Toronto has a self-esteem problem

Those popular ‘Toronto vs. Everybody’ shirts are caught in a copyright tussle with a Detroit brand. Why Toronto needs to take pride just in being itself

(Peace Collective)

(Peace Collective)

It’s easy to forget that Wednesday, Oct. 14—Game 5 of the American League Divisional Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers—was a night to rage about before it was a night to remember. A rule that no one had seen before in baseball being enacted on the Blue Jays in this decisive game was the latest in a long line of injustices levelled against Toronto’s sports faithful: Gretzky’s no-call high-stick against the Leafs in 1993, Vince Carter’s last-second shot bouncing cruelly off the rim in 2001, the 2013 Leafs bending then breaking despite a 4-1 lead in the third period.

So with no one informing them why a crucial run had been scored against them, the timing felt cosmically appropriate for Jays fans to show righteous outrage. And so the angry flinging began: detritus and cups, some empty, some not, crested over the upper deck and onto the lower deck, the field, even onto a child.

But the churlish energy that charged those raining beer cups was the feeling that everyone was out to get Toronto. It’s a feeling that evinces itself in sports when a call fails to go our way, a feeling when international city rankings show up and we don’t place on the podium, just a feeling that Toronto’s not being rightly respected. Some of the time, it’s justified. But most of the time, it’s not.

Shirts emblazoned with “Toronto vs. Everybody” have become the city’s statement-making wardrobe item of the season. Created by a Toronto-based business called Peace Collective, the shirts—inspired, says founder Yanal Dhailieh, by the Raptors’ “We The North” slogan—are hip, hewn in the slim sans-serif capital-letter fonts that are all the rage in Toronto; each purchase provides a child with a week’s worth of school meals with their partner Breakfast for Learning. The Blue Jays got on board, wearing the items themselves in the dressing room during their incredible postseason run; Peace Collective started selling the shirts like hotcakes. Toronto against the world? It feels like it. Why not?

All of this is good. Until it wasn’t.

Many in the hip-hop intelligentsia immediately recognized the expression from the raps of Detroit-based emcees like Eminem and Royce Da 5’9, who had been lacing the line in their lyrics ever since the song by that title, from this year’s Eminem mixtape Shady XV: 

Tell ’em if they want it, they can come get that (static)
I swear I love my city, I just want less (static)
See me, they salute me, they ain’t ready for that (static)
Detroit vs. Everybody

The song itself was inspired by Tommey Walker Jr.’s three-year-old clothing line, where emblazoned on the front, in a familiar sans serif, a phrase that had become an anthem for a broken city down on its luck: Detroit vs. Everybody.

Walker commented on the alleged plagiarism for the first time on Wednesday, telling Deadline Detroit: “These guys are scumbags. I’ve been in a battle with them for more than a year. We’ve sent a cease-and-desist letter.” (Update: Dhailieh sent Maclean’s the following comment: “Peace Collective is the owner of the registered Canadian trademark “TORONTO VS EVERYBODY” and any allegation of infringement by Mr. Walker or his counsel is, in our opinion, false. … We received Tommey Walker’s cease and desist a month ago and responded within 24 hours with our trademark and we never heard anything back. We took all the correct steps and were never notified and contacted again. Mr. Walker’s counsel has not contacted us in any way since we sent this letter and, as such, presumed that he had accepted our letter as a complete response to his cease and desist letter of September 4th of this year and that the matter was closed.”)

The issue is now being handled privately, with legal talks under way. But this imbroglio over embroidery is more than an issue of plagiarism. It speaks volumes about Toronto’s pervasive lack of self-esteem.

The sun sets over the Toronto skyline during the opening ceremony for the Pan Am Games, Friday, July 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The sun sets over the Toronto skyline during the opening ceremony for the Pan Am Games, Friday, July 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Toronto has long compared itself to international urban giants, rather than be content to compare itself to Canada’s cities; we want to be New York, instead of Toronto. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it’s also something of a zero-sum game; it’s hard to compete against America when you are, well, not in America. It’s these two combined things that can make it isolated: not big enough to compete in the World-Class City Olympics, yet not low-profile enough to measure itself up against other cities in Canada, so other non-Torontonians see it as big-headed, the “Centre of the Universe.” (Montreal, on the other hand, is fairly fret-free about its status.) Toronto is blessed to sit atop so many lists: The Economist named Toronto the best place in the world to live, and the safest city in North America; Metropolis Magazine named it the most liveable city in the world; global design firm Arcadis found Toronto to be the most sustainable city on the continent. (To see more, you can go to Toronto’s official website, where there is a “progress portal” collecting our international rankings, which could have also been named the “humblebrag hub.”) Exports from Toronto and our nearby environs are dominating pop culture, with Drake, the Weeknd and Stratford, Ont.’s Justin Bieber all sitting atop their respective genres (which makes the co-option of a slogan of Detroit’s scrappy hip-hop scene feel particularly rude).

