A snowman sunbathes on a lounger on the snow-covered roof of a house in Québec City. Stationary bicyclists furiously pedal on treadmills to power the Niagara River’s hydro-electric plant. A hotel room in Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier is decorated like an underwater scene with frogmen and dolphins on the bed. These are just a few of the tiny, whimsical details that visitors can discover in Little Canada, Toronto’s newest downtown attraction that replicates in miniature our country’s geographic regions and their iconic landmarks – but with a considerable dose of whimsy and humour thrown in, just for fun.
“Honey I Shrunk the…Everything!”
The fascination with miniatures has been around for millennia. Ancient Egyptians placed tiny houses, tools and even figurines representing servants inside tombs to provide for the deceased in their afterlife. Fabergé created elaborately decorated jewellery for the Russian court, including ornate eggs that opened to reveal miniature objects inside. And a young Queen Mary was gifted a Victorian dollhouse so detailed in its contents that it included actual books written especially for its library by contemporary authors (including a new Sherlock Holmes story).
Perhaps even more impressive than these miniature objects themselves is the skill and attention to detail invested in them by the craftspeople who envision them. And no one is more invested (figuratively or literally) in Toronto’s modern-day Little Canada than its founder and visionary, Jean Louis Brenninkmeijer.
Taking a Hobby to a New Level
Little Canada began as the brainchild of Brenninkmeijer, a wealthy Dutch entrepreneur who moved to Canada more than a decade ago. Looking for a new passion project, and having enjoyed model trains as a young boy, Brenninkmeijer decided to combine his newfound love for Canada with his boyhood interest in model trains. And so the concept of Little Canada was born. You could say it was the ultimate hobbyist’s ultimate project.
Passion and Play at Work in Little Canada
It takes a special type of person to execute this larger-than-life, smaller-than-life project, and Brenninkmeijer began by contacting the president of the Model Railroad Club of Toronto, Dave MacLean, who became a partner in the Little Canada venture. Together Brenninkmeijer and MacLean curated a team of 50 Miniature Makers – scenic artists, animation specialists, architecture students and miniature enthusiasts who for 10 years poured not just their talents, but their hearts and souls into their work.
It is the imagination and sense of play of these Makers that in turn make Little Canada a delight to explore. Each Maker has the freedom to inject some of their own sense of humour or whimsy into their creations, and there are all kinds of hidden vignettes and quirky details to discover in each of the landscapes and regions.
It’s the Little Things…
Spencer Barclay, one of the model makers, built a replica of his own house in Niagara, but added in a backyard pool (because he always wanted one), including a flamingo floatie.
A closeup in Petit Québec reveals children sliding down the roof on a snow-covered house and launching themselves into the street on their wooden sleds.
Someone’s lost cat even made it onto a billboard, complete with a ‘Drama’ graffiti tag.
Look closely, and there is something unusual or fun, everywhere, whether it is a Santa who has lost his dogsled team, or ‘bean counter’ monsters working in the Revenue Canada headquarters in Ottawa.
Meet Little Canada’s Maurice the Moose
This same playfulness comes to life in a very Canadian way via “Maurice”, a to-scale moose painted like the Canadian flag, who likes to find obscure locations to hide within the Little Canada landscapes. (Actually, there are 4 ‘Maurices’ in each region and visitors of all ages are encouraged to join a scavenger hunt of sorts to locate them as they tour the displays.)
Miniatures on a Grand, Micro Scale
While Little Canada may not be the first attraction in the world to showcase miniatures of real life destinations, its scale may just be the smallest. Built to the 1:87 inch ratio used by model train hobbyists, Little Canada is much smaller than the 1:12 scale used in dollhouses, or the 1:25 scale used at other miniature attractions around the world. It is this miniscule scale that boggles the mind and makes the achievement of its Makers that much more impressive.
FUN FACT: The only structure represented even smaller than this 1:87 scale is Toronto’s CN Tower, since it needed to fit inside the exhibit hall – as it is, it still rises 14 feet from the floor!
