They may not have written any soulful ballads about it (yet) — but Toronto in summer is well worth singing about. For one thing, it’s not cold. As any West Indian who lives year-round in the city will tell you, that’s a big — seriously big — plus.
But it’s not just the absence of snow and ice that makes Canada’s largest city so irresistible when the hot weather finally rolls around. It’s . . . well . . . everything. The parks, the festivals, the shows, the music. The bike trails, the outdoor swimming pools, the sidewalk cafés. The Lakeshore. The butterfly fashions emerging from chrysalid winter-coats. The joie de vivre that suddenly blossoms on every street corner. What’s not to sing about?
This summer, thousands of visitors will pour into Toronto to celebrate the 2015 Pan American Games (running from 10 to 26 July) and the Parapan Am Games (7 to 15 August) — the world’s third-largest international multi-sport tournament, featuring more than 7,500 top-ranked athletes from forty-one member nations. And the city is eager to strut its stuff. So we canvassed a number of islanders who have lived in “Chranna” (as the locals pronounce it) long enough to call it home, to get a Caribbean-eye view of what shouldn’t be missed when exploring this truly inimitable city.
All the world in one place
Here’s the thing about Toronto: deep down, it’s not really a city. It’s a whole lot of little villages, distinct neighbourhoods, unique communities, knitted together by a population that is as diverse as the globe. It is the home of more diasporas than you can shake a stick at: everything from Armenian to Zulu. This translates into every sphere: music, food, literature, clothing, lifestyle.
Trinidadian Ramabai Espinet has lived in Toronto for more than thirty years, and delights in its inexhaustible variety. “What I like is the vibe of specific areas,” she says. “The Danforth [a.k.a. Greektown] on a Friday night: the whole street is just into it. Or the Entertainment District: you can go to a show or an event, and there is a supporting area around them: so many nice little places to hang out afterwards. You have that concentrated ambience. Every big city has that, but we have so many. That is a big change in the last twenty years: there is an ambience that is building.”
A prize-winning poet, novelist, and academic, Espinet also finds great richness outside the downtown core. “Brampton is Indian; Markham is Chinese — flourishing, elaborate, very unique. There is a concentrated Iranian community up at Yonge and Steeles; Egyptian stores around Lawrence and Midland. A lot of these places have grown up because of the use of the communities around them.”
The city — with its 140 officially recognised neighbourhoods, and many more unofficial ones — is constantly evolving. “One of the attractive things about Toronto,” remarks Espinet, “is that you’re seeing a city in motion, not yet arrived at a finished stage. There may be some things that jar, but the beautiful things make it worthwhile.”
One of those beautiful things, everyone agrees, is Toronto’s unfettered cuisine. As arguably the most multicultural city in the world, its culinary choices are endless and mouthwatering.
“When I think of Toronto, I think of food,” declares University of Toronto professor Rinaldo Walcott, a Barbadian who came to Canada in the 1980s. “The range of cuisine is just spectacular. It’s one of the things that makes me stay in the city. We have every type of food, at every price point, from everywhere in the world. In [the suburb of] Scarborough, you can experience everything from Turkish food, almost every different kind of ethnic Indian cuisine, Somali cuisine — you name it, you can find it there.”
Celebrity chef Roger Mooking wholeheartedly agrees. Winner of multiple awards for everything from cooking to music, Trini-born Mooking is a Food Network and Cooking Channel favourite, having created, hosted, and judged such popular cooking shows as Everyday Exotic and, currently, Chopped Canada. He is continually on the road: taping shows, doing charity appearances, consulting, demonstrating, and of course cooking. “I get bored, I need to keep doing things,” he explains. His peregrinations have allowed him to sample foods from around the globe, and to draw happy conclusions about his home base.
“Anything, culturally, from all over the world — you can get authentic versions of it in Toronto,” he says. “I realise that the more I travel. But it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel segregated — it’s in mixed communities. That’s what’s unique about Toronto.”
