Rediscover Toronto with the Honourable David Crombie, Former Mayor of Toronto

by | May 20, 2020

David Crombie Travel Tips
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Last updated on April 21st, 2024

Challenging our Curiosity; How to Explore a City by Understanding its ‘Bone Structure’

Special Guest: The Honourable David Crombie, P.C., O.C., O. Ont

On June 3, we spoke with the Honourable David Crombie, a former Mayor of Toronto, to get a new perspective on exploring places for our new ‘Travel at Home’ series. At a time when travel is restricted, there’s no better way to practice the skill of curiosity than by exploring your own city.

This series of talks, with very special guests who know their homes inside out, provides an insider’s view to history, off-the-beaten track places and outdoor activities, with tips that we can apply to any place we travel to. If you have a suggestion on a place to be featured, please let us know at [email protected] or in the comments below.


Carolyn: My name is Carolyn Ray and I’m the publisher and CEO of JourneyWoman. JourneyWoman is a women’s travel magazine, website and community that’s been around for almost 30 years. It was founded in 1994 by Evelyn Hannon and was regarded as one of the world’s first female solo travellers. She passed away last year and her family invited me to take this business over and continue to grow it and expand it. So, that’s what I’ve been working on for the last year, is all things JourneyWoman.

We launched a new website about six weeks ago, based on feedback from our community. I invite you to take a look at that and see what interests you. And we know that even now if we can’t travel right now, we can still be thinking about travel and we can still be inspired by travel. And, of course, science tells us that part of the joy of travelling is anticipating when you would take the trip and all the things you could do to plan and prepare for it.

We’ve been holding a number of live sessions like this over the last three months on topics like bravery and courage and exploring different destinations like Italy. We have a book club that is having its first session on June 10 where we’re going to be talking about Portugal. In July we’re talking about books that take place in Ireland and Spain. We also have another session coming up in a few weeks that’s going to look at ethical travel and how we can interact with animals and wildlife in a sustainable way.

Watch the video of our Live Session with the Honourable David Crombie, or read the transcipt below!

CarolynI know that most people have probably read through your biography. You’ve certainly led a life of service to Canada and to Toronto. You were the 56th mayor of Toronto in the 1970s, you’ve served as minister at the federal level, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, National Health, also Secretary of State. However, today’s discussion is not intended to be a political discussion, it’s intended to be a discussion around some of the work that you’ve also done to protect our green spaces and preserve history in Toronto. So, that’s where we’re going to put most of our focus today and, of course, we’ll take questions as we go through the next few minutes together. I also live very close to a park that’s named after you, so I get to think of you every time I walk by David Crombie Park. So, again, thank you again for joining us today.
Head shot of the Honourable David Crombie

Facts about Toronto

I thought we’d start off with a few quick facts about Toronto for those who may not live in Canada. It is the fourth largest city in North America and growing quite rapidly. Most of the people coming to Toronto now are not born in Canada, so we have a very diverse, inclusive city. And the city is about 186 years old, but, of course, its history – and I think you’re going to talk about some of that today – goes well beyond 1834, I believe is when it was officially incorporated.

Toronto neighbourhood, Swansea

Carolyn: David, let’s start talking a little bit about you. I know you grew up in a small neighbourhood near High Park, which is one of our beautiful green spaces in Toronto. What was that like and what was a memory of growing up there that you could share with us?

David Crombie: Well, in my time living there, my boyhood, and it was actually its own village. It was not a Toronto neighbourhood at that time. It was its own village, the village of Swansea. One square mile bounded on three sides by water. Guinevere Pond, which is at HIgh Park at the Humber River and Lake Ontario. And on the north to be by Bloor Street, one of the long streets, east/west streets in Toronto. So, it had a sense of separateness.

My parents were also raised there, my grandparents came there. So, for me it was a place of family, it was a place of understanding community, it was a warm place. And in my heart I still walk through the place, I go through some of its ritual things like Remembrance Day on November 11th and so on, every year. Because what it did do, as I got older, I had not, of course, realized the benefit that it gave to me, other than a warm family feeling. But, it taught me a lot about the rudiments of community, taught me a lot about the importance of nature. Even in a large, urban area. It taught me a lot about the importance of public institutions that we rely on for services and so on.

Many of the things that I encountered later on in the city of Toronto as its mayor and other venues, it’s interesting to me that it always took me back to Swansea. So, Swansea became less a place, more a metaphor. There’s a line somewhere in Moby Dick, one of his heroes, talks about the best places, you won’t find them on the map, because they actually become invested with your own interest, your own thoughts, your own views, your own understanding. So, the Swansea that I came from is not necessarily the Swansea that I walked through when I was 10 years old.

