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Canada’s Powerhouse: A Brief History of Toronto

By Jamie Bradburn.

Toronto’s History

A Nation is Born

On July 1, 1867, Torontonians gathered near St. Lawrence Market to celebrate Canada’s Confederation with a day-long ox roast, followed by evening festivities and fireworks in Queen’s Park. Few of the over 45,000 people residing in the city that day could have imagined the roles Toronto would play within Canada over the next 150 years.

The road to becoming Canada’s centre of arts and entertainment, business, sports and innovation started with a rejection from Queen Victoria. While she chose Ottawa as Canada’s capital due to its distance between Montreal and Toronto and lower likelihood of attack from the United States, our consolation prize was to play host to the new Ontario provincial government. We still had a prominent role to play in Ottawa, as George Brown, influential editor of The Globe newspaper and a Father of Confederation, served as the first leader of the emerging Liberal party. Toronto would be the birthplace of two Prime Ministers (Lester Pearson and Stephen Harper), while Mount Pleasant Cemetery marks the final resting place of our longest serving leader, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Manufacturing Powerhouse

As the city grew into an industrial power during the Victorian era, an annual fair was established to display the latest technological advances. Originally known as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition when it launched in 1879, the scope of its ambitions led to its rebranding as the Canadian National Exhibition. While known these days more for its novelty food items, in its heyday the fair introduced visitors from across the country to innovations ranging from electric railways to television.

Workers at looms in Toronto, 1908

Manufacturers like Massey-Harris (farm equipment) and the William Davies Company (meat packing) grew not only into Canada’s largest in their particular fields, but the British Empire’s as well. It’s to Davies that Toronto owes its nickname “Hogtown.” In retailing, Eaton’s grew from a small dry goods store on Yonge Street into a department store chain whose catalogue was so embraced by settlers in the rural west that it became known as “the prairie Bible.”

Medical Innovators

During the 20th century, our educational institutions and hospitals made Toronto a centre for medical breakthroughs which improved the lives of many Canadians. The work of Frederick Banting and Charles Best at the University of Toronto led to the discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes in 1922. At the Hospital for Sick Children, Frederick Tisdall and Theodore Drake’s development of Pablumin 1930 improved infant nutrition. In 1961, James Till and Ernest McCulloch’s work at the Ontario Cancer Institute pioneered stem cell research.

A Centre for Television and Film

In the midst of the Great Depression, radio audiences across the country tuned in the radio every Saturday night to listen to Foster Hewitt yell “he shoots, he scores!” during his play-by-play of Maple Leafs games from the recently-built Maple Leaf Gardens. These broadcasts grew into one of our national institutions, Hockey Night in Canada.

Hewitt was among the first personalities to appear on CBC Television when it signed on in 1952. Its launch paved the way for Toronto to become the country’s centre of film and television production. Foreign producers noted the skilled workforce which developed at CBC and early studios like Scarborough’s Glen Warren Productions. Alongside Vancouver, Toronto became “Hollywood North,” prompting moviegoers to figure out which city neighbourhoods and landmarks filled in for other locales.

Television studio in Toronto circa 1958, with a woman dressed as a mermaid on set.

New forms of media helped spur the careers of intellectuals like the University of Toronto’s Marshall McLuhan. His insights into the role of “the medium as the message” inspired debate over the consequences of new technological innovations upon us and society.

Shaping the National Conversation

George Brown’s newspaper, the Globe, cultivated national political debate and public opinion in the wake of Confederation, as did its Conservative counterpart, the Mail. These papers later merged to form the Globe and Mail, which long billed itself as “Canada’s National Newspaper.” Toronto-based media companies such as CBC, CTV and Postmedia continue to entertain, enlighten and infuriate Canadians.

City and Financial Development

The consequences of how Canadian cities developed spread out from Toronto: Don Mills provided a template for the development of suburbia in the 1950s, while urban theorists like Jane Jacobs promoted human-scale neighbourhoods. To get commuters moving in the post-Second World War era, Toronto opened the country’s first subway system in 1954, leading the way for rapid transit systems in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.

By the 1970s, spurred by an exodus of bank headquarters as anxieties about Quebec separatism grew, Toronto overtook Montreal as Canada’s centre of economic power. Bay Street and other downtown addresses housed the boardrooms where Canada’s economic fate was frequently decided by the nation’s corporate elite. This shift altered the city’s appearance, in a skyscraper boom which continues to this day.

Canada’s Teams

While long-suffering Maple Leafs fans have endured a half-century of Stanley Cup drought, more recent arrivals on Toronto’s professional sports scene have captured the country’s hearts. Baseball’s Blue Jays became competitive within a decade of their debut in 1977, leading to back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and 1993. Their run for the playoffs in 2015 rekindled interest in the team nationwide. The Raptors’ “We the North” branding coincided with the basketball team’s emergence as a playoff contender the past two seasons. Not since Molson beer’s “I Am Canadian” had a marketing campaign resonated so well with patriotic sentiments.

Strength in Diversity

Toronto has shown the country the advantages of a vibrant, multicultural society, especially in a city once viewed as a boring place which shut down completely on Sundays. “Diversity Our Strength” declares the motto on the city’s coat of arms, and we have helped export that across Canada as immigrants who begin their new lives in Toronto move on to other locales, bringing with them a richness of cultural activities, food and life perspectives.

Canada’s many waves of immigration are embodied in the history of Kensington Market. British labourers in the Victorian era were followed by Eastern European Jews during the first half of the 20th century. Post-Second World War opportunities attracted the Portuguese. The loosening of restrictive immigration policies from the 1960s onward drew newcomers from the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America.

We have helped promote tolerance of what were once considered alternative lifestyles, especially regarding LGBTQ issues. Toronto’s Pride celebrations have gained international stature and inspired similar activities in other cities, while the union of Michael Leshner and Michael Stark in 2003 paved the way for same-sex marriage elsewhere.

Promoting these notions of diversity and tolerance may prove to be one of Toronto’s greatest legacies to the country. How we continue to handle them will help shape the next 150 years.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based historian and staff writer for Torontoist.

Historical images from the City of Toronto Archives.

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