I suppose I can understand why Stephen Harper would call Calgary the "greatest city" in Canada, as he did this week. After all, a whopping 70 per cent of the city voted for him and his Conservative party in the 2011 federal election. (Alberta as a whole only supported the Tories to the tune of about 66 per cent.) Cowtown is the epicentre of Harper's conservative revolution, and even if he spends most of his time in Ottawa his heart still resides there. Caught up in the heat of a triumphant return home, it's easy to see why the prime minister would be moved to call Calgary Canada's greatest city. But he's quite obviously wrong.
Toronto is Canada's greatest city.
Harper's Calgary is a nice city, an up-and-coming city, an emblem of Canadian business aspirations. But it is not world class -- not yet anyway. Class only comes with time, and the process of history-making can't be sped up. Calgary is as yet nothing more than an overachieving child -- signs all point to a successful adult but a lot can still happen.
Toronto is an old city -- 82 years older than Calgary, in fact. When you walk the streets in Toronto you get the distinct sense that a lot of other people have done this before you, which encourages a sense of maturity and responsibility. And yet it is also new and exciting. Toronto is -- and this is what makes it a metropolitan icon, in the same conversation as the Paris', Moscows, Londons and New Yorks of the world -- where Canada's top thinkers, artists and businessfolk want to be. It's where our best and brightest, our most attractive and talented, gather to produce and vet Canada's collective popular culture and identity (Quebec excepted, but more on that later).
Calgary isn't near on that level. Time, a lot of it, will tell if it ever gets there.
Vancouver has a number of character flaws, the most serious of which are unfounded pretentiousness and a serious jealous streak. People from Vancouver are always talking about how much better their city is than Toronto -- especially, weirdly enough, Vancouverites who live in Toronto. What's with the Toronto-obsession? What the Vancouverite credo boils down to is "we're just like Toronto, only way more mellow, man," and that is pathetic.
(And it's also not exactly true either: Remember when this supposed haven of Canada's most totally chilled-out dudes and dudettes lost its collective sh-t over a hockey game?)
And speaking of hockey riots, there's Montreal, a city of tremendous tradition and culture. Montreal is unique, but it is different in both philosophical and perceptual ways from the rest of Canada, much of which considers it a strange land, jarring and confusing. It is of Canada, but also set apart, purposefully. Montrealers are either ideologically a bit to the left of most Canadians (like when it comes to taxes and social programs), or, if not, then to the right (a lareasonable accommodation) -- it's entirely unpredictable.
And for all its beauty and history, Montreal is ugly, too -- beset by incapable and/or corrupt leaders and hopeless infrastructure that make Rob Ford and chunks of concrete falling from the Gardiner look like child's play. It's bizarro world, bearing some resemblance to other major Canadian cities, and yet also uncomfortably different and weird.
Halifax? Great place to visit, not to live.
Edmonton? See Calgary, above.
Quebec City? Like Montreal on "les steroids."
Winnipeg? You can't be serious.
Set aside your sentimental hometown biases and sidestep the reflexive hatred of Canada's most populous city. It's plain to see that Toronto is Canada's signature urban space, the cornerstone of our proud little Canadian universe, and our submission to the exclusive list of world's top cities. And if that doesn't convince you it's our greatest city, well you're just as delusional as the prime minister.