The Magic Assembling:
Metropolitan Toronto Storefronts
and Street Scenes

© 1991 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

From almost every country in the world the immigrants come like the magic assembling of a hundred constituents to form a chemical compound. The elements that are to make the future Canadian are varied in national color and character. Canada is the vast laboratory of grace in which God is fashioning the final man. The final race will not be any one nationality, but will be composed of elements from all races.

C.J. Cameron, Foreigners or Canadians?, 1913


Foreigners? Aliens? Others? These are some of the words that have been used in Canada and elsewhere to describe groups deemed to be different. Other terms include ghettos, ethnic enclaves, Little Italies, and Chinatowns. As Robert Harney put it in his book Gathering Place in 1985, these terms do not "describe the social system and cultural life of particular groups of people in the city." Rather, they "delineate the categories which such groups are supposed to inhabit." People who accept these categories make no attempt to learn about or to understand these groups.

This problem of terminology is ultimately a political problem. As participant observers and political actors, we must realize that our words and understandings are never neutral, just more or less biased. This said, the challenge remains one of building (rather than burning) our bridges. Bridge building within and between cultural groups takes many forms, whether it be exhibits such as this one, or the acknowledgement and fostering of minority discourse.

Where immigration to Canada is concerned, understanding and tolerance are particularly important now, a time when immigration - at close to half a million in 1991 and 1992 - has reached levels that have not been seen since the first decades of the twentieth century.


Foreigners or Canadians? The problem with this question is that it transforms complex cultural issues into a single false and simplistic division. First Nations peoples, Canadians and non-Canadians all have many different identities, and in areas like Metropolitan Toronto, to be a Canadian is to be a part of one of the most ethnically diverse urban populations in the world.

Since the formation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto in the 1950s, immigration into the metropolitan area has gone hand in hand with dynamic economic and cultural development. Given this history, Metropolitan Toronto remains the number one destination for immigrants to Canada. It is not surprising, therefore, that the study of ethnicity in Canada is best understood when it is integrated into an urban framework. "No great North American city can be understood without being studied as a city of immigrants, of newcomers and their children, as a destination of myriad group and individual migration projects." When Professor Robert Harney made this statement in 1985, he invoked this warning from Italo Calvino's "pseudo-geography," Invisible Cities: "Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site with the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves." Getting beyond this lack of comprehension was one of Harney's objectives. He spent several days before his sudden death in 1989 on the streets of the City of Toronto, beginning a project of documenting urban storefronts and street scenes. This exhibit includes some of the results of the photographic work he directed, in addition to new words and images that extend beyond the city into the metropolitan area.


The [person] who had conquered the vagaries of English, [who] could understand or circumvent the law, and [who] had some sense of the situation could become the most important person in the "immigrant community." People expected to pay in "cash and deference" for "the use of knowledge of Canada" and its workings. A semi-professional, commercial, and bureaucratic bourgeoisie was and is as much a part of an ethnic neighbourhood- as their shopkeeper brethren.

Robert F. Harney and Harold Troper, Immigrants: Portrait of the Urban Experience, 1975

The storefront services run by immigrants play an important role in helping newcomers to adapt to and be assimilated in Canadian culture. At the same time, these services enrich and are part of the ongoing change in our host Canadian culture.

Immigrants need the services of experienced professionals from their own groups not only for their fluency in the English language, but also for their knowledge of Canadian economic, legal, and administrative practices. Accountants and lawyers, bankers and travel agents offer services alongside cleaners and tailors, florists and acupuncture therapists. Altogether, these businesses bring a wide variety of international goods and services to city streets.

It is true that the federal government sets broad policies for immigration, refugee status, international development, and foreign aid. At the local level within Metropolitan Toronto, however, thousands of immigrants earn their living through wage labour and the businesses they run. Often they share their prosperity with relatives and friends in their country of origin.


Virtually every immigrant group has established its own grocery stores, restaurants, and import and distribution companies. These ethnic establishments not only provide for the special dietary needs of their people; they also add to the number and the variety of goods available in Metropolitan Toronto.

* In Rexdale, a Jamaican vendor of tropical fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, beckons to customers from the Caribbean community.

* An Italian meat wholesaler in the City of York has expanded from his traditional market to cater almost exclusively to a new and growing West Indian clientele.

* In the City of Toronto, an elegant restaurant and banquet hall serves authentic Greek cuisine.

* An Indian grocery and variety store in North York seeks a larger clientele with a storefront sign in English and Italiese (Italian English).

These establishments try to appeal to the dominant English language culture in Metropolitan Toronto, as well as to their own people and other groups. Given the movement of ethnic groups through different areas of the city, these entrepreneurs have got to be flexible to survive. The result is a practical and potent form of multiculturalism.


While Metropolitan Toronto still has remnants of "Toronto the Good" in its character, Victorian parochialism has clearly given way to a new cosmopolitanism. Since the 1950s, the growth of the Metropolitan area has been shaped by massive immigration from other parts of Canada and from countries outside the British Commonwealth. Today, Metro Toronto's storefronts provide windows on this wider world.

In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan celebrated the idea of the global village. Television, he said, would serve to unite us all, and in certain ways this may be true. Within Metropolitan Toronto, everyone can watch the same channels. Abroad, television encourages people in all countries to want economic well-being and Western forms of democracy.

Metropolitan Toronto has been affected by this internationalism as much as any other metropolitan area. Today it has one of the most ethnically varied urban populations in the world.


