Toronto’s Myth of Multiculturalism

In The Puritan’s recent “Littered T.O.” supplement, Amy Lavender Harris claims that “multiculturalism is Toronto’s strongest cultural myth.” She is right. Still, it’s difficult to picture just how such a myth would be constructed. That multiculturalism is Toronto’s defining characteristic is beyond doubt. The New York Times echoed this reality in a popular piece praising “Toronto’s Ethnic Buffet.”

The question becomes: how can multiculturalism be a cultural myth? Put another way, can a buffet—a container/separator of dishes—be the symbol of a uniting myth? A myth binds people together, but multiculturalism demands that people are allowed to be separate, contained within certain divisions (as a buffet separates and maintains its individual dishes). It also demands that others respect that separateness, meaning that multiculturalism’s main guarantees are that difference will exist, and be tolerated. This is a good thing in my opinion, and Toronto deserves to be proud of its tolerant record. As Harris very rightly points out, it is no small feat to put the world together in a city without people often “coming to blows.” But tolerance alone makes for a weak myth. It’s defensive, defined by racial or ethnic violence—even if it’s a violence that doesn’t happen.

By comparison, in the documentary Beats Rhymes and Life, Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest is asked about his emotional state before a major life-altering surgery. He responds: “I’m from New York. We’re tough.” Phife’s partly joking, but the myth he’s calling up is very real, and all-encompassing: It assumes that all New Yorkers are tough, because New York makes you tough.


Phife Dawg

That’s a questionable claim, of course. In fact, it would be more convincing to claim that if you’re from Toronto, you’re tolerant. But as a potential myth, toughness is easier to capture; for better or worse, the vaguely militaristic sense of battle-readiness has more immediate resonance than tolerance. Who, then, would trade municipal pride—as captured by something like “toughness”—for municipal peace—as promised by a tolerant ideal? I would.

Yet, you could argue that a mythical weakness has had very real consequences for Toronto. Rob Ford’s support relies on people resenting that they are left out of the city’s public discussion, and you can blame at least some of that feeling on a weak civic myth. It’s not that Ford Nation claims a lack of tolerance, or that they’re actively wronged; they claim they’re not allowed an active voice, so much so that even a rich white guy can woo them just by seeming to give a shit about their opinions. They may well be right about their exclusion, but could it be that the larger conversation they want to join simply lacks the necessary range and breadth to include them? At the very least, as the city’s politics makes abundantly clear, there is no conversation—and no political myth—that binds the whole GTA, from the old city to the suburbs (although recent marketing campaigns such as “We The North” have been trying to counter that trend). The result is a lot of binary oppositions—downtown vs. suburb, cars vs. bikes, “taxpayers” vs. “citizens,” etc.—and frustrating civic dysfunction.

Harris suggests the old “city of neighbourhoods” trope (which must include the more populous suburbs, not just the old city’s ’hoods) as a possible alternative to the multicultural myth. That just brings us back to a similar problem: is a myth that encompasses Etobicoke, China Town, the Annex, North York, Scarborough and Liberty Village even possible? Can these places defend their own identity while agreeing on a city-wide common good? Harris implicitly acknowledges this difficulty when she writes that “Toronto is exploding with new narratives and continually emergent mythologies.” That is true, but what can unite those mythologies, and keep them from staying isolated in their separate buffet trays?

It would be inaccurate to claim that Toronto is just a buffet table offering its plethora of tolerated cultures, be those ethnic or socio-economic-geographical—but what else is on offer? The hope is that the city can claim a unique way of combining its internal differences into something more than just a collection of separate parts. In that case, multiculturalism could be described as Toronto’s “strongest cultural myth.” But we might be more specific. How is that multiculturalism structured? What’s the Toronto way?

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