Year in Review: The biggest Toronto stories of 2020

A look back at the city's most important stories, plus a few inspiring cultural figures who kept our spirits up

Lakeshore Closure Toronto Active TO 2020 Samuel Engelking
Samuel Engelking

Cyclists took over Lake Shore West as part of the city’s ActiveTO program.

Toronto is nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the story that clearly defined 2020 and changed all our lives. The year is ending on an optimistic note, with vaccines beginning to roll out across Canada. But by most accounts the city has another nine months before most people will be immunized, meaning physical distancing, face masks and vigorous handwashing will continue to be a part of our every day routines. 

The pandemic has killed more than 1,700 Torontonians (and counting), brought record unemployment, and sharpened the housing crisis and income disparity. It also gave rise to virtual events, brought back drive-ins, introduced us to social distancing circles and changed the way we work and, in some cases, where we live. 

This year there were also widespread street protests against police brutality, anti-Black racism and Indigenous blockades over treaty rights. In our final issue of the year, we look back at the most important news events, plus some inspiring people who kept our spirits up in an unforgettable year.

Empty grocery store aisles were a common sight after Toronto locked down in mid-March

Toronto goes into lockdown

“This is not a provincial shutdown,” Premier Doug Ford said in declaring a state of emergency on March 17. The same day, a 77-year-old Barrie man became the first person in the province to die from COVID-19. A few days later, non-essential businesses were ordered closed in what would amount to a 14-week lockdown in Toronto. People emptied store shelves of toilet paper, Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer in a frenzy of panic buying. COVID-19 initially spread via air travel and then ravaged long-term care homes, with one in five in Ontario reporting an outbreak. Daily press conferences from all levels of government became routine, as people read up on disinfecting groceries. The first wave peaked in mid-April, but life in Toronto was very different: TTC blocked off seats for social distancing and the city fenced off cherry blossom trees and installed a “bloom cam” in High Park. Face masks became mandatory in indoor spaces. Bylaw inspectors patrolled parks to ensure people who don’t live together were staying two metres apart. The city shut down major roads like Lake Shore, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to get outside and keep a distance. COVID-19 became the second-leading cause of death after cancer, killing 7,575 Canadians between March and early June. Kevin Ritchie

Unemployment skyrockets during COVID

Before COVID-19 hit, Canada’s unemployment rate was at a little over five per cent. By May, the unemployment rate was over 13 per cent, but has since fallen to 8.5 per cent in November, according to Statistics Canada. At the height of the first wave, Toronto’s unemployment rate hit 11 per cent, with 539,000 jobs lost. With more than a million people out of work, the government offered the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit for anyone who had become unemployed as a result of COVID-19. Recipients of CERB received $2,000 a month until September, and while critics of the benefit program said it still wasn’t comprehensive enough, it brought up an important conversation about building a stronger social safety net in Canada. The country is still 574,000 jobs short of restoring the three million jobs lost when lockdown measures hit in the spring. Julia Mastroianni

Nick Lachance

COVID sparks a rent rebellion

Issues around tenants rights and rent relief in the city sharpened once COVID-19 hit. The Ontario government ordered a moratorium on evictions in March, around the same time that tenant organizers and advocates began encouraging tenants to keep their rent and called for a complete ban on evictions for the rest of the pandemic. They argued that once the moratorium lifted, tenants all over the province would be faced with impossible debt due to missed rent and the looming threat of evictions. And they were right: once the moratorium lifted and the thousands of eviction applications submitted by landlords could be processed, an eviction “blitz” began. The Ford government’s Bill 184 enshrined rent repayment plans in law, but advocates argue it also expedited the eviction process. The Landlord and Tenant Board started processing 8,000 self-described “express eviction blocks” per month after the bill passed in the summer. JM

