The Big Smoke

A week in Toronto

Via Rail takes us from Montreal to Toronto, along the shores of lake Ontario. Because it is Spring and lushly green with trees along the tracks, there’s really not much to see. As we travel, smoke from fires in Quebec is evident, apparently having blown west to languish over Toronto. The “big smoke” is now an apropos label. The nickname was coined by journalist Alan Fotheringham and is meant to imply that Toronto has an outsized reputation with little to show for it. 

The train is both cheaper and faster than flying for this short a trip, once the cost and time of trips to and from the airport are factored into the equation. Must be why Mr. Macron has decreed that, in France, travel of less than two hours will no longer be done by air. Will this save the planet from the ravages of climate change? Will other countries follow suit? I guess we’ll find out. 

For now we are happy to zip along in a comfy coach that deposits us at Union station. A short metro ride drops us at Yonge & Eglinton. A short walk has us at Geoff & Seonag’s door, where wine, a meal and old friends welcome us to their new home. Loyal Torontonians, they patiently listen to us extoll the virtues of Montreal. In the end we agree that you can’t compare apples to oranges. They are very different cities and as the Quebequois say: vive la difference!! 

A Saturday spent on a Toronto garden tour, courtesy of Seonag’s old friend and our new friend Sue, is a chance to see the backyards of the big brick houses of Riverdale. Several are okay, some are lovely, and a few are gobsmackingly gorgeous. Later in the week we will have dinner at Sue & Bruce’s, taking a group photo in their garden-tour-worthy back garden.

Averaging about 20,000 steps a day, one day walking up and down Bayview, another day walking up and down Yonge Street and Mount Pleasant Road, with side trips into Rosedale and Moore Park to ogle the mansions, we walk a lot. As was the case with Montreal, the shopping is overwhelming. As are the cafes, bistros, bars, bakeries, book stores, and when it is time to sit on a cafe patio to refuel, there is great people-watching.

And there are a whole lotta people here. Three million in the metro area, six million in greater TO, and nine million in the “golden horseshoe”, the area around the western shore of Lake Ontario. Some days it feels like they are all packed onto the metro. And everywhere we look there are cranes and new construction, more skyscrapers in the works. We crane our necks looking up, way up, taking them all in. Lots of old buildings surrounded by new.

Already half of Toronto’s population is composed of recent immigrants, and that number is slated to rise as Canada aims to increase its population through immigration. And they gotta live somewhere. We wonder about the infrastructure to support these newcomers.

It’s not our first trip to the AGO, the Art Gallery of Toronto, but there’s enough art here to warrant a second visit. The Lawren Harris canvases in particular always impress. The rest of the group of seven, including Emily Carr, pale in comparison, IMHO. As for the modern stuff, WTF?! Our grand-nephew Blake is a better artist.

Dashing a few blocks from the metro station in the pouring rain, we arrive at the Bata Shoe Museum soaking wet. My own shoes make a squishing sound as I walk around, taking in the fascinating  history of shoes. Craig is sceptical that an entire museum dedicated to footwear could possibly be of any interest to a guy. He’s soon eating his words.

Back out on the street the rain has intensified to Vancouver levels. We take refuge for lunch in a U of T pub. As it is almost empty, we spread our wet outerwear across several chairs. They are almost dry by the time we leave. Still raining, we take further refuge in the massive Eaton’s Centre for a bit of window shopping, and then in a pub across the street for more libations. It’s not the most productive day but c’est la vie!! Back at Seonag & Geoff’s another gourmet meal awaits.

Divina Dali, an exhibit of Salvadore Dali’s art, is housed in the spectacular Brookfield building, on Bay Street, in the heart of the financial district. It’s a multi-sensory adventure into Dante Alighieri’s poetic masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, through the surrealist vision of Salvador Dalí. Unfamiliar with Dante’s poems, we struggle a bit to understand the bizarrely beautiful watercolor paintings. We are comforted knowing that it’s been said “it is futile to try and understand Dali, as Dali doesn’t even understand himself”.

At the Princess of Wales theatre we see “Hamilton”, the multi-award winning musical depicting the life of Alexander Hamilton, an American founding father. The real Mr. Hamilton was white, however this production has him and his fellow compatriots played by non-white actors. The music is largely rap & hip hop, which makes a lot of the lyrics difficult to understand. Geoff hates it, but he hates all musicals and hates rap, Seonag loves musicals but is disappointed in this one, Craig’s not crazy about musicals or rap and is lukewarm about Hamilton, I think it is pretty good, but have very low expectations to start, so am pleasantly surprised.

