Mea culpa. Two decades ago, when I wrote a Fodor's travel guide to Toronto, I tried to pump up the prose by telling the story of the first white man in the area. Coureur de bois Étienne Brûlé, scout for Samuel de Champlain, lived among the Huron (so my text assured readers) until, in 1633, his drinking and womanizing so offended them that they killed and ate him. Sex, death and cannibalism - I hoped all this would lure people into reading about Toronto.
This is why we need a Toronto museum. Historians now say the Brûlé story is wrong, wrong, wrong. The Frenchman was tortured to death by his allies for suspected treachery, not ribaldry, and he was probably killed near Lake Erie, not the mouth of the Humber River. The west-end Toronto streets and schools named after him should find a new myth.
"People want to know who the first white guy in the area was, but that's not a big hairy deal," says Carl Benn, the city's chief curator of museums and heritage services. "Besides, it privileges white guys in a historical context where virtually the entire population was aboriginal."
The province's civic holiday also privileges a white guy - Simcoe Day, on Monday, named after John Graves Simcoe, who sired urban Toronto when he presided over York officially becoming the capital of Upper Canada in 1796. But Toronto isn't a white city. And while it has been becoming less white, its historians have been replacing many of the city's founding legends with new histories of which most of us are unaware.
There is a warehouse in the city's west end, and what's inside is the closest thing this town has to a map of its own DNA. It contains an estimated 100,000 artifacts and about one million archeological specimens that form the nucleus of a Toronto museum. You can see this stuff only by trekking to an industrial street, knocking on an unmarked door at an appointed time and then taking a manually operated freight elevator, which creaks and whirrs like a vast old clock. "I love the sound of 1922," Mr. Benn says as he stands by the lift's controls.
Alighting, we enter a warren of shelves, boxes, drawers and clothes racks. Here are Blue Jays bumper stickers from our 1992 World Series win; a drum from the War of 1812; Communist Young Pioneer caps from the 1934 May Day parade; Seneca and Algonkian (or Algonquin) arrowheads. Century-old posters of the Canadian National Exhibition.
Mr. Benn pulls out a green coat with silver buttons that belonged to Colonel William Jarvis of the Queen's Rangers. He shows the garment's lining. "Look! These are great port-soaked sweat stains of the 18th century, not like the prissy patches we have now."
Must we make sense of all this? Does it matter that few of us have heard of the greatest human tragedy in this region, when from 1634 to 1640, half of the aboriginal population of Southern Ontario perished from European-borne disease? That few know that in the 1770s, John Graves Simcoe, an abolitionist, tried to form a regiment of free black loyalists, and that the Queen's Rangers was his second choice? That of the 600 redcoats stationed at Fort York to defend this city in 1814-15, 400 were francophones from a Quebec regiment?
Toronto is too complex to let our 11,000 years of human habitation be reduced to fairy tales in guidebooks. "Cities are organic," former mayor David Crombie says. "Places like Glasgow and Manchester that turn themselves around first have to look into their own soul. We'll learn a helluva lot more by looking at our own than with ideas dumped from elsewhere." Rita Davies, executive director of the city's culture branch, says: "We need to understand the past in terms of how it informs our present and points to the future."
An example: Mr. Benn talks about how after Brûlé's day, a Seneca community flourished by the Humber River. After they decamped for upstate New York in 1687, Algonkian peoples took over control of this territory. Known as the Mississauga, they're the people to whom the British paid £1,700 in 1787 in what's known as the Toronto Purchase. That sale is still contested 220 years later, and likely applies to the land under your feet as you read this.
Eclectic as the warehouse collection is, it tells only a small fraction of such Toronto stories. It's overwhelmingly 18th to 20th century, and is heavy on the plates, shoes and clothes from the old Eaton's department store.
To round it out, Mr. Benn would love to have access to material that would fill in the gaps back to 9000 BC. And he'd like items that would allow the museum to tell other kinds of stories too: "Think of the El Mocambo palm tree sign," he says. "It could serve as a jumping-off point to let us explore the impact of the club scene in the 1960s and 1970s." And more ways of telling about Toronto's waves of immigrants, Ms. Davies adds. "We have 150 different communities here. We're evolving second by second, never mind year by year."
The elusive museum
Toronto is getting closer to having its own museum. Early next year, City Council will be asked to approve a proposed site, 1.5 hectares of city-owned land next to the old Canada Malting silo on the waterfront. Then comes the job of raising about $80-million from various sources, mostly
private, which is likely to push the project a few years into the future.
But David Crombie, the project's honorary chair, has something more immediate in mind for the 175th anniversary of the incorporation of the City of Toronto: an ambitious exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in the summer of 2009 that is expected to move on to St. Lawrence Hall - and will, it is hoped, act as a preview for the permanent Museum of the History of Toronto.