What is the shape of our metropolitan diversity? Toronto clearly does not have a multicultural inner city surrounded by WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) suburbs. Stereotypes are being broken and labels quickly outdated by ongoing urban transformations.

Italians are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Greater Toronto area. The first waves of Italian immigrants settled in inner city neighbourhoods, but in recent years the City of Toronto's Little Italy has been home to fewer Italians. Storefront businesses from the 1950s and 1960s still survive, and in some cases flourish. In terms of actual residents, however, Little Italy is today more Portuguese than Italian, with significant numbers of other groups such as Vietnamese, Chinese, and even ethnically nondescript Yuppies.

Metro's suburbs are becoming less suburban. Areas such as Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough might be thought of as outer cities in relation to the central city of Toronto. In addition to high-density clusters of buildings these outer cities have their own Chinatowns and Little Indias. All six of the municipalities in Metropolitan Toronto are multicultural in composition and in character.


* Ethnicity is a North American process; it is a continual negotiation of
identity within a context of the concentric circles of loyalty and
patriotism towards family, friends, city, country of origin ... and
country of immigration.

* The immigrant often lives in a whirl of conflicting or mutually
unintelligible written, spoken and semiotic texts which [serve as]
guides in choices of loyalty and identification.

Robert Harney, If One Were to Write a History, 1991

In this time of rapid global transformation, the above statements increasingly apply to both immigrants and non-immigrants alike. To varying degrees, we are all caught up in a swirl of "semiotic texts" and "negotiations of identity."

During the last three decades, we have become aware that we have not one national identity, but multiple identities. As the world becomes more complex and more changeable, each of us has something to learn from immigrant experiences. And across the metropolitan area, it is the hybrid nature of ethnicity, as much or more than any single "pure forms," that we need to embrace.


Arnold Itwaru reminds us in his book The Invention of Canada that a country is always in a state of flux between what it sees as its origins and what it sees itself becoming. On the streets of Metropolitan Toronto, the "new Canada" of the twenty-first century is not invisible - at least for those who take the time to look. How do we frame and interpret what we see?

During the course of making this exhibit (December 1992 through February 1993), Toronto newspapers reported that:

* By the late 1980s Chinese had displaced Italian as the leading second
language in Metropolitan Toronto, reflecting the increase of "visible
minorities" among immigrants to Canada.

* By 1991, 38 percent, or approximately 1,450,000 of the 3.8 million
people who live in the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area belonged to
immigrants groups.

At the same time, the national press reported intense debates on federal immigration and refugee policies, while the tabloid press gave full colour coverage to hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan.

For the most part, however, Metropolitan Toronto is not a place of polarized extremes. Keeping it this way requires that every one of us must become engaged as a citizen of the city, the metropolitan area, the nation, and the world.



Michael McMahon, Metropolitan Toronto Archives
Dr. Lillian Petroff, Multicultural History Society of Ontario

Exhibit Photography:
Dr. David Coleman
Michael McMahon
Vince Pietropaolo

Photographic Printing:
Toni Hafkensheid
Riley's Colour Lab

Exhibit Research and Production:
Angela Iozzo
Manda Vranic

Text Design and Editing:
Jim Miller
Rosemary Shipton

Urban Alliance on Race Relations Collection:

The Urban Alliance on Race Relations was formed in 1975 to promote a healthy multiracial environment in Metro. The U.A.R.R. encourages better race relations in our multicultural population through education programs directed at schools, the media, police, social service agencies, and various levels of government.

In 1992, the U.A.R.R. donated their papers to the Metro Archives. The collection contains all of the files of the U.A.R.R from 1975 to 1990, including administrative files, correspondence, research studies, and the journal Currents, as well as extensive newspaper clipping files. It is valuable to anyone interested in race relations or urban studies.

A Country of Immigrants

For the last two centuries, Canada has been one possible destination for those wishing--or needing--to leave their countries of birth and make a new life elsewhere. Today immigration to Canada is at its highest since 1957. In 1991, 118,630 people became new citizens of Canada.

The ethnicity of people immigrating to Canada has changed since the Second World War. Then, most immigrants came from Britain and Europe. Now, immigrants come increasingly from such countries as China, India, and the Philippines.

New Canadians may speak languages other than Canada's two official ones, English and French, and all bring "cultural baggage" to their new country. All levels of government--federal, provincial, and municipal--must study and be sensitive to the needs of their new constituents.

Metro's Changing Population

As One of Canada's largest cities, Metropolitan Toronto attracts a high proportion, 28%, of immigrants to Canada. Because of this, over the last forty years, the ethnic makeup of the Metro area has changed considerably. In 1951, 73% of people in the Metro census area traced their sole ancestry back to the British Isles. Now, only 19% of the population does so.

This exhibit, The Magic Assembling, shows how Metro's streets have changed under the influence of immigration. More subtle changes have also occurred. For example, Metro has created a Multicultural and Race Relations Division, to help all Metro residents live free from discrimination and participate in all aspects of municipal life. Metro also offers its services in a variety of languages.

Multicultural History Society of Ontario

The Multicultural History Society of Ontario was formed in 1976 to preserve and record Ontario's immigrant and ethnic history. Its collections are an important resource, containing oral, written, and visual history. The MHSO also promotes current research, and publishes scholarly works, memoirs, and other materials about the experiences and cultural contributions of ethnic groups in Ontario.

Professor Robert Harney (1939-1989) was the founding director and president of the MHSO. Photographs taken under his direction in 1989 were displayed at the MHSO as an exhibit named The Magic Assembling. Some of those photographs are in the updated version of this exhibit, which is displayed in the Metro Archives today.

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