Initially claimed by the French in the 18th century, it was not until the American Revolution caused hordes of United Empire Loyalists (loyal to the British) to escape to Toronto that the city became an established settlement. Then known as York, the town was exceedingly British in character, functioning as the administrative capital of English-speaking Upper Canada and becoming a thriving manufacturing centre by the 19th century. In 1834 it was renamed Toronto, a Huron Indian word meaning 'meeting place', to distinguish it from neighbouring New York.
The next 100 years saw the city experience a growth explosion. Driven by a combination of immigration, high birth rates and burgeoning industry, the population increased from 30,000 in 1851 to over one million by the 1950s. Even when the Great Toronto Fire of 1904 decimated a huge area of downtown, the Torontonians simply rolled up their sleeves, rebuilt and continued to prosper.
As it continued to grow, the city began to develop an impressive reputation for industry and commerce. A new sewage system was built to cope with the burgeoning population; the railway arrived, linking Toronto to the Upper Great Lakes and drawing more tourists to the city; and thanks to lenient laws, the distillation industry expanded until Toronto became the largest centre of alcohol distillation in North America.
Despite this licentiousness, the Toronto of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a law-abiding city, where rules were made and rarely broken and where the overriding concern was making money. As such, Toronto gained a reputation as a conservative, boring enclave of Protestantism - a reputation that still dogs it to some extent today. Older residents can remember the days when the city would come to a standstill on Sundays and only a handful of the very best restaurants served wine.
Towards the end of the 1950s, a surge in the arrival of immigrants infused Toronto with new foods, new languages and, most importantly, new attitudes. Italians, Portuguese and Eastern Europeans arrived first, followed by immigrants from the Caribbean, Asia and India. They settled into what would become the city's great ethnic neighbourhoods - Greektown, Little Italy and Chinatown. At the same time, Canada’s big multinational companies began to relocate their head offices from Montreal to Toronto, brining with them more employment and driving up immigration, gradually developed a multiethnic North American character. Today, one in two of the city's residents was born outside Canada.
It largely shrugged off its colonial identity, although vestiges still remain, such as the English-style pubs and the ingrained habit among conservative clubs and societies of toasting the Queen before eating. There is a similar juxtaposition in the architecture of the city itself; at first glance, Toronto does not appear all that different from any other large American city, albeit a clean one, although closer inspection reveals preserved Victorian and Edwardian buildings and a profusion of neighbourhood pubs.
Today, Toronto is the hub of the nation's commercial, financial, industrial, and cultural life, and is the capital of the Province of Ontario.