A miniature scale of Union Station, the major railway station and intermodal transportation hub in Toronto, Ontario
By Ryan McMenamie, Team Lead, Content,
Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade

Uncovering hidden gems and immense wonders in the province’s tourism scene

We at the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade (MEDJCT) have recently been working with our friends at the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries (MHSTCI) to update their landing page within InvestOntario.ca.

Obviously, this has been an industry that has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, as we start to see a glimmer of normalcy coming into the world, incredible opportunities are presenting themselves to those already a part of Ontario’s tourism sector and for those international organizations seeking to expand their global footprint in this wonderful province.

As our discussions with MHSTCI continued, we agreed that we should be showcasing more success stories from Ontario’s rebounding tourism sector. They suggested we talk to Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer, the mastermind and creator behind Little Canada, an attraction which gives visitors a journey through the wonderfully diverse landscapes of Canada on a miniature scale. Our content team talked to Jean-Louis on the phone, and one thing became very apparent—words alone could not do justice to Little Canada; it had to be seen to be believed. We cut our interview short (pun intended).

The tiny journey down the road

Since Little Canada was walking distance from our offices in Toronto, Ontario, three of us from MEDJCT arranged for a two-hour tour, followed by an interview with Jean-Louis himself. There was me, Ryan McMenamie, your faithful narrator, Lauren Nucciarone, a public relations and branding guru, and Jamey Diepen, a marketing consultant with a specialty in all things digital. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the experience with a fresh perspective—to see, hear and feel this miniature world just as any other visitor would.

Little Canada is an attraction in the heart of Yonge/Dundas Square. It’s rather like Toronto’s answer to New York’s famed Times Square, though smaller in scale (how ironic!) and without an annoying Elmo in sight.

As the three of us chat during our walk, we wonder how we can fill up the entire two hours. How much could there possibly be to see? I envision breezing through the exhibit in no more than 30 minutes and then having to kill time before our interview with Mr. Brenninkmeijer. I would later be proven gloriously wrong.

Yonge–Dundas Square is one of the busiest intersections in Canada.

Upon arriving, we see the well-lit bilingual “Little-Petit Canada” sign and an escalator that would take us down to start our two-storey journey. The attraction is fully accessible with an elevator available just off Yonge Street. We are greeted by staff who could not be more welcoming or warm. They guide us to our first stop, Little Niagara Falls.

A little bit about Niagara

For some background context, I live about 40 minutes from the Niagara region. It’s one of my family’s favourite places in the world to visit, no matter the season. We are there at least four to six times a year, so I’m intimately aware of all the sites, sounds, buildings, and of course, the magnificence of the Falls. I am amazed at how authentic and accurate this miniature representation is. Perhaps that is an understatement; I am floored.

For those who might not be as familiar as I am to the Niagara region, there are well-spaced story cards dotted throughout that provide more context to the various sights and even QR codes that provide the same information in French.

I look in awe at the edge of the animated falls; it also has a roaring soundscape to add to the authenticity. With most of the exhibits built at 1:87 scale, the little tourists overlooking the falls are a mere three-quarters of an inch tall. I stare intently at the spot where, in real life, I have stood dozens of times before. In my mind’s eye, I’m at the real Niagara Falls, witnessing the incompressible cascade of water flowing down into an expanse of liquid emerald.

A highly detailed and animated miniature of Niagara Falls

When I come back to reality, I notice the miniature tourist information centre and gift shop. They are built with uncanny accuracy. I wish I could enter the building to buy a souvenir. Even the emblematic guardrail near the edge of the falls and lining the gorge is faithfully recreated in exquisite detail. I feel like I need to don a plastic poncho to avoid being soaked by the mist.

A miniaturized view of the local attractions in Niagara Falls, Ontario

Toronto the good. Toronto the small.

As we continue around a corner and down an escalator, we arrive in Little Toronto. I am taken aback by the sheer scale and attention to detail. The iconic CN Tower is simply splendid, but I am even more impressed with the Rogers Centre (once known as the SkyDome); it has a mechanical roof that opens and closes just like the real thing. Inside, there are thousands of little fans in addition to a functional “Jumbotron” that is playing clips of the Toronto Blue Jays and the iconic “bat flip” moment seen around the world.