Samuel Engelking

Two people have a socially distanced conversation by the beach as lockdown eases

Working from home is the new norm  

Before March 2020, only the self-employed, freelance or contract workers got to do it. But soon enough, even regular office workers learned how to remote into their work stations from the comfort – or in some cases, chaos and disorder – of their homes. Sure, it took a bit of time to figure out where to set up that work station, how to turn on the mic and camera for Zoom meetings (and mute them) and how to achieve some sort of work-life balance. And it sucked not having in-person water-cooler moments with co-workers. But hundreds of thousands of us realized we saved time by not commuting. And now, once we figured out our bandwidth situation and set up a decent lighting system, we’re all intimately acquainted with Zoom, Houseparty, Facetime, Hoppin and other video chat programs. Glenn Sumi

Bylaw officers ask a couple who can’t produce ID proving they live together to leave Trinity Bellwoods Park. Hanging out less than two metres from someone you don’t live with in a public park was against the rules in April.
Nick Lachance

Bylaw officers ask a couple who can’t produce ID proving they live together to leave Trinity Bellwoods Park. Hanging out less than two metres from someone you don’t live with in a public park was against the rules in April.

Toronto goes back outside

In a summer in which the safest way to socialize with friends and family was outdoors, people across the city rediscovered a lesser-known Toronto slogan: “A city within a park.” With public safety advice changing from “stay indoors” to “go outside but be safe,” the city’s green spaces filled with life. Six-feet-apart gatherings formed in parks, people sipped wine (some bought from takeout restaurants) or exercised, and brought their children together. Well-earned social shaming also greeted photos of a packed Trinity Bellwoods, which later got painted with social distance circles, and cops sent misdirected warnings or public drinking tickets. It reminded us the city has a hard time both loosening up and not going overboard. But for a short time there, it felt like we had finally found our outdoor vibe. Richard Trapunski

Nick Lachance

Indigenous rights fight blockaded

Before the coronavirus invaded our lives, 2020 was shaping up to be a year like no other for Indigenous rights in Canada. The Wet’suwet’en’s decade-long fight against pipeline development in their traditional territories in northern BC was once again in the news after the RCMP sent in heavily armed troops to arrest land defenders. Protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en swept across the country, but this time rail lines were blocked and the wheels of major parts of the economy slowly ground to a halt. For a few weeks, the issue of Indigenous self-determination captured the attention of average Canadians. But COVID-19 would soon take over the airwaves and Canada’s troubled relationship with its Indigenous peoples would again take a back seat. A flurry of racially charged and highly publicized incidents involving the RCMP would serve to remind Canadians that, more than a year after a national inquiry concluded Canada continues to engage in genocide against its Indigenous peoples, things haven’t gotten much better. Enzo DiMatteo

Juneteenth SitIn Toronto June 19 2020 Samuel Engelking
Samuel Engelking

Activist group Not Another Black Life organized a sit-in outside police headquarters on June 19

Anti-Black racism movement arrives at its moment of truth 

The violent police killing of George Floyd in the U.S. in late May sparked anti-police backlash around the globe. And historically strained relations between Toronto police and the city’s Black communities would also be thrust in the spotlight under tragic circumstances with the incomprehensible death only days later of Regis Korchinski-Paquet from the 14th floor of a High Park Avenue apartment building. Her death would give way to pent-up anger and protests in the streets and raise old questions about police brutality and the failure of decades of police reforms when it comes to dealing with people in distress. It also gave rise to a new wave of activism in the anti-Black racism movement started by Black Lives Matter almost a decade earlier and has given voice to a new generation of young activists that are not going away. EDM

Samuel Engelking

Hospital workers take a break from the frontline COVID fight.