The structures and landmarks represented in Little Canada are incredibly detailed and accurate and in many cases, the builders worked with actual blueprints and architectural drawings to realize some of those buildings and the effort shows. Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings took 3000 hours to build, including hand painting each of the 20,000 bricks; the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec is illuminated with individual lights on separate controls that took weeks just to ‘wire’; and on the ‘Marilyn Monroe’ buildings of Mississauga (officially known as the Absolute World twin towers) each floor of the condos was painted by hand before assembly.
Little Canada, Massive Budget
Little Canada came with a big cost for Brenninkmeijer, at around $24 million dollars to date, much of which he personally financed. First there are the physical costs of labour and materials including over 180,000 of man hours and 30,000 LED lights just for Toronto’s skyline. (The Rogers Centre alone cost the equivalent of an actual Tesla to complete!)
Then there are the rights that had to be negotiated for everything from video footage of former Blue Jay Joe Carter’s iconic World Series moment that plays on the Rogers Centre Jumbotron, to the Canadian Tire logos on the train cars that move through the displays. And it just wouldn’t be Little Canada without including the original Tim Hortons location, so that meant getting those rights, too (let’s hope they weren’t double-double the estimate).
As Inclusive and Diverse as ‘Big’ Canada
Brenninkmeijer’s Little Canada will eventually showcase regions and landmarks from across the entire country. Currently, the 5 geographic regions that are completed include Little Toronto, Little Niagara, Little Ottawa, Little Golden Horseshoe (including Niagara-on-the-Lake, Brantford, Stratford and more), and Petit Québec.
There are plans underway to build a Little East Coast, Prairies, Rockies, West Coast, Montreal and North to truly represent Canada from coast to coast to coast.
There is also an emphasis on making Little Canada as inclusive as possible when it comes to representing its people. There are Indigenous landmarks within the regions already, and there are plans to build a Residential School to reflect the not-so-positive aspects of our history that have come to light recently. There will even be a tribute in miniature, placing pairs of children’s shoes on Parliament Hill, just as was done in real life following the discovery of the first 215 unmarked graves of indigenous children who died while attending the Kamloops School.
Multiculturalism is a part of Little Canada, of course, and great pains were taken to adapt mini-figurines to reflect that, too. Maggie Koczur, a former makeup artist, uses her skills to hand paint ‘stock’ caucasian figures with different skin tones and cultural attire that are more reflective of Canada’s population. And when she isn’t doing that, Maggie is painting Raptors jerseys onto some of the 3000 spectators she individually glues into the stands of the Scotiabank arena!
Littlization! You Can Be Part of Little Canada, too – Literally
Perhaps one of the most exciting opportunities for visitors who come to Little Canada is the chance to become a part of it – quite literally. Using state-of-the-art 3-D scanning technology, guests can be scanned, re-created in miniature and their 3/4 inch-high figure placed in one of Little Canada’s regions. These aren’t just generic figures from some catalogue – these are individual mini portraits, right down to facial expressions and clothing. (I mean, how cool is that!)
FUN FACT: There are currently about 10,000 ‘residents’ in Little Canada, including Brenninkmeijer’s son’s hockey team who were all scanned and can now be seen skating around the Wayne Gretzy arena in Little Brantford.
Little Canada – Our Home and Miniature Land
The lights in the Little Ottawa exhibit hall dim as ‘twilight’ falls over Parliament Hill, and the Peace Tower rings to signal the start of a miniature Canada Day celebration. As the light and sound show projects iconic images of Canada onto the facade of Centre Block, visitors gather in the hall to watch the show, fascinated by just how real everything looks.
And just as the finale of O Canada play out, fireworks exploding in time to the last notes of the National Anthem, the visitors in Little Canada spontaneously clap and cheer, as real an expression of pride as it gets. Whether it is their appreciation of the artistry of Little Canada, or the ‘big’ version of this country, Jean Louis Brenninkmeijer should be very proud of the joy that his vision for Our Home and Miniature Land brings its visitors.
Little Canada certainly put a big smile on our faces.
TIP: Little Canada is located right at Dundas Square in Toronto. Admission fees, hours and pricing for “Littlization” figurines can all be found on Little Canada’s website.
Special thanks to Little Canada for hosting Henk and I on our visit, and to Maya for her informative and personable tour!