Citizen Hall: Reclaiming City Hall for the People

by Ryan Hayes

How can we, as residents of Toronto, transform Toronto City Hall—the city bureaucracy’s democratic core—into a youth-friendly space, one that comes to terms with historical practices of exclusion embedded in the site itself? On 24 March 2008, thirteen young people participated in a critical tour to discuss and debate this question. For the majority of participants, it was either their first or second time visiting City Hall. Following a CAN$40 million redesign competition for Nathan Phillips Square, the public space surrounding City Hall, the Toronto Youth Cabinet (TYC) wanted to encourage young people to look inside and critically examine how Toronto City Hall functions—or does not function— as a democratic space.

The critical tour opened with a discussion of the history of Toronto City Hall and current issues at hand. The name was broken into each of its constituent parts to investigate what it meant to participants. “Toronto” was identified as an indigenous word, linked to the colonial history of the city and its continued existence on stolen land. “City” was linked to the etymology of “citizen,” originally meaning inhabitants of the city, but now a status granted by the state that creates an exploitable class of non-citizens, many of whom live in Toronto but cannot access vital services. “Hall” was related to the concept of the town hall, where people come together to voice their opinions and participate in decision-making.

As the center of democratic governance in Toronto, spaces in City Hall should be particularly inviting to historically marginalized people, from indigenous and other racialized groups to young people. Every effort should be made to overcome representations that perpetuate social exclusion. The space itself should serve to welcome all voices as equal participants in the city’s decision-making processes.

The Toronto Youth Cabinet: Making Change at City Hall and Beyond

The TYC is a youth-led advocacy organization that represents the voices of Toronto’s 300,000 youth. The TYC was created in 1998 with the support of then City Councilor Olivia Chow, who would become the city’s first children and youth advocate. Based in City Hall, TYC’s general activities include outreach, capacity-building and advocacy work. Members of the TYC organize annual events such as the Cause, a celebration of youth activism held at Yonge- Dundas Square, and a city budget campaign that seeks to include the needs of young people in the city budget. In the past, the TYC ran a Recreation not Ammunition campaign to reallocate money from a new police shooting range towards the construction of community centers in underserviced communities, and it successfully advocated for the city to create a grants program for youth-led initiatives.

The City of Toronto: A Critical Tour Uncovers Histories of Social Exclusion and Oppression

Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation: Participants in the critical tour found no evidence that adequately or accurately spoke to the history of indigenous peoples in Toronto. While there were permanent pieces of indigenous artwork hanging in the mezzanine, there lacked any recognition of the significance of indigenous peoples to Toronto. Moreover, the imagery of the large quilt hanging in the basement perpetuated the myth of oppression-free settler and Indigenous relations.

In fact, the City of Toronto is situated on land that was fraudulently acquired from the Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation. When the British Crown registered the Toronto Purchase of 1787, it was done so on a blank deed with no description of the physical boundaries or quantity of land surrendered and no signatures on the original document.

The Mississaugas are currently in mediation with the Canadian government about a land claim submitted in 1986 in an effort to correct these historical injustices. The Coalition in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty, along with other social service and activist groups, are bringing light to indigenous sovereignty issues, working alongside members of the 60,000 plus indigenous population living in the Greater Toronto Area. Given that expropriation of indigenous land is so integral to the story of Toronto, recognition is critical—not just for indigenous peoples to see themselves as part of the fabric of the city, but also for those ignorant of histories and practices of social exclusion.

The Ward and Chinatown: Participants also learned that the site where Toronto City Hall now stands is itself embedded with historical acts of exclusion. During the early 1900s, on the land where City Hall now stands, a neighborhood called the Ward existed. An infamous “slum” where immigrants from Eastern Europe settled, an average of eight people lived in each dwelling in impoverished conditions. These Jewish, Italian and Polish immigrants were criticized for their “dirty habits” and concern for the area grew to hysteric proportions with allegations, according to historian Sean Purdy, that the Ward posed a “constant menace to the physical and moral health of the city.” Chinese businesses and residences began clustering in this area as the first settlers moved out. Due to exclusionary immigration policies, Toronto’s emerging Chinatown was predominantly inhabited by “married bachelors” who were unable to bring their families to Canada.

In 1947, the exclusionary Chinese Immigration Act was repealed. That same year, the City of Toronto decided by plebiscite to establish a civic square in Chinatown by expropriating the land from local residents. In 1951, plans to build a new city hall on the site were added, and by the mid-1950s, two-thirds of the area had been demolished to make way for development. By the end of the 1960s, however, not all the needed land had yet been expropriated, primarily due to fiscal restraints. A special meeting to consider Chinatown’s future was packed by over 400 Chinese Torontonians—who over the intervening years had gained better access to power and greater social acceptance. The outcome of the meeting was a unanimous decision to keep the remainder of Chinatown in its location on Dundas Street West.

