Cosmopolis Toronto

Colin Boyd Shafer has been photographing Toronto’s multicultural life in a series dedicated to its worldwide inhabitants.

Toronto is regarded as one of the world’s most diverse places. In fact, more than half of its inhabitants are born outside of Canada. Living here, I challenged myself to photograph someone born in every country of the world.

Over a year and 195 people later, I have heard many incredible stories, from North Korea to Suriname, without ever having to leave the city.

Cosmopolis Toronto was crowdfunded and run by volunteers. I found my participants through word of mouth, connecting with community centres, chance encounters, media coverage, and borderline ‘stalking’ on social media. It wasn’t easy to find people from places like Tonga, but with a team of dedicated volunteers and hundreds of hours of research, we reached our goal.

The participatory aspect of the project is its real strength and I love the deep connection I have to everyone who was involved in it. My approach was different from a standard journalist’s; I tried to be a conduit which allows the person to tell their own story.

The photos uncover the urban ‘diversity within diversity’ and speak to the idea that a person is much more than their religion, ethnicity or country of birth. I made it clear to everyone who participated that they were not representing their country, but themselves – and telling their own story. This individuality is important, and often in Canada we use terms like African, Asian or White, avoiding any attempts to better understand an individual’s complexity.

Finally, the concept of ‘country’ will forever be complicated. I intended to stick with the basic framework of the United Nations’ 193 countries, but quickly started getting applications from people born in Scotland, Puerto Rico, Kashmir, Tibet etc. I made a judgment call to err on the side of inclusion, and told the stories of people born in these places. Ultimately, this project is about the power of individual stories.


Colin Boyd Shafer

Catalina didn’t know she was leaving Colombia until three days before her departure, giving her little time to say goodbye to friends. Her father was a victim of extortionists, and when he was unable to pay, his life was threatened, which prompted the family to flee the country. Catalina wanted to be photographed in her second home, Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. ‘This is where I found shelter and felt safe when feeling overwhelmed about being in Canada,’ she says.


Colin Boyd Shafer

Abdel Raouf was born in Palestine, but fled at 15, when the occupation was at its height. Initially he moved to Egypt, and then went on to Kuwait, now an engineer. While his family [a wife and five daughters] was visiting Turkey, he heard that the Gulf War had broken out in Kuwait and he had to make a quick decision; either return to Kuwait or go to a safer place. After living for a short while in Spain, he and his family were accepted into Canada. Abdel feels that it is Toronto’s open nature that makes it special: ‘it’s a place where one can cultivate a family while keeping one’s religion and culture.’

Sierra Leone

Colin Boyd Shafer

Mbalia’s family fled civil war in Sierra Leone and was accepted into Canada as protected persons under a UN resettlement programme. Now, Mbalia is extremely active, and it’s out exercising in Toronto’s parks where she feels most at home. “[Toronto] is home because the city’s multicultural fabric allowed me to seamlessly fit into the culture, while still retaining and appreciating my own history.’


Colin Boyd Shafer

Having dreamt of a career in dance, Yvonne submitted her university application after a friend persuaded her to at least apply to the programme she really wanted. Toronto, unlike Singapore, allowed Yvonne to ‘achieve the unlikely’ and become who she always thought she could be: a choreographer, presenter, curator, arts educator and artistic director.


Colin Boyd Shafer

Khydup is a writer, translator and illustrator of both traditional and modern children’s stories. He translates children’s stories into Tibetan – and he has even sent his books to Tibet to be distributed freely to schoolchildren. Canadian citizenship provided Khydup with something he calls a ‘rebirth,’ with the ability to serve humanity according to his ability and potential, which was not the case in Tibet. 


Colin Boyd Shafer

Alisi moved to Canada when she fell in love with Dennis, her future Canadian husband. Today, they live in Toronto, and their three children were born in Canada. After attending Georgina Learning Centre, Alisi is now a Personal Support Worker. Alisi is photographed in her sister Sosina’s house. Many amazing Tongan meals have been shared here and it is where Alisi and Sosina often reminisce about their childhood in Tonga. 


Colin Boyd Shafer

Arriving in Canada from Yemen, Kamal yearned for an open and free society that would accept him as a gay man. He says he feels safe here and that he belongs in Toronto where he doesn’t stand out in a crowd. “There are so many people from all over the world. No-one has any more right to Toronto than any other group,” he says. Here, he has managed to have a successful career as a journalist, academic and author in ways that wouldn’t be possible in other parts of the world. 


Colin Boyd Shafer

The Gulf War changed Hiba’s life. Her pregnant mother had no choice but to take her to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where her father later joined them. In spite of her young age, Hiba remembers waiting for citizenship in a refugee camp just outside of the country. When the family moved to Canada, Hiba remembers being fascinated with having a real home in Toronto, with real walls and a room of her own. ‘Toronto saved us. That is why it will always be my home.’

Colin Boyd Shafer is currently crowdfunding his next documentary series, the INTERLOVE project, focusing on interfaith relationships in Canada.

All photos copyright Colin Boyd Shafer.