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The megacity

In 1998 five sprawling Toronto suburbs - York, East York, North York, Etobicoke and Scarborough - were corralled under the City of Toronto's municipal umbrella. The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) 'Megacity' was born, the largest city in Canada and the fifth largest in North America - certainly a long way from its beginnings as 'Muddy York, ' Ontario's second-choice town after Niagara.

Yet the Megacity was not a wildly popular proposition. Many residents felt that amalgamation would result in threadbare city services, especially in outlying neighborhoods that would now have to shoulder more than their fair share of City Hall's financial burdens. When a referendum was held in 1997, voters in the proposed Megacity municipalities soundly rejected the plan. But former Ontario Premier Mike Harris introduced legislation that forced the Megacity merge through anyway, making an awful lot of folks unhappy.

Overnight the population of Toronto jumped from 650, 000 to somewhere closer to four million people. Millionaire 'bad boy' appliance salesman Mel Lastman, formerly the mayor of North York, assumed the mayoral reins at City Hall. He was a flamboyant character, known for stunts like riding a fire truck in Toronto's Pride Parade and begging Ginger Spice to rejoin the Spice Girls. Lastman accurately reflected the schizophrenia of the new Megacity: ruthlessly prodevelopment with a guilty social conscience.

Despite having an annual operating budget greater than that of some Canadian provinces, Toronto had a recession in the 1990s that led to social spending cuts resulting in increased homelessness and environmental neglect. Meanwhile, development was pushed forward - condominium projects were promoted ahead of increasingly pricey established housing stocks, new subway lines were built (never mind that they don't go anywhere useful) and historic structures suffered the swing of the wrecking ball.

Considering what was about to happen, a salesman mayor like Lastman may have been exactly what was needed to help the Megacity cope with the 21st century.

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The 21st century

Although Toronto is still 'The City That Works, ' a geeky nickname acquired for its urban planning successes, the new millennium has delivered a lot of headaches so far.

First, Toronto lost its bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. Then it was smacked in the head by successive outbreaks of West Nile Virus and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The Great Blackout of 2003, when power plants failed across northeastern US and Canada, left Torontonians in the dark for days. Chinatown vendors quickly began selling 'Toronto Survivor' T-shirts as barflies joked about 'Toronto the Bad' becoming 'The City That Works You Over.' Undeterred, the tourist board embarked on an optimistic new ad campaign, 'Toronto: You Belong Here.'

Ousting Lastman from the mayor chair in 2003, David Miller was comfortably re-elected in 2006. His initial platform was a vision of returning Toronto to its roots as a patchwork city of neighborhoods. Other big plans included the consolidation of Dundas Square as a public space worthy of NYC's Times Square, cleaning up City Hall corruption and pushing environmental healing to the front of the city's agenda. Highlighting his 2006 campaign was a scheme to secure 1% of provincial and federal GST taxes to put toward improving local services. He's also promised to ramp up gun-control measures, court big business and improve policing. Time will tell if he's successful…Miller is also an advocate for civil rights for minorities, including the disabled, gay and lesbian citizens, and various ethnic groups. He's also established a Racial Diversity Secretariat, a crucial step for a city where interethnic gang violence is becoming a real problem.

And so, as the CN Tower turns 30, it seems there is every reason for enthusiasm about Toronto's future. Today 50% of Torontonians have immigrated from somewhere else, bringing fresh ideas, perspectives and the riches of diversity to the city. More than 100 languages ricochet through the streets of an experimental city that's almost found its feet. The only constant here is change - Toronto is a city in evolution.

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Aboriginal history

Before Europeans showed up, the Toronto area was home to indigenous tribes for 11, 000 years.

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Arrival of the French

In 1615 Etienne Brûlé arrived at the mouth of the Humber River on a mission for French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who had already founded a settlement at Québec. This site, at the convergence of several key trading and portage routes, became known as Toronto, a name possibly derived from a Mohawk name for a sacred fallen tree. The trade routes running north from here were historically used by First Nations tribes and later by French fur traders as shortcuts between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay or the upper inland lakes. It wasn't until around 1720, however, that the French were able to establish a permanent fur-trading post and mission near the Humber River. In 1750 they built Fort Rouillé - also known as Fort Toronto, on the site where Exhibition Place now stands - one in a series of forts set up to control navigation on the Great Lakes and links with the Mississippi River.

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Muddy York

After years of hostility with the dastardly French on both sides of the Atlantic, the British took over all of New France, including the area around Toronto, under the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Montréal had already been captured three years earlier. However, it wasn't until after the American Revolution that Loyalists fleeing the United States arrived and settlement began in earnest. The British paid £1700 to the Mississauga nation for the Toronto Land Purchase of 1787, although the 'official' deed was suspiciously left blank. Four years later the provinces of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (Québec) were created.

Soon afterwards, in 1793, John Graves Simcoe, the new Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, moved the provincial capital from Niagara-on-the-Lake to a more defensible position at Toronto, officially naming the new settlement York. This colonial town was laid out on a 10-block grid with patriotic street names like King, Queen, George and Duke. The lieutenant governor's men also constructed a trail, which later became Yonge St, leading 48km straight north through the wilderness to the borders of the original Toronto Land Purchase. Incidentally, the Guinness Book of World Records officially lists Yonge St as the longest road in the world. It winds over 1800km north along Hwy 11, terminating at Rainy River, Ontario.