According to the City of Toronto’s official history, prepared for the twentieth anniversary of Toronto City Hall in 1985, the choice of site generated a wave of opposition, not on the basis that it required Chinatown to be razed over the Chinese community’s wishes, but because two of the city’s landmarks—Shea’s Hippodrome, a former vaudeville house on Bay Street, and the Beaux Arts Registry Office at Albert and Chestnut Streets—were slated to be demolished. Chinatown, located roughly between these two landmarks, participants of the tour learned, was not even mentioned as part of the slated demolition, as if it never existed.

Participants noted that while there is a small plaque commemorating Chinatown situated near City Hall, it was so poorly maintained and so well hidden on ground level that it defeated the purpose of having it at all. This plaque also neglects to mention the razing of Chinatown to construct City Hall. Just as the history of old Chinatown had effectively been erased, so too had the history of the Ward, which preceded it.

Erasure of unsanitary history may make sense for elites who care more about economic development and tourism. Dwelling on injustices or complicating an issue by inserting multiple narratives may slow down the march of progress. Who wants to develop on bloody, stolen land? Nevertheless, if there is a safe space where people who have been historically oppressed—and denial of their history is part of that oppression—can come together to discuss issues they are facing, then city hall, the city’s democratic core, should be that place. Indeed, the guiding rules issued for the 1957 Toronto City Hall international design competition express a similar goal:

In the eighteenth century, the cathedral and the town hall frequently dominated the urban scene both physically and spiritually. Our present City Hall is largely overshadowed by commercial and financial buildings, but it still dominates by its presence. It differs in that respect from those centers of civic administration in North America where the “hall” is just another office building. One of the reasons for this competition is to find a building that will proudly express its function as the center of civic government. How to achieve an atmosphere about a building that suggests government, continuity of democratic traditions and service to the community is a problem for the designer of the modern city hall. These were the qualities that the architects of other ages endeavored to embody in the town hall of their time.

How to Transform City Hall to Citizen Hall

Participants liked how City Hall’s indoor public space—the rotunda—could be used as a multi-use space and wanted to see some programming geared towards young people. On the day of the critical tour, for example, the space was being used for a lively religious service marking the abolition of slavery. This space presents an opportunity to promote civic participation and the exchange of ideas, and its use by residents must be encouraged.

Other participatory activities could provide open space to describe or illustrate how ones family came to Canada or is indigenous to Canada. Another option is to solicit feedback on municipal policies, such as the City of Toronto’s Youth Strategy, asking young people what their assets are and how the city could support them to improve their communities. This participation could be strategically linked to future opportunities to get involved with city planning and civic policy.

The visual economy of the front lobby of City Hall offers little in the way of information on civic participation. Only if one happens to ask will the front desk security guards provide a small, out-of-date guide to City Hall. Countless meetings may be going on in City Hall that affect everyday life, but they are very poorly promoted. At least in a movie theatre, visitors know about everything that is going on that day due to the presence of large digital display boards. As is the case in many community centers, a display board could be used to notify people of scheduled city and community meetings. Furthermore, tourism brochures should be complemented with actual information about the city and ways to get involved, including a prominently featured guide to City Hall that is youth-friendly and available in multiple languages.

As part of the democratic center of the city, the restaurant at City Hall should reflect democratic values rather than its current focus on market values of privatization and outsourcing. The equivalent of the TYC in Gatineau, Québec, for example, started a cooperative bistro as a reflection of the city’s democratic principles and a concrete illustration of the type of change the city is working towards. Similarly, the library should not be isolated from the other democratic functions of the building. It should also feature a prominent section on civic engagement as well as rotating community-created displays on the city’s social history.

Finally, in terms of the historical wall displays near the library and the artwork throughout the building, greater accuracy and representation is needed such that the history of City Hall does not begin with the construction of the actual building on the site, and the art does not consist merely of a quilt in the basement that presents a fairy tale version of relations between settlers and indigenous peoples.


Toronto City Hall must make strong efforts to be inclusive of traditionally marginalized groups, such as young people, in order to serve as a model of a democratic space where everyone feels welcome and participates in decision-making processes. The reasons for the under-representation of particular groups are rooted in histories of oppression, which, if ignored, only serve to reproduce exclusion and ignorance.

As a means of becoming a more youth- and resident-friendly space, Toronto City Hall should invite members of the community to participate in improving the building and its day-to-day functioning. Brainstorming sessions such as Citizen Hall are one of many possible starting points towards a larger ongoing discussion that must include all of the people of Toronto, and extend beyond Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square to include the organization of the city as a whole.

Ryan Hayes was a member of the Toronto Youth Cabinet from 2004 to 2008.

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