Carolyn: And you’re writing a book as well…

David Crombie: Yes. It’s not a memoir, but people call it that because that’s a short form. But it’s a book really about 1945 Toronto, it’s a history of Toronto, as I saw it and see it, between 1945 and I’m arrogant enough to take it right through to 2041. So, it’s all of that period. And I’m going to try and intro it by writing something about Swansea. I’ve tried a number of times. It’s always easier to write about things you know less about. The more you know about them, the more drafts you have to do.

Being mayor in the 1970s

Carolyn: True enough. And I’m curious when you became mayor, I mean obviously the 1970s were a period of intense change in the city, what are you most proud of from that time?

David Crombie: Well, it really was a major time of change. We didn’t invent the change, the change came upon us and it was how we reacted to it that became defining moments for, I think, Toronto’s future. I don’t want to go too far into the weeds, but Toronto at that time was undergoing major, major change in terms of its planning and development. So, we were following what we called in those days the American Model. The notion was that suburbs were being built, that’s where people lived and people by and large could work downtown, most of them worked downtown and they used automobiles and expressways to connect the two. That was the basic model that you found in North America, other parts of Europe as well, but certainly in North America.

We, in my generation, in Toronto at that time, fought against that. So, the first fight we had was whether or not the expressway development, which was happening everywhere in North America, if there should be an expressway into the core of the city. We opposed that, because we saw what happened to Buffalo, saw what happened to Detroit. So all those places. So, we opposed it and won. We stopped the Spadina Expressway and the Midtown Expressway. Those victories allowed us to transform Toronto in a different way that other North American cities, mostly.

Secondly, we had a downtown, which was also going the way of downtowns in North America and that was that they were becoming vacated. So we fought very hard to bring in a downtown plan, which we brought in in 1976, which lasted for the next 35 years with amendments. And that defined the way in which we had a vital downtown. Thirdly, housing. Just as today, big issues of not only affordable but any kind of housing. So, we worked in ways in which we had both neighbourhood housing and large developments, the flagship of which is the park you mentioned early, at St. Lawrence Neighbourhood. That was industrial junk space in the 1970s, but within five years we were able to – they are all co-ops, all of those are co-op buildings, except one, and that’s for 10,000 people. So, it was a very extensive housing project.

There were other things that other might point, the deficiencies as well as victories, but those were the three major things which had a defining importance for the future of Toronto.

Berczy Park, Toronto, Ontario
Carolyn: And, because we want to talk about looking at a city in a different way today, how do you think people can be more curious when they travel and what are some things that you do when you look at cities and you look at places?

David Crombie: I love going to the cities. Any city; doesn’t matter where it is in the world. What I try and do, like anybody else, I read all the literature that comes from travel agents and those kinds of people, then I try and get deeper a little bit. Dive a little deeper into other literature that might be relevant. I find good literature describes things easier, fiction event. I’m not talking about instruction, I’m talking about, for example, if you’re coming to Toronto, then it’s really worthwhile three or four, I might say, women authors, who have defined much of what Toronto’s about. So, the first thing to do, I think, is always to be prepared to find out what other people are saying about where you’re going.

Then, secondly – I think it really is important, it is important to me – I remember a line from a guy by the name of Hayakawa. He was, I think, president of San Francisco University. He’s a Canadian from British Columbia. And he wrote a wonderful book called Language in Thought and Action. In it, he said you always have to remember the map is not the territory. So, it’s really important to read as much as you can, understand it, but then get on your boots and walk, or if you have to – as close as you can to walking, absorb it. The more you walk the more your mind gets into 3 miles an hour and the more you can actually understand.

The ‘bone structure’ of a city

Carolyn: You’ve talked to me about the bone structure of a city. Can you describe that idea a little bit?

David Crombie: Sure. All cities have a basic bone structure. It’s usually their natural heritage. And I can take you to almost any city in the United States for example that I would know. If you start with their bone structure, you’ll find out how their community developed, how their philosophy developed, how their bright moments developed, all of that, by paying attention to their bone structure. The bone structure for Toronto is the waterfront and the ravines. Now, that doesn’t mean we honoured those throughout our lifetime. No, we’ve ruined it, we’ve built it, we’ve brought it back, we’ve hurt it, we’ve nurtured it. But, in Toronto, it’s the waterfront and the ravines. We have 300 kilometres of ravines in Toronto alone. For many generations, people have forget them. So now people are trying to bring them back. But, at any rate, if I was going to lead a tour and people wanted to, I would say put on some good boots, you know, it’s not a painful thing, we’ll go where we need to go, but I would take you up the Humber Valley Ravine. I’d take you up to Don, I would take you up – There are a half a dozen lovely ravines.

