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Toronto Tour Q&A: Richard Fiennes-Clinton of Muddy York Walking Tours

Toronto Tour Operators - HistoryHow did you become a tour operator?
My interest in conducting tours came about as a result of my travelling overseas in the 1990s and going on tours conducted in other countries. I really enjoyed them, and returned to Toronto in search of similar experiences that I could participate in. I discovered that there wasn’t much in the way of regularly scheduled walking tours in Toronto at that time, so I began offering tours to friends.

Of course, my love of history has always played a part. I have a passion for it, and have worked for or volunteered with different historical agencies since my teen years. I wanted to combine history with some really neat folklore and local legend, and use storytelling to spread the tales of Toronto that might not otherwise be passed on to people who live here.

Historical―and especially “haunted”―tours require the guide to have a certain knack for storytelling. What sort of techniques do you employ to keep your audience engaged?
The ability to tell a story can make or break an experience like a walking tour. Enthusiastic tour takers have probably had experiences where they’ve had a friendly, knowledgeable guide who churned out more factual information than entertainment. I start by getting to know each particular group a little, and finding out what they’re interested in. Though I have 15 or 20 tour experiences listed on my website, I never work from a script. Someone could come out on the “same” tour several times and have a different experience each time.

Particularly for our ghost tours, we tell Toronto’s legends as they’ve been handed down. It’s a fine balance: most people who come out for a ghost tour are just as turned off by an over-the-top dramatization as they are by someone who’s dull and boring. I do my best to make it interesting, and get the right amount of sensationalism, but I always tell people that if they’re looking for the tacky special effects and people in rubber masks jumping out at them from the bushes, then they should go to a low-budget haunted house. I think that there’s a thrill in knowing that the stories that I tell are told as true accounts of real ghost stories that people have reported as actual events. We’ll make it interesting, but bring your imagination.

What’s your most popular tour?
It can be hard for us to identify what our most popular tour is. Unlike other companies, we have all sorts of themes and neighbourhoods for our tours. One of the most difficult questions that I get is, “What’s your ‘best’ tour?” Are you interested in ghost stories, true crime and folklore? Or do you prefer architecture, history, or old movie theatres? I often end up blending themes and stories from several different tours when I meet a group, which is one of the nice things about never working from a script.

If I had to pick, though, there are a few tours that are somewhat busier than others. Tours around St. Lawrence Market and the Old Town are popular, whether we are talking about food, Canadian history, crime and punishment, or historic cemeteries and gallows. Both of our ghost tours are pretty popular. Exploring the shops and streets of Chinatown and Kensington Market—and experimenting with some local food while we’re there—is always fun. Sometimes it seems that one of the tricks is to appeal to a sense of scandal, and the more that you shock people, the better time they’ll have. Our Cinema and Scandal tour is good for that: we mix a history of entertainment with a commentary on some of the wild and explicit stuff that was happening up and down Yonge Street in the 1970s.

Many people still consider Canada a young country, and Toronto, by extension, a young city. How surprised are your clients when they discover that the city, in fact, has quite a rich history?
Again, it’s all in how you tell it. We may only have a couple of hundred years, but it comes down to knowing the best and most arcane stories to share with people. I really like countering the impression people have that Toronto is a city where nothing has ever happened. We usually end up surprising them!

Your company offers more than a dozen different history-themed walks. Was it a challenge to accrue so much information about the city? And how do you keep it all straight in your mind?
People often ask if it was a challenge for me to learn so much about Toronto. For me, the answer is no. I love stories of my city and I love having the chance to share them with thousands of tour participants. I am fortunate enough to work with something that I am passionate about and every day is another chance to share amazing stories with new people. It’s flattering that people compliment me on my extensive knowledge of a lot of different aspects of Toronto’s history and folklore, but I do what I love, and I bring that with me to every tour.

What question are you asked most often by your clients?
“What other tours should we go on next?”

What can a person do to ensure they get the most out of their Muddy York experience?
Come out with an open imagination and a sense of wonder. We offer so many tours, that we suggest you contact us in advance and ask a little about what we offer. Also, the most important thing that anyone can do on any tour is to get engaged. Interact with the guide, ask questions and let the guide know where your interests lie. It’s tricky for a guide to customize a tour and provide personal service if a participant doesn’t say much. This is particularly important in our case, since we offer so many different tours.

Are there any sites in Toronto that you wish you could include in one of your tours, but cannot?
Every year we make a point of getting into places that are not usually accessible to the public. In past years we’ve given tours of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, which was built on the Toronto Islands in 1808, and it looks like we will be doing that again in 2014. There are several other sites that we have partnered with as well.

The sites that I would most like to see are some of the great, epic landmarks around Toronto that have been demolished. So if anyone happens to have a time machine handy, please get in touch! There are some that I remember from years gone by, like the Uptown Theatre, on Yonge Street just south of Bloor Street, that was demolished in 2003. Another would be the McLaughlin Planetarium, which still stands but has been closed to the public for years. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of lost buildings in Toronto over the past two centuries and more that I would love to visit, if I could climb into a time machine and hide my digital camera inconspicuously in my pocket.

If you could go on a tour that focused on an aspect of Toronto that you wish you knew more about, what would that tour be?
I have been giving tours of Toronto for 17 years, and have been involved in the history of the city for even longer. Although I like to think that I have a fairly decent knowledge of the city, nobody should ever stop learning, and I love when people come out on my tours and teach me something new. I am always open to new suggestions from tour participants and over the years, some of them have offered up some great ideas for new tours.

What is the one thing you know about Toronto that few (if any) other people do?
The trick to being a small business owner is to never give too much away for free. I think that there are a lot of stories on my various tours that will surprise people, and I would invite anyone who wants to know something new and interesting to get in touch!

• Muddy York Walking Tours, 416-487-9017; muddyyorktours.com
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