Not any more

Fact check! Should Toronto’s tour guides be licensed?

In Canada on July 31, 2010 at 17:36

Peter Redman / National Post file photo

By Peter Saltsman

Toronto is a different place from atop a double-decker bus. Sometimes, it’s a place where the subway was built at the same time as Fort York. Sometimes, the Flatiron Building was formerly City Hall. Sometimes, Casa Loma was built for the Queen.

Tourists might not notice, but Toronto’s tour guides — those on the buses, those who give walking tours, those hired by the city — have one thing in common: They’re not licensed.

Left alone under the shadow of the CN Tower (which, by the way, was once the world’s tallest freestanding structure at 1,815 feet), tour guides are free to say whatever they like in the interests of entertainment and naïveté. They’re not always this extreme, but inaccuracies happen, perpetuated by an ongoing lack of any city-mandated history test, operation fee or supervision.

In this way Toronto is unlike most major cities, despite hosting more than 22 million visitors last year, according to Tourism Toronto. European cities from Athens to Zurich require guides to be certified. New York issues licences for its guides just as it does its hot dog vendors, as do Montreal and Quebec City. Even Niagara Falls requires guides to be tested to ensure their familiarity with the region’s historical and geological accomplishments.

“Every city I go to, the guides have licences,” says Bruce Bell, historian and professional tour guide. “I think it would be a classy thing for Toronto.”

But tourism — at least the camera-toting, sunscreen-slathering variety — is rarely about class. In this case, it’s just about the law.
“We’ve talked about certification as recently as three or four months ago,” says Rob Berry, manager of sector development for the City of Toronto’s Economic Development and Culture Division. “But we’ve been told from our legal department that it would be subject to challenges from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Berry points to Philadelphia, where a 2008 law requiring tour guides to pass a 150-question historical test and carry a licence in the downtown core inspired a legal frenzy. While some guides advocated licensing, some alleged that, as entertainers, the new law restricted their freedom of speech.

The Canadian Tour Guide Association of Toronto, a group of professional guides working in the city, finds that logic spurious. For them, entertainment is a mere by-product of factual information. A guide licence doesn’t restrict freedom of speech; it protects their jobs. Moreover, it protects the integrity of the city.

“Dogs are licensed in this city but tour guides aren’t,” says James Saunders of the CTGA. “We’re losing to bad publicity, we’re losing revenue and we’re losing jobs for people within the community.”

The association is so incensed at the city’s lack of action, its members are currently trying to band together other tour guide associations across the country. When they organize and find a lawyer, they plan on fighting for their right to guide accurately.
In the meantime, they have to cope with renegade walking tours, foreign guides giving groups incorrect information and those pesky double-decker buses.

Unlike the members of the CTGA and other walking tour guides who are full-time professionals, bus companies tend to use affordable college students to point at the CN Tower. “Everywhere else in the world they don’t have the college students doing that because it’s a profession,” Saunders says. But those students are actually as close to being licensed as it gets in this city.
“We rigorously train our tour guides,” says Troy Lamsee, co-founder and co-CEO of ShopDineTour Toronto, one of the city’s largest sightseeing companies. “We provide a test of about 50 questions about various elements of the city and its history. Its pass rate is 85%.”

(Full disclosure: I used to work for Lamsee as a tour guide. I passed the test. And I occasionally made things up in the interests of a punchline or a briefly forgotten statistic).

Lamsee has reason to be stringent about his tour guides. “If someone’s not representing the city in a great light,” he says, “it affects the city negatively as a whole.”

And that doesn’t just go for tourists, most of whom don’t know what qualifications their guides have — or even whether the stories they’re telling are true. The question of tour guide certification might have more impact for locals.

Validating the city’s guides might be a major step towards validating the city’s (relatively short) history. “We should be proud of it,” says Saunders. It might be a bureaucratic nightmare, but licensing tour guides is also a matter of civic unity and pride.
“Ten years ago, this wasn’t on the radar,” Bell says. “But the city is only going to get bigger.”

And as that happens, tourism professionals will keep fighting to make the inaccuracies in the city’s history less frequent, one test at a time.



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