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Pique n' your interest


How Toronto earned the image of being a poor little rich town, I’ll never understand.

I grew up in a middle class neighbourhood, surrounded by extremes.

To the east, one ravine over, is the area known as Flemington Park. Across the street from the Ontario Science Centre – an amazing facility – is this full-on ghetto project, complete with dilapidated apartment blocks and townhomes. I went to a party there once with some friends from high school, only to find people smoking crack on the porch.

To the south and east over another ravine is an area known as Thorncliffe, which has the same demographics and building projects as Flemington Park, although it’s slowly being gentrified.

Both neighbourhoods have had their share of headlines over the years – murders, drug busts, assaults, robberies, you name it.

To the south and west, over yet another ravine, was Moore Park. Moore Park is the eastern edge of Rosedale, the wealthiest neighbourhood in all of Canada.

A 10-minute drive and a couple of ravines are all that separates the nation’s wealthiest from the nation’s poorest. I grew up somewhere in the middle, wedged between old Toronto and new Toronto; third generation wealth and new immigrant poverty; lives of privilege and lives of desperation.

Having lived in four provinces now, as well as in rural Ontario, I’m always amazed by the country’s perception of Toronto as a whiny, wealthy, impossible city, the spoiled child of Canada that gets all the breaks.

People still make fun of the fact the army was called in back in 1999 to help clear a snowstorm, but I don’t think they realize how bad the situation was. The streets were impassable. The subways and streetcars couldn’t run. Office buildings were closed. Hospitals were overrun. The airport was in chaos. The stock market was closed. There were blackouts. And the forecast called for more snow. It never came, but if it had we would have been in a lot of trouble.

Toronto has more than 5,100 km in roads to clear, which would stretch from one end of the country to the other. There were almost 5 million people in Greater Toronto who were for the most part unable to leave their homes to go to work, to go to school, to go shopping. People died as the snow covered the exhaust pipes for their furnaces and carbon monoxide built up.

Afterwards, it was assessed that the economic cost of the cleanup was about $15 million, or a little less than half the city’s annual snow-clearing budget. Furthermore, experts guessed that the storm cost Toronto businesses more than $90 million in lost productivity.

If anything the army should have been called in sooner to help out, but instead Toronto was branded nationally as a city full of wimps and whiners, crying to Ottawa for help.

I feel bad for Toronto. I go home to visit ever year or so, and I’m always amazed by how much the city has deteriorated since my last visit. Canada hates Toronto, and it shows.

The municipal government can’t afford new infrastructure, and has been reduced to patching the growing number of potholes in city roads. The city is pulling money from public schools, public works and public parks as the budget gets tighter and tighter.

An aging infrastructure, an ailing economy, the SARS crisis, the downloading of social programs, and the burden of providing housing and schooling for more than 100,000 new immigrants each and every year – more than 50 per cent of all new immigrants do relocate to Toronto – are having an impact. Canada’s largest economy can’t even afford to keep a CFL team afloat.

Yes, Vancouver does take in its share of immigrants as well, but let’s be honest – many are relatively wealthy Asians and Hong Kong residents that can take care of themselves. Toronto has taken in refugees from Somalia, Rwanda, Albania, Iran, Iraq, and more. Toronto is now, according to the UN, the most multi-cultural city on earth, with more than a hundred languages spoken and different ethnic communities flourishing in different places. It takes a World Cup soccer year to learn that we have a Cameroon Town, a Senegal Town and a Ukrainian Community, as well as the usual Little Italy and Greek Village.

Meanwhile Toronto is still a key economic generator for Canada, contributing $15 billion in taxes to the federal government, and millions more to the province. This money goes towards federal programs for all Canadians, or gets sent to the other provinces as transfer payments. Very little of it actually comes back to Toronto.

To stay afloat, the city has had to increase property taxes, which are already among the highest in Canada, and to give people less for those taxes.

And still the federal government and provincial government bristle at any suggestion that Toronto could use some relief, some help getting back on its feet.

That’s why I wanted the Olympics to go to Toronto. All the money that is going to Vancouver for a bid with lukewarm support could have made a huge difference in Toronto.

Vancouver hosted an Expo once, something Toronto has never had. You see, contrary to popular opinion, Toronto doesn’t really get anything from the rest of Canada. Except grief.

The recent SARS concert? Toronto did that itself, with no help from the rest of Canada – although federal politicians were more than happy to show up for a photo opportunity, and give a little lip service to how great the city is.

I’m heading back to Toronto this weekend for a wedding, and I’m dreading what I’m going to find. Will the city streets be cleaner? Will the buses run on time again? Will the potholes on my street be filled? Will there be fewer beggers and homeless people? Will the public pool even be open? I seriously doubt it.

Until Canada acknowledges the important role Toronto plays and the contributions it makes to the country, Toronto will continue to decay.

Canada’s favourite whipping boy, the butt of jokes from one end of the country to the other, is going down fast. And if we don’t do anything now to help, it’s going to take the rest of us down with it.