Monday, January 17, 2011

Toronto: Love it? Hate it?

If you are a Canuck do you hate Toronto? Do Americans love to hate New York?


From Saturday's Globe and Mail

If, as the makers of a new documentary claim, everybody hates Toronto, why does everybody live here? I mean, everybody who matters?

Let's All Hate Toronto, premiering next week at — where else? — Toronto's internationally acclaimed Hot Docs documentary film festival, tries to uncover the reasons for the rabid hatred that TROC (The Remaindered of Canada) feels for Toronto, the nation's cultural and commercial capital.

Directed by transplanted Montrealer (transplanted to — where else? — Toronto) Albert Nerenberg, the film shows what happened when Mr. Nerenberg and a pal posing as “Mr. Toronto” drove across the country setting up fake “Toronto Appreciation Day” booths. The results are not pretty — for the also-ran cities. People kick the signs down, attack Mr. Toronto verbally and physically, and make really ugly anger faces into the camera. What a load of jealous, whiny, unresolved-childhood-issues-carrying ingrates.

People in Montreal appear mostly bemused by Mr. Toronto's antics, probably because bemused is their default reaction to everything.

Montrealers are too lazy to lift an eyebrow. Mount Royal could suddenly turn into a smoking tower of bubbling lava and the nicotined boulevardiers of St. Laurent would only shrug, blame the federal government, and get back to the vital work of sneering over their federally subsidized pints of Maudite. A life without aspirations must be such a comfort.

Vancouverites, people who spend a suspiciously Macbeth-ish amount of time protesting their calm, forgiving natures, turn positively apoplectic at the very sight of the word Toronto. I suspect this is largely because Vancouver is where failed Torontonians go to die. They have good reason to be bitter, stuck as they are, huddled and wet under the ass end of a mountain, forgotten and lonely, with only the faint hope of a devastating avalanche to get them through the night.

Other cities weigh in on the Toronto issue as the film chuckles along, but they are places too small and of too little consequence to mention. You know the cities I mean — the kind that people get away from.

When I first moved to Toronto in the early nineties, from no less a sludgehole than Saint John, N.B., which bears the questionable distinction of not being “the cute St. John's” (i.e., the one in Newfoundland), I was instantly entranced.

I remain so today, because all the bad things the rest of the country says about Toronto are so wonderfully, refreshingly true: It's trashy, dirty, dangerous, rude and full of itself. In other words, it's a big city. If Toronto suddenly turned quaint, clean, secure, polite and ingratiating, it would be Victoria, or Fredericton, and the last thing this country needs is another scone-hoarding mini-Rhodesia wrapped in a dusty doily. One per coast, please.

Toronto is big and, like all big things, except Saskatchewan, complicated. When you go big, you accept a certain amount of mess, and expect to leave a trail.

So, yes, Toronto has homeless people, street preachers, beggars and streetwalkers sporting thigh-high boots, just like in the movies. Movies about cities.

Yes, Toronto has lots of people from lots of different places who don't always understand or like each other. Some of us find the confusion entertaining, a live screwball comedy with a multiracial cast. Another benefit is the happy truth that a great number of Torontonians, coming from elsewhere, are, blessedly, folks who have never heard of Nickelback, sung that god-awful Barrett's Privateers song in a fake Irish pub, found curling anything but weird, or revered the stale stylings of Michael Bublé. They bring their own bad art to town, and are happy to share.

And, yes, Toronto has snooty restaurants manned by crabby underwear models — if by snooty one means that every entrée is not served on white toast and slathered in canned gravy (unless you ask, and pay extra).

But best of all, Toronto does not care about you, about what you do, about where you're going or what you're wearing. In Toronto, nobody is watching from behind their kitchen window curtains, nobody knows your parents, grandparents and dentist, nobody remembers where you went to school or how bad your hair was in Grade 11, and nobody is cluck-clucking about your divorce, weight gain, poor investment strategy or binge drinking. Until they get to know you.

You are alone here, anonymous. You have no history, owe no social debts, sing no little-town blues. For as long as you like, you can be one of the crowd — because we actually have crowds.

To anybody who has ever lived in a small Canadian town, one of those finger-wagging gossips' warrens run by the United Church and unburdened by genetic diversity or stylish clothing, the averted gaze of the preoccupied, uncaring Toronto subway rider buried in his BlackBerry is a benediction.

What, then, is the problem with TROC (The Refuse of Canada)? The simple response is that they're just jealous, but jealousy is often a symptom of deeper unresolved issues.

Post-colonial studies teaches us that citizens of colonies (or, in Canada's case, former colonies) suffer from a psychological condition that causes them to constantly perceive themselves as being outside the centre, as living on the margins.

Subsequently, the actual centres of colonized countries (in our case, Toronto) are resented via displacement, because hating the colonizer is too big a dilemma to face, and we're conflicted in our emotions about our former masters. It's a bit like being mad at your boss for no good reason because you're really mad at Mommy and Daddy. Toronto is the scapegoat for the nation's buried resentment of London, Paris or Washington (pick your colonizer).

Fair enough, and almost forgivable — Vancouver and Montreal and Halifax can't help it because they're mentally ill. If the nation can only cope with its inadequacies by projecting its disappointments onto me and my city, I'm willing to play therapist. But I want compensation.

At Toronto rates, please. Wellness, like success, ain't cheap.

I learned that here.