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The GTActivity project: a view from across the Atlantic

As an international researcher on the GTActivity project, my location in the United Kingdom allows a distinct perspective on the physical cultural activities of minority ethnic communities in Toronto and its environs. Alongside my interest in the cultures, practices and spaces of sport and leisure in the city per se, my geographical and analytical distance from the research site makes thinking about comparisons with places with which I am more familiar irresistible. What might we expect to find if a similar project was undertaken, say, in London? Or in smaller urban hubs of migration and multiculture, like the cities of Birmingham or Leicester in the English Midlands, where I lived some years ago? Moreover, what happens in “new/er” spaces of multiculture, such as the countryside or the coast? I am sure that much would be the same and much would be different. Thinking through these sorts of comparative questions is fundamental to a relational sociology that is attentive to context, time and scale. In short, my curiosity is driven by a concern to map and explore the “larger picture” of physical activity in the Greater Toronto Area yet to retain a focus on the distinctiveness of place, thus ‘guard[ing] against the provincialism of the particular, while paying local circumstances careful attention’ (Back and Keith 2014: 20).

Making sense of diversity: How the GTActivity research team is creating categories of physical culture

There has been much debate among philosophers, sociologists and historians of sport over how to define what constitutes a “sport” versus a game or physical activity. Traditional definitions of sport usually dictate that a sport must be physical, competitive, institutionalized (i.e., possessing standardized rules and regulatory bodies), and motivated by the attainment of both internal and external rewards.[i]  While this understanding of sport is influential, it creates a very narrow understanding of what constitutes a sport and risks ignoring many other forms of physical activity—such as dances, martial arts, or unstructured play and games—that do not easily fit this idealized definition.

In contrast to this strict definition of sport, sociologists Jay Coakley and Peter Donnelly offer an alternative way of examining various physical activities and their cultural meanings. They suggest that asking “what activities do people in a particular group or society identify as sports?” and “whose sports count the most in a group or society when it comes to obtaining support and resources?” will allow “researchers to dig into the social and cultural contexts in which people form ideas and beliefs about physical activities.”[ii] This approach allows us to examine various forms of physical activities as they are understood and practiced by people in specific cultural contexts around the world, and to recognize that their forms and meanings are not static, but are constantly being shaped and re-shaped by humans.

GTActivity: Monument to Multiculturalism

Union Station lies at the very heart of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), but many residents may not realize that this well known statue, outside the station on Front Street, is called Monument to Multiculturalism.

The station is the busiest transportation facility in Canada, serving over 250,000 passengers a day. Most of those passengers are from the GTA – Halton, Peel, York and Durham regions as well as Toronto itself.

The GTA covers an area of over 7,000 km2 and has a population of over 6 million people.1 Approximately half of those people were not born in Canada, and approximately half of them (not the same half) are not of European heritage.

Monument to Multiculturalism was designed and produced by Italian sculptor, Francesco Perilli, and donated by the Italian community in 1985 to celebrate Toronto’s sesquicentennial. 

Toronto/the GTA is considered to be one of the most multicultural communities in the world. It is this diversity that Perilli’s statue celebrates. A plaque at the foot of the statue tells the story of Canadian multiculturalism by citing Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s (our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau’s father) Official Statement on Multiculturalism, given in the House of Commons in 1971: