Toronto: The Silent City?



Five mornings out of seven I sit in the back of a freezing Mississauga public transit bus with a group of toque wearing men who rarely summon the courage to nod hello to one another. They do however hold tightly onto their Tim Horton's coffee cups. Like prisoners shipped out to a penal colony, these men stare out into the grimness and grey sprawl of the 401 and 427 highways. As a fellow passenger and thirty six-year old man with failing eye-sight, idiosyncratic habits and no new pants in a year, I am probably not a pretty sight as well.

I spend an hour and a half going from Islington station to a Royal Bank Tower in Mississauga, where I work at a French school as and English teacher. I get up at five am, go to bed at ten at night and ride the silent subways for a two and-a-half hours a day. I pay rent in Toronto and after all taxes and deductions I earn less as a school teacher than I pay per month in rent and food, utilities and bank loan. I`m going into debt for the privilege of standing in front of fifteen year-old smart alec boys at eight o'clock in the morning, five days a week. I teach that expressions like 'dummer than a sack full of hammers', 'tighter than a mouse's hole stretched-over-a-barrel', 'baseball bat and a field of ripe pumpkins' are literary devices such as imagery and colloquialism and metaphor and they belong to the vernacular of the rural region of my upbringing: the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. I teach motifs and cultural phrases which I have overheard or learned along my travels across Canada. A favourite was coined by a Taber, Alberta hard-rock singer named Mike Caldwell who said: "If the cops and corporations are the bigs, then we are the smalls." I`m sure there are many my age or younger who are in worse debt than me, so I`m not complaining. To be surrounded by the literature I love is my idea of a wonderful life.

Being a Maritimer, I have never loved Toronto and I am not from this place but I can see that the face of this country is changing rapidly. I have seen this from my experience - working the dingy, crummy desperate jobs that immigrants and the unskilled work, trying to get a foothold in this culture. In the seven years I`ve been in Toronto I`ve gone door-to-door, telemarketted and worked as an office temp and I have seen that the kind, accepting, gentle Canada that is, or was, preached on CBC`s Morningside is not as it was once, if it ever was at all. I have stood on back porches in Perth, Ontario, while meat and potatoes loving men in Roots hats and Maple Leafs Jerseys tell me to take myself and my towel head friend off their property. Is this the best that we can do for ourselves: Roots Clothing, Maple Leafs Jerseys and a Tim Horton double double?

The book of poetry I have published is called Scouts Are Cancelled. I am very proud of because it come from a sacred place deep inside of me. The poetry is written in the vernacular of the local people where I grew up and is about corruption in a small town where a developer is trying to buy up a struggling farm and sell it off to build a subdivision. The people are people that I know and grew up with and are people who say hello to you at church, who work for the Volunteer Fire Department and play bingo and drive feed trucks and work the penalty box door at local Junior B Hockey games.

When I take the bus, people rarely talk and if they do there are contemptuous glances from others, ticked-off that someone is encroaching on their personal quiet time. I`ll tell you now that I can hardly believe it is happening and living in Toronto is like living in a great big library where we are all being told to shsssss. But the people of this city aren`t reading books - they are watching reality television, grasping their Tim Horton`s coffee. The silence is a kind of repression, a stifling of our individual voices and our freedoms and Toronto is a modern day Elsinore, filled with busloads of hang-dog faced, pensive, repressed and confused Hamlets, exiled to suburban cubicles or computer programming jobs while uncle Claudius silently and skillfully amasses control of the great big corporate media fiefdoms. The ghosts of Fortinbras appear rattling the subconsciousness in old black and white movies, retro music from the 60`s and 70`s and old books. But we ignore these ghosts of Fortinbras. The message is clear: Knowledge is power but silence is golden.

Which brings me back to books and why I love to teach and why I love books. Books have always been about the truth. Writers do not make the best company, perhaps, but if they are worth reading they try and tell the truth. In my mind they tell the truth from the first instance in life, perhaps in the first six years of life when, as a child you are not scared to tell your best friend who has sided with a bully that they have just hurt your feelings. Good writing comes from the time in life when you are not scared to tell your mother that when you come home and see her boyfriend's car in the driveway, it gives you a grim feeling. It is like being told by a grave accountant that your finances are bad and that you will never be rich or comfortably off.

So many new immigrants have come to this country with the promise of money and a bright future luring them: the propaganda of the ads touts that Canada is the greatest country in the world to live in. But Canada and especially Toronto is in grave danger of becoming a dead, lifeless, gray subdivision if people do not speak up. What are people scared of? The Canada I know or knew as a child in the maritimes is Junior B hockey, the court report in the local newspaper, Howards Dill`s pumpkins, The highest tides in the world, apple picking, strawberry/rhubard pie, gravensteins, strawberry suppers, Bingo. People in Toronto seem stifled, scared even to say what they think, for fear perhaps of losing their jobs and yet they seem to hate their jobs. Frig that shit, I say. Dump the coffee and say sumpin fer chrissakes.