Toranna. Hogtown. Tee-Oh. T-dot. Canada’s largest and most impressive city has many names, but the third largest city in North America is known around the world by its actual name: Toronto.
Toronto is the provincial capital of Ontario and the center of this populous and energetic region of the world. While the inner city of Toronto itself is home to more than 2.6 million inhabitants, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), which includes the surrounding suburbs and boroughs, has more than 6.1 million people, placing it in the top 30 largest cities in the world.
This population is booming, too. Toronto is the number one stop for immigrants to Canada, making it the fastest-growing city in North America. In 1990 Toronto boasted 13 skyscrapers; by 2010 there were 54! As hundreds of thousands of immigrants flock into the city, the population has soared, and today roughly 50% of the people who live in Toronto were born outside of Canada. The large mix of millions of different people speaking different languages and following different cultural norms has led Toronto to be named the “Most Multi-Cultural City in the World” by the United Nations. In fact, while only having half the population of New York, Toronto has more immigrants per-capita!
This great city’s beginnings originate with the Wyandot people, a native tribe that was exterminated by the much more warlike Iroquois tribes. By 1500 the Iroquois had taken over all of what is today Southern Ontario, and had built a sizable village on the land of present-day Toronto. The name “Toronto” itself is an Iroquois name, which means “The place where trees stand on the water”, a reference to the hundreds of low, flat islands that surround the Toronto shorefront.
By the 1660’s French trappers had already made extensive contact with Iroquois peoples in this area, and the dozens of large river canyons that snake through the region to Lake Ontario made excellent portage routes for French traders. Thus, by the end of the 17th Century the area around Toronto was well-explored and settled by a mix of Iroquois and French colonial traders.
In the early 18th Century a neighboring tribe of natives, the Mississauga, attacked and pushed the Iroquois and French out of the area, sparking what is known as the Beaver Wars. As the the following decades escalated into the French and Indian Wars and a vicious conflict between Britain and France for control of the continent, this area was largely left alone and forgotten about.
With the British victory at Quebec in 1759, North America fell under British rule, and the low-key relations that the Iroquois had enjoyed with the French were gone. Instead, aggressive British expansion into the region began. The Hudson Bay Company established several trading forts along the shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Huron, and a network of roads was established between these forts. Forests were cleared and British settlers began to set up farms. The Mississauga natives who lived in the area continued to sell off portions of land to these new colonizers, not realizing that they were slowly dooming themselves to obscurity.
By the time the Revolution began in America, there were already several sizeable towns in the region, and more than 1,000 Europeans had moved in. The revolution in the 13 colonies suddenly brought in a flood of United Empire Loyalists escaping lynch mobs, and the population of Southern Ontario, particularly around Toronto, boomed. With thousands of loyal subjects settling in the area the British governor of the Canadas detached military companies to protect them. Forts were built and the road network expanded. One of these forts was the imposing Fort York, which is considered the official founding of the city of Toronto. Markets, iron shops, a harbour and houses sprang up around the fort, and as this little expanded it was the turn of the Mississauga natives to be pushed out.
By 1793 Fort York had incorporated as a fully-fledged city and boasted a population of more than 10,000 people, making it the civic hub of the region. The area around the fort was teeming with farms and villages and was beginning to look less like the wilds of the New World and more like the quaint British countryside.
In 1812 America attempted to invade Canada. An American army sacked the fort and plundered the town, burning down much of the houses and shops and making off with most of the valuables. Along with the tools and art and jewellry stolen by the American soldiers were hundreds of black Africans who had called Toronto home. These men and women were free, as slavery was banned in the British Empire, but to the American looters they were property and were chained up and marched south to be sold.
A large army of Canadian militia, Iroquois and Huron warriors and British regulars chased the Americans out of Ontario and the city was rebuilt. As more Loyalists continued to flood into the area, the decimated population was able to regrow rather quickly.
