With four gamboling children in tow, a young South Asian woman walks by wearing a bright lime green and orange salwar kurta; of course there’s gold. Then come the chain-smoking Hungarians with lips like blood and eyebrows from a calligraphist’s dream. Hard on their chunky high heels are a pair of old Chinese women with giant plastic visors — strange moon ladies.
And suddenly my favourite, a sparkle chador woman. (When studded with diamonds it’s hard to see the flowing black gown as a symbol of servitude. Especially when worn with killer pumps peaking out from the bottom and topped by Fendi sunglasses.)
Of course there’s the gays: many half-naked, sun-blissed men escaping the glare and stares of the nude beach at Hanlan’s, plus other queers in all shapes and sizes enjoying the varied clothed pleasures of Toronto Island.
I’m sitting in the sun at my favourite summer hangout in Toronto: Bill’s Beach House Bar located right at the base of the Centre Island Pier. It’s grand central: Everyone walks by here — twice — on the way to and from the long jetty that thrusts out over the lake. On one side are the washrooms and change rooms; on the other, some food concessions, both housed in those blue-green ’60s structures that seem unchanged from countless childhood trips to beaches across Canada.
Everyone is happy as they saunter past Bill’s, smiling, enjoying the sun, the water, the gardens and each other.
It’s a nonstop dance spectacle performed to an eclectic soundtrack of vintage rock and Can-Con classics: Boston, Journey, April Wine, BTO…..
This place is a crossroads, a living symbol of Toronto’s diversity: gay and straight, rich and poor, black, brown, white and pink.
There’s a tension in a job like mine between informing you readers of the best arts and entertainment this city has to offer and, being what my mother calls a dog in a manger, keeping the best to myself. As if I want you all crowding me out of my fave spots. Hoi polloi — away with thee.
But summer’s almost done so I’m being magnanimous. Now that the city strike is over, get out to the islands and grab a (pricey) beer at Bill’s. August to early September is the best time — Lake Ontario has finally warmed up enough for swimming (it’s painfully cold the rest of the year). Water at the island’s beaches — Ward’s, Gibraltar Point and Hanlan’s (avoid the kiddy- and goose-infected beach near the pier) — is the cleanest in the city (for info go to Toronto.ca/parks/island).
Every time I’m at Bill’s the combination of sun, booze, schmaltzy music and the colourful parade cooks up thoughts of how special a city like Toronto is. It’s not by design. We stumbled into the present. When Pierre Trudeau as justice minister decriminalized homosexuality in 1969, when as prime minister he implemented his multicultural policy in 1972 (as a fob to the west to help ease the sting of official bilingualism) and when he repatriated the constitution and passed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, he couldn’t have realized the full impact of those legislative achievements — nor their limitations.
Colonialism, the two solitudes, social gospel, the vertical mosaic, feminism, multiculturalism, gay and lesbian rights — we’ve walked ass-backward into a Canadian present that celebrates and champions equality, tolerance and justice. We know that legislation can help even out the playing field. But the real action is we Canadians — new and old, aboriginal and immigrant — playing the field. Sometimes the play is rough as groups and individuals scrap over priorities and perspectives; sometimes the play is all sweet — like on Toronto Island on a sunny day.
Canada was founded as a pluralistic country and, as one constitutional historian has put it, our “will to live together” is perhaps the most unique Canadian characteristic. And the fact of living together, where all walks of life literally rub shoulders together — who knows what fabulous fruit will be born from those countless personal connections?
For all the talk of Toronto as a world-class city, the world could care less. Good. More for our polyglot selves. Anyway, the world is already here.