When you go to any other part of Canada, especially the West coast, and tell people you’re from Toronto, you get the look.
Eyes roll back ever so slightly, and the mouth dips in a subtle smirk. Half of the time people even say it straight to your face: “Oh, the centre of the universe eh?” as they laugh it off. At a meeting for new staff at my very first job in Vancouver, this exact line was dropped and all the local employees exchanged glances that implied they all knew for a fact that this is how Torontonians see their city.
Toronto is the biggest city in the country. Anything important and relevant happens here. That must be why they roll their eyes. Surely they know Toronto is the bee’s knees and are just jealous of all the national, sometimes international attention and recognition the city gets compared to anywhere else in the country. Right?
No. What they’re rolling their eyes at is a mental state that seems endemic and specific to Toronto. This place has the biggest inferiority complex of any major city I’ve ever been to. Torontonians are so desperate for relevance they’ve become incapable of seeing the city for what it is. It’s true that Toronto is a pretty rad place. There’s nice restaurants, a decent museum or two and a legitimately world class music scene. But it’s not a London, or a New York, or a Tokyo, no matter how hard its population tries to rationalize and justify the idea that it is.
Nobody outside Toronto sees it as anything but a big, by-the-books and completely unremarkable city.
And they don’t care that Toronto isn’t remarkable. They’re not judging Toronto against the other cities. The only people doing this are the ones that live here.
Nobody from outside Canada is running around badmouthing Toronto and the people who live here. Most tourists have nothing but nice things to say about the city and its people—but they aren’t raving about its uniqueness or telling friends they’ve finally crossed Toronto off their bucket list. The only people concerned with elevating Toronto to the level of San Francisco or Paris are its residents. Everyone else is fine to take it at face value.
If Torontonians were confident in the knowledge that their city was the very best they wouldn’t need to constantly talk about it. This feeling of inadequacy, kept suppressed deep down, blossoms into the drive to make the city seem bigger and more important than it really is. They’re terrified to admit any flaw or hint of mediocrity.
It’s not like that in other places. Half the people I’ve met from New York City hate the place and aren’t afraid to tell you why. If you bring up anything similar in front of Toronto locals, be prepared to get mobbed as they step over each other to tell you the various reasons why this place is incredible and one-of-a-kind. The entire city—make that the GTA— seems to wait in fear for the moment that someone realizes, out loud, that Toronto is pretty unremarkable so they can bust out their smartphone and scroll their favourited Buzzfeed articles, beginning with “Top Ten Reasons Toronto Rocks” and proselytize the qualities that make Toronto the coolest and most exceptional city on the planet.
My sister was this way until she traveled overseas. For years she would hear me mention some cool historical landmark I saw in a European city, or a cool bar, or an amazing museum and proceed to tell me why the Toronto equivalent is just as good, or better. Once she finally left the city to broaden her horizons in other countries, her tone changed. She now knows that things can be bigger, better, more important or well renowned in other places, but she still loves this place and will always call it home, proudly. Toronto is a safe, decent place to live and work. Our murder rate is low, we don’t have a huge poverty problem and there’s little social strife. It might even be a better place to live than half the other cities listed in this article. But it will never be on the level of an New York or a London because it can’t be.
Historically speaking that’s impossible without a time machine. It’s not on the sea and thus will never be really viable as a port or centre for shipping and commerce, and unless the entire North American finance world and entertainment industry decide to move here it never will be. We don’t have Wall Street, we don’t have Broadway. We don’t have Google, Amazon, or Microsoft making their headquarters here.
We don’t have an Abbey Road, a Champs Elysee, or a French Quarter. There isn’t a Dubai Tower, a Colosseum or a Golden Gate bridge. There’s no South Beach, there’s no mountains, there’s no Nile River. If you took the C.N. Tower out, half the population wouldn’t be able to recognize their own skyline.
But that’s totally OK. It’s possible to live happily in a place without constantly comparing it to other, more glamorous locations.
This defensiveness comes through pretty clearly when Toronto’s inferiority complex takes a break from a pretense of superiority and just devolves to being apologetic about itself. British comedian and actor John Cleese sums it up perfectly in his autiobiography So, Anyway… when he says “I found Toronto an immensely likeable city, spacious and gentle and slightly dignified, but in a low-key, friendly way. The only people who didn’t seem to think much of it were its inhabitants, who could hardly wait for you to ask directions, because that gave them the perfect opportunity to apologize for it. What they were apologizing for I never understood. I think they felt uninteresting, compared with America.”
If Torontonians would take a short break from trying to give the city a nickname that will stick—nobody outside of a small section will ever refer to Toronto as “The Six”, sorry Drake—they’ll realize that it doesn’t have to be like those important big cities.