 1990s and 2000s. The latest (unpopular) mega-change was the provincially-forced merger of seven municipalities and 2.5 million people into the "Mega City" in 1998. The so-called Greater Toronto Area is now home to over 4 million souls.