Mooking has owned and co-owned — and sold — half a dozen buzz restaurants in the city. His current project is Twist by Roger Mooking, at Pearson International Airport. If anyone can put some pizzazz into airport food, it’s Mooking. He describes his new menu as “North American comfort food with a global twist,” and proudly announces that he has ditched both freezer and microwave: “Everything is cooked from scratch, using fresh ingredients.”
Asked to name some of his favourite eating spots in the city, Mooking’s picks are eclectic and surprisingly modest; he does not cite the usual overpriced temples to haute cuisine. Instead, he praises Little Sister, an Indonesian food bar in mid-town Toronto: “It’s very, very good.” He enjoys the family-owned Terroni chain, because “it’s really authentic Italian food; they won’t allow any substitutions on the menu.”
He loves the “very Canadian” waffles at Dirty Bird, in Kensington Market; and also urges visitors to experiment with the various ethnic foods found in “all those auxiliary communities that make up the GTA [Greater Toronto Area].” And of course: “Ali’s Roti Shop, on Queen Street West; that’s my favourite. Great doubles, great oxtail soup. Real Trindadian roti.”
Home is where the art is
When it comes to arts and entertainment, Ramabai Espinet sums it up succinctly: “At any given time in the city, there are so many things going on, it makes it hard to choose.” Art exhibitions, live music, theatre, dance, opera, improv comedy — the list is endless. “We even have a documentary cinema,” Espinet points out, “which is a thing not all cities value. Film is a big thing in the city, because of TIFF [the Toronto International Film Festival], which takes a serious approach to film all year round.” The TIFF Lightbox, the festival’s signature building in the heart of the Entertainment District, is a mecca for all things cinematic, offering one-of-a-kind exhibitions, foreign-language films, and themed retrospectives.
Design artist Shella Heins is also a fan of the ultra-stylish Lightbox. “It’s really about everything: film, theatre, music, museum,” she says. “Anytime you walk in, there’s something different. I find it a really exciting place.” Heins, originally from Jamaica, appreciates Toronto’s evolution towards cutting-edge art and architecture: “We’ve now become world-class.”
She cites dynamic new projects: the Union Station makeover (still underway); the recently-completed Fort York Visitor’s Centre, fronted with leaning sheets of weathered steel; the Aga Khan Museum, as significant for its starkly modern white-granite exterior as for its intriguing displays of Islamic art and culture. And, of course, the must-see, award-winning Sharp Centre for Design (affectionately known as the Tabletop): it is Toronto’s most whimsical and charming building, part of the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), in the heart of the city.
Yorkville, with its chic shops and restaurants, is one of Heins’s favourite haunts. “Everything is in Yorkville,” she enthuses. “Fashion, galleries, food; it’s a nice combination.” For art galleries, she recommends the many small storefronts along Queen Street West; and of course the flagship Art Gallery of Ontario, with its impressive collection of Canadian art, and major travelling exhibitions. The Artscape projects, intersections of art and community, are also high on her list.
Outdoor design being an important facet of any city, Heins loves the quirky touches that are increasingly becoming a feature of Toronto’s cityscape. The joyful Wave walkway at Harbourfront, for example, and the candy pink umbrellas of Sugar Beach. “That bold pink, on a hot summer’s day: it’s kind of Caribbean.”
Unconventional street sculpture adds another visual dimension, and Toronto’s inventory is expanding daily. Heins’s favourite installation is a herd of life-sized bronze cows set peacefully to pasture amid the stark, black, modernist bank towers of the financial district. The incongruity “stops you for a minute,” she muses, “allows you to take that moment’s pause, which we usually don’t do.”
All the city’s a stage . . .
. . . particularly during the summer. Indoor, outdoor, large venues and small, close at hand or distant: live theatre abounds in and around the city. Two major festivals — the Toronto Fringe Festival (1 to 12 July) and Summerworks (6 to 16 August) — ensure non-stop sizzle. Trinidadian Rhoma Spencer, a well-known theatre practitioner both back home and in Toronto, allows that “For the most part, I do see some very good theatre in the city.”
