One Million Myth: The big lie about Toronto’s big Pride parade

A view of the Pride Toronto parade in 2012. Dominic Chan / The Canadian Press

Let’s just put it out there: A million people will not attend the WorldPride parade in Toronto on June 29.

There has never been a million people at a Pride parade in Toronto. In fact, there has never been a million people at Pride Toronto. And while WorldPride is almost certain to attract more people than previous Pride festivals in Toronto, there is no evidence to suggest a million people will come.

This is not to downplay the popularity or importance of Pride Toronto. Indeed, it is one of the biggest festivals of its kind and one of the city’s most popular — and there’s little doubt Toronto will do a fine job of hosting WorldPride.

It’s also not the only event in Toronto that relies on the “One Million Myth” to seduce sponsors and government funding. The Santa Claus Parade, Caribana and the Taste of the Danforth are all guilty of perpetuating the myth.

Story continues below advertisement

(Toronto Police long ago stopped providing crowd estimates for all major events in the city because it got too political.)

News outlets (especially the ones that are sponsors of Pride Toronto) will once again put the 1 million figure out into the public realm without credible (or any) attribution. Some reporters will breathlessly report that “an estimated 1 million people lined the parade route.”

Global News has reported this figure in the past as well.

Excerpts from some of Toronto’s daily newspapers.

First, it is impossible to accurately count people at a non-ticketed event like the Pride parade.

Secondly, it is unreasonable for anyone to suggest that the equivalent of one out of every five people in the Greater Toronto Area attends the parade.

Third, and most significantly, it is impossible for 1 million people to watch the Pride parade.

Story continues below advertisement

The parade route — Bloor Street west from Church Street, south on Yonge Street to Dundas Street East — is almost exactly 2 kilometres.

Crowds stand on a portion of the two outside lanes and on both sidewalks. This means there is roughly 50,000 square metres of space along the parade route for spectators.

For a million people to attend, we have to believe that 20 people squeeze into every available square metre along the route — or at least four times the number of people that can comfortably stand in a square metre. (Go ahead, try it.)

How many are actually at the parade?

Again, it’s impossible to know for sure. But, if people standing shoulder to shoulder used up every square metre of space along the route without leaving any gaps, roughly 250,000 people could enjoy the parade. (To be fair, let’s add 2,000 people on rooftops, stairs, ledges, street furnishings, etc.)

This estimate is generous, of course. Aerial photos of the parade in previous years show many gaps along the route as well as whole stretches where people are standing only two- or three-deep with plenty of room to move around.

A reasonable person with a basic grasp of mathematics could assume the Pride parade attracts somewhere between 175,000 and 225,000 spectators.

Story continues below advertisement

So why the One Million Myth?

No one knows for sure how it started (and organizers certainly see no good reason to put an end to it).

A 2009 economic impact study of Pride Toronto by Enigma Research estimated that 411,450 people attended some or all of the festival.

Enigma came up with this number by taking the results of an Ipsos Reid poll that found 5.9 per cent of the 5.1 million people in the Toronto census metropolitan area — or 303,650 — attend Pride and added it to its own research that found 107,800 tourists attended.

The economic impact study in 2009 suggested there were 1.1 million visits to Pride — but visits are calculated using a formula based on the assumption that attendees were counted between 2.4 and 3.2 times.

The results of an Economic Impact Study that once appeared on the Pride Toronto website.

Pride Toronto organizers, to their credit, didn’t mislead anyone when they issued a press release about the study.

Story continues below advertisement

“An estimated 411,450 visitors attended Pride Week,” it read. “The average Pride visitor attended about three Pride events, resulting in just over 1.2 million visits to the festival.”

The study’s reference to 1.2 million visits likely sparked the One Million Myth. It was a nice big number that was easy to remember, repeat and report.

For obvious reasons, organizers didn’t object to the media using the 1 million figure. In fact, they started repeating it themselves.

“During the final weekend of the festival between June 28, 2013 and June 30 there were 1.2 million visitors,” claimed a Pride Toronto press release.

Visitors and visits are not the same thing, though.

City of Toronto staff, in a report for the Economic Development Committee last October, went even further in misrepresenting the data.

It claimed Pride Toronto had “an estimated attendance of over 1.2 million people over the 10-day festival.”

So there were 1.2 million visitors in the final two days of the festival and 1.2 million people at the festival over the 10 days? Both can’t be true. Neither is.

Attendance figures on the Pride Toronto website and (bottom) in a City of Toronto staff report.

In 2011, when Toronto was awarded the right to host WorldPride in 2014, then-executive director of Pride Toronto Traci Sandilands claimed the event would be “five times bigger” — suggesting that either 2 million will attend (if you use the estimated number of people cited in the Enigma study) or a whopping 5 million will attend (if you use the One Million Myth).

Story continues below advertisement

A Pride Toronto media kit available online boasts the festival had “an estimated attendance of over 1.22 million people in 2012” and “in 2011, Pride Toronto attracted more than 1.2 people (sic).”

Neither is true, since people are not the same as visits. (Pride Toronto is suggesting attendance went up nearly 300 per cent between 2009 — when its own survey said there were 411,450 people — and 2011.)

The media kit goes on to say: “In 2014 we are hoping to welcome over 1.5 million visitors.”

That’s down from the 2 million visitors estimate current executive director Kevin Beaulieu gave Xtra! in March.

No matter how many people show up for WorldPride, it is sure to be the city’s biggest and most colourful celebration of the year. Isn’t that enough?

John R. Kennedy reported for LGBT publications from 1993 to 2002.

Sponsored content