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2007 02 13
Toronto Culture and Multiculture, Part I
Could Toronto be the world’s most multicultural city? Hard or impossible to measure. Might be, though. Far as multiculturalism goes, Toronto might be better than world class. Might be in a class of its own.

Be only sensible, then, expecting so top-notch a multicultural city to glitter cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Be only sensible expecting Toronto to prove culturally vibrant. And it is. Relative to Barrie, anyhow. Otherwise, world-stage wise, talk about false expectations.

Like a strange double image, multiculturally top-notch Toronto seems lifelessly inert. Culturally profuse yet precisely not vibrant.

There’s no doubting the cultural profusion. Crossing town via Bloor then Danforth, one can taste the world. Yet, as recently as a year ago essaysists in uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto, Vanity Fair and the Globe & Mail declared that Toronto lives in no one’s imagination. And although the reference was to Toronto literature, it could as easily have been Toronto culture, since decent literature is as culturally significant as sincere artistic expressing gets.

There’s no doubting Toronto’s cultural profusion. So why say Toronto lives in no one’s imagination? Like, not anybody’s? Could that be even remotely true?

Amy Lavender Harris doesn’t think so. Reviewing particularly Toronto literature and teaching a course called “Imagining Toronto” at York University, she’s been arguing for years there’s deep, broad, all year long literary profusions here. As if Toronto culture were veins of ore thrumming underneath and streets, buildings, the very city literarily outcropped expressions of it.

It’s a lovely vision. Few try and none succeed denying it. Yet, nobody seems to believe it, either. Last fall, Amy gave a talk on Toronto literature at a speaking series called Salon Voltaire. The audience expressed each and every cue receptivity and appreciation required ­ and then some. But come time for audience questioning and commenting -- well, all audience questions and comments were the singular same. How and why Toronto literature dies of poverty. Amy might as well not have bothered. Absolutely, the audience had enjoyed their guided tourism to deep wells, founts and wealths of Toronto literature. Nor had they doubted what they’d so unerringly been guided to. Thing is, it didn’t register. Such literary profusions in Toronto? Such cultural wealth? Why, that’s wonderful news. Really, that’s magnificent. So sad all Toronto culture dies of poverty. Why is that do you think?

Far as any Toronto audience is concerned, it’s incontrovertible. Toronto lives in no one’s imagination. But why is that? What’s with the strange double image of multiculturally top notch yet culturally inert Toronto?

It hasn’t been very long since I found out. There’s this greatly admired fellow here in the Junction, a Vietnamese electronic engineer. None recall his real Vietnamese name. We call him Gem. And there’s nothing like getting together after business hours at Gem’s. Because Gem single-handedly creates culturally vibrant multicultural community. How he manages this is another story -- how any man can be so much larger than life. What he manages, though, is to get everyone expressing their most fundamental passions, beliefs and principles. Even those of us that have forgotten -- ­perhaps never realized -- the principles we live and would die for. At Gem’s, people hailing from every corner of the world talk for real. And almost always, when done talking, even those discovering themselves standing opposed in fundamental principle yet appreciate one another like nowhere else I’ve seen -- especially not in Toronto.

It’s unique in Toronto. Gem, of course, had no clue how unique. Not until a couple years ago. When I told him. Shouldn’t have. But how not? Talking with Gem demanded expressing one’s realizing -- one's understanding.

Gem, as so often, had finished recounting how he’d repeatedly demonstrated what he stood for by fiercely extolling: “Declare who you are!” But I felt sad, suddenly. Because, much as I’d once believed in it myself, long ago, there was no hope of that in Toronto. So I told him the way it is here -- that being Torontonian means having nothing to declare. He didn’t want to believe it, of course. Scoffed the very idea. But there was the beginning of that long sadness in his eyes. Curtains began falling and lights blinking out.

Being Torontonian means having nothing to declare. It’s our cultural principle. Took me years to realize after first arriving here. That the more one declares who one is and what one stands for, the more one gets discounted in Toronto. And it was certainly painful realizing it. I used to think there was something terminally wrong with me. Suffered bouts of agoraphobia over it. But it wasn’t me. It was the anti-cultural bias of Toronto multiculturalism.

Thing is, however painful Toronto bias against culturally vibrant, even forceful expressing who we are may be, it’s nevertheless been good and necessary. Culture’s a big deal when it comes to both building and wrecking nations -- not just cities. And Toronto’s anti-cultural multiculturalism has proven a viable alternative to less tolerant approaches. Old Soviet-style forced dislocation of entire peoples, for instance. Or even American identity melting into the common patriotic pot. Trouble is, it’s starting to crack seams.

Good as it’s been, it’s no longer good enough. Multicultural Toronto now fragments into mono-cultural community shards. It’s not just refusal to integrate by one or even two communities. Were it so, we could reasonably blame them. But it isn’t just one or two. Not any more. It’s fast becoming the rule. And should it become the established rule, that would certainly spell the end for Toronto. Whether culturally, multiculturally or in every other wise and way.

To be elaborated next week: Toronto multiculturalism is historically significant. It might even constitute an historical stage -- or minimally some evolution -- toward the emergence of tolerant yet principled community. Be the community village, city or nation. Be the village local or be it global. But multiculturalism can hope but to usher the task of tolerant yet principled community. It has no hope fulfilling what it seeks to usher on its own.

What would fulfill it? Not sure yet. Working on it -- and looking forward to what I'll say about it next week.
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 02/13 at 03:31 PM

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