And it’s now topped off by one of the – it’s going to be one of the great tourist attractions in North America, and that’s the Rouge Park. The Rouge Park, which is on the Rouge River, Rouge Valley, is a part – And that is Canada’s first national urban park because more and more people are staying in cities, so it the very first one. It’s only a year old, but the space – to give you a sense of it – goes right down from Lake Ontario to the Oakridge Marine which is a high point of land in the north part of Toronto. It is four times larger than Central Park in New York. It is 16 times larger than Stanley Park in Vancouver. And it is far more rugged than both of those in terms of wildlife, in terms of animal species, in terms of vegetation and all of that. So, I would take you to the ravines. If you go along the waterfront you will also discover Toronto’s history, its economic history, it’s community history, all of that.

So, in all of these, when you take a nature walk, you are learning and can learn what the cultural heritage and the political heritage is as well. Anybody that simply thinks that natural heritage should be alone and enough, that may be for the purists. But for most of us we found that if you combine natural heritage with cultural heritage, you’ve got a winner.

The Waterfront Trail

Carolyn: You played, obviously, a very important role founding the Waterfront Trail that runs all along Lake Ontario. Can you tell us a bit about that and the key spots there that are important to you?

David Crombie: Sure. I’ll do it very quickly, but in 1988 I was asked by the federal government if I would carry out a Royal Commission on the future of the Toronto waterfront and we made a series of recommendations. But we didn’t only deal with the waterfront. All waterfronts are connected to watersheds. So, we took what we called a watershed approach or a bioregional approach. So, we made a series of recommendations to all levels of government and then we were asked how we would start it, begin to implement it and we began a thing known as the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, whose major project was to build a trail or bring trails together. Develop a trail structure that was not simply for hike and bike and frolic and fun, but also to have people come down and say “Why is this polluted? How can we fix this?” So, it was an ecological trail as well. It’s now 3,000 kilometres. It goes down to the south end of Lake Erie up to the top of the Bruce Peninsula and it also goes up to St Lawrence to the province of Quebec where it connects with La Route Verte.

So, it’s been going on – It’s now 26 years this year. This year, in honour of the 25th year, we began to explore the – I might say, by the way, it covers three lakes, not just Lake Ontario.

View of Toronto skyline from Waterfront trail west

Carolyn: That’s amazing. I had no idea how far.

David Crombie: Yeah. Lake Erie and Lake Huron. And it combines 140 different municipalities and First Nation communities. It’s an extraordinary length, but what it does do as well, is carry with it ecological functioning that needs to be explored and dealt with by local municipalities. Our job is to comment on them. So, we do a lot of work – I might say, by the way, set up by a woman by the name of Marlene Cooler. I just take the bows and cut the ribbons. She does all the work. They’ve done a great job for 25 years. At any rate, that’s it on the trail. What it’s done is now moved us over to having it bi-national, because we have lots of Americans come on the trail. And so there’s a wonderful organization in the United States dealing with the Great Lakes as well. So, it is now going to be a bi-national Great Lakes trail.

Carolyn: That’s good to know. And you can bike the whole way …?

David Crombie: You can bike the whole thing. Paved road, sometimes it’s not. We call it a waterfront trail, rather than a shoreline trail because as soon as you finish you’ve got to start again. Each new generation brings in new thoughts. So, the whole idea is to get it going and then new people will discover how important it is for them. So, when we started out, the land development industry was against us doing this. Because they didn’t want to put the trail through their land. Now they’re begging us to come because people understand the importance of the trail in their lifestyles.

Myseum of Toronto

Carolyn: We both are on the board of Myseum of Toronto, which is an organization that you, I think, envisioned for many years and was launched about five years ago. Tell us a bit about Toronto’s history and what you think people in Toronto should know or visiting Toronto, outside of the everyday? We kind of have our traditional history, but then there’s maybe some interesting tidbits that you could share about Toronto’s history.

David Crombie: Yeah, there is. For a long time, because we were part of the British Empire, everybody thought it all began in 1793 when Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe established a fort on behalf of the British Empire to make sure those Americans didn’t come across the line. And, somehow, that was the history we got. But, since then, we’ve of course rediscovered a whole other wonderful history.

I did a series of lectures a year ago and I started the history of Toronto at 1500. Because there’s wonderful Indigenous people history – even before that, but certainly from 1500 on. So, the Toronto area has been a place on this waterfront, bordering the waterfront, because it was part of the trading routes of aboriginal people or indigenous people and what is known as the Toronto Passage goes up the Humber right on Toronto’s waterfront. It connects the upper lakes to the lower lakes of the Great Lakes. So, it was always a highway of trade, even long before the Europeans got here. It was also a place that was endowed and invested in spiritual value and was the meeting place for rituals. So, it’s always had that kind of cultural, economic and community base to it. That move quite smartly, of course, big changes in the latter part of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th, because of the Seven Years War and the French were gone and the American Revolution, Americans were gone. So, I could go on, but it had a wonderful history before.

