They met for lunch every other week for 18 months at a mall restaurant in Square One; two 50-somethings dreaming big but thinking small.
One, a new Canadian retired from one of the wealthiest family businesses in Europe, had a passion for his adopted home; a newcomer’s awe of not only the country’s vastness and beauty but also the decency and diversity of its people.
Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer was consumed with presenting his vision of Canada to the world. He believed if he recreated the country in miniature, as a massive scale model, visitors could see his home with the same wonder.
The other man at the table, a University of Toronto-educated civil engineer, had spent his professional life managing construction projects before moving to the corporate side. But what he always loved were model trains. He was a two-term president of the Model Railroad Club of Toronto while also building intricate layouts for businesses and hobbyists as a sideline for years.
Dave MacLean had the expertise to bring Brenninkmeijer’s dream to life and he too became obsessed with the idea; an almost football-field-sized interpretation of Canada the pair hoped would become a big tourist attraction.
“I said, ‘Look, I’ve been building model railways and miniatures all my life and you’ve got this crazy idea.’ We kind of had this symbiotic relationship,” says MacLean.
“We both had the same vision: Wouldn’t it be neat to build a miniature Canada. He had the means to actually make it happen and then he found me, who had the methodology. We both, right from day one, thought it was a really cool idea.”
With an agreement struck in November 2013, they called over the Moxie’s Grill manager to witness their signatures. MacLean soon quit his day job. Brenninkmeijer began investing millions.
Fast-forward more than five years to a typical morning at a warehouse in north Mississauga, a space conjuring images of Santa’s workshop. There are mini-helicopters that whir, tiny cyclists that pedal past tulips and even small edge walkers testing their bravery atop the CN Tower as the attraction Little Canada, Our Home and Miniature Land takes shape.
A staff of 20, plus volunteer hobbyists, paint little people, install wiring and assemble trains, cars and streetcars that animate the cityscapes. They’ve been building here since January 2014.
Toronto is mostly completed. Ditto for Ottawa. Hamilton is largely packed away and Niagara Falls is, for now, just carved Styrofoam on a plywood platform. More and more layers will be added until it comes alive as a roaring waterfall — sound is an important part of the animation — that will span more than eight metres.
“It will be like you’re Gulliver wading up the Niagara River,” says John Phillipson, who looks after the project’s business development.
“We want you to feel like a giant when you come through the experience.”
The plan is to have six stand-alone “destinations” completed at opening: Niagara, the Golden Horseshoe, Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City and the North. Temperatures in the North will be kept see-your-breath cold.
“Everywhere (guests) go we want them to feel, in a small way, they are visiting that region and getting a sense of it,” says Phillipson. He said the objective is to “unabashedly celebrate” the best parts of Canada and create a further sense of curiosity about the country.
Brenninkmeijer estimates Little Canada will cost $17 million by the time it opens. More than $5 million has been contributed by the Oakville businessman. There are another 140 investors.
The building of Atlantic Canada — including a working Halifax harbour, the tall ships of Lunenburg and Bay of Fundy tides rising and falling — will be in progress when Little Canada debuts. That will allow visitors, like pedestrians who gawk at construction sites, to watch the creative process.
The plan is to add another destination every year or two, until there are a dozen and a large part of the country is represented.
“Finally, there’s a way to see all of Canada in an afternoon,” says MacLean.
The models are mostly built to a 1:87 ratio, which, as the most popular railway modelling scale, allows for the purchase of people and cars from outside sources. Some of the buildings, however, are modified because they would be too large if reproduced at an eighty-seventh of original size. The CN Tower, for example, would punch through the roof.
“It’s not a scale model of Toronto. It’s a caricature of Toronto,” MacLean says of the elaborate display that includes such landmarks as the Distillery District and St. Lawrence Market.
