Ontario, phantom province

If there’s a province without the power to command allegiance, in which the provincial flag is seldom seen, and in which identity is abstract and unrooted, it is Ontario.

For those of us who grew up in Ontario, this aspect of ourselves is transparent and unseen, not apparent until we travel.  It’s in visiting Alberta and Quebec and Newfoundland that we discover that for most Canadians, provincial concerns, provincial culture, and provincial politics, come first.  To greater or lesser degrees, Albertans, Quebeckers and Newfoundlanders are also Canadians, but only in a less immediate, more peripheral way than they are Albertans, Quebeckers and Newfoundlanders.  While some Ontarians find provincial affiliation difficult to fathom, other Canadians must be puzzled by Ontario’s indifference to its own affairs and history.

What is Ontario?  Is there a provincial identity?

To Torontonians, Ontario is a metropolis surrounded on three sides by a hinterland of farms and towns, and beyond, wilderness.  This wilderness has an inner ring, useful for its cottage potential, and an outer ring, unimaginable in size and wildness, but apparently useful for resources to extract.  On the south, Torontonians face one of Ontario’s three inland seas.  Few, if any, people from Toronto have any knowledge of the immense watery world at their doorstep.

The rest of us are, if equally cool to the notion of provincial identity, less solipsist, more aware of the land.  We know fragments of landscape, places of lakes and shorelines, farms and roads and mailboxes.  We can summon images of hills and valleys tamed to crop and pasture in the south-west, as well as of the gruff, unyielding Shield and its dozen shades of green forest in the middle band of this oddly shaped province.  We’re aware of (though few have seen) an enormous taiga expanse in the north.  And we know some of the towns and cities, of course, with Toronto somehow at the edge of consciousness, its metropolitan authority and its presumptions felt everywhere.

But these are percepts and feelings, not imagined responses.  Ontarians inhabit a constituency, a legal entity.  But they do not – perhaps they cannot – imagine, and thus make real their province.

Blake and Coleridge reminded us that in order to truly apprehend the world, indeed to fully live in it, we must do more than apprehend it and reason about it.  We must imagine it.

Oddly, Ontario exists more in the imagination of outsiders, albeit an imagination undernourished by fact or actual experience, than it does in that of its inhabitants.  Many outsiders demonize Ontario, as rich, spoiled, over-confident and inconsiderate, kind of a fat lady with horns, taking up too much room on the sofa.  A song from Quebec puts it this way:  “Everywhere you go, people hate Ontario.”

Lack of a provincial identity gives Ontarians a funny understanding of Canada.  They don't understand that real power resides not in Ottawa, but in the provincial capitals.  Lacking a provincial culture, they look elsewhere for their gossip, their stories.  Ontarians think the soap opera in Ottawa is their story.

Ontarians are more-than-average ignorant of provincial affairs.  76% of Torontonians cannot name their MPP.  Ontarians think the word “provincial” pejorative, and (needless to say) inapplicable to their good selves.  In fact, Ontarians are not provincial, in my view – they lack the rootedness and the local knowledge that “provincials” have, as well as the cultural confidence that attends the provincials’ situated knowledge.  Nor are Ontarians as urbane, as worldly as they think are.  They are perhaps the only people in the world who tacitly believe they skip the provincial stage and somehow be “world class” . . . by virgin birth, so to speak.   Ca fait rêver.

The media, we know, don’t cover places that don’t exist.  Ontarians read more about current affairs in California and Afghanistan than they do about the goings on in their own provincial legislature, Queens Park.  Most Ontario newspapers have less than a half a page of provincial affairs coverage, and provincial issues seldom rate front-page treatment or serious analysis.  La Presse, by contrast, is dominated by provincial affairs.  As are the Edmonton Journal and the St. John’s Telegram.  Many Torontonians would see this as reflecting a lack of sophistication in Quebec, Alberta and Newfoundland.

While magazines that reflect and cater to a sense of provincial identity exist in other parts of Canada, Ontario doesn’t have one.  Reader’s Digest is our magazine, or Family Circle, or Forbes or Newsweek or Your Money or House and Garden . . . magazines without affiliation for people without affiliation.


Ontario, with a third of the national population, and almost half of the wealth, has few folk songs written about it.  Ontario cannot be said to carry a heavy freight of provincial myth, nor is it distinguished by its own psychic grammar.  When Newfoundlanders sang about the danger of confederation (the “Canadian wolf”), they surely were not referring to bland Ontario. 

Ontario, which consumes more fish sticks and canned spaghetti sauce than any other province, is not a wolf, nor is it a lamb.  Both animals carry too much mythic weight to connote the industrial machine, the brokerage politics, the place on the map, the fat biweekly paycheque, that is Ontario.

It may tell us something to note that the motto of Ontario, Ut Incepit Fidelis Sic Permanet – She Began Loyal; Loyal She Remains – is outward-looking, elsewhere-oriented.  As is the provincial flag, a mere ensign.

No provincial holiday is dedicated to things provincial, but a “Simcoe Day” has been suggested.  It would be appropriate:  John Graves Simcoe wasn’t born here, didn’t die here, and he spent less than a tenth of his life in Ontario, the province that would honour him.   The provincial “place” is Ontario Place, an arcade on stilts in Toronto, which is not a mere city, but a “world class place.”

Ontario, which has no founding date and had no centennial, celebrated a bicentennial because . . . well, because the government mandated it.

Ontario does not exist, because the people there live elsewhere, in other cartological planes, other psychological spaces.  In the bush, or by the highway.  Near the university.  Or close to work.  “Near Toronto,” or on the farm.  Or half-way through a mortgage.  But not in a place called Ontario. 

Does anyone live in Ontario?

Alice Munro’s people (“characters,” realists call them) come close, as do Bonnie Burnard’s.  Many of them come from “small-town Ontario.”  Some of Leacock’s people are recognizably Ontarian, though he called them Canadian.  Stan Rogers, who died tragically 1n 1983, helped, in a few of his songs, to invent a place called Ontario.  Sometimes an A.Y Jackson or a Tom Thomson conjures up a real Ontario.  Wonderful work, all of it, but not enough, it seems to reify the phantom.

If there were to be an Ontario, a real, felt and imagined place, what would it be, what would characterize it? 

I think it useful to look at the map.  More than any place I know, Ontario is defined by water.  Its boundaries include some of the world’s great waterways:  Hudson Bay, the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls, the rivers Ottawa and Saint Lawrence.  It’s heart is veined with historic rivers, the Missinaibi and the French, the Grand, the Madawaska and the Albany, fabled, aqueous places, places of imagination and memory. 

The cities and towns of Ontario have their genesis in riverside mills.  And the longest canals in the country are in this already river-blessed province.

The name Ontario comes from an Iroquois word meaning “beautiful waters.”  And yet somehow, Ontario seems so dry.  We’re landlubbers for the most part, inhabitants of a watery kingdom with landlocked imaginations.

Places are extensions of ourselves.  They exist only in the psychic and agronomic and spiritual investment we put into them.  Rome and Edinburgh, Quebec and Japan, Vermont and Newfoundland exist because the people who live there believe themselves to be, there, in a place they imagine a community to be.  The inhabitants imagine, as their ancestors imagined, a real, not imaginary, community. 

Until Ontario fulfils some basic need in our imagination, it won’t exist.  Until we imagine, invent, and inhabit a real Ontario, the province will remain a phantom, a reverse-Brigadoon, always visible, but not really there.

Copyright:  Jamie MacKinnon, 1989