It started spontaneously. On Monday morning, a few hours after his death was announced, someone scribbled “Thanks Jack” with orange chalk on Nathan Philips Square. By the next day the tribute to the former city councillor who took the NDP to official opposition covered an area the size of a hockey rink and made international news. While coverage of Jack Layton’s death and career focused on his person, his message, his career, and his effect on others, I kept thinking that his death – or rather, the reaction to his death – also said much about Toronto itself.
As I compulsively devoured every bit of news about Jack, it struck me how Torontonians of all stripes saw him as one of their own. I assumed he was from Toronto and was dismayed to find out he hailed from rival Montreal and moved to Toronto as a young man. No, he wasn’t born or raised here. Somehow, it just didn’t matter.We all know the statistics. More than half of the city’s residents were born outside of Canada. Add to that the migrants from other provinces and the born and bred Torontonians are a minority.
I was born in a small town 170km from Rio de Janeiro. My parents were visiting family when I was born and we never lived in that city. We moved a lot and I lived in Rio for about 10 years while I was growing up. From Rio I moved to Montreal, where I spent four years. At one point I lived in Barcelona for a year. I loved and identified with each one of these major cities. Yet, no matter how much love and appreciation I bestowed on them, deep down inside I knew I would always be an outsider. I would never be considered a carioca, a Montrealer, or a barcelonesa.
In Toronto, however, I found a city whose definition of Torontonian stretched beyond location of birth. Irrespective of place of birth and accent, it is possible to belong in Toronto. Roots easily set in its fertile soil. Communities are open to anyone who wants to be a part. I once sat on meetings of the Kensington Market BIA despite the fact that I neither lived nor worked at the market. I was invited to be part of it simply because I loved the market.
It is the kind of city where a native of a rival city can succeed in its local politics without having his loyalties ever questioned. At many levels, when residents of the city, born here or not, showed up in front of city hall to pay their respects, they illustrated how open to the world this city is. For someone who grew up without a home city, it is nice to finally have a place I can call my own.