As an actor, director, and founder of Theatre Archipelago, Spencer says her personal loyalties lie, not surprisingly, with the small indie companies that give expression to Toronto’s diverse cultural realities — like fu-GEN Theatre, which speaks to Asian Canadians, and Obsidian, which is dedicated to the emergence of the black voice. AfriCan Theatre Ensemble also gets her vote. “I like theatre that is trying to revolutionise the style of theatre — theatre that is ritualistic, surrealistic, or physical,” she says, citing Modern Times Theatre, with its focus on mythic or universal themes.
In 2012, Spencer (in collaboration with community theatre group b current) produced Obeah Opera, an all-woman, a capella piece of musical theatre that mixed calypso, gospel, and spirituals with blues and jazz, to powerful effect. She is thrilled that a new production of the play (produced by Culchahworks Art Collective and Nightwood Theatre) has been commissioned for the Pan Am Games, under the aegis of the Panamania festival.
If Spencer has one reservation about Toronto’s thespian scene, it is that Caribbean-inspired theatre is scarce and virtually unknown. “It is a style of theatre that is still new to the canon,” she says. “You don’t see it in the mainstream. It’s boxed in as ‘world theatre’ — it has to be a black theatre company doing it.” And there are not many of those.
But Spencer is not discouraged; she will continue the fight towards recognition. “And at the end of the day,” she declares, “it’s all theatre, whether it’s black, white, or polka dot.”
Winston Hosang is cradling a cup of tea in his comfortable little jazz café, Ellington’s, in midtown Toronto. He considers the question. “I think the music scene is quite vibrant right now, and it’s been that way for decades. Toronto is such a huge place, there’s always something different, musically, going on. There’s a lot of people in the city willing to take risks with live music.”
A musician himself, Hosang fronted the 1990s reggae band Fujahtive, which won awards in its day. It’s recently been reunited for gigs around the city. Hosang was born in Jamaica, but grew up in Toronto. He studied classical music at university, but switched gears as his band became popular. Twenty years later, his idiosyncratic café on St Clair West hosts what is probably the city’s only morning jazz jam.
“With different cultures come different flavours of music,” he expounds. “You get a fusion of music — you can find a Latin American horn player blowing with a reggae group, or a jazz musician playing Brazilian music. Just the other day, I was listening to a touring group from Israel, doing Jewish pop music; it was fabulous. Chinese, Japanese — there’s all kinds of music going on, especially at this time of year.” Summer, he points out, is festival season: Salsa on St Clair, the Beaches Jazz Festival, Afro-Fest, and innumerable ethnic street celebrations, all featuring music from morning to night.
Hosang believes that “All the best musicians in the country come to Toronto, and that doesn’t even include the ones who are immigrating here. If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to be in Toronto! We have one of the best jazz education programmes in the country at Humber College, and University of Toronto for classical music. Quite often, when these people move into town to study, they stay, so we end up with the finest musicians, definitely world-class. When [the big music studios] want to sign musicians, Toronto is one of the first places in the world they come to.”
For visitors to the city, Hosang strongly recommends the Lulalounge, the epicentre of Cuban and Brazilian rhythms, beloved by the city’s salsa dancers. For jazz aficionados, Hugh’s Room is the place to go: “A cool space, with the top jazz cats passing through town. Good food, great music.” And for those who just want to rock out, “Lee’s Palace is still one of the best venues in the city.” Classical music is aptly handled by Roy Thomson Hall and Koerner Hall, with opera (and ballet) at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
For seekers of the esoteric, another local musician, Barbadian Roger Gibbs, mentions the concert hall at the Aga Khan Museum, where he attended a performance of Mongolian throat-singing. “It’s a beautiful concert space,” he says. “And it’s bringing in stuff from all over the world, very interesting stuff.”
