Toronto :: Celebrating Diversity Year Round

by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 29, 2010

A dreary mix of icy rain and sleet stalled incoming flights at Toronto's Pearson airport. When I finally bumbled into Voglie, a hip restaurant on Church Street in the heart of Toronto's gay village, I was weary. Christopher Barry, a manager at Tourism Toronto, greeted me with a wide smile and an even bigger hug. "Why has it taken you two years to get back to Toronto?" he asked. Justine Palinska, Christopher's talented and vivacious colleague, buzzed around the room, introducing me to others as a long lost friend. Within minutes, it was as if I had always lived here.

Later, walking to my hotel two blocks from the village, The Marriott Bloor Yorkville (the only hotel in Toronto with direct access to the Bloor/Yonge subway), I was greeted on the street by several passersby who cheerfully walked through the slush to one of several pubs on the block.

Toronto's friendliness works magic on you. It's an inclusive, vibrant free-zone. It's a place where a stranger who literally drops out of the sky and shakes the slush off his coat is greeted with open arms.

In Canada, an issue like gay marriage is, simply put, not an issue. Same-sex marriage has been legal in all Canadian provinces since the passage of the Civil Marriage Act in 2005. When I tell our northern neighbors how hotly contested the issue of same-sex marriage is in most of the States (save for a handful that have legally adopted it) and how well funded lobbyists are working against its adoption, they look at me with incredulity.

But that doesn't mean Torontonians take their hard-won freedoms for granted. On the contrary, if it weren't for the organized efforts of the many and the few, the diversity the city's residents enjoy would be non-existent.

Diversity will be on display in a big way when Toronto hosts their 30th annual Pride Day this summer. An estimated 1.5 million people are expected to attend. Yet pride is not a one-time event in Toronto, it's an ongoing commitment, part of the fabric of the city and its residents.

Here are profiles of three Toronto residents who help make sure Toronto remains inclusive all year long: David Wootton, Tracey Sandilands and Stephen Chan.

David Wootton, Church-Wellesley Village

Church-Wellesley Village’s David Wootton

David Wootton is managing director of the Church-Wellesley Village (, which bills itself as "Toronto’s largest LGBT neighborhood." He’s a consummate grass roots organizer who fights to preserve the gay village’s special quality of life.

"In order to keep the village as a premier queer destination," Wooten says, "we have to support the businesses that are here, and provide services. We do this through events, festivals and public awareness campaigns. These require ongoing negotiations with the city. We go door to door to remind residents to do their shopping here, and we tell them if they don’t, these businesses are going to disappear."

A few of the business/special features in the Church-Wellesley Village include Woody’s, a raucous gay bar; Irish O’Grady’s, boasting a large patio for outdoor imbibing and people watching during the good weather; a community center; a leash-free dog park; and numerous bars, bathhouses and bistros. It’s also home to Buddies in the Bad Times Theatre, a showplace for original plays on LGBT themes.

Wootton edits a neighborhood newsletter, keeps their website up-to-date, writes articles for the gay weekly Xtra, appears on the radio, and can be found at countless meetings and serving on as many community boards, all necessary functions in order to keep the neighborhood alive. He also fundraises for two events the neighborhood hosts each year: Hallo-week in the fall, and the Fetish Festival in the summer.

"The costs to run these events are staggering. When we close the street," he says, "they city charges us $20,000, and then we have to hire security for the event, too." he told me. "Both events can be edgy; vendors come from all over, and last year we doubled the number of people attending. We have many more ideas on how to promote the village, all of which goes toward raising awareness that the gay village is a welcoming, diverse, safe, and vibrant neighborhood open to all."

:: More on Toronto Pride continued on page 2 ::

Tracey Sandilands, Pride Toronto

Pride Toronto’s Tracey Sandilands

Toronto celebrates its 30th annual Pride Week from June 25-July 4 this year; the most visible statement of its commitment to gay rights and diversity. Pride Week culminates in a parade that snakes through the city’s center. The budget in 2006 was $1.3 million. This year, Pride Toronto’s executive director Tracey Sandiland expects that figure to double. Pride Week is the sole event the organization focuses on. A full-time staff of 15 and 1,200 volunteers works all year to make sure it comes off without a hitch.

Tracey Sandilands hails from Durban, South Africa. She was interviewed for the position via Skype, and arrived in Canada for the first time in November 2009. She told me things are moving along quite well, and that her staff is "working on an average 12-18 hour days to pull things together."

"There is so much that goes into an event like this," Sandilands said. "We never have a quiet period, except maybe around the holidays, but now we’re really ramping up, making sure we get the proper permits to close streets, to provide facilities, to be inclusive to 19-year-olds who are not of drinking age, and to the over 40 year old group, who will be looking for other entertainment options."

Sandilands also confirmed that Cyndi Lauper will be headlining the event. Lauper, who has joined forces with Lady GaGa in the U.K., has been involved in AIDS awareness campaigns here and overseas for some years.

"We are trying to resolve a political issue that reared its head last year, namely protests that arose from anti-Israel groups versus pro-Israel groups that wanted to use Pride as a rallying place for their political disagreements," Sandilands said. "We are not political, nor do we tolerate hatred of any sort, and we do not let any political group use Pride as a soapbox for their views."

Ensuring that the event supports international gay and human rights is what Sandilands strives for, as she puts it, "so the queer community has a chance to celebrate its vibrancy."

Stephen Chan, Chinatown

Chinatown’s Stephen Chan

Take a walk through Chinatown; here, more than any other place in Toronto, cultures collide and coexist. There are Korean green grocers, Russian Jewish schmate shops, Mexican bakeries, store fronts displaying cooked ducks and octopi, Greek slovaki joints, a store front selling Jamaican clothing, and a head shop called "Roach-a-rama" whose slogan says, "Serving potheads since...I don’t remember when." There are numerous shops run by ancient Chinese women hawking mah-jongg sets and gee-gaws, laughing Buddha’s (rub his tummy for good luck) and pink-cheeked plastic babies riding tigers (the symbol of the new year).

Stephen Chan meets me for a dim-sum lunch at his restaurant, The Bright Pearl, a bustling second floor dining room on the corner of Spadina and Kensington he’s operated for 13 years.

"Change happens slowly in Toronto," he tells me. "For the Chinese in this area, the younger generation is not interested in running the shops. You see older people working in them. When this older generation dies out, the shops will be taken over by other immigrant groups."

This has already happened, Chan says. Vietnamese, and others from Southeast Asia own many formerly Chinese shops, and there is an influx of storeowners from India. At one point in time, the area housed immigrant Jews. A synagogue, built in 1930, is directly across the street from The Bright Pearl. Orthodox Jews still hold daily prayer services there, but there is no Jewish presence in this neighborhood. The building that once housed a Yiddish theatre across the street is now a bank.

The Bright Pearl is more than just a restaurant for Stephen Chan. On the wall near the stairs there are photos of Chan at many civic functions in Toronto, shaking hands with town councilors, and at ribbon cuttings. He is proud of his commitment to people and to his ever-changing community.

"I have been very involved in the Toronto community for many years," he says. "I do so quietly and, sometimes, not so quietly. My ancestors were not so involved, but times are changing and I feel to be community activist is my civic duty. And I encourage other business people - here in Chinatown and elsewhere -- to do the same."

David Wootton, Tracey Sandilands and Stephen Chan are three Torontonians who make a difference. They work cross-culturally and with visible determination, and often not-so visibly, quietly getting things done. They are devoted to ensuring Toronto stays open and diverse. They - and others like them -- are the reason that Toronto remains a vital, compelling place that’s exciting to live in and to visit, again and again.

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.

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