The detail is remarkable. Rogers Centre has a working retractable roof — opening 10 times faster than the real one — and there are highlights showing on the Jumbotron in centre field. That tiny screen may eventually feature a broadcast of the previous night’s game. Scotiabank Centre can have either a basketball court or hockey rink and it, too, has a working scoreboard. The Prince Edward (Bloor) Viaduct has a subway running underneath it.
There are two Flexity Outlook streetcars — the modern version of the Red Rocket, but built on time — that, as with many of the objects on display, had to be crafted. A similar model from Austria formed the base and a 3D printer created a new shell. Modellers then added custom graphics and upgraded the motor so it could run on Little Canada’s tracks, which are actually grooves in the acrylic street. For the old-style PCC streetcars, Maclean said the shells came from Calgary, the decals from California and the drive mechanism from Pennsylvania. Then they were assembled in London, Ont.
“You have to know where to find all this stuff,” he says. “You can’t buy these.”
There are about 200 logos visible in Toronto and MacLean says Little Canada secured the rights to use each one. They also got permission for each building represented.
Some of the earliest installed structures — such as the Rogers Centre — were contracted out to an architectural modelling company because, said MacLean, it was before they had a full team or technology in place. However, the Little Canada staff took pains to ensure the accuracy by, for example, aging the look of Union Station (though it didn’t add the seemingly permanent construction hoarding) and adapting the Royal York Hotel — opening some windows, adding curtains and turning some lights off — to make it appear less like an office tower.
Toronto alone required 35,000 hours of work and the skyline includes 30,000 LEDs so it can be depicted as a shimmering night vista as well. The lights on emergency vehicles and street lights are also part of the cityscape. Cameras held by fans watching sports events even flash occasionally. The display will go through a continuous 20-minute cycle that will feature five minutes of night followed by a sunrise that includes the sounds of a city coming to life such as garbage trucks, birds chirping and dogs barking.
“For a moment, you’re not looking at a model of Toronto, you’re in Toronto,” says MacLean.
All of the little figures, purchased through a modelling supply company, are white when they arrive, but the staff repaints some to reflect the country’s diversity.
“We also have people in wheelchairs. You can’t buy people in wheelchairs so we make those ourselves,” says Brenninkmeijer. “It’s important because we want to reflect what Canada is and Canada is diverse in its culture, in its people and in its origins.”
The buildings are made primarily of medium-density fibreboard (MDF) and acrylic, built by using a computer-aided design (CAD) program. A laser engraver is used for some fine details while other elements are produced by a three-dimensional printer.
To recreate Parliament in Ottawa, Little Canada obtained the original architectural plans and followed them at a 1:87 scale. The details are painstaking and even include a replica of the wrought-iron fence surrounding the grounds. Canada Day is being celebrated on the front lawn so it will always be the nation’s birthday in the capital.
There is no shortage of whimsy. Ottawa’s Château Laurier — also built from blueprints — has a wall removed to allow glimpses into the guest rooms. Little Canada modellers were given creative freedom in those spaces and the result is that some include scenes from movies such as The Shining, Shawshank Redemption and GoldenEye.
The nearby Canada Revenue Agency is depicted the way many Canadians view the national tax collector: a building full of monsters counting beans.
In 2011, Brenninkmeijer was at a crossroads in his life. He’d come to Canada from Belgium 12 years previously, the fifth generation of a Dutch-German family that had built a multi-billion-dollar empire through retail clothing, real estate and investments.
Brenninkmeijer’s assignment was to open a series of Fossil watch specialty stores then return after two years. He set up five outlets before convincing the company that establishing more wasn’t wise.
But neither Brenninkmeijer nor his Belgian wife wanted to return to Europe. Jean-Louis had lived in Belgium, Germany, England, France and the Netherlands, but it was Canada he loved. So he stayed and joined another arm of the family business call Good Energies, which invested in renewable energy wind technologies. After 10 years, the family offered Brenninkmeijer — now the father of four boys and established in Oakville — the chance to go to London to work investing in funds on behalf of the company. He tried it, going overseas without his family, sitting at a computer all day analyzing figures.