The sporting life
Canadians are outdoorsy types, and Toronto in the summer — though exceedingly urban — offers many possibilities to those who just want to be outside enjoying nature and working up a sweat. The city is crisscrossed with parks and scenic ravines, perfect for long walks, jogging, and biking.
Barbadian Olympic swimmer Martyn Forde (Beijing 2008) appreciates the many opportunities the city offers for keeping himself fit. “I go to a lot of different parks, to run or cycle,” says the young athlete, who represented his country internationally before moving to Toronto to attend university in 2004. “I like Queen’s Park and the Lakeshore for running, also High Park. Since I joined a mountain biking group, I’ve discovered a lot of great trails — through Rosedale to the Brickworks on Bayview, and up the Don Valley. Toronto Island [a ten-minute ferry-ride from downtown] is a good place to canoe or kayak. From there, you have a nice view of the city.”
For a real workout, nothing beats the 110 steps that lead up to Casa Loma, Toronto’s ersatz castle. “When I go, I do three or four sets of three up and down,” he says. “So, one set consists of going up and down three times. Then rest, and repeat three or four times. There are benches at the top where you can sit.” If you’re still alive after that, it’s a short walk north to Winston Churchill Park, another of Forde’s favourite spots for continuing his workout.
And of course, there is swimming. Much of the year, Forde’s training is indoors, but when the warm weather arrives, he heads east to the Woodbine pool. “I like that it’s outdoors, right by the beach — that’s a side of Toronto that you don’t expect,” he says. For an islander, Toronto’s east-end beaches with their wide expanses of sand can seem almost like home — until you wade into Lake Ontario and turn blue.
For those new to the city, Forde recommends seeking out a meet-up group on the Internet. “If there’s a certain sport that you like to do, you just join up and go. It’s how I met my mountain-bike group.” And for an even more appealing form of exercise, he suggests the free open-air salsa dancing on Thursday nights at the corner of Bloor and Spadina. It beats running up and down steps.
Toronto is a place that can keep you endlessly busy and intrigued. Or, you can take a more laid-back approach, like multi-award-winning Bajan author Austin Clarke, who has lived, written, and taught in the city for more than fifty years. “My style is to go to bars and drink, talk, and listen to music,” he shrugs.
Can’t beat that.
Toronto in the summertime can seem like one big party, particularly on the weekends. Every neighbourhood, every ethnic group, every possible artform celebrates its existence with a festival. There are street festivals, music festivals, dance festivals, theatre festivals, food festivals — there’s even a Burlesque Festival (27 to 30 July) and a Beer Festival (24 to 26 July).
And this year there’s Panamania, a five-week arts and entertainment extravaganza created to accompany the Pan Am Games, enriching the Games experience with more than 250 performances and exhibitions at venues across the city.
Finally, eclipsing all the others in sheer size and scale, there is the Festival Formerly Known as Caribana, now going by a far less catchy moniker: the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival, with music, dance, and Carnival competitions happening from 7 July to 2 August.
Here’s a taste of what’s on offer. For a complete list of summer festivals, visit Toronto.com.
- Taste of Toronto: 2 to 5 July
- Summerlicious: 3 to 19 July
- Jerkfest: 8 to 9 August
- Pan American Food Festival: 30 July to 3 August
- Salsa on St Clair: 4 to 5 July
- Festival of India: 18 to 19 July
- Brazilfest: 19 July
- Chinatown Festival: 22 to 23 August
- AfroFest: 4 to 5 July
- Beaches Jazz Festival: 10 to 26 July
- Irie Music Festival: 11 July to 2 August
- Ritmo y Color: 17 to 19 July
Theatre and Film
- Toronto Fringe Festival: 1 to 12 July
- Summerworks: 6 to 16 August
- ReelheART International Film Festival: 6 to 11 July
- Canada Day: 1 July
- Canadian National Exhibition: 21 August to 7 September
- Buskerfest: 27 to 30 August
Caribbean Airlines operates frequent flights to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport from Trinidad, Guyana, Grenada, and Jamaica, with connections to other Caribbean destinations