Heck, sometimes Toronto is even right about everyone being against them; during the sixth game of the American League Conference series against Kansas City, Fox displayed an ad promoting a World Series featuring the Royals and the Mets—with two full innings remaining in the game. (As if to punctuate this point, folk hero José Bautista launched a game-tying home run not long after the ad was displayed.) And there’s no doubt that there were ruffled feathers when the international media cared about Toronto only as the prefix to “mayor Rob Ford’s antics.”

But other cities are wronged too, often in ways that matter more. Like, say, Detroit, just as an example. More than half of its children live in poverty, as do 38 per cent of its residents; it has the highest violent crime rate in America. Its unemployment rate, once sky-high, has settled somewhat, though that’s in part from a plunging population. The fact that Toronto imported a civic movement from a city where the forces against it are economic and deep-rooted makes this issue stink all the more. The borrowed slogan punches down—a change of pace from Toronto’s typical punch-up attitude.

Whatever happens to the legal fight over Peace Collective’s branding, it’s a perfect moment for Toronto to awaken to the fact that it deserves a civic movement all its own. Something that says something about who we are, rather than defining ourselves against what we are not. (For instance, with basketball season in full effect again, “We the North” ain’t so bad.)

There’s a thin-line difference between pride and insecurity. And this minor brouhaha highlights the fact that Toronto, more often than not, can’t tell the difference, as plainly as a print on a shirt.


Toronto has a self-esteem problem

  1. I think Toronto and its residents are quite happy & content with their status in the country and the world. But as someone who has traveled back & forth across this country regularly for years, I have come to the conclusion that the one thing that binds this nation together is a hatred of Toronto… most of it spewed by people who have never been here, never left their own little corner of the country, never actually sat down and thought about why they hate Toronto, never been asked to provide one speck of informed evidence as to why … they just do. It makes their lives easy. My feeling about the t-shirts is that rather than roll over and whine about this blind, uninformed opinion from the rest of the nation, Torontonians are basically embracing it … and saying F you ROC … we’re happy, we’re smart, we’re cool, we love our city … and we really don’t give a damn what you think. Or at least I hope that’s what we think … because it’s what I say when I listen to yet another snide comment from some yahoo in Vancouver… or Calgary … or god help us … Hog’s Breath, SK. Bring it on!

  2. Toronto is the 4th largest city in North America.

    Only Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles are bigger.

    So there is certainly no reason for them to have a self-esteem problem!

    And personally, I’ve never heard anyone express hate for Toronto

    • Gee, what a coincidence. I’ve rarely heard anyone outside of Toronto express anything to like about it.

      Toronto is one of those cities that is somehow the opposite of many in the Western world. It’s a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit there. Especially compared to Montreal, Vancouver, San Franciso, New Orleans, Cincinatti, Calgary, …… well we could be here for hours.

      (I’m not, of course, including American Tourists. They’re just shocked you can walk 10 city blocks in Toronto and not get stabbed or somethin)

      • Here’s a hint, cutie.

        Don’t hang out with bumpkins

        Maybe then you could talk properly.

      • ….Calgary, Cincinnati are better places to visit than Toronto?!?!! You’ve obivously only visited Woodbridge or Oshawa.

      • Name us one reason someone would want to visit Calgary … and btw … we’re talking Calgary … not Banff, not Jasper, or other nearby mountain destinations … just Calgary…

  3. It is really funny you somehow published the piecethis morning, just as Alex Anthopoulos was let go, and the impending doom of the Blue Jays. LOL. Well just add another log to the bon fire.

  4. This is such a ridiculous column. TORONTO vs EVERYBODY apparel is not self-loathing, but rather a statement of pride. Yes, the rest of Canada doesn’t like us much so we can take a bit of pride in that.

    And the writer is obviously oblivious to the civic pride movement in the city that has existed for some time. The fact that there is the Spacing Store — a retail outlet that sells only stuff about Toronto: clothing, housewares, books, etc — shows how out of touch this writer is.

  5. “We the North”… Come on. Toronto is north compared to New York, but it’s south of Portland (!), Seattle and Minneapolis and south of every other major cities in Canada. Torontonians need to look at a map once in a while.

  6. As someone living in Toronto and not from Toronto these shirts drive me crazy. I love the city, but these shirts are a perfect metaphor for everything wrong with the place. For all intents and purposes, TO is the centre of the Canadian Universe, but these shirts represent the whinny, entitled attitude some Torontonians have, that despite monopolising all national and international (media, sports, financial, etc.) attention they are somehow a disrespected little guy who needs to fight everything not Toronto. This city definitely does have a self esteem issue that other cities of its caliber don’t, and it needs to get over it because it truly is a wonderful city.

  7. Toronto’s problem is two fold: it wants to be considered the New York of the North and traditionally has been a suburb of Chicago.

  8. Toronto why would you want to be like New York? Just build on your own reputation. New York is over rated, over crowded, snobby, over priced, and dirty. I’m from Detroit, and while we are trying to rebuild our city to where it is not the kicking post of America, the last thing we want to become is another New York or Chicago. Reason is because we are not that kind of people. Even at its lowest point, people in metro Detroit are proud to be from here. So take pride in your city and be happy that you call it home.

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