The miniature Rogers Centre in Little Canada has a mechanical roof that opens and closes just like the real thing

I’m mesmerized by a miniaturized version of the very same train I take each day into our Toronto office as it pulls into Union Station. Is there possibly a mini-me on board? Taxi cabs line the street in front of the station, and the number of little pedestrians makes me feel a part of the morning rush. To top things off, every 15 minutes, the day slowly turns to night, and the exhibits become even more dramatic as the famed Toronto skyline flickers into focus.

There are tiny electric cars autonomously driving along magnetic strips hidden beneath the network of streets. There are tiny cyclists peddling away to beat the traffic. There’s even an underground view of a subway! Every major landmark of the city is represented, including Toronto City Hall, where a miniature crew films an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Ottawa: where it’s Canada Day every day

The expanse of the displays is almost unfathomable; around each corner is a new region and city. There is the Golden Horseshoe, Ottawa and Petit Québec, depicted as a stunningly beautiful winter wonderland. Each new area is more detailed than the next. In Ottawa, there are perpetual Canada Day celebrations on the Parliament Hill lawn including a spectacular fireworks display as the sun goes down. And at the Château Laurier, there is a spot where the building’s façade is removed to show the inner workings of the hotel, including a plethora of rooms, each having a unique interior designed by an individual Little Canada team member.

Little Château Laurier reveals the inner workings of the hotel, including a plethora of rooms, each having a unique interior design

By this point, we are now over the two-hour mark. It’s time to sit down with Jean-Louis to hear more about the genesis of Little Canada and where he draws the inspiration and energy to keep expanding his cherished creation.

An interview with the creator

Jean-Louis is ironically tall yet quite soft-spoken. However, that doesn’t hinder his ability to convey passion and determination. He is an immigrant to Canada from the Netherlands which seems to give him an almost childlike wonder about the country—and that is truly infectious. After a decade in the making, Jean-Louis still marvels at what Little Canada has become. “It’s almost like I’m in a dream, and I haven’t woken up yet,” he says.

Jean-Louis Brennikmeijer, Founder and CEO of Little Canada

From the beginning, the vision was to launch an attraction where you buy a ticket, go through as an adventure and come out learning something completely new about Canada. But even Jean-Louis is surprised at the scale of the project and how it continues to expand.

“I never expected the reactions from the guests that we’ve been getting,” says Jean-Louis. “I’ve seen groups tear up at the Canada Day celebrations exhibit and even had children sing along to O Canada.”

The inspiration behind Little Canada

But what was the initial motivation behind this lilliputian creation? The concise answer is that Jean-Louis was inspired by a spring 2011 journey to Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany. He then had the vision to make something similar in Canada. Having quit his job a few months prior, he began to pursue the venture full time.

But long before that, he was enamoured by the model train sets his father had constructed years ago in the attic. Jean-Louis would later inherit those model trains, but they would remain stowed in his basement for the better part of a decade. After he departed his job, his wife encouraged him to do a massive unboxing.

“When I opened the boxes, I got that bug back. I wanted to start building that model train layout that enthusiasts have in their basements—or in Europe, their attics.”

The trip to Miniatur Wunderland happened, and the rest is history. But that history is full of hard work, partnerships, challenges and breakthroughs.

A miniaturized rendition of the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, Ontario

Seeking out partnerships

Jean-Louis sent out emails to eight different model railway clubs in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). He got three responses. One of those was from Dave MacLean, a civil engineer and president of The Model Railroad Club of Toronto. The two shared a passion for all things small, and that would lead them to have biweekly Little Canada brainstorming meetings at a restaurant in Mississauga, Ontario, for 18 months. They signed a shareholder agreement, and fittingly the restaurant manager served as a witness.

After securing warehouse space, the two went to Home Depot to purchase a mitre saw, and the building began—not just the structures but also the team. They started with friends and family and posted pamphlets in hobby stores searching for like-minded people.

Ontario talent at work

One of those people, David Domanski , a graduate architect, convinced the pair to purchase a laser cutter/engraver. This became their workhorse that cut all the pieces. Over the years, everyone at Little Canada has learned to use it.

