Spending a day watching the proceedings of Toronto city council can be almost physically depressing. Like hours in crawling rush-hour traffic, it drains the soul and flattens the spirit. So on Monday I tore myself away from the debates on shark fin soup and privatized garbage pick-up and fled the clam shell in search of something different.
The event that drew me away was a movie screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the dramatic new film complex on King Street. The host was Reel Canada, a group that promotes Canadian filmmaking by showing movies in high schools across the country.
Courting adults this time, Reel had invited hundreds of English-as-a-second-language students to a one-day festival of Canadian film. People from every corner of the world were there, many of them recent arrivals to Toronto struggling to master an unfamiliar tongue. “It’s a great way to acclimatize them and introduce them to the culture,” organizer Jack Blum said.
The group I visited took in Bollywood/Hollywood by Deepa Mehta, who answered questions from the audience afterward – smart, truly curious questions in a dozen different accents. She told them that Canada was lucky to have them and that they were lucky to be here, building a new Canadian future. “It’s going to be tough,” she said, but “you’re going to have a ball.”
Afterward, the crowd poured out of the theatre into the lobby, chatting with teachers and classmates, making plans to go for coffee or meet at the next lesson. It was a heartwarming scene and it got me thinking about all the things that are going right in Toronto – things you seldom hear about in the claustrophobic corridors of city hall.
Begin with integration. Few cities have absorbed so many people so quickly with so little rancour. All around the city, dozens of organizations and institutions are working to make newcomers feel welcome: charities and libraries, community centres and job agencies, refugee groups and sports clubs. You can complain about a shortage of funding for the effort and worry about the progress of some new immigrants, but you can’t help but be impressed by the reservoir of simple good faith in the city.
Now look at the setting of this remarkable little event. The Lightbox symbolizes many of the positive things that are happening in Toronto. As the home of the wildly successful Toronto International Film Festival, it stands for the city’s emergence as a world centre for new movies. That lends the place invaluable cultural currency.
It stands for the jaw-dropping renaissance of downtown, with its thickets of new condominiums, hotels and office buildings. The Lightbox itself is topped by the Festival Tower, just one of scores of gleaming new condo towers that are rising in the city core, quickening its urban pulse.
For a taste of that quickening, try sampling Toronto Tempo, Ryan Emond’s cool new video recently discussed on CBC’s Metro Morning. You can feel it outside the Lightbox at King and John. When I first went to work at the nearby Globe and Mail headquarters at Front Street and Spadina Avenue 20 years ago, friends called to sympathize. Nice job, but where was would I go for lunch in such a wasteland? Today, the area is alive with restaurants and bars.
Looking out the window of one of those restaurants – okay, a Tim Hortons – I took in a view that was all Toronto: a chic woman in beige stiletto boots and pink umbrella; bike couriers on sleek single-gear steeds; a gaggle of women in Muslim head scarves; taxi cabs dodging in and out of traffic with reckless panache; a red-and-white King car plying the busiest streetcar route on North America’s third busiest transit system. What a scene. What a city.