Immigration in Toronto

I think, in many ways, because of the tremendous influx of people, we’ve had immigration into this city long before the First World War, but since the First World War it really exploded. So, the history of the place became the history, as well, of newcomers. We had to rediscover what we actually meant by the immigrant life, what’s the story of the immigrant?

Interestingly enough it’s a different notion than the American understanding. Because the Americans had a strong need – and I understand it – to explain why people were Americans and not other things. We didn’t have that need, we weren’t even allowed the opportunity to have that need. So, in a sense, our understanding of who we are came from a variety of sources made up by the people who came here, which is why we always understood immigration not to be something that happens where you’re in a holding tank to become something. In fact, you are an agent of change. So, the immigrants to Toronto have been for many, many decades now, and will continue, to be the definers of what Toronto actually is. Which is why it’s a place that’s never finished.

Places to explore in Toronto

Carolyn: That’s beautiful. Well said. You know, when we think about the history of our city here as a resident we often think of places like the Distillery or Fort York. St Lawrence Market would be another one. Are there other places in the city that you would suggest people visit to get a sense of the history that might be a little bit off the beaten track or places you normally wouldn’t go on a tour?

David Crombie: Well, my own way of doing it would be to take you along – If I was leading a tour I would take people along the waterfront. You can do that for half an hour or five days. And I would be able to point out what the economic framework was. All change in Toronto begins in the waterfront, even to this day. Go down there today, it’s not the waterfront that was there when I was a boy. Totally different. Just totally different. I can go through what happened. It happened in our time, in my time anyway, in the 60s and 70s. That would be one walk.

Secondly, I would take any one of those valleys that I mentioned, because each one of them has their own story. In terms of institutions, it’s interesting, if you’re really looking for a walk to get your arms around what Toronto’s institutions are about, go to the corner of Bloor Street and University Avenue. Going north it’s Avenue Road, going south it’s Queen’s Park.

Now, if you go down there to Queen Street, it only takes you half a day. You’ll find educational institutions, health institutions, academic institutions, you’ll find places for poor people who need help, you’ll find mental institutions. The whole panorama, a smorgasbord of services and institutions that people need to have community life you’ll find on that walk. So, there are those kinds of places. If you take a walk to Queen’s Park and walk through the halls. Don’t take the tour – Or take the tour, because they’re nice people, but wander around.

Then, come back with questions. Because you’ll see pictures of people, you’ll see – At any rate I would take any one of those. City Hall is worth taking. I should say if you’re really looking to see diversity in the city you can still take the Queen Streetcar, from beginning to end, from Long Branch to Neville Park and you’ll be able to see the decades-long immigration to the city and what it did to the existing neighbourhoods.

Crowds walking the Distillery District, Toronto

Carolyn: Yeah, that’s a wonderful idea, actually.

David: It actually came from my mother who had four kids and always wanted to figure out what to do with them at certain times. And she would give us, at that time, a nickel, and we would walk down Ellis Avenue, get on the streetcar, go to Neville Park and come back and that was half a day.

Carolyn: That’s a great idea. Especially right now as we’re starting to come out of our homes a little bit too.

David Crombie: Absolutely.

Favourite neighborhood in Toronto?

Carolyn: So, let’s talk about the neighbourhoods. Because every city has its own unique neighbourhoods. Do you have a favourite neighbourhood in Toronto or is there one you love?

David: I really do love them all. Some are more attractive than others, some have people I like better than others, all of those kinds of things. But, on the other hand, it may be from the Swansea roots, but also other neighbourhoods that I know from my family, wherever you go, the neighbourhoods that work are those that make you feel that you belong to something.

All neighbourhoods answer three questions. Let me put it another way. 

The Toronto experience, I think, says that neighbourhoods are not simply physical places, they are psychic spaces. And they are psychic spaces that require or places that people can find the answers to these three questions. Who am I? Where do I belong? And how do I behave?

Now, I’ve been asking those questions since I was three. I’m 84 and I’m still asking those questions because the answers keep changing. And the best place to find those answers, and very often the best and more comfortable answers are in small places and spaces like neighbourhoods. That’s why they’re important.

Mimico, in the west end

Carolyn: Yeah. And if you were to take someone on your tour, perhaps along the Queen Street streetcars, are their neighbourhoods that you would want to stop in or places that you’d recommend?

David Crombie: Sure. There’s one out in the far west end called Mimico. It’s an old working-class distinct, great lacrosse town, which was a great game years ago. A great lacrosse town, Mimico, and we go there because it’s totally changed, but there’s still remnants of the way it was a lakeshore community, but now it’s a totally changed place. So you’d look at that. I would go out to the beach – or beaches, whatever they want to call it, out the east end, because it’s got a wonderful park there, it’s got a swale of a lovely ravine. So, I would go over to the beach.