Over coffee the next morning we rehash our reviews, agreeing that, while we would not recommend anyone spend the big bucks on tickets to Hamilton, there are aspects of the production that are award-worthy: the sets, the costumes, the choreography, the lighting, the energy of the cast are all remarkable. The production itself is flawless, barring one minor hitch with a wedding veil, so minor that I don’t even notice. And we now know about the life of Alexander Hamilton, a man we’d never even heard of before.

The last day in Toronto dawns (who am I kidding, I sleep until 9, long past dawn!) cloudy, with a 40% chance of rain. In fact, it’s been rainy on and off our entire visit. The bike ride we’d planned, the trip to Toronto Island, the walk on the beach … don’t happen. We keep saying: next trip.

Nevertheless, we don ball caps, put rain jackets in our day packs, and head out for a tour of the Distillery District & environs. So far the metro rides have been uneventful, but this particular morning there’s a dog sleeping on a bench on our metro car. Across from him is his sleeping owner, also sprawled on a bench. Close by is a cat in a specially designed stroller, looking very perturbed by the dog. No one else in the car seems bothered by the man and the dog taking shelter from the elements.

As an aside, I thought a lot about whether or not to include photos of the man and the dog. The cat too, for that matter. I do not intend to sensationalize. Nor to exploit. The man and the dog are part of Toronto. As is Regent Park. In the midst of so much wealth and beauty, there is great inequality and those without homes. Others have homes that they do not want to be in. We need to see them. We need to understand better how to help get them home. So often this week we have had conversations about this issue. Tax the rich, create more jobs, increase access to mental health and addiction services, build more shelters, more soup kitchens, more community centres. There’s no shortage of ideas. Why is it so hard to implement them? 

Meanwhile back  at the Distillery District the rain starts as soon as we arrive. It’s lunch time anyway so we duck into a Mexican restaurant for tacos and margaritas. El Catrin, housed in a former warehouse, has been gussied up to look like a mod-goth take on the day of the dead. The chef hails from Mexico City, where he was one of the top chefs for several years running. And it shows. The food is mouth-wateringly good. The margaritas possibly the best I’ve tasted. I order a “flight” of four on the basis of sharing with the table, but end up drinking most of them myself.

From El Catrin we head north through Regent Park, one of Toronto’s less affluent neighbourhoods. It’s being made more safe by opening up dead-end streets and closed courtyards, increasing security for the largely poor marginalized residents.

Further north we wander through Cabbage Town, a leafy area of decidedly affluent homes, reputed to be the largest continuous area of preserved Victorian housing in all of North America. The name derives from the Irish immigrants who moved to the neighbourhood beginning in the late 1840s, said to have been so poor that they grew cabbage in their front yards. Gentrified by affluent professionals, beginning in the 1970s, many residents restored the houses and became community activists. It’s definitely gentrified. And based on the number of Olivia Chow for mayor signs, and a house whose former inhabitant was Toronto’s first female mayor, activism is alive and well in Cabbage Town.

That night we are invited for a final dinner with Seonag & Geoff’s “urban family”. The familiarity and close bonds these guys enjoy is heart warming to be around. The food’s good too! Sue’s perfectly cooked salmon, her veg side-dishes, Garrett’s mushroom risotto, added to the conviviality of the group and talk of future rendezvous … all make for a magical evening. Thank you for including us.

After a week here we conclude that Toronto’s reputation as a centre of commerce, art, and multiculturalism is well earned. We barely scratch the surface of all there is to do and see. With plans to return annually for the garden tour, we head back to Vernon, to the tranquility of our East Hill  home.


  1. Seonag says:

    Great fun seeing you guys. It’s always good to have visitors to help us appreciate our city.

  2. Wayne says:

    Sounds like you had a great time…you almost lost me in the first sentence…VIA rail passing Lake Erie going from Montreal to Toronto ?? Certainly lots of concrete and money…. don’t miss my hometown at all !!!

  3. You folks are still looking so young… In shape… Toronto looks very interesting, Montreal did as well, but I think, given a choice I would pick TO. Great pics! Just read an article about Dali– apparently many, many fakes abound.

  4. Charlotte Sutcliffe says:

    Looks like you had a great time. Always loved the train. Great idea to take it from Montreal to Toronto. Beautiful pics you captured. Lots of new skyscrapers just like Vancouver never stops growing upwards!! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Larry and Bev Amundsen says:

    Great comparison of Canads’s second and third greatest cities. I agree two weeks is not nearly enough for either place not to mention all the smaller towns and places there are to see nearby..

  6. Sharon Brubacher says:

    Love the narrative and the photos. The Moody in the Rain could be a Kal Gajoum. So pretty.
    I think you should do a blog for the Globe and Mail (or maybe the National Post :)))) of Our Home & Native Land and tour and write.
    Thanks for sharing!

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