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Marcus Gee

Lose the self-pity and shout out GTA triumphs, says U of T president Add to ...

The endless comic opera at city council. The transit mess. The budget fights. The mayor. No wonder many Torontonians are feeling down about their city.

Well, snap out of it, says David Naylor. The president of the University of Toronto says that the city and its region are a big success story, with a high quality of life, legions of eager entrepreneurs, modest costs by global standards and a multicultural sizzle that no other city can match. Instead of sinking into self-pity, it should be shouting its triumphs from the rooftops.

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“These days, with the blackly humorous dramas at city hall, and the endless angst about how we're losing our mojo, Toronto sometimes feels like the Woody Allen of global alpha cities,” he said in a recent speech to the Toronto Board of Trade.

“It's time to get over ourselves. Yes, there are things to fix. But please make time to celebrate the hugely positive features of the remarkable municipalities that together make up the Toronto metropolitan region.”

That region, he says, ranks high on many global surveys: number three in livability, number four as an innovation hub, number six on a scale of business competitiveness – yet Toronto ranks number 59 on a list of the world’s most expensive cities.

It has the third largest financial centre and fourth largest health-sciences community in North America. Its design sector is the third largest on the continent, with a work force of more than 28,000 designers. The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development says Toronto has the fourth highest rate of entrepreneurship among regions in the industrialized world.

What is more, he says in a “pointy-headed aside,” these strengths are “multiplicative.” They build on one another. Take the success of the food-production and processing sector, the second biggest in North America after Los Angeles. Its centre is the vast Ontario Food Terminal you can see from the Gardiner Expressway. It contributes to the success of nutritional science, biotechnology, manufacturing, packaging, design, storage and logistics – all areas in which Toronto leads the country.

“In fact, ‘it's all here’ might be an apt if cheeky slogan for the region,” Dr. Naylor says. “Put simply, we are good at everything because we are good at everything, It all comes together.”

Dr. Naylor is allowed a few pointy-headed asides. A former Rhodes Scholar and leading health researcher, he has been head of the U of T since 2005. He has a wry sense of humour and strong views. He is the farthest thing from a mindless civic booster.

Toronto, he concedes, has serious problems. How much better the Toronto region would be, he says, “if we had a transit system that allowed us to get from one part to the other and enjoy it.”

But he has no time for those who say that Toronto is in decline, eclipsed by the rise of buoyant Western cities such as Calgary. Though some immigrants may be heading west, the region still draws over 40 per cent of all new immigrants.

Other Canadians may love to hate Toronto – “we play a unifying role in the national psyche” – but “you're looking at a place that drives 20 per cent of the GDP nationally and puts billions of dollars in federal hands to be used to support other parts of the country.” So “anyone in the West who indulges in that old Canadian pastime of Schadenfreude should give their head a shake,” he said when I called him this week.

Running down Toronto is not just a national pastime, it sometimes seems like a local one, too. While grappling with its problems, Toronto should take a lesson from the professor and learn to broadcast its successes.

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