I would go up to Lansing. I would go up to some suburban neighbourhoods that are worth walking through. So, yes, Rosedale is always worth seeing, because at least you can put your nose through the window and see how they live. Just kidding.

The thing about making the neighbourhoods work – People, once they got a good neighbourhood they like to get very possessive and they just as soon lock the door and not let other folks in. But the neighbourhoods that really do flourish are not the ones that put up walls. They’re the ones that didn’t insist on having doors and windows, because you need that exchange. Even the old village of Swansea, it never had a high school. It didn’t have any Roman Catholic school, it didn’t have a whole bunch of things, but we just had to walk across the road to the city of Toronto and get those services.

So, there’s a thing that’s always worth remembering and it’s easy to forget because there are lots of people who like to put walls around, whether they were real walls or paper walls. But, at any rate, a sense of region is really important.

Toronto has flourished, like New York City, like other places, it’s flourished by its ability to deal with its region. And its region has to flourish. When both work together they both flourish. But it’s more often than not, unfortunately, cities and suburbs fight one another and, absolutely, all they’re doing is fighting over the same family bone.

Kensington Market

Carolyn: That’s a great metaphor. One of my favourite places is Kensington Market which has a rich history and there are many walking tours in that area as well. And you just feel like you’re, I don’t know, walking through history and getting such a different experience than just being in the downtown core, which is often what visitors do, is only come to our downtown spaces. Really, the essence of Toronto is in the neighbourhoods, and the history there is just amazing.

David Crombie: It really is. My wife, by the way, in long-term care, is at Kensington Gardens. So, I’m in Kensington almost on a daily basis. Certainly three times a week, at least when we can get there. So, you’re right, it’s got a wonderful history.

There is – and I think you and I talked about it – there’s a book called the Making a Global City by Robert Vipond from the University of Toronto. It sounds like a grand title because it’s really only about the history of Clinton Street Public School. And if you read that book and I could take you to the school, then we could go around that neighbourhood, it is a story of that neighbourhood from 1889 to now. And he takes you through what kind of neighbourhood it was. He calls it British Clinton, then in about the 1920s he calls it Jewish Clinton and from about the 1950s, mid-50s, he calls it European Clinton, because it was mainly Italian and Portuguese. Then, when his kids went there the called that Global Clinton. It’s one school in an institution and yet it carries with it the whole history of the impact of immigration and the impact of neighbourhoods on people. So, there we go.

Green spaces

Carolyn: That was lovely. I want to ask a bit about open spaces too because we’re talking about green spaces and ravines and waterfront. Do you think there are enough open spaces in the city and how do we sustain and preserve those spaces?

David Crombie: There aren’t enough and that’s why you constantly need to have a program of acquisition because neighbourhoods also change. And simply because it’s open space doesn’t mean it’s usable.

So, if you go through St Lawrence Neighbourhood it has very little open space. But it’s well planned and well used. I could take you up to St James Town. That’s 83% open space and it’s not used.

Go to Central Park, if you want a sense of how – The gift of Central Park to New York City is extraordinary. Most cities have something similar, but they can’t touch it. What do New Yorkers get out of that? Now, if you take a look from a plane, it’s not a hell of a lot of space, but boy oh boy, is it used by every kind of New Yorker you can think of.

In a sense, we don’t have – High Park is closest, but it’s not central. And it’s pretty good, but not in the same league. So, we need more open space. But, for us, the great advantage we have is the one we did not take. The road we did not take in any significant, productive way was to be able to use the ravines as the anchor for all of our open space. We’re beginning to do that, but we need to do far more of that.

The Flatiron Building in Toronto, Ontario at dusk


Carolyn: There is a question about how would you describe a ravine? What is a ravine?

David Crombie: They’re in my mind, so I think they’re everywhere. But anywhere where you find water you’ll find a ravine. Whether that’s Mud Creek or the Rouge River. So, it’s wherever there’s water. That’s why when we talk about the green belt or we talk about the white belt or – The blue belt is the significant one. It deals with the groundwater, it deals with surface water, it deals with wetlands. All of that is obviously a Central Park of any natural heritage. Toronto is absolutely over the top wealthy in that regard and has been underutilized for a number of generations. But it’s coming back and it’s getting better, but there we are.

Carolyn: I just want to remind people you’re welcome to ask questions on Facebook or Zoom if you have any questions. I’m sure David would be happy to answer them.

And in the meantime, I was curious, we’ve had so much development in Toronto over the last few years and some wonderful new museums like the Aga Khan Museum, we’ve got the Museum of Contemporary Art that’s been redeveloped. Are there other places like that public institutions or buildings or architecturally interesting places that you would suggest people visit that, again, may not be on the regular tourist map?


