The first things I noticed about Toronto were the moose. Moose amid the skyscrapers of the Bay Street financial district. Moose in the entrance to both the overpriced hotels and the backpackers' hostels. A moose on a diving board above the City Hall's fountain. Bride-and-groom moose in front of a boutique selling crystal, china and Wedgwood. A golden moose welcoming patrons to the Zanzibar lap-dancing club.
Not real moose, I hasten to add - now that would have been surreal and entertaining - but fibreglass moose, some multi-coloured, some with murals of city landscapes, vines and flowers, or flags of the world, even a couple in basic brown. Hundreds of moose at £2,800 each, in a city that is cutting funding for shelters for the homeless. Perhaps those who live on the streets can drape blankets over them for the night.
Apparently, Toronto is having a major identity crisis. The Globe and Mail, the city's best newspaper, has been running a series of articles on the collapse of culture. Failure to build an opera house, the decline of the National Ballet, the collapse of a leading theatre company, financial troubles for the symphony orchestra, and the temporary closure of the Art Gallery of Ontario: all these have left Toronto struggling behind "one-industry rust-belt burgs like Pittsburgh and" - gasp! - "Birmingham in England". "Canada's largest city is in trouble," the paper warns, "and, in a global era, it means trouble for Canada."
My temptation is to attribute this anguish to a Canadian fear of being taken over by the Great Neighbour to the South. For the uninitiated, first impressions are not reassuring. Entering the city centre on the shuttle bus (Toronto wins no points for not extending its underground to the airport), you are pulled into the maw of glass-fronted skyscrapers housing banks, insurers and telecommunications companies; small concrete squares with token trees deprived of light; and the cloned high-rise hotels covering all their bases by flying the Stars and Stripes and Union Flag as well as the Canadian flag. No different, really, from any aspiring US city of the new millennium.
Here the new has swallowed the old. As the giant syringe called the CN Tower jabs into nothing, the art deco of the Royal York Hotel cowers beneath the high-rises. The Trinity church of 1847, flanked by the Marriott Centre, a large shopping mall, and office blocks, would go unnoticed if it was not on the way to the 18-screen Cineplex.
But first impressions are misleading. Beyond downtown, another city emerges: churches with spires oxidised green; imposing structures such as the dark-red brick of the old Hospital for Sick Children; the solace of Queen's Park, undisturbed even by the imperial statue of Edward VII on horseback. It is a multicultural city, not of ethnic pockets, but with a mix of people everywhere you wander, defying the caricature of Canadian blandness.
No, Toronto's problem isn't a US cultural subversion accompanying the North American Free Trade Agreement. Nor, at least from the perspective of Torontonians, is it division between Ontario and Quebec. Memories of the tensions in 1995, when the Francophone province almost voted for independence, are suitably distant, with only a single billboard reminding the Quebec premier, Lucien Bouchard, that "Freedom of language is a right everywhere in Canada".
The issue of separatism could easily be revived but, right now, there are more immediate issues. The Canadian economy, after a protracted recession in the first half of the 1990s, is bouncing back. Last year, the Ontario economy grew 5.7 per cent, Canada's 4.5. There has been a shift from low-tech to high-tech industries, doubling the number of billionaires. Markets for Canada's raw materials, such as oil, natural gas and timber, are buoyant.
Yet even a newcomer dazzled by those lakefront skyscrapers can see that many people aren't sharing in the wealth. The statistics are stark enough - in the past five years, inequality of income, after tax and support payments, has risen by 10 per cent - but the first-hand evidence is more telling.
Five years ago, both native Torontonians and transplanted Americans tell me, there were no signs of homelessness; now you can't walk 100 yards down a main corridor such as Yonge Street, or ride the underground, without meeting residents of the streets, some repeating a ritual plea for change, others mute, a significant minority talking loudly to themselves. Reprising London's Waterloo of the 1980s, cardboard villages are being established in underpasses on the lakefront.
With budget cuts eroding full-time jobs, nurses either work a series of part-time shifts or move to the United States to look for a secure post. Select medical services are ebbing away; for example, 200 of 1,700 severely disabled children in Ontario receive specialist care.
Teachers coping with ever larger class sizes now face the prospect of compulsory (and unpaid) after-hours supervision of children's activities; supply "teachers" are in the classroom with no training, let alone certification.