An exposed window that shows the model makers at Little Canada at work.

How many people is that? At the time of the interview, Little Canada has 92 people on the payroll. Jean-Louis states that it would soon grow to 110, including 30 builders. There are employees from as far away as France and Saskatchewan, but the majority are from Ontario. Many of these talented individuals are graduates from prestigious Ontario educational institutions such as OCAD University and Sheridan and George Brown Colleges.

It’s also a diverse group of people as one would expect from such a multicultural city. “Diversity of your staff contributes to the diversity of the creations,” says Jean-Louis. There is also strong representation from the 2SLGBTQ+ community. “We want everyone to be welcome here. Everyone.”

Making the best of a bad situation

We broach the topic of the pandemic.

“We were going to open on July 1, 2020,” he says with a hint of dejection. COVID-19 had other plans. Instead of giving up, the Little Canada team became more resilient, and their creativity blossomed. Jean-Louis becomes animated as he describes the ingenious process staff developed to keep production moving. Everyone began working from home, and the laser cutter ended up in one employee’s garage. They would then meet in parking lots and, while staying six feet apart, exchange key components from each other’s trunks. Soon they changed tactics and got into a rhythm utilizing a courier to get all the home-built structures to each member along the production chain.

The Littlization Station

Perhaps the most novel part of the exhibit is the Littlization Station. I’m the only member of our crew brave enough to step into the time machine-like 3D scanning device. I receive a 360° view of myself sent to the email I provided, allowing me to opt for one of the various packages available. I’m still deciding whether to have a three-quarter-inch or five-inch version mini-me sent to my house. There’s even an option to have a three-quarter-inch version placed in Little Canada at a location of your choosing. I’ve never been to an attraction where you can literally become part of the exhibit!

Ontario-based technology provider

When we inquire about the origin of the Littlization Station, we are pleasantly surprised to learn that it is a Toronto-based company called Objex Unlimited that not only provides the technology but performs the fulfilment process for the 3D printing and shipping of all of the little people. “There’s nothing better than having a partner next door,” adds Jean-Louis.

What does the future hold for Little Canada?

“We have a 20-year lease with an option for two five-year extensions,” he says. “My hope is that this becomes part of the furniture of Toronto—like the Royal Ontario Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, and CN Tower. This is a place where new Canadians come to be exposed to what Canada is all about in just one afternoon.”

To that end, Jean-Louis, who became a Canadian citizen in 2014, is thinking of offering an immersive course to assist those preparing to take the citizenship test. He also would like to hold citizenship ceremonies at Little Canada.

A miniaturized view of Little Canada from the attraction’s representation of Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square.

As for new additions to the attraction, several iconic Canadian locations are in the works, including the Little Prairies opening in summer 2023, Little East Coast, Little Rockies, Little West Coast, and Petit Montréal. A sneak peak of the climate-controlled Little North is currently open.

The Highway of Heroes

As we approach the end of our time with Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer, I ask him to choose his favourite portion of Little Canada. I think perhaps this would be akin to asking him to select a favourite child. However, he has a definitive and poignant answer: The Highway of Heroes.

The Highway of Heroes is a stretch of Highway 401 running from Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Trenton to Toronto and is dedicated to Canadian Forces who gave their lives in military missions.

People line the overpasses on the route displaying Canadian flags and homemade signs inscribed with inspirational messages of gratitude to honour the fallen on their final journey. Each bridge is in memory of a specific Canadian soldier lost in the line of duty.

The miniaturized version may be small in size but massive in terms of patriotic significance and remembrance. And just like its real-life counterparts, this bridge has a unique dedication. From the plaque at Little Canada:

Little Canada’s bridge over the 401 is dedicated to Captain Nichola Goddard, the first Canadian woman to perish in combat. Her parents, two sisters and brother-in-law stand proudly at the unveiling of the plaque in her name.

And if you look closely on that bridge, you will see a little Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer and his wife Mimi paying their respects to all the soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for their country. While Jean-Louis is devoted to all things little, his pride for his beloved Canada is anything but.

A miniature version of Ontario’s Highway of Heroes.

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