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Cosmopolis wears Toronto's diversity on its booksleeve

The photographer poses at the Cosmopolis launch.

Elena, the author, represents Russia in the AGO.

Elena's scarf is a traditional l Pavlovo Posad worn by Russian babnuskhas.

Andrea, from the Congo, sits in his office.

Andrea displays a photograph of himself with his father, grandmother, and sister.

Martha, from Mexico.

Martha displays an early recording of her father's.

Ordinary people have extraordinary stories to tell. Two years ago, a photographer Colin Boyd Shafer embarked upon an ambitious project to photograph the world, one Torontonian at a time. Today, the newly-published “Cosmopolis Toronto: The World in One City” book brings the stories of all 195 project participants to print for the first time.

Each Cosmopolis project participant was photographed in the location where they felt most at home in Toronto, bringing along an object to hold onto that represented a connection with their past. The diversity of places and objects is staggering: from Scarborough to the Junction, from old recipe books to recordings, each photograph tells a story.

“Toronto is a great, amazing place. Even within the pages, you’ll see that not everyone has a super easy time moving here, finding friends, but Toronto is a pretty great city," Shafer says. "This book paints a very honest picture of what the city is like.”

Originally from Kitchener, Shafer didn’t know Toronto very well before moving here, after living in Malaysia and U.K. The project allowed him to get better acquainted with the city, and to become an advocate on its behalf. 

Cosmopolis' recent book launch was a way to bring people from the project together, everyone who followed it from its humble crowdfunding beginnings to print. At the book launch, several people from the project shared their stories about coming to Canada, mixing up languages. It was hot, sweaty and packed.

“The book launch was a beautiful evening. I loved it. When the project started, it was just something that lived online, and things online exist but at the same time they don’t; you can’t hold them in your hand. Now that there’s a book, as an object, I have my copy to share and to treasure,” says Martha (Mexico). “Living in such a multicultural city, it’s a privilege to be a person representing Mexico. I met amazing people from all around the world through this project.”

Martha moved from Mexico with her husband in a van, with their twin daughters, two pugs and a cat just a few years ago. Today, she works as a part-time professor at York University and teaches at the U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. Martha is also a published author in Spanish, and her award-winning novella The Wolf’s Mouth has been translated into English and published in Canada.

“Mexico City is a very vibrant city, but the population is very homogenous,” Martha says. "I tell my Mexican friends that I don’t have to travel far to get to know people from all around the world. Toronto is a special place for me, where I really learned to appreciate what the world is all about; you see it all around you.”

Meanwhile, “Cosmopolis Toronto: The World in One City” is going to a lot of different public libraries (the Toronto Public Library bought 24 copies) and centres working with newcomers. The TIFF Bell Lightbox will be selling copies in its giftshop as well.

“Cosmopolis Toronto brought people together, and kept the conversation about diversity going in a way that had substance,” Shafer says. “People in the project are not celebrities, they’re not models, but they’re worth talking to. I love that there’s a bit of a recognition for the fact that these people are special, just because they’re ordinary Torontonians. It put focus on people that normally wouldn’t have any spotlight. It’s hard to say without sounding cheesy, but everybody has got more of a story to tell than you can just see on the surface. This project gave me the ability to hear people’s stories and ask them personal questions. I was always surprised, intrigued. Our lives are complicated, and there’s something beautiful listening to people’s stories. Everyday people do have beautiful, interesting things to say and teach.”

Cosmopolis Toronto participants have been featured in the news in Toronto and beyond. (Full disclosure: I participated in this project and represented Russia; seeing my photo in The Globe and Mail weekend spread definitely felt a bit surreal). The National Film Board is making a short documentary based on the initiative, part of a global project on urban change; filming has already begun. The most recent edition of Jane’s Walk had Shafer trace the steps and places highlighted in the project, and featured some of the participants telling their stories to a large crowd that joined the walk. 

“These are the people would never have expected to be on the radio, to be in a book. I don’t think I could fully understand what it meant to some people,” says Shafer. ”It’s a moment to recognize that they’re in Toronto, they’re accepted, they’re connected with this new place.”

Andrea (Congo) is an accountant, working for an engineering firm in Brampton, and lives at Bathurst and St.Clair. Andrea was born in Congo and left it for Abidjan on the Ivory Coast, but because of the First Ivorian Civil War, Andrea’s family had to move again. He has lived in France and Tunisia, and in Toronto he finally feels at home.

“When I came Toronto, I didn’t know I would find a lot of people like me," says Andrea. "Different stories people shared, how a lot of people moved from one place to another, made me realize I wasn’t alone in this, in Toronto. I met great people I call friends today, because of this project, and I’m happy it is now a book that I can give as a gift.” says Andrea.

Andrea thinks that the multiculturalism of Toronto makes it unique in the world. "I enjoy the diversity of the city, because it’s like me. I am a diverse person with different experiences. You can just be who you are here, and nobody will judge you and you’ll still do very well.”

With more than half of Torontonians born outside of Canada, Toronto truly is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Countless people supported the Cosmopolis Toronto project every step of the way. While Shafer admits that finding 195 participants to represent each country wasn’t always easy, he stuck to his guns. All we really need to do, he says, is ask questions and listen to find diamonds in the rough.

“If we could all just take a bit of time and ask our grandma or neighbour what connects them to their past, and where they feel most at home, you can learn so much about each other, and have a great conversation,” he says. 
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