In a basement in downtown Toronto, there is a whole country. The new Miniature Museum of Little Canada depicts the cities, towns, mountains and waterfalls of Canada, all spectacularly brought to life through the magic of sound, animation and mechatronics. In one scene, the Maid of the Mist travels up a 16-foot Niagara River illuminated with iridescent shades of pink, yellow and blue. In another, tiny skiers descend a hyper-realistic Mont-Sainte-Anne that overlooks an elaborate rendering 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 wants to be educational, but plausibility is not its primary objective. The exhibits (which Little Canada calls destinations) are designed to evoke reality without being carbon copies; buildings in an area can be shuffled slightly to fit the display, for example. The whole place is ruled by a powerful sense of fun and fantasy, often spilling over into the fantastical. In Petit Québec, a serpentine sea creature emerges from a construction site. A cross-section of the Château Laurier reveals rooms depicting scenes from novels and television: James and the giant peachthe Schitt’s Creek motel room and the scary mannequins of Goose bumpsto name a few.
Destinations operate on what staff call “miniature time,” a 15-minute day-night cycle represented by dramatic light changes. Cars, fire trucks and boats slide down tracks powered by hidden magnets. Every 15 minutes, a Canada Day fireworks display spectacle illuminates the mini-Parliament. In some scenes, the figurines move: tiny skiers descend a hill of rabbits at Mont-Sainte-Anne.
It’s only fitting that Little Canada should be so whimsical, since the idea for the place came from a powerful shot of childhood nostalgia. One day in early 2011, Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer, the attraction’s founder, was rummaging through the boxes of his childhood belongings in the basement of his Oakville home. Brenninkmeijer, who emigrated from Brussels to Oakville in 1999, had recently left behind a long career in the family business, which had taken him from retail to renewable energy to finance.
And this family business? He belongs to one of the richest families in Europe. The Brenninkmeijers are a Dutch-German-Swiss dynasty with a considerable heritage and a net worth of billions. The family’s centuries-old business interests include an international chain of clothing stores, a private equity firm, two banks and a real estate fund. But Jean-Louis wanted to do something else with his time. “I’m not someone who likes to sit behind a computer all day, looking at numbers and reporting,” he says. “I found it very tedious.”
The boxes had gathered dust for nearly a decade before his wife suggested he browse them. “They were full of model trains from my childhood, some of which were passed down to me from my father,” he says. “The excitement suddenly came back. Every time I opened a box and unpacked a locomotive or a piece of track, I thought, ‘Oh, I forgot that one! I remember finding a particular train , a three-piece green locomotive nicknamed the Swiss Crocodile, which I associate with my father. I called him right away, and he was quite laughed at that I had just unboxed it.
Brenninkmeijer began exploring the idea of building a model train layout at home. He ordered two tables, laid a track, and got to work rekindling a childhood passion that had long been hidden away, just like his old boxes. In 2011 he visited a museum in Hamburg called Miniature Wonderland, which recreates pockets of Europe in exquisite detail. This visit, coupled with his newly revived model railroad hobby, sparked a daydream about creating something similar in Canada. “At first I thought, It’s ridiculous. I don’t have the skills to do something like this,” he said. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Tentatively, Brenninkmeijer contacted a few local model train clubs to see if anyone wanted to board. Dave MacLean, civil engineer and president of the Model Railroad Club of Toronto, responded immediately. It took a lunch for the two to become partners in the project, and in their early conversations the idea evolved from a model train exhibit to a model world that would represent Canada from coast to coast, incorporating trains in some parts of the building.
For Brenninkmeijer, the idea came from his love for Canada. He had first temporarily moved to Oakville for work, but loved it so much he decided to stay. “I fell in love with the country straight away,” he says. “For me, it was the seasons, the friendliness of the 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 in Mississauga, Ontario. With a team of 10 builders, including enthusiasts from the Model Railroad Club, the duo built models of Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe, the first two destinations. They funded it themselves, with investments from friends and family. Between 2014 and 2018, after securing new investment, the team grew to 30 manufacturers and developed three more destinations: Niagara, Ottawa and Quebec.
Brenninkmeijer and MacLean scouted dozens of locations before finally signing a lease at 10 Dundas, a 45,000 square foot space right in downtown Toronto, in August 2019. The plan was to open the following July with five destinations, plus one under construction, but the pandemic has delayed their plans by a year. “Opening day itself was very disappointing,” admits Brenninkmeijer. “We didn’t have as many visitors as I had hoped. But the following weekend was great, and it grew from there.
Over the next three years, Little Canada is about to unveil 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 was delayed to 2025 in a bid 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 hobby dollhouse builders, visual artists, industrial designers, electrical engineers and mechatronics specialists. A single destination can take between 40 and 600 hours of work, depending on its size and complexity. Most detail – and therefore most work – goes into what craftsmen call the “A-level,” or the highly visible stretch of the edge of a piece two feet back. In the early days of Little Canada, makers relied primarily on “kit-bashing” – creatively repurposing and customizing elements and parts from pre-existing model kits. Now much of the work is done from scratch with custom 3D printed materials and intricately designed electrical work bringing it all to life.
Most days, you can find Brenninkmeijer wandering the halls of Little Canada, basking in his new life, worlds away from the paperweight career he once dreaded. ” I’m a sociable person. I like to be on the floor, walking around and talking to guests,” he says. “Every 15 minutes there is a Canada Day celebration in Little Ottawa at the Parliament Building. We saw people tearing up, clapping in groups. Last weekend we had a group of young children standing on the railing and singing along O 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 purchase the issue online here.