In a cellar in the center of Toronto is an entire country. Little Canada’s new miniature museum showcases Canada’s towns, small towns, mountains and waterfalls, all spectacularly alive with the magic of sound, animation and mechatronics. In one scene, the Maid of the Mist meanders up into a twinkling 5 meters high Niagara River in iridescent shades of pink, yellow and blue. In another, little skiers descend a hyper-realistic Mont-Sainte-Anne that overlooks an expansive view of Old Quebec. It’s a patriotic passion project that took nearly a decade, $24 million from 218 investors and dozens of artisans to create. And it’s one of the coolest things you’ll ever see.
Little Canada is intended to be educational, but truthfulness is not the primary goal. The exhibits (which Little Canada calls destinations) are designed to evoke the real thing without being over the top; for example, buildings within an area may be slightly shaken to match the screen. The whole place is ruled by a powerful sense of fun and whimsy, which often spills over into the fantastic. In Petit Quebec, a snake-like sea creature emerges from a construction site. A cross-section of the Château Laurier reveals rooms depicting scenes from novels and TV: James and the Big Peachthe Schitt’s Creek motel room and the ghostly dummies of Goosebumpsto name a few.
The destinations operate on what the staff calls “miniature time,” a 15-minute cycle from day to night that is rendered with dramatic changes of light. Cars, fire trucks and boats slide on tracks powered by hidden magnets. Fireworks every 15 minutes on Canada Day show lit mini parliament. In some scenes, the figurines move: little skiers slide down a rabbit hill at Mont-Sainte-Anne.
It’s fitting that Little Canada is so whimsical, as the idea for the place came from a potent hit of childhood nostalgia. One day in early 2011, Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer, the attraction’s founder, was digging through boxes of childhood items in the basement of his home in Oakville. Brenninkmeijer, who emigrated from Brussels to Oakville in 1999, had recently left behind a long career in the family business, which took him from retail to financing renewable energy.
And that family business? It belongs to one of the richest families in Europe. The Brenninkmeijers are a Dutch-German-Swiss dynasty with a considerable legacy and wealth in the billions. The family’s century-old business interests include an international clothing retailer, a private equity firm, two banks and a real estate fund. But Jean-Louis wanted to do something different with his time. “I’m not someone who likes to sit in front of a computer all day, looking at numbers and making reports,” he says. “I found it very annoying.”
The boxes were collecting dust nearly ten years before his wife suggested we finally go through them. “They were full of model trains from my childhood, some of which were passed down to me by my father,” he says. “The enthusiasm suddenly returned. Every time I opened a box and unpacked a locomotive or piece of track, I thought, ‘Oh, I forgot this one!’ I remember finding a particular train, a green three-piece locomotive nicknamed the Swiss Crocodile, which I associate with my father. I immediately called him and he chuckled quite a bit at the fact that I had just unpacked it.”
Brenninkmeijer started to explore the idea of building a model railway at home. He ordered two tables, laid down a job, and set to work reviving a boy crush that had long been tucked away, just like his old boxes. In 2011, he visited a museum in Hamburg called Miniature Wonderland, which recreates parts of Europe in great detail. That visit, coupled with his revived model train hobby, sparked a daydream of creating something similar in Canada. “At first I thought, That is ridiculous. I don’t have the skills to do such a thing,he says. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Cautiously, Brenninkmeijer contacted some local model train clubs to see if anyone wanted to join. Dave MacLean, civil engineer and president of the Model Railroad Club of Toronto, responded immediately. The two needed one luncheon to become partners in the project, and in their early conversations, the idea of a model train exhibit evolved into a miniature world that would depict Canada coast to coast, with trains in parts of the build.
For Brenninkmeijer, the idea grew out of his love for Canada. He had initially moved to Oakville temporarily for work, but liked it so much that he decided to stay. “I immediately fell in love with the country,” he says. “For me it was the seasons, the friendly people and the diversity of the terrain. You have everything: mountains and deserts and lakes and forests.”
In 2013, Brenninkmeijer and MacLean signed the lease for a 5,000 square foot warehouse space in Mississauga, Ontario. With a team of 10 makers—including hobbyists from the model railroading club—the pair built models of Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe, the first two destinations. They financed it themselves, with investments from friends and family. Between 2014 and 2018, after securing further investments, the team grew to 30 makers and developed three more destinations: Niagara, Ottawa and Quebec.
Brenninkmeijer and MacLean explored dozens of locations before finally signing a lease in August 2019 for 10 Dundas, a 45,000-square-foot space in downtown Toronto. The plan was to open next July with five destinations, plus one under construction, but the pandemic delayed their plans by a year. “The opening day itself was very disappointing,” admits Brenninkmeijer. “We didn’t have as many visitors as I had hoped. But the next weekend was great, and it grew from there.”
Over the next three years, Little Canada will reveal the east coast, the prairies and the north. By 2028, it hopes to open the Rockies, the West Coast and Montreal. The Little North was supposed to be under construction when it opened, but it’s been delayed until 2025 in an effort to find the right craftsmen for the job. “We want it to be designed and built by an indigenous team,” says Brenninkmeijer.
Today, the team consists of 50 builders, including hobbyist dollhouse makers, visual artists, industrial designers, electrical engineers and mechatronics specialists. A single destination can take between 40 and 600 working hours, depending on size and complexity. Most of the detail—and therefore most of the work—goes to what the artisans call the “A-level,” or the highly visible stretch from the edge of a piece to two feet back. In the early days of Little Canada, the makers relied mainly on “kit bashing” – the creative reuse and modification of bits and pieces from pre-existing model kits. Now much of the work is done from scratch with custom 3D printed materials and intricately designed electrical work that brings everything to life.
Most days you can see Brenninkmeijer wandering the corridors of Little Canada, basking in his newfound life, worlds away from the paper-busting career he once feared. “I am a people person. I like being on the floor, walking around and talking to guests,” he says. “Every 15 minutes there is a Canada Day celebration in Little Ottawa in the Parliament Building. We’ve seen people cry, clap as a group. Last weekend we had a group of young children standing on the railings and singing along with The Canada† I had goosebumps.”
This article appears in print in the July 2022 issue of: maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here or buy the issue online here.