The plight of frontline workers

Torontonians banged pots and pans to cheer on doctors and nurses risking safety on the frontlines of COVID-19 at hospitals and long-term care homes. The city mobilized to donate meals to keep health-care workers’ spirits up, an effort that doubled as a way to support food providers. But some recipients, like Toronto nurse Sarah Mattok, later spoke to press about those efforts, appreciating the gesture but explaining there are vulnerable people who could use the support more. As the second wave has shown, frontline and essential workers at grocery stores and factories, and who statistics show come from multi-generational homes in racialized areas, continue to be hit hardest by the virus. Due to socioeconomic factors, these communities are drastically over-represented among COVID-19 cases. Governments must address these structural factors if we’re going to beat COVID-19. Radheyan Simonpillai

The continuing crisis in long-term care 

Who could forget the sight of Doug Ford getting weepy as the coronavirus was ravaging long-term care facilities across the province. The premier shared his own stories of loss. Heaven and earth would be moved, no expense would be spared, he said, to provide the best health care money could buy for our elderly. In reality, however, not much has improved. Elderly people continue to die because of COVID-19 and frontline workers are still being exposed to danger. Improvements that have been won have had to be ordered by a judge after the province was taken to court. The way we warehouse the elderly has long been a national shame. Personal care workers now leaving the profession in large numbers have known for a long time. Politicians are still playing catch-up. EDM

Samuel Engelking

Moss Park encampment, December 2020.

Homeless encampments take over parks

Encampments were a regular site in Toronto, but spread to public parks as the pandemic bore on. With less shelter space available due to physical distancing requirements, reported virus outbreaks within the shelters and a higher demand for temporary housing services, many without housing say they feel safer living outside. But the city has taken issue, citing bylaws that don’t allow people to reside in public parks overnight and fire hazards. Emergency crews were called to 226 encampment fires in 2020 as of December 7. But housing advocates and encampment residents continue to fight against evictions, noting that the city does not have enough safe alternatives for the hundreds of people currently sleeping outside on a given night. JM

The forgotten overdose epidemic 

Canada was in the throes of another public health crisis before the coronavirus became a health emergency. Only, it was mostly flying under the radar until activists took it upon themselves to pitch tents in public parks and do what governments – in particular the Ford government – refused to do; provide overdose prevention services for people dying in the streets from lethally tainted drug supplies. While the coronavirus has hit Toronto’s most marginalized hardest, those facing the double stigma of homelessness and drug addiction have been particularly exposed to its ravages. The numbers tell the tale. Between April 1 and September 30, some 132 people in Toronto lost their lives due to a suspected opioid overdose. Not a large number by COVID standards, but it’s nearly double those who died of an overdose from the same period in 2018 and 2019. The number of fatal calls to 911 from overdoses has almost doubled in 2020. The city has responded by piloting virtual and phone-based supervised consumption services, among other measures. But the Board of Health estimates that the opioid death toll could reach 2,200 this year. The glimmer of hope is that calls from medical officers of health and chiefs of police to decriminalize simple possession of all drugs is gaining momentum.  EDM

Courtesy of Toronto Public Health

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa.

Eileen de Villa becomes a household name

Obsessively checking the latest COVID-19 public health indicators has become a pass time for many in 2020. With governments releasing large blocks of data and, until recently, holding daily press conferences, public health officials became the ones who contextualize and humanize the statistics. Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa is now a household name, her concise communications providing contrast to the off-the-cuff style of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams. She’s remained calm in the face of criticism from business leaders, housing activists and other medical experts, and, at times, ability to take swift action in key moments has been hampered by the province’s tight grip on municipalities. Our governments have largely avoided the squabbling that quickly derailed the American response to coronavirus, but the pandemic has made plain how the divisions of governmental powers leave Toronto at a disadvantage. KR

The Toronto exodus 

For people not on the frontlines, the pandemic made working from home a necessity. And since everything that made Toronto what it was – the restaurants, the shops, the sports events, the live music, theatre and comedy – was largely put on pause, why pay exorbitant rents and mortgages for tiny spaces? No wonder thousands of people have left the cramped city for greener (and cheaper, and more spacious) pastures, making the local condo market plummet and causing changes to short-term rental agreements. Only question: how will the city lure those who left back when things go back to normal? GS

Samuel Engelking

We Stand hold a rally against anti-Black racism at Nathan Phillips Square on June 9.