David Crombie: There are a series of small museums under the umbrella of the City of Toronto. Certainly, they are worth it, because you get local narratives and local neighbourhood stuff. There are lots of them. There’s also many, many, let me call them, ethnic histories. So, there’s lots of histories of groups who came here and want to tell their story. And you’ll find those in churches and synagogues and mosques and you’ll find them in freestanding buildings. People are taking a stronger interest in it, mainly because the whole notion of diversity has become so strong a characteristic of the city. So, that’s why you’re finding that there’s more interest in those kinds of musea.

We failed, in my judgement, to have one central place. And maybe that’s not possible. Whenever I’m in New York City, which is – I go there for a particular reason three times a year, for sure, I go down to the New York Historical Museum. Not the city museum, but the New York History Museum. And they do a great job of telling the story. We don’t have one of those.

But, on the other hand, we may be on to something with Myseum. Because a new generation, and certainly as we’re finding now in these certain times, a digital universe is not only upon us, but it’s surrounded by us and sucking us in. So, having Myseum or a museum that is devoted not only to having a central physical place, which is what Myseum is trying to do, but also serves a digital generation. This serves a new world where you can tap into it almost at any time on your little phone. That’s marvellous. That’s why Myseum, I think, is going to attract a lot of attention. There’s a lot of people whose fingerprints are on it, but Diane Blake is the one who’s been pushing it and she deserves the credit. So, whatever building, I hope there’s at least a Diane Blake Hall somewhere.

Carolyn: She is amazing, yeah. Perseverant, I would say.

David Crombie: Absolutely.

Carolyn: Who would you say is your favourite Torontonian, if you were to look back into history? It’s a tricky question…

David Crombie: I don’t have any. I’ve been lucky enough to know a number at least in the couple of generations and read a lot on the history of Toronto. Even when it wasn’t a normal or popular thing to do. I can’t find one.

And in some ways, I’m delighted I can’t. Because the history of Toronto is not about the history of great men or women. They made great contributions, it should be noted and see what they did and so on and so forth. There were lots and lots of those. I wouldn’t choose one. But, we should not forget that the history of the city is the history of people coming here to try and make something out of their lives for themselves and their kids. It’s no more complicated than that. So, the heroes, they’re the moms and dads.

Carolyn: That’s nice. I think I’ve told you I’m a rare person in Toronto, which is probably sixth or seventh generation Torontonian. My relatives came over in the early 1800s and settled on farms and –

David Crombie: Whereabouts? They came from where?

Carolyn: Some in Oshawa and then my great-grandfather actually, I just found out, is buried in a cemetery in the Beaches. So, I’m going to go take a visit there soon.

David Crombie: That just reminded me, years ago when you filed your income tax in Canada you had to fill in a part that said “Place of Origin” right? And what they meant was not you, but where your people came from. The assumption was everyone is from somewhere else. God love my mother, her family came here in 1828 from Ireland, I think, we’re not even sure. But she used to be able to proudly put in origin, Canadian. So, you could probably do that.

Toronto as a world capital

Carolyn: There’s just a question that’s come in from Facebook that I think is an interesting one. Why do you think Toronto isn’t more prominent as a world capital?

David Crombie: Part of it is a Canadian thing. If the battle had gone differently in 1812 this might be the United States. So, maybe it would’ve fared differently. But it was part of Canada and Canada was part of the British Empire for such a long time. Our business was not to sort of extol the virtues of us, as Canadians, but of us as part of the British Empire. That died, certainly by the time you get to the end of World War 2. It was already limping by the end of World War 1. But that was our story up until that time.

Secondly, we were shaded by Montreal in many ways, because Montreal was the better-known city and an earlier city and all of that. Thirdly, is we’ve nurtured generations of people who think that part of their starting point is to point out how crummy things are in Toronto, so they can fix it. So, we’ve given a lot to both fiction writers and academic writers who basically would like to show how quite dark it’s been. And, therefore, there’s not been extolling.

Even to this day, if you stand up – I used to be able to tell jokes, saying “I’m from Toronto and our one contribution is that we make sure there’s unity in the country because everybody hates us.” Now, that has begun to change and I’m beginning to worry, because people are thinking, gee, we’re pretty good. And that’s the beginning of the denouement.

As Canadian as…

Carolyn: Well, I think we do have a lot to be proud of, for sure.

David Crombie: For sure. I must say – Peter Gzowski was a great Canadian broadcaster and journalist and he had a morning show on CBC. This is a true story. One year, 20 years ago, he had this contest, “As Canadian as …” fill in the blank. Canadian as maple syrup, Canadian as Maple Leafs, whatever. You know what one? “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.” And every Canadian gets that.

Carolyn: Totally. I’m interested, do our friends in the States understand that or is that just Canadian humour –

David Crombie: No, they don’t. We do because there’s more modesty in it. And it is a cliché too. It is a cliché, but like clichés are not bad, they usually carry some truth.