“I didn’t like it. In fact, I hated it,” he recalls.
He wanted to return to what he now considered home so he quit in January 2011. The businessman who had arrived in Canada knowing nothing about the country — he’d never heard of Wayne Gretzky or Terry Fox and was clueless when someone mentioned “cottage country” — says his knowledge of Canada deepened as each of his sons completed an in-depth Grade 4 assignment about a province.
“Parents get involved in these projects, that’s just the way it is.”
Out of work, in April of that year, Brenninkmeijer made a long-anticipated trip to Hamburg to see Miniatur Wunderland, the top-rated attraction in the German city according to TripAdvisor. He had just turned 50 and was searching for what to do next. As a child, he built airplane and boat model kits and he’d inherited his dad’s railroad set when he was 12 but the detail, magnitude and fun of what he saw in Hamburg inspired him.
“I thought, this is what I want to do. This is what I want to do for Canada.”
Brenninkmeijer made his retirement from his family’s business official and wrote to eight railroading clubs in and around Toronto and Hamilton. MacLean responded, inviting Brenninkmeijer to visit the Model Railroad Club of Toronto, then located in Liberty Village. They met in June and that began the months of lunches.
Three years ago, Brenninkmeijer became a Canadian citizen.
MacLean remembers being 3 years old, lying on the floor of his parents’ home in Kemptville, N.S., mesmerized by a model train his father had given him.
“Dad had nailed the track to a piece of plywood,” he recalls. “It went around endlessly and for some reason I found that fascinating.”
Like that childhood toy, MacLean’s life has come full circle. It was his interest in model trains that led to his pursuit of a civil engineering career. Experience in construction management, in addition to his railroad modelling, made him more appealing to Brenninkmeijer. That connection led him to this Mississauga warehouse, where he is like a kid again, tinkering with small trains and elaborate layouts.
“I have to pinch myself sometimes when I look at what we’ve created,” he says.
MacLean has gone from constructing real skyscrapers to sweating the small stuff.
“Production management is production management and this is just a giant project that happens to have a lot of buildings.
“Since I was a little kid, I dreamed of building a vast miniature village and now I get to do it and invite others to help me along the journey. It’s incredibly satisfying. What a legacy to be able to leave to the city.”
Ultimately, he said, what he and the team of modellers do is not just reproduce landmarks but create a form of theatre.
“Every square foot should have a story or something to look at,” he says.
There is, clearly, some of the little boy left in MacLean as he delights in showing off his project, complete with quips. He notes, for example, that the Don Valley Parkway is modelled exactly.
“Nothing ever moves,” he says.
Maclean points out Little Canada’s version of the proposed rail deck park.
“John Tory would love to build that,” he says. “His cost came in at about $1.5 billion. We did it for about 30 bucks.”
Based on how successful other miniature worlds have been — thriving in places such as Lyon, France; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Manhattan — the organizers behind Little Canada are confident their attraction will flourish here.
It is scheduled to open during the summer of 2020 at a downtown location. The projected admission is $25 for an adult and their business plan anticipates annual attendance of 500,000 by year five.
“We see ourselves in the 500,000 to 750,000 range but we think we have the potential to push up to a million,” says Phillipson. “Our business model will work with 500,000 a year and work very, very well.”
Like other tourist spots, the plan is to have a café and gift shop. But there will also be classrooms for educational programs and, possibly, courses in modelling. Unique to the small theme is a planned Littlization Station at which guests, for an additional fee, step into a 3D scanning booth to have their photo taken simultaneously by 140 cameras. They are then reproduced as a three-dimensional model, one they can keep and a two-centimetre-high replica that they can have placed in one of the displays.
When guests arrive, the plan is for them to enter into Niagara through a mock customs where they’ll be issued a mini-passport and mini-map. They’ll then begin their travels.
“People will come and see the beauty and majesty of our country,” says MacLean.
Majesty done very, very small.
Paul Hunter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @hunterhockey