The perennial muddiness of the new capital gave rise to the unflattering nickname 'Muddy York, ' but Simcoe figured this made York even less likely to be attacked should the Americans decide to invade. Which, of course, they did anyway during the War of 1812. On April 27, 1813, American forces reached Fort York and after a short struggle overcame the British and Ojibwa troops. The Americans looted and razed York but hung around for only six days before leaving of their own volition. Canadian troops followed them all the way back to the US political headquarters in Washington and attempted to burn down the White House when they got there (allegedly so named for the white paint that was used to cover up the charred bits afterwards).

After the 1814 Treaty of Ghent ended the hostilities between the USA and Canada, the British no longer saw the Iroquois nations as valuable allies and quickly subjected them to increased government control. At the same time, the city of York began to expand and, in 1828, the first stagecoach service began on Yonge St. British and then Irish immigrants started to arrive in Upper Canada in increasing numbers, quadrupling the population to around 10, 000 people.

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From rebellion to unity

By 1824 firebrand William Lyon Mackenzie had started publishing his Colonial Advocate, an outcry against the oligarchic Tory government that ruled York. Termed the 'Family Compact, ' these Loyalist families, including the Jarvises, Baldwins and Strachans, had come to power as advisers to Lieutenant Governor Simcoe, who before departing Upper Canada had limited the province's legislative powers as a means of avoiding an American-style revolution.

During 1834 Mackenzie got himself elected as the first mayor of the new city of Toronto, but the Family Compact's continuing political influence proved much too strong for him. Finally out of options, Mackenzie initiated the shortest-lived rebellion in Canadian history on December 5, 1837. He and an assorted band of around 600 disgruntled citizens marched down Yonge St and confronted the Loyalist troops that were directed by Sheriff Jarvis. Shots were volleyed, confusion and panic ensued and both sides broke and ran. Mackenzie went into temporary exile in the USA while unluckier rebels were hanged.

Another newspaperman, George Brown, the publisher of the Globe since 1844, became a key political player in Toronto politics in Mackenzie's absence. Brown forged a new liberal party and was also a driving force behind the confederation of Canada during 1867, to which most voters agreed more out of fear of another US invasion than out of any nationalistic ideals. Their fears were not unfounded, considering that Fenian raids were still being launched across the border. By the time of confederation, the railway had already brought the coalescing nation much closer together. Toronto gained prominence as the capital of the newly renamed Ontario, even though the city was still in the economic shadow of Montréal.

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Toronto the good

Throughout the Victorian era of the late 1800s, there was seemingly nothing but progress for Toronto. Eaton's and Simpson's department stores opened their doors on Yonge St, the city was wired for electricity and the first national exhibition was held. By the end of the century, more than 200, 000 folks called Toronto home. Masterpieces of Edwardian architecture emerged downtown, and the first Italian and Jewish immigrants arrived. Following the world trend, Toronto had a 'Great Fire' in 1849, but proceeded to have another one on 19 April, 1904. Starting at the C&S Currie neckwear factory at 58 Wellington St W, the blaze charred through 20 inner-city acres, leveling 100 buildings. Amazingly, no one died.

Around this time the city became known as 'Toronto the Good, ' a tag that only began to fade a few decades ago. Conservative politicians voted for prohibition (outlawing the production and sale of alcoholic beverages) and strong antivice laws (it was illegal to rent a horse on Sunday) that culminated in the Lord's Day Act of 1906. Eaton's department store drew its curtains to guard against 'sinful' window shopping, and city playgrounds were locked up. These antivice laws remained on the books until 1950.

Meanwhile, businessmen like Sir Henry Pellat of Casa Loma fame were amassing their fortunes, and by the 1920s Bay St was booming, partly because gold, silver and uranium mines had been discovered in northern Ontario. Everything stopped short during the Depression era, sparking ethnic hostilities. Chinese immigration was banned, anti-Semitic riots exploded in Christie Pits Park and during WWII, Canada interned citizens of Japanese ancestry in camps, as did the USA. Widespread prejudice against African Canadians was all the more lamentable for Ontario having been a safe haven for Harriet Tubman and other slaves via the famous Underground Railroad escape route.

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The whole world in a city

After WWII the city breathed a huge sigh of relief. Thousands of European immigrants rolled into town, gifting the city with an influx of new tongues, customs and food. Enclaves like Kensington Market began showing signs of the cultural diversity that has become Toronto's trademark, while the Yonge St subway line opened in 1954 to shunt the burgeoning population from A to B. Toronto spread out in all directions (except south, of course), but in the 1960s people started moving back into the innercity and began restoring gracious old Victorian homes. Bohemian folk-music coffeehouses opened in Yorkville, patronized not least by US conscientious objectors looking to evade the clutches of the Vietnam War draft.

The building of the controversial new City Hall in 1965 really gave Toronto a boost into modernity. In the 1970s Portuguese, Chilean, Greek, Southeast Asian, Chinese and West Indian immigrants surfed into the city in waves, the redevelopment of the Harbourfront district began and new skyscrapers sprang up. Toronto finally overtook Montréal's population, becoming one of the fastest-growing cities in North America.

The city's optimism and civic pride expressed themselves in the building of the funky CN Tower in 1976, continuing right through the 1980s economic boom on Bay St and the city's sesquicentennial in 1984. However, not everyone shared the 'progressive' outlook of City Hall. In 1980 the 'Sandbar Bohemians' on Toronto Islands stood their ground against eviction by the municipal government, and won. And of course, the economy had to go bust sometime, which it did with a bang during the mid-'90s.

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