Americans have pursued life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Which is fantastic. It’s swaggering. The equivalent in Canada at the top of our constitution says ours is peace, order and good government. Which is pretty boring. On the other hand, it’s stable. On the other hand, there’s a kind of middle-groundedness about it.

There is a thing that says “Where’s the vital middle?” That’s our goal. And there used to be a joke: “Why does the Canadian cross the road? To get to the middle.”

Carolyn: Funny. (Laughter). I don’t know if you’re helping us here or not, but …

David Crombie: Not at all. I’m not at all. But there is, beneath all of that, I have no doubt about it, a kind of arrogant little pride that we all carry.

Carolyn: I think so. I think so. Just a few more questions that are coming in. It’s kind of an odd one, but if you could go 100 years into the future, what would you imagine Toronto might look like or might be like?

David Crombie: Well, I think a couple of things. I made recommendations for Toronto from 2020 to 2041 to the provincial government. So, that part, first of all, it should be making sure that it continues to have an economic base. People very often forget they take it for granted, that somehow you have an economic base. Well, in the worlds I’ve been in, if you don’t have an economic base, you can have all the and dreams you like. So, dealing with what’s going.

We need to always make sure we’re keeping what we got off the old base if we can, but really working hard to get a good chunk of the new base that’s coming along and I think we’re doing that in the digital world, for example. Or IT — or whatever it might be. But it also needs to continue to be a place where there’s a sense of welcome, even if it’s grudging, but a sense of openness, right? That says: “Everybody here has a right to be here and if you don’t think that’s true, go somewhere else.” That is really important.

Thirdly, I really hope that we grab hold of our national heritage. Because in the 21st century, by the end of it, the places that will survive are those that are taken care of in their natural heritage.

Carolyn: Yeah. I often think we spend too much time comparing ourselves and we just need to own what we’ve got. There’s lots here.

David Crombie: For sure. For sure. I do work in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The region around Toronto surpasses any other region in North America. It’s got enormous human and natural resources.

Books and resources sto learn more about Toronto 

Carolyn: One other question just came in around books. In learning more about Toronto and I think we could extend that to movies and films and things. What would you suggest as good resources to learn more about Toronto?

David Crombie: I would go to our fiction writers, first of all. I mean, whoever they might be. Margaret Atwood, for sure. They’re going to have stoplights saying “Margaret says stop.” She’s become St Margaret. But she understands the city and she understands its natural heritage as well. And she writes about the ravines. So I would go to the fiction writers, look them up, there are lots of them. Because they deal with the kind of reality that – I’d just go to the fiction writers.

Secondly, there’s a book out recently simply called Toronto. A wonderful, wonderful book. I would read Robert Fulford’s book. There’s a lot of new books coming out. If you’re looking for anything to get a sense of what might be on offer, both in essays, books, whatever, go over to the little, wee store at 401 Richmond Street, which is by Spadina. On the far end of that building from Spadina close to Peter Street, you’ll see a little, wee store called Spacing. It’s a little, wee place, but anything that’s worthwhile, that you might want to get about Toronto, you can get at Spacing.

Carolyn: I get all of my stocking stuffers there. It’s a wonderful store.

David Crombie: It really is. And actually there’s a great story of the building itself. It was the dream of [Margery] Zeigler and the Zeigler family. They turned that into a hotbed of new thinking about Toronto and about social issues and political issues. And it’s a story of one family pushing that really hard. So, it’s even a great story while you’re shopping.

Carolyn: You’re also, I think, a fan of the National Film Board and some of their films –

David Crombie: I am. The National Film Board has done a lot of good work at whatever incredible cost to the federal government, but over the years they’ve done a really good job. They’re very underrated. And they forgot to add a promotion department when they invented it, so, almost by word of mouth you have to find out that they’ve got a wonderful array of old films and stuff because they were part of that whole early 30s, 40s and 50s CBC crowd. So, they were very earnest in what they were doing and they really tried to capture the moment. And they’re always sort of on the upswing of “Canada’s just getting better, folks.” So, there’s a nice optimism ordinarily about it. But, people would do well just to check with them and see what they’re digging from their own cellar.

Carolyn: That’s a great idea. I think we’re going to close in just a minute, but I want to make sure –there are some really nice comments coming in on Zoom. If you have any questions on Facebook, let us know.

I am curious, you know, we’re living in an interesting time here and we talk a lot about resiliency when we travel and how do we develop resiliency. Because obviously being a woman traveller and many of our audience are solo travellers. How do we develop resiliency?

And I’m curious what you think in terms of what’s going on right now with both civil rights discussions and a health crisis that we’re in the middle of. What would be your advice to stay optimistic and help us become stronger?

