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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 253-276

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Urban National, Suburban Transnational:
Civic Theatres and the Urban Development of Toronto's Downtowns

Michael McKinnie


Now, after nearly two decades of continental economics and the recurring threat of federal dissolution, it is sometimes hard to imagine just how celebratory Canadian nationalism was in the late 1960s. Canada commemorated its hundredth birthday in 1967, and the optimism embodied in projects like Expo 67 in Montréal seemed to signal that the country had achieved national maturity and international stature. The centennial celebrations implied--indeed, shouted--that the Canadian federation was confident, modern, and secure, and that the able steward for the national project was a benevolent state. Like many Western countries in the late 1960s, Canada's economic expansion was accompanied by legal liberalization, greater immigration, and an increasingly generous welfare state. Unlike many Western countries in the late 1960s, however, the counter-cultural corollary to this modernization project did not seek to challenge significantly the supremacy of the national state. If anything, the centennial best illustrates how the ascendancy of Canadian cultural nationalism was secured by a kind of soft authoritarianism. As one popular commentary observes, "The great Canadian Centennial love-in was definitely a top-down affair: an officially legislated, publicly-sponsored, impeccably choreographed national debutante ball. Compulsory attendance notwithstanding, we loved it anyway: it was probably the most fun the country ever had doing something it was told to do." 1

If that kind of national celebration seems unimaginable in Canada today (leaving aside the question of its desirability), everyday life in Canada remains equally unimaginable without the physical legacy of that time. Centennial projects married a familiar practice of pork-barrel beneficence with an oedipal rationale for cultural [End Page 253] institution-building: the nation would throw off its colonial inheritance (represented as a kind of infantile disorder) by constructing "something for everyone, everywhere in Canada." Scores of public schools, ice arenas, and swimming pools built across the country would contribute to personal development, while "[c]oncert halls, museums, art galleries, libraries and cultural centres" would, at the local level, redress a perceived lack of collective cultural development. 2 Expo 67 may have been the grandest national symbol of the centennial, but the many smaller civic building projects funded in the name of the centenary remain the most enduring and useful local benefit of national patronage.

The St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (SLC) was one of the centennial's major cultural projects, and was built as Toronto's first civic theatre facility on the eastern edge of the city's Central Business District (CBD). The $5.2 million complex housed two theatres (an 830 seat auditorium and a 480 seat auditorium) and was the first theatre facility built in Toronto specifically for a resident company, one assembled by the not-for-profit, city-governed agency called the Toronto Arts Foundation. 3 Construction began in 1967 after demolition of a row of nineteenth-century buildings on Front Street East, and the SLC finally opened in 1970 under the directorship of Mavor Moore, a long-time advocate for theatre in Canada and a prominent supporter of the SLC project. Four of the five plays staged that first season were Canadian, a nationalist programming practice for which many theatre practitioners had agitated, but which was only beginning to gain legitimacy among Toronto companies at the time. 4

While the construction of the SLC marked the beginning of profound changes in theatrical production in Toronto, 1967 also heralded the first major victory for Toronto's nascent urban reform movement. The Friends of Old City Hall helped prevent the sale and demolition of the former city hall, thereby inaugurating a powerful political constituency whose focus was the preservation and streetscape-sensitive development of downtown Toronto. Since 1967 a significant number of the most fractious political struggles in Toronto have been over what former mayor John Sewell calls "the shape of the city." 5 Well-organized political coalitions and their allies on city council have consistently ensured that city...


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