Kayla Grey takes on racism in the Canadian media

The police killing of George Floyd in the U.S. led to a major reckoning in Canadian media around how issues dealing with race are covered, and who is providing the coverage. Entertainment reporter Ika Wong, culture writer Kathleen Newman-Bremang and journalist Pacinthe Mattar are among the women of colour who spoke out about traumatizing experiences in Canadian media. And Kayla Grey stood in the eye of the storm. She’s the first Black woman to anchor a national sportscast on TSN, facing an audience that typically defends Don Cherry. Grey didn’t flinch from taking a strong stand on stories about social justice, from the bodycam footage of a security guard manhandling Raptors president Masai Ujiri to the way basketball players refused to just “shut up and dribble” following Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murder, to her own colleagues’ “well-intentioned” use of the n-word while covering racism. The trolls came after her, and Grey stood her ground, creating a powerful video in her own words that were published on TSN, asking, “Where can we be Black?” RS

The first COVID-19 vaccine in Ontario administered in Toronto in December 2020
Courtesy of UHN

Long-term care worker Anita Quidangen receives the first COVID-19 vaccine injection in Ontario.

Lockdown part 2, the death of truth and a vaccine

In the early spring, as Donald Trump was making a colossal mess of the U.S.’s COVID response – and sowing the seeds of a misinformation campaign about the virus – Canada was busily flattening the curve. We basked in the feeling of a job well done. But a summer marked by the loosening of lockdown restrictions has given way to U.S.-style COVID fatigue and anti-mask protests outside the premier’s Etobicoke house to decry lockdown measures. In Ottawa, meanwhile, the debate over the Liberals’ handling of the pandemic has turned into a game of truth or dare. Which is to say, the Conservatives can’t seem to tell the truth in the matter at the same time as they’re daring to force an election. The sneering reached a new low last week with Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole mocking the Liberals’ vaccine efforts. Well, the vaccine has arrived. But there’s no telling how low Conservatives will go as the party models its COVID response increasingly after Trump. EDM

Nick Lachance

Small businesses pushed for commercial rent relief, saying that the Canada Emergency Business Account aid program was coming up short.

A new “Support local” movement

What will Toronto look like when COVID-19 is over? Restaurants, music venues, bars, stores and more have endured multiple lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions. Many have shut down. Government rent and wage relief programs helped, but some had trouble accessing support due to inconsistent eligibility requirements or landlord-dependent application processes. Businesses across the city, from big chains to mom-and-pop shops, have shifted to e-commerce. But the deck is stacked for tech giants like Amazon and Uber Eats, which tend to profit off of or compete against smaller businesses. Efforts to regulate commissions on delivery apps and create local online marketplaces have coincided with a new “shop local” movement heading into the new year. We just hope there will still be local places to shop. RT

Samuel Engelking

Toronto R&B duo dvsn performed seven sold-out shows at CityView Drive-In in 2020. Drive-in concerts will likely return this summer.

The biggest Toronto culture stories of 2020

Events go virtual and drive-ins return

Now that we’ve been in pandemic mode for nine months, it’s hard to remember how novel this all felt at the beginning. Encouraged to stay home as much as possible, we learned new ways of staying social while physically apart. There were no in-person parties, but there were hot virtual clubs like Club Quarantine, which quickly became a queer Toronto institution. Livestream shows evolved from acoustic-guitar-in-front-of-webcam to fully produced plays and concerts from the city’s otherwise dark stages. Big festivals like Pride and Caribbean Carnival went virtual. TIFF, Inside Out, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and R&B group dvsn organized drive-in screenings and concerts. And we all started hanging out and drinking on Zoom, doing things like book clubs, yoga and pub trivia with each other’s Brady Bunch-squared faces. Now you’re probably feeling the Zoom fatigue. But imagine if this pandemic happened 20 or 30 years ago. RT