David Crombie: Staying optimistic. You have to remember that everything changes. It seems an obvious thing, but we forget that things change. Right now, for example, someone asked me America is falling apart, right? Pandemic and the race stuff in the streets and Trump and all that stuff. They said “What would you do?” and I said, “First of all, you got to get rid of Trump.” I know that’s impolitic for me to say this, but the guy just does not do the job and he’s hurting things, he’s hurting people and he’s hurting opportunities. He hurts us. Don’t forget. Anything dumb being done in the States we get wind of it pretty fast. So, changing the leadership. But that won’t fix a lot of things. It will just give you an opportunity to do it.

I sent a note saying, you know, years ago when we were trying to change people’s understanding of what life was about in Toronto, we had, like they did in many other parts of North America, we had teach-ins. And we used to assemble these jack dockets, assemble information and have people talk about it. What they need to do, I think, in the States, if I was president, the new president. We are going to spawn a network of teach-ins, local neighbourhood, local city, region, state, federal government. Why? Because you can’t listen to academics and learned people and simply say “Here we think is the best.” They really do need to have an earlier discussion and let is bubble up past resolutions and then see what comes out of that. There will be all kinds of ways in which people will see it.

Because at the heart of it, the American story is a human story. It’s the story of humanity. It didn’t do a good job in a number of ways, but it did a hell of a good job in a number of other ways. So, it needs to find its rebirth.

So, you can do that only by asking people to think about it, talk about it, pass some resolutions, pass them on, try and put them into policy, which puts them into legislation, which also puts them, more importantly, into attitudinal change.

Staying optimistic

Carolyn: So, when your news that is disparaging, what do you do to rise above it?

David Crombie: If I’m disturbed by myself I try and do something about it. But you can’t spend your life just solving everybody else’s problems. So, I say “Here’s what I’m doing and within that, I can do this.” I keep optimistic because I have a great faith that people will restore. People will. They need a new start maybe, whatever it might be, but people always need to make it better. You know what changes it? Kids change it. I can remember when my firstborn – You don’t have to have a kid to get that way, but that’s what it is for most people. I looked down at her, she was 6 pounds, 4 ounces, and I remember saying, “Davy, get your ass in gear. Get going, pal.” So, that leads to restoration.

Remember, that’s a rebirth. America has got a better ability to do that than most countries. But most countries have their own ways of doing it. I spent time in Scandinavia a little bit because part of my family is Norwegian. Two of my grandchildren are born and raised there. So, they’ve done wonderful in most countries. Every country has a story. But the American story is, to me, a special one that’s been squandered too often, but it’s got the ability to do it right.

Final thoughts

Carolyn: Yeah. I think that’s a great place for us to end, actually. Thank you for that. Those were very wise words. We’re going to publish an article after this with all of the books and the movies and other tips from David, so just to let you know that will be on the JourneyWoman website hopefully later this week.

And I want to thank David very much for his insight and his generosity in doing this with us and helping me kick off this first in a series, so thank you, David.

David Crombie: Thank you, Carolyn. You take care.

Carolyn: If anybody here has a city that they’d like us to focus on, please send me an email at [email protected] and we’ll do our best to look into that and find people just like David to give us some insights.

I hope that those of you listening can join us in our upcoming events. Our book clubs, which I mentioned earlier and our ethical travel session which will be held in a few weeks. And all of that information is on our website and on Facebook.

So, again, thank you, David. Thank you, all of you, for joining us. I hope it brought some new perspective into how we can look at our own cities and enjoy the time we have to get to know something that we may not know so well. So, this is a special time for all of us.

Thank you and stay safe. Stay well. Bye

David Crombie: Bye!

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As the CEO and Editor of JourneyWoman, Carolyn is a passionate advocate for women's travel and living the life of your dreams. She leads JourneyWoman's team of writers and chairs the JourneyWoman Women's Advisory Council and Women's Speaker's Bureau. She has been featured in the New York Times, Toronto Star and Zoomer as a solo travel expert, and speaks at women's travel conferences around the world. In March 2023, she was named one of the most influential women in travel by TravelPulse and was the recipient of a SATW travel writing award in September 2023. She is the chair of the Canadian chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), a member Women's Travel Leaders and a Herald for the Transformational Travel Council (TTC). Sometimes she sleeps. A bit.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Vita-Finzi

    I liked listening to David Crombie. I thought I knew Toronto, but I have lots more to learn! Thank you! ciao, May VF


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Disclaimer: We are so happy that you are checking out this page right now! We only recommend things that are suggested by our community, or through our own experience, that we believe will be helpful and practical for you. Some of our pages contain links, which means we’re part of an affiliate program for the product being mentioned. Should you decide to purchase a product using a link from on our site, JourneyWoman may earn a small commission from the retailer, which helps us maintain our beautiful website. JourneyWoman is an Amazon Associate and earns from qualifying purchases. Thank you!

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