Tudor Alexis, the new French Consul-General in Toronto, has only lived in the city for a few months. He concedes that he has lots to learn about this “connected, multicultural” place.
But the career diplomat has news for his adoptive home, a piece of information that is jarring to learn from an outsider.
Toronto, he would like us to know, is turning 300 this year.
The city’s age should be a simple question. But this year, that question threatens to become more complicated and spark debates about how we tell Canada’s story and the rightful place in that story of Canada’s first peoples.
The city can thank Mr. Alexis, who has decided to break with diplomatic protocol and teach his adoptive home a provocative lesson about its imperial history.
“To look at Toronto, city of the future, we have to talk about our past,” he says in his 22-storey midtown office, overlooking a forest of glass towers.
Toronto’s founding year is usually given as either 1793, when the town of York was established on the shores of Lake Ontario, or 1834, when the city was incorporated – both significant dates in the British settlement of the city.
Mr. Alexis is proposing another date and another national story.
It begins in 1720, with the construction of a French fur trade post near what is now the neighbourhood of Baby Point. The fort, staffed by a young trader named Douville and most likely two other soldiers, was meant to attract Indigenous trappers who were using the ancient “Toronto carrying place” along the Humber River between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe.
The Magasin Royal was part of a string of French outposts along Lake Ontario from Kingston to Niagara that were established to frustrate British commerce and buy beaver pelts, in exchange for such basic goods as flour, prunes, olive oil, tobacco, axes, gunpowder and bullets.
Douville and his men had limited success, and the post was abandoned within a decade, but they had already become the first Europeans to settle, albeit tentatively, in the present city of Toronto – a fact that’s well known to scholars but barely at all by the general public.
That arguably makes this year an important anniversary for Canada’s largest city. Recently, on Twitter, Mr. Alexis wrote: “Toronto is turning 300 in 2020!” The consulate plans to celebrate the birthday on Bastille Day.
This is the first part of the Consul-General’s provocation: imagining Toronto as a French city. In their 18th century heyday, voyageurs explored and did business across wide swaths of Canada and the United States – a sprawling area spanning Cape Breton to New Orleans, tied together by the waterways of the St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.
Places such as Bon Secour in deepest Alabama and Pays Plat (flat land) in northwestern Ontario – not to mention the Métis nation of the Prairies – attest to an early French presence in places we now consider solidly anglo.
But of all the English-speaking cities that can boast a colonial French heritage, Toronto seems especially incongruous. The Queen City, with its red brick row houses and Presbyterian values, became a British bastion in the 19th century and never looked back.
Perhaps that’s why it’s not well known that French explorers and traders beat Victorian Toronto to the spot by nearly two centuries. Étienne Brûlé likely became the first European to pass through the present city in 1615, and in the 1750s, after Douville’s fort was abandoned, the colonial government in Quebec built a bigger, more successful trading post where Exhibition Place now stands.
It’s this long-neglected history that Mr. Alexis wants to shine a light on – and even celebrate. Pointing to the voyageur tradition of marrying into First Nations families and adopting their traditions, the Consul-General argued that there are lessons to draw from the way French colonists interacted with Indigenous people in Canada.
At the same time, he recognizes that this year marks a different sort of anniversary for First Nations: “300 years of a presence that we imposed on them – that they didn’t ask for.”
Mr. Alexis says that he’s "not proud” of the French empire, and he has solid grounds for the sentiment. The Consul-General was born in Pondicherry, a small former French colony in southern India that was once divided into a “white town” and a “black town” and which France only formally relinquished in 1962.
His father and mother, both native Indians, were born under French occupation, he says.
It is not from a position of colonial arrogance, then, that Mr. Alexis celebrates the French history of Toronto. After announcing his idea on social media, he immediately wrote that any celebration “should pay respect, homage and give credit and acknowledgement to the First Nations.”
Still, no matter how delicately it is presented, the notion that Toronto is just 300 years old is refuted by the archaeological record.
The best evidence suggests that there have been more than 13,000 years of human occupation in Southern Ontario, including Toronto, said Rob MacDonald, a veteran archeologist and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Waterloo.
More recently, for several centuries before European contact, ancestors of the Huron-Wendat people practised maize agriculture and inhabited longhouse villages on the north shore of Lake Ontario where Toronto stands today.
Because of this deep pre-European history, and centuries of dispossession since, the idea of marking the city’s tricentennial strikes some Indigenous scholars as wrongheaded, if not hurtful.
“That’s the emotional side to this,” said Doug Williams, an associate professor of Indigenous studies at Trent University and a member of the Mississaugas of Curve Lake First Nation. “Our people were so in upheaval during the colonial process. And totally omitted and ignored. So when you celebrate something like that ... it’s part of the omission.”
Mr. Alexis says he doesn’t want to leave Indigenous history out. He has already met the Indigenous writer Tanya Talaga and promises that the local Indigenous community will be involved in planning the Bastille Day event on July 14.
Rather than negating anyone’s history, he says, the idea of Toronto at 300 is meant to open a debate about the city’s history – one that might just manage to set Toronto’s European era in perspective. In this way, the diplomat has added an unusual set of duties to his itinerary of official luncheons and visa troubleshooting: the excavation of a city’s past.
“History is a palimpsest,” he said. “I’m interested in removing the layers.”