July 2004: Views From a Drive-through City


Views from a drive-through city


6 July 2004 – Toronto Star
Star reporter Morgan Campbell takes you on a tour of his home city, the world’s biggest small town.
When I went away to university, I learned I had no hometown. 

At 18, I enrolled at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. (Evanston is to Chicago what Mississauga is to Toronto, except with older homes and a wider gap between rich and poor). Students at that school came from across the U.S. and around the world, and when you met somebody they always had two questions – “What’s your major?” and “Where are you from?”

After answering the first question I’d enlighten them on the second.

“I’m from Mississauga, Ontario,” I would say.

Blank stare.

“Mississauga, Ontario. Right next to Toronto.”

Vacant gaze.

“In Canada.”

“Oh, you’re from Canada. You should have just said so. Canada. Alanis Morissette and all that. Now, which providence do you live in? Do you speak French?”

Occasionally I would meet somebody from Detroit or Buffalo – people who grew up within driving distance of Toronto – and I’d see a faint glimmer of recognition in their eyes when I mentioned Mississauga.

I was born in North York but raised in a townhouse complex on a quiet street in the northwest corner of Mississauga. Streetsville to be exact. My complex sat right next to the border with Meadowvale, another Mississauga borough.

But I couldn’t expect any American to know that. The typical response to any mention of Mississauga went something like this:

“I’ve heard of Miss-iss-ah-gwa,” the person might say.

“I think I drove through it on my way to Toronto.”

And that’s what Mississauga is, really.

For both Canadians and Americans, it’s a prelude to Toronto. It’s a place where you fuel up before finishing your road trip into the city. It’s the first place you see when you step off the plane – Pearson Airport is, after all, in Malton.

It’s the sixth-largest city in Canada, but it’s not a place you spend much time in unless you’re one of the roughly 624,000 people who happen to live there.

Mississauga’s population would make it the 20th-largest city in the U.S. More people live in Mississauga than within the city limits of Boston, Denver or Seattle. But while most cities even half Mississauga’s size have a host of suburbs, Mississauga is a suburb itself, overshadowed by Toronto, with no identity of its own.

And that lack of identity can trickle down to children growing up there. We didn’t have our own pro sports teams to cheer for – even Hamilton has the Tiger Cats – so we adopted Toronto’s squads.

Same went for the media. Hamiltonians had CHCH to bring them local news and let them know their city was unique. Folks in Barrie had CKVR.

In Mississauga we watched Toronto stations and hoped for the best. Even our university – once known as “Erindale College” – is a regional campus of the University of Toronto.

If you were an outstanding high school athlete, you could hope to have your exploits written up in one of the Toronto newspapers. But you also knew that unless you set some type of record, the kid from Central Tech or Northern or Eastern Commerce would draw more attention from the media.

It was understood. Mississauga was the minor league.

Besides Square One mall and the Living Arts Centre, what distinguishes Mississauga from other Toronto suburbs? What’s left for someone to be proud of as he or she comes of age?

The four towering smokestacks at the Lakeview Generating Station? How’s that for a landmark? Or what about the underground stream that spills out onto Mississauga Rd., just south of Dundas St. W.? Or Britannia Rd. between Hurontario and Creditview, a five-km stretch of road that contains three Tim Hortons (with a Krispy Kreme on Mavis Rd., just south of Britannia).

Doesn’t that make Mississauga unique? I bet no other spot in North America has a higher density of doughnut shops. That’s special.

Now, understand I love my hometown. But for a such a big city, we’re frighteningly small-time, and so growing up there you can’t help but feel a little small-time yourself.

One day a few months ago I looked up the Mississauga News online. The top news story was about yard sales.

Yes, yard sales.

No wonder people outside Mississauga tend to forget the city even exists.

The folks at Northwestern’s athletic department had a tough time remembering.

I played on Northwestern’s football team, and if you could unearth a game day program from that time, you’d see my hometown listed as “Ontario, Canada.” At first I thought the people printing the programs were simply ignorant about Canadian geography. But then I’d look at our opponents’ rosters and see other Canadian players’ hometowns – places like Brampton, London and Oakville – listed correctly.

Only Mississauga was singled out for omission. And I guess it’s easy to miss, all tucked away down there, bigger than Boston.

It can be tough on a teenager, growing up in a 600,000-resident non-city. You can develop an inferiority complex (compared with Torontonians) that can follow you into adulthood.

I can’t tell you how many girls I knew in high school who vowed they would never date guys from ‘Sauga (although maybe they just didn’t want to date me). Toronto guys were more exciting and sophisticated, they reasoned.

And back then, they were probably right. Kids in the city set the trends; we in the suburbs chased them.

And even now, as my peers and I deal with careers, marriages and mortgages, Mississauga’s status hasn’t changed much. Dismissed as remote by friends who move to the city, and maligned as expensive by buddies who flee to Brampton and Milton, Mississauga remains a city to skip over on your way someplace else.

But I’ve stayed put. When I returned to Canada four years ago, I came back to Mississauga. And when I finally get around to buying a condo, I probably won’t shop west of Winston Churchill Blvd. or east of the 427.

Mississauga may be the world’s biggest non-city, but it’s my non-city.

And if I ever have kids, it’ll be their non-city, too. The ‘Sauga will continue.


Copyright ©2004 Toronto Star


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