In 1834, with a population surpassing 30,000, Fort York was incorporated as the City of Toronto and became the official capital of Upper Canada (Ontario’s name at the time). The fantastic farmland of the region, the hundreds of rivers, the surrounding Great Lakes and the mild temperatures attracted scores of immigrants and settlers, so that by the time of Confederation in 1867, Toronto was the largest city in Canada. Several large trading houses and banks were established here, including the Royal Bank of Canada and Toronto Dominion banks. The Hudson’s Bay Company moved its headquarters from London to Toronto, and the bustling city had become the Canadian center of finance, trade and industry by the mid-19th Century.
By 1854 several railways connected the city to the rest of North America. A large sewage system was built and city streets became illuminated by gas lamps. Telegraph wires kept the city in touch with the rest of the world and by 1860 there no less than fifteen daily newspapers and five weekly news magazines published in the city, including the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and MacLean’s Magazine.
Toronto had also built up the largest port on the Great Lakes, and steamers, barges and schooners connected trade routes to Europe, South America and the Caribbean. With a major port, several railways, a network of major roads and large banking centers well established in the city, thousands of people migrated to Toronto every year. By 1899 Toronto had well over a million people living and working here, making it the fifth largest city in North America.
In 1921 all the different streetcars and buses of the city were incorporated into the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). The streetcars were painted red and white and remain a poignant symbol of Toronto today.
By this time, particularly following the end of the First World War, thousands of immigrant groups from around the world were flooding into the city. By 1930 Toronto had three large Chinatowns, a Jewish quarter, a Russian borough, a Little Italy and several other ethnic neighborhoods. This mix of nationalities, ethnicities and races was surprisingly peaceful, although during the Russian Civil War bolshevik sympathizers attacked and burned down several Russian churches, but the Toronto police (York Regional Police) quickly put down these acts of vandalism and local Anglican and Catholic parishes raised money to rebuild the damaged properties.
The Second World War was a period of intense growth for Toronto. Contracts for military goods and new technologies saw industry boom in the city. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked in from the countryside to fill positions on the production lines and in the vast wartime bureaucracy. Buildings were built taller and taller to accomodate all these new people. While the war raged in Europe and the Pacific, Toronto became a place of wealth, shopping, nightlife and good living. The city never lost its multicultural roots, and it became known across Canada as a youthful and energetic city. This reputation would propel it into the new world following the war.
The post-war boom saw skyscrapers built throughout the city, and its population, now nearing 2 million, was spreading out across the surrounding region. Suburbs turned into urban sprawl, and the TTC network was expanded. In 1954 work on the TTC Subway system began, and by 1972 there were two major subway lines operating underground. These subway stops were unique in the world in that an entire underground city connected them all, so that during the harsh winters economic life in the city could still operate. Today Toronto is home to the world’s largest subterranean city, and engineering marvel in itself!
As the boom continued into the 1970’s, new buildings grew up. The CN Tower, the symbol of Toronto, was built, and Toronto acquired its own Major League Baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays. While the rest of the world sank into recession during the 1980’s, Toronto continued to enjoy its fourty-year economic boom. The city had become the center of art and culture in Canada, surpassing Montreal. Home to CBC, CTV and CHUM, as well as Second City and a multitude of pop stars, actors and artists, Toronto was now a world-class city.
The 1990s brought a new economic boom to the city which saw dozens of new skyscrapers pop up across the city as well as the subway system expanded. The GO Transit network, a system of commuter rail and bus hubs, was established bringing commuters in from the surround areas. The seven suburbs of Toronto as well as the city itself were amalgamated into the Greater Toronto Area, sharing resources and services across the region. The GTA is now home to more than 6 million inhabitants, making it the third largest metropolis in North America and the second most densely populated city on the continent after New York.
Today, as in days past, there is always something to do in Toronto. From exploring the city’s heritage in Chinatown or the Distillery District to soaring high above in the CN Tower, to “Riding the Rocket” on the TTC Subway to tanning on the beaches of Lake Ontario, Toronto has something for everyone. This sophisticated, energetic, modern and youthful city has an energy unlike any other. Home to the largest festivals in Canada, and Caribanna, the largest festival in North America, Toronto can always entertain.