Toronto was settled in 1750, since then it has added a long list of local landmarks. A small list, just to name a few: Canadian National (CN) Tower, Rogers Centre (originally SkyDome), Old City Hall, Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto Islands, St. Michael’s Cathedral, St. James Cathedral, Distillery District, Casa Loma, Royal Ontario Museum, St. Lawrence Market, Hockey Hall of Fame, Art Gallery of Ontario, Ontario Science Centre and the Toronto Zoo.
As a city of immigrants, many ethnic groups chose this city to live and together all of them shaped Toronto to become the most multicultural city in the world. Mike Filey is a Canadian historian, that has written more than two dozen books about the history of Toronto. Filey worked for five years at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) and four years at Canada’s Wonderland. In an interview with Milénio Stadium, Filey admitted that Old City Hall is his favourite landmark in Toronto. Filey was born in the 40’s and the historian has no doubt that the city “can become even greater” in the next decade.
Milénio Stadium: Would you mind telling us about how Toronto and the multicultural scene have blended over the years and do you believe this is a good thing?
Mike Filey: I grew up in Toronto, specifically at the corner at Bloor and Bathurst, and my best friends were an Italian family. Frankly when I was a kid my first unique meal other than what my mother would make was standard English stuff was spaghetti and meatballs. I grew up with spaghetti, that’s not Portuguese, but it just indicates that when I was a kid, Toronto was a unique city, where we had a lot of international families that moved to the city following the war. I was born in 1941, so I got to know a lot of that as a kid, I got to know a lot of people who selected Toronto as their new home following the war. In fact, I married a lady from Czechoslovakia. I don’t have any direct Portuguese connections, but I can think, it could be many of my friends at public school were Portuguese. It didn’t make any difference in those days, they were just friends.
MS: How have you seen Toronto change over the years?
MF: Going back to my childhood, the only place my dad would take us for a really good meal would be at one of the hotels. There was no such thing as a corner restaurant run by any family-oriented Portuguese or Italian you had to really look for them. But my dad was convinced that the best meals were available either at Royal York Hotel or at the King Edward Hotel. For whatever reason, now he had been in the war, for whatever reason he would never think of taking us to an Italian or Portuguese restaurant, anything that it wasn’t truly an English restaurant. But that’s the way the city was in those days. Today you have several hundred different nationalities, but when I was a kid back in the 40’s you had no choice, unless you knew their families. I used to go next door, under Bathurst Street, our friends who were Italian and that’s where I learned about spaghetti was. I had no idea what spaghetti was until they took me under their wings and said come have dinner with us.
MS: What is your favourite Toronto Landmark or area?
MF: I guess Old City Hall and one of the reason is that it was almost torn down. If the Eaton Centre that we know today had developed as Eaton’s had hoped, there would be no Old City Hall. It was to be flattened and only the clock tower would remain. I guess I would select it simply because If people reacted hadn’t Eaton’s idea to tear it down to expand their new Eaton Centre, we wouldn’t have it. I can only be thankful to people who decided, that they too thought it was worth keeping. But there is also Casa Loma, which is a bit of a fally, a bit of a joke, because it’s not really a castle. Never the less, I look at these places that if you remove them, it wouldn’t be the Toronto that I want to live in. I can say things like Casa Loma, things like the Island ferry boats, they don’t make any sense in terms of finances, going back and forth across the main straight, but if they got rid of them this wouldn’t be the Toronto that I wanna stay in. I can say the same for the old streetcars or many other buildings that people wanna tear down, but this city wouldn’t be the same that I grew up in and I think people would like to be in this place and what makes this city so unique. I mean Casa Loma is a joke, but Casa Loma is also Toronto.
MS: How do you think we compare to the rest of the world?
MF: I can’t compare because I haven’t done a lot of travelling. I compare Toronto to San Francisco which is a city that we have visited and loved because they kept a lot of their old buildings. I love Vienna, I haven’t spent a lot of time there, I think the term world class city is not right. We have a lot of problems, we are certainly not world class, we are getting there but I’m not sure if it will improve this city at all simply by calling a world class city. Tough question, I don’t really have an answer.
MS: The CNE and the Toronto Island have been a landmark for many folks, but the ethnic communities seem to have migrated there over the years…what do you think about this?
MF: I worked at the CNE for seven years, we always had in our marketing plan to draw more of the ethnic crowds to the CNE, because it is so uniquely Toronto, but it was always a tough sell to try to convince the ethnic community just what we were. It’s kind of like Canada’s Wonderland (Vaughan), I worked there for a number of years as well and it was always difficult to try to get people to visit a place that they are not familiar with. You don’t have to be worried about the CNE this year because there is not gonna be one. I know that the ethnic people have found the islands and those who can’t venture North to cottages, the islands are the second best thing for them and I think the ethnic people rely on the islands as their summer home away from home. They discovered it when many local people that have grown up in Toronto have yet to discover the islands.
MS: Your photographs are world renowned. Do you have a favourite landmark picture?
MF: There is a new book that actually came out the day that they closed the bookstores. If you go online, the publisher is called Magic light Publishing: and the book is called “Toronto Spirit of Place”. You can find it online, some of the photos I took, and several are from John McQuarrie, co-publisher of the book. He is a professional photographer, he is eager to get the book out there and make people aware of it.
MS: Your background on the TTC is second to none. Many ethnics communities use public transit. Can you share with us what your thoughts are on the TTC?
MF: As a kid I used to pretend I had my own streetcar line that I would run around the apartment on Bathurst Street. I was always fascinated by the way the TTC has helped the city grow. I mean if you want it to live in the suburbs, in a place you could afford, whether you were from Portugal or from Italy or whatever you had to use the TTC to get to and from work. It became as much a part of your life as a local restaurant, as movie theaters, I mean it was just all integrated, to do anything in the city, the TTC was the way to do it. They suffered somewhat and that requires a lot of money to keep it up and running. Many governments may see this as frivolous … in my estimation the fact that Toronto is a great city, is in great measure due to the TTC itself. As modern as it is, trying to keep ahead of the curve because there is so many new things and in fact, we will get the crosstown LRT, all those things that the TTC will help the city grow over the next 100 years or so. For me I used to take the streetcar to go to the library, it was a way to get around my city, even though I was only eight or nine years old. It’s hard to put a value on the Commission, without a TTC the city would not have been able to grow and expand into the modern-day Toronto, that’s in great measure do to the subway and the streetcars.
MS: As a historian, how would you like to see Toronto progress in the next decade? Do you believe we will maintain this multiculturalism?
MF: If the politicians stay out of the way I think the city could become an even greater city. I’m always concerned about people being elected to politics to city council and they quite often will always do things for the city if the city does something for them. And what that means is, that certain politicians will play games rather than do what’s best for the city. In totality, they are only thinking of their own local community. Because of course they have to be re-elected so if anything gets in the way of city becoming even greater, it will as a result of the local politician, because they are only thinking for themselves, in order to be re-elected, rather than what the city needs, must-haves for all the politicians to get together and vote on certain things. I believe we will certainly keep a multicultural city, it will only increase, as ethnic communities discover it as a “Safe haven”, I put quotation marks around that, you have to watch American (US) news to know that we never ever want to get into that situation where people think that the Police are not their friends. The Police try very hard to play both sides (Right vs. Wrong), I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I’m saying it’s what we might get if we’re not careful. That’s me in a nutshell.