Learning to Like the Centre of the Universe

I don’t know how the rest of Canada views Ontario, but I have an idea how the rest of Ontario views Toronto. We refer to Toronto as the “Centre of the Universe.” This is not meant kindly. Torontonians, to many of those beyond the fringe of the GTA, are self-important and Toronto-centric. The world revolves around Toronto and nothing of any importance happens elsewhere. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the drift.

I’ve never held any fondness for Toronto. I don’t like crowds, aggressive drivers, or shopping and so have no reason to want to go there. I find the traffic mind-numbing, the tall buildings oppressive, and the people, well, come on, they voted in Rob Ford as their mayor. Toronto is a place to avoid. It is an obstacle to be driven around or through on the way to somewhere else. It is a place to change planes.

My disdain of Toronto is long-standing and formed over a number of visits through the years. So it was with reluctance I attended a conference there recently. Could a three-day visit change my long-held prejudice? Unlikely. Driving into the heart of the congested city, which I managed to do without getting creamed by a taxi, or running over any pedestrians or cyclists, confirmed my dislike. Toronto, you are oh-so-predictable.

The conference venue was Victoria College at the University of Toronto. The college was a surprisingly calm oasis in the city’s centre with venerable stone buildings, ivy-covered walls, and green spaces. Okay, so Toronto has some good points.

One of the first conference attendees I spoke with told me her world ended at the subway line terminus. She never ventured further afield and certainly not outside of Toronto. Aha! Preconceived notions confirmed. Torontonians are inward-looking and snobbish. Over the three days of the conference I spoke with this lady a number of times. She was warm, articulate, and intensely curious and knowledgeable about everything. She was also frustratingly generous and humorous, and it was getting difficult to hold onto my own snobbish disdain.

Most of the conference attendees, who were primarily from Toronto, were similarly friendly and interesting. Ditto for the conference speakers. And the facility staff. Rats. Rob Ford was even out of town (rehab) leaving no-one for me to detest.

During a break in the conference, I ventured off-campus into the city. At the first major street, a large group of protesters drummed and chanted their way through traffic. A flyer was thrust into my hand, which described the group’s concerns about humans? consumption of meat. Although I didn’t share their beliefs, they were orderly and had, as I learned from a policeman assigned to accompany the group, a permit for their demonstration.

At nearby Queen’s Park, I discovered that it actually is a park and not merely a structure housing the troughs of provincial politicians. The large leafy park was another green oasis, this one at the back door of the Ontario Legislature. The legislative buildings, blushing with the red of the recent Liberal victory, were stately and quiet on a Saturday afternoon.

Within moments, a different parade of demonstrators arrived. These folks were on bicycles and were promoting the use of pollution-free bikes instead of cars. Each bicyclist wore a helmet and sensible shoes. And nothing else. Hundreds of nude cyclists (mostly, and quite obviously, male) paused at the steps of the legislature during their 10th annual World Naked Bike Ride tour of the city. Bemused tourists stood by and took photos. Is this staid Toronto?

The final blow to my Toronto aversion was delivered along with the conference’s keynote speech. An eminent professor from, naturally, the University of Toronto gave a riveting and mind-expanding mini-lecture on psychology. For me, an online student from out in the rural boondocks of the province, attending a lecture in person is a rare treat. The centre of the universe was gaining in appeal.

Fiercely-held opinions are slow to erode?even, and perhaps most especially, uninformed ones. Yet, less than 48 hours after arriving in this once-loathsome city, I was making plans for a return visit.

Toronto isn’t the centre of my universe, but I must confess It’s a vibrant city with lots to offer. The buildings are tall but many of them are stunningly beautiful. Most residents are genuinely nice. They can’t all have voted for Rob Ford, after all, and surely they will do better next time. And, who knows, maybe those naked cyclists will eventually convince enough people to ditch their cars and alleviate the choking traffic.

So, sorry Toronto, for hating you. I still don’t want to live there, but Toronto is a nice place to visit.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario