Toronto’s Heritage of Diversity

By Gary Miedema and Tyson Brown

Cultural diversity has become a defining feature of this city and a fundamental part of its identity. People from all over the world have made Toronto their home, and have contributed greatly to its growth and development.

This initiative was designed to gather and share stories that represent some of Toronto’s famed diversity. The stories themselves are the result of a planned circumstance. Starting with a list of cultural organizations from nine of the largest, non-official language groups (after English) in the city, Heritage Toronto reached out to seek partners. We worked within those partnerships, and within their respective cultural communities, to enlist young adults to research and conduct oral interviews. Our end-goal was to have them produce two short stories about the heritage of their community in Toronto. The coordinator of the initiative, Tyson Brown, worked with them to choose stories and to conduct and record interviews. Tyson also contributed a broad history of each respective community in Toronto.

The result is before us. Twenty-six short articles and stories written by Tyson Brown and nine young adults from across the city. The stories range widely in their content – from the birth and establishment of mosques and churches to celebrations after the 1982 World Cup. All of them, however, seek to explore something of the history of a group of people with a common language, and often a common country of origin.

The stories are full of particularities related to the unique culture of the community they explore. How those particularities took shape – how unique cultures transitioned into a new, Toronto setting – are fascinating stories in themselves. Why did people choose the hardships of immigration? What factors brought them here? How did those factors shape their new home? Some of the language groups studied here have been in the city for over 125 years. Others have arrived, for the most part, in the last 30 years. Their stories are as different as their countries of origin.

But striking themes emerge across many of the stories. Prior to the 1960s, Toronto was a city of people who were predominantly of British descent. There were people of many other national origins here, of course, but they were relatively few, and the city did not celebrate them. Like the country as a whole, Toronto was a place which valued conformity to the dominant culture. As Canada’s immigration policies themselves made clear, discrimination based on “race” was common place.

After those immigration policies changed, particularly in the mid-1960s, Toronto changed too. Discrimination remained a factor for many newcomers to the city, but new national policies celebrating “multiculturalism” and a new critical mass of population allowed communities to celebrate their culture, and to work to preserve it in a Toronto that began to claim “multiculturalism” as its defining reality. Geographic and cultural centres of communities took form – Little Portugal, Koreatown, Little India, among many others – often with centres of faith as their anchors. Streetscapes were transformed, and buildings re-purposed  New cultural organizations and settlement agencies were established as new Torontonians worked to make their new home a better place. Local economies were re-energized, and federal, provincial and municipal legislation changed. The Toronto we know today was formed.

Those of us who have been involved in this initiative hope these stories provide you with new insights into the rich and diverse history of our city. These stories, of course, are barely a start down the road of that history. We expect them to mark the beginning of many more partnerships, many more conversations and interviews, and many more stories.

Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.

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