"New" universities are restricted to their old bases of technical education; whether you attend them or their long-established counterparts such as the University of Toronto, it will cost you £2,800 each year, and up to £8,000 if you seek a specialised discipline such as medicine or law. Ontario MPs will vote themselves a 33 per cent pay rise this year, while the minimum wage, unchanged since the early 1990s, remains at £3.30 an hour.
Part of the responsibility must lie with the national government and the Canadian version of federalism. In this system, social provision such as housing, education and healthcare is in the jurisdiction of provincial administrations, but some of the financial support comes from federal revenue from taxation and other sources. Soon after its accession to national power in 1993, the Liberal Party and the prime minister, Jean Chretien, passed the buck - or, rather, didn't pass the bucks - when they cut transfer funding to the provinces.
But lest Comrade Tony take this as a salutary lesson not to deliver any power to Yorkshiremen and other suspect characters, let's be clear. The villain of this piece isn't federalism. Given the position of Quebec and the tensions between east and west, this autonomy for the provinces cannot be clawed back by Ottawa.
No, the culprits are the Ontario provincial government of the Progressive Conservatives (now there's an interesting juxtaposition of terms) and the premier, Mike Harris - a gang that makes Margaret Thatcher look like a give-away queen. These aren't one-nation or even one-province Conservatives; instead, it's every man or woman for his or her self. Cut taxes and let those who don't pay enough of them take the consequences.
The vice has been tightened further by the amalgamation of Toronto and its environs into a "metropolitan" system. Now, rather than a city government, the area is covered by a sort of super-GLC encompassing both centre and suburbs. Folks who rarely venture downtown, and thus, arguably, have little interest in it, now have a large say over its fate.
Just before I arrived in Toronto, two front-page events occurred. In the farm town of Walkerton in northern Ontario, people started getting sick. Lots of them - in fact, 40 per cent of the population of 5,000. It turns out that a broken pump for water treatment hadn't been repaired for quite a long time. At least seven deaths have been attributed to E coli bacteria, 11 more are under investigation, and there may be others in which infection will be suspected but never proved. The local negligence, if that's what this was, might have been detected by provincial inspectors, but Ontario, despite repeated warnings, shut down its water-testing labs and privatised the services, driving the cost up and sharply reducing the number of inspections. Premier Harris has responded helpfully: "If you're concerned about the water, boil it, or take your own [bottled] drinking water."
Meanwhile, in Queen's Park, a demonstration against homelessness was turning into a "riot". I'm not sure that this Canadian variant was on the scale of its British counterparts in the days of the miners' strike and the poll tax, but objects were thrown and dozens were injured.
It is more than likely, however, that the provincial government will keep recriminations for Walkerton firmly fixed upon local authorities, and that the Queen's Park incident will be attributed to "terrorists", as the chief of police has publicly labelled the demonstrators. Harris has reiterated that he was elected in 1996 to cut welfare and, by golly, that's what he is going to do.
The issue here is not of a collapse of "culture". That is only a symptom, because a Harris regime that isn't going to spend money on circuses isn't likely to be doling it out on bread, either. The issue isn't federalism or a single US-Canadian currency, but a political will that goes beyond slashing taxes for the Canadian equivalent of H L Mencken's "booboisie".
It is here that geography and the Great Neighbour to the South have an impact. The excesses of Thatcherism have been mitigated, whatever the rows over affiliation to Europe, by Britain's proximity to the Continent. Canada, in contrast, is contending with Reaganism Mark II and the shallowness of envy for a US "prosperity" based on conspicuous consumption. As one prominent columnist recently explained, she's retaining her dual Canadian-US citizenship as "a Plan B if the wheels fall off up here".
The political will to stop this erosion isn't going to come from the Chretien government, which, from its unprecedented budget surplus, may put token bandages on the social cuts, but will always keep tax reduction at the top of its agenda. Nor will it come from the Harris gang in Ontario. No, the preservation of what's left of a special system - and it has been special, with healthcare far better than that in the US or Britain and an education system that, at its best, rivals any other - will have to come from the people themselves.
One can only hope that the growing agitation of the nurses, the protests by teachers at their treatment, and even another Queen's Park demonstration on behalf of those too ground down to demonstrate, will translate into a broader public outcry. If not, the enemy of Toronto will not be in the US or in Quebec; it will be within its own neighbourhood.