A new festival is coming to Toronto next week, and it’s dedicated to the city’s history — with a twist. No snoozefests here: touted as “strange history for curious people,” attendees will get to learn about some of Toronto’s weirdest, wackiest, most bizarre history.
“It’s easier to get interested in a story that is unexpected and surprising,” author Adam Bunch, who is organizing the Festival of Bizarre Toronto History, says. “What better way to do that than by looking at some of the strangest stories that our history has to offer, so that you’re learning something deeply weird and unexpected? And also, hopefully, what it can teach us about the city and its history.”
Bunch, who wrote The Toronto Book of the Dead and The Toronto Book of Love, says that Toronto has earned itself a reputation of not taking its history very seriously. “Toronto started off as this British colony on what the British considered the edge of the world, but was actually home to Indigenous nations for thousands of years. And it was as far as possible from what the British considered the centre of the world, London,” he says. “And in more recent times, we’re next to the giant elephant that is the United States, which looks to New York City as the centre of the world. Toronto spends a lot of time comparing itself to these two cities, and as a result maybe think that everything interesting happens elsewhere.”
Bunch is hoping to challenge this narrative with the Festival of Bizarre Toronto History, and with a lofty goal — to help Torontonians learn to care for our city again. “Once you know those stories and that history, it becomes easier to care about this place and about making it a better place for people to live in the future. And the more you know about how it ended up this way, that gives you more power to know how to change it, what should be preserved, what should be reformed, and hopefully build a stronger, happier, more inclusive Toronto, armed with the stories that are entertaining and fascinating and illuminating, all at the same time.”
The strangest riot in Toronto history was sparked by a brawl between circus clowns and firefighters at a Victorian brothel.
— Adam Bunch (@TODreamsProject) March 28, 2023
The bizarre history is a good way into learning more about the city’s history as a whole, Bunch says. And with the lineup the festival has planned, you can see how anyone could get hooked on history. One segment looks at Toronto’s “Patty Wars,” when the Canadian government threatened to fine Jamaican patty vendors for calling their patties “patties” in 1985. Another looks at the Toronto circus riots that started at a King Street brothel in 1855. And one in-person event on the weekend will take attendees on a bizarre tour of Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
“There’s a new wave of current storytellers in Toronto doing a great job of sharing the city’s history, so it’s going to be great to bring them all together for one event,” Bunch says.
The festival is on from April 3-9, and you can find a full rundown of the schedule here and grab tickets to individual events or a pass for the entire festival.