Once a bastion of white, Anglo-Saxon culture, Toronto is increasingly thought of as one of the most multicultural cities in the world. This identity is often shaped by those who view the city from the metropolitan core, where proximity to whiteness and wealth means that multiculturalism can be enjoyed in the form of food and festivals, and opportunities for consumption during leisure time. Consequently, this view is ahistorical, ignoring the histories of the Indigenous Peoples who have made this place home since time immemorial. It is also a view that fails to acknowledge the fact that in addition to being increasingly multicultural, Toronto is also shaped by increasing socio-economic polarization. Toronto is a city in which racialized people are most likely to live in poverty, and where poverty is increasingly being pushed to the suburbs (Hulchanski). It is in this context that Indigenous Toronto and Feel Ways make an important intervention. These two new books not only complicate notions of multiculturalism shaped by elites in the city’s core, but also tell the stories of the people and places that define Toronto.
Indigenous peoples and urban spaces have long been understood as antithetical. Indigenous Toronto powerfully challenges this notion. Ange Loft’s essay “Remember Like We Do” opens the collection by chronicling the history of Toronto through the lens of treaties and agreements made between the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Mississauga, highlighting Indigenous histories and connections to Toronto, and explaining why they remain significant today.
The second and third sections focus on the lives of individuals that have played an important role in fostering and maintaining vibrant Indigenous life in Toronto, while the fourth section contains contributions that emphasize the ways that Indigenous Peoples continue to transform Toronto today. There is a large and growing body of academic literature that details the history of Indigenous Peoples in cities such as Toronto, drawing attention to the important role played by Friendship Centres and Indigenous arts institutions in making cities hospitable places. The chapters in Indigenous Toronto bring this history to life through personal narratives. For instance, Elaine Bomberry colourfully tells the story her family’s path to the city, detailing the challenges and joys that the family experienced building a life in Toronto while also maintaining connections to kin across a broad territory. The contributions offer engaging, personal histories that provide insight into the development of institutions such as Anishnawbe Health and the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. As Brian Wright-McLeod puts it in his chapter detailing Indigenous activism in the 1980s, “the only way to tell this thing is from personal experience. So sit tight and follow along as best you can” (212).
Personal experience is also a core feature of Feel Ways. This collection brings together a brilliant crew of young writers from Scarborough. The editorial introduction provides important context for understanding the significance of this work, recounting the multiple ways that Scarborough has often been positioned as faraway and banal, marginalized as a racialized suburb by those who govern from the city’s core. The editors explain how “Scarborough, under the White gaze of academics, police, urban planners, economists, and politicians, is a place of disaffection. Black, Indigenous, and Brown pain, and likewise joy, registers as nothing but a sterile statistic, if it registers at all” (6). The intent of Feel Ways is to make the reader “feel ways: to stir up a plethora of emotions that compel you into action, not in the service of a liberal state that thrives off of a community’s trauma, but one that is ultimately disloyal to the sentimentalism that Canadian Literature demands its resource frontiers” (7).
Feel Ways challenges these tendencies. This diverse collection of non-fiction and poems lovingly capture the intricacies and intimacies of life in Scarborough as only those who call Scarborough home can do. For instance, Chris Johnson’s “Sleep Through Your Stop” illustrates the mundane complexities that shape his daily bus ride:
As a high school bus rider
from Port Union to Wexford,
I watched Scarborough pass by windows
for an hour at least twice a day,
from end-to-end and in between.
The sun often set on
small business on Lawrence Ave E.
Never built up, but surviving
like every store in Cedarbrae Mall.
Not a British Empire; a lot of empty stores. (26)
Rather than painting a unidimensional picture of Scarborough, the contributions capture the density of places and experiences to vividly capture a landscape filled with feeling. While Scarborough is often an afterthought in discussions of Toronto, a far-flung suburb understood only in relation to the core, these contributions centre Scarborough, and so it is the core that becomes distant and unrecognizable.
Both Indigenous Toronto and Feel Ways feature stories told by those who are often misrecognized, misrepresented, or simply forgotten in mainstream histories of Toronto. However, these books do more than simply present an addition to these histories. Instead, by refusing to mine these places as resource frontiers for stories that ultimately reinforce dominant narratives, they aid in the creation of a new literary landscape, creating an altogether new and nuanced understanding of this city.
Hulchanski, David J. The Three Cities within Toronto. Cities Centre, 2011.
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