The memes that made us

During the first lockdown in the spring, we turned to our phones to get us through. Aside from doomscrolling, social media stars like Donté Colley helped us pass the monotonous days. His uplifting and motivational dance videos were a welcome reprieve. Everyone and their mother tried viral Tik Tok dance challenges like Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage or Cardi B and Megan’s WAP. Memes are always the bread and butter of the internet but this year memes were universal inside jokes that kept our spirits high. The fly on Mike Pence’s head during the vice presidential debate; “everything is cake” where what looked like a bar of soap would be cut in half and turn out to be cake; and of course, Nathan Apodaca cruising down the highway, cranberry juice in hand, blasting Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, motivating thousands of copycats, including Jagmeet Singh.  Kelsey Adams

Toronto drag queen Priyanka triumphed on the first season of Canada’s Drag Race.

Priyanka wins Canada’s Drag Race

Arts and culture took a hit as the worst financial crisis in generations set in. One of the few major distractions was Canada’s Drag Race, which aired on Crave between COVID waves in the summer months. The Canadian version of RuPaul’s star-making reality TV machine gave us a bit of escapism, and when former NOW cover star Priyanka claimed the crown, cheers from the Church-Welleslley Village reverberated in the surrounding condos. The celebrations didn’t last, as the bar that fostered Priyanka’s career, Crews & Tangos, struggles to survive amid gentrification and the pandemic. That prompted a memorable exchange between Queen Pri and the area’s city councillor on Twitter. And then COVID began infecting the Canada’s Drag Race cast as they embarked on a drive-in tour. Reality TV, indeed. KR

Dan Levy and Schitt’s Creek blow up

When the co-creator and co-star of Schitt’s Creek ended the CBC sitcom after six seasons, he did it by sending his character, David Rose, back home to New York City a profoundly changed man. “It’s something that I wished that I had at some point in my life,” Levy told NOW in April. “The ability to just extract myself, reprioritize, and then be reintroduced back into society a better person.” Levy committed himself to allyship in 2020, signing up for a 13-week course in Indigenous studies at the University of Alberta and encouraging his fans to join him. The Emmy sweep was nice, but this seems more important, somehow. Norman Wilner

Read More

The 25 best TV shows of 2020

Seven food trends from 2020 we want to stick around

The 10 best Toronto albums of 2020

10 Toronto stage sensations from 2020

The 10 best books of 2020

The best movies of 2020


NOW writers Kelsey Adams, Radheyan Simonpillai, Glenn Sumi and Norman Wilner discuss the stories of the year on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

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One response to “Year in Review: The biggest Toronto stories of 2020”

  1. Re: “Anti-Black racism movement arrives at its moment of truth” …

    Although research reveals infants demonstrate a preference for caregivers of their own race, any future racial biases generally are environmentally acquired.

    One way of rectifying this bias is by allowing young children to become accustomed to other races in a harmoniously positive manner.

    Adult racist sentiments, however, are often cemented by a misguided yet strong sense of entitlement, perhaps also acquired from rearing.

    Fortunately, at a very young age I was emphatically told by my mother about the exceptionally kind and caring nature of our Black family doctor.

    She never had anything disdainful to say about people of color; in fact she loves to watch/listen to the Middle Eastern and Indian subcontinental dancers and musicians on the multicultural channels.

    Conversely, if she’d told me the opposite about the doctor, I could’ve aged while blindly linking his color with an unjustly cynical view of him and all black people.

    Dad, who like Mom emigrated from Eastern Europe, didn’t resent non-white immigrants, for he realized they had things at least as bad as he. Plus he noticed—as I also now do—in them an admirable absence of a sense of entitlement.

    Thus essentially by chance I reached adulthood unstricken by uncontrolled feelings of racial contempt seeking expression.
    Not as lucky, some people—who may now be in an armed authority capacity—were raised with a distrust or blind dislike of other racial groups.

    Regardless, the first step towards changing our irrationally biased thinking is our awareness of it and its origin.
    But until then, ugly sentiments must be either suppressed or professionally dealt with, especially when considering the mentality is easily inflamed by anger.

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