The man who built a $24-million miniature replica of Canada

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For a man obsessed with tiny things, Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer is strikingly tall. He keeps his grey hair scrupulously coiffed, and everything from the ’do down is just as polished. He is well-mannered but not unduly warm, speaking precise, full-paragraph English in the ambiguous continental accent of a European diplomat, the product of decades spent hopscotching between London, Paris, Rotterdam, Brussels, Dusseldorf and Toronto while working for the family business.

Five generations back, Brenninkmeijer’s ancestors founded C&A, a global clothing empire with thousands of stores around the world. You might call it the Netherlands’ answer to H&M if it weren’t a century older. Today, the Dutch-German Brenninkmeijer family business employs tens of thousands of people in retail, finance and real estate. They are unfathomably wealthy and notoriously private. An inner circle of high-ranking relatives oversees the dynasty. Even family members aren’t guaranteed success: those with Brenninkmeijer blood have to apply to work for the family, and managing directors are forced to retire at 50 to make room for younger generations. They rarely grant media interviews, but details occasionally trickle out—for instance, one of Jean-Louis’s cousins is married to a Dutch princess. The most tantalizing mystery remains the size of the entire Brenninkmeijer fortune. By some estimates, the family is worth $29 billion.

No matter how those billions are dispersed, the 60-year-old Brenninkmeijer could certainly spend the rest of his life on a yacht, breathing in the Caribbean ocean air with a glass of rosé in hand. But his ambitions are bigger—or, rather, much smaller. Instead of retiring in opulence, he is spending his riches on something more bizarre: a sprawling, outrageously detailed miniature replica of Canada.

Over the past 10 years, Brenninkmeijer and a merry band of model makers have been creating a Lilliputian replica of the country. In their tiny version of Toronto, elevators zoom up and down a 14.5-foot-tall CN Tower, and toy-sized trucks inch along a micro Gardiner Expressway. A lift delivers teensy skiers to the top of Mont-Sainte-Anne in Petit Quebec, and on the peewee Parliament Hill lawn, a crowd of half-inch figurines celebrates a Canada Day concert in perpetuity.

Brenninkmeijer hopes to one day host citizenship ceremonies in front of Little Canada’s Parliament Hill

This tiny world, which Brenninkmeijer calls Little Canada, currently features astoundingly accurate renditions of Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara, the Golden Horseshoe and Quebec City. Over the next several years, it will grow to include Montreal, the Prairies, the Rockies and both coasts, as well as a temperature-controlled Little North. The exhibit lives inside a labyrinthine 45,000-square-foot space next to Yonge-Dundas Square. And, Covid permitting, it will open to full-sized flesh-and-bone visitors later this summer.

Such a peculiar and patriotic project would be a zany undertaking for anyone. It’s particularly strange for Brenninkmeijer, who knew nothing about Canada for much of his life. The oldest of six siblings, he grew up in the London suburb of Wimbledon, where his dad constructed a model train set in the attic. A quiet and introspective kid, Jean-Louis took to the little locomotives, assembling shoebox-sized houses along the tracks and moulding mountains out of plaster. No detail was too small. “For me,” he says, “everything had to be perfect.” He presided over his secret realm with the discipline he absorbed at boarding school, a private academy run by Benedictine monks where he was expected to make his bed with hospital corners every morning.

When Brenninkmeijer graduated from high school, he packed his tracks and tiny train cars into boxes and joined the family business. To land his first job, he wrote a letter to a distant uncle and flew to the Netherlands for a rigorous interview. On his first day at a C&A store in Rotterdam, he showed up in a blue suit and white dress shirt, only to find himself stocking shelves and cleaning windows. “Tomorrow,” his manager told him, “come in work clothes.”

Two decades later, after working his way up the C&A hierarchy, he was transferred to Oakville for two years of specialty retail management training in the company’s Canadian stores. But he and his wife, Mimi, an orthotist from Belgium, quickly fell for their new home, its friendly and apologetic people, its vast and varied landscapes. They learned about Canada vicariously through their four sons, each of whom was assigned a research project on a particular province in Grade 4. So, instead of jetting back to Europe after the two years were up, they bought a house in Oakville. Their purchase was comically Canadian: a gated six-bedroom mansion formerly owned by retired NHLer Dave Gagner, with a swimming pool and 90-by-50-foot hockey rink in the backyard. Gagner’s son, Sam, who suited up for the Detroit Red Wings last season, grew up playing shinny there with Leafs captain John Tavares, and they still pop by occasionally and skate with the Brenninkmeijer boys.

Brenninkmeijer spent the 2000s investing in renewable energy, and in 2010 the family business offered him a lucrative private equity position. Within four months, he quit. “It was basically sitting behind a computer all day and looking at reports,” he says. “I didn’t like the work. I didn’t like the people.”

When he found himself unexpectedly unemployed at age 50, Mimi suggested he dig out the model trains he’d been lugging around since they met. So he dusted off the old boxes and rediscovered locomotives his father had given him decades earlier. He set up two tables in the basement and immediately began rebuilding his kingdom. “I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it,” he says. “It’s like a fantasy world. You can dream. You can get lost. You forget about reality.”

The next spring, Brenninkmeijer visited Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland, the largest model train display in the world—it took nearly 800,000 working hours over 17 years to build. Inside a 75,000-square-foot warehouse, a thousand trains weave through impeccably detailed recreations of iconic European cities. Its rendition of the Swiss Alps was so tall it sliced through the ceiling. Brenninkmeijer wandered the attraction for 10 hours. “I went with my cousin, and we were asked to leave because the place was closing,” he says. To him, the exhibit wasn’t a whimsical blast from the past. It was the inspiration for his future. After all, he needed something to do. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I did something like this in Canada?’ ”

Brenninkmeijer hired architects, electricians, mechatronics specialists, sculptors, painters, digital artists, visual artists, plumbers and, eventually, all the administrative staff his ballooning company required

By the time Brenninkmeijer came home, Little Canada was already taking shape in his imagination. He could see tiny TTC trains screeching along a bijou Bloor Viaduct, itsy-bitsy skaters gliding down a tiny Rideau Canal. He knew, vaguely, that the project would take several years and cost millions of dollars. He had the time and the money. What he needed was the technical support to turn his far-fetched dream into reality.

Virtually every big city and small town across the Western world has a model railway society, a club of mostly older men who gather weekly to toil away on a tiny domain. For tinkerers and DIYers, it’s the ultimate pastime. It combines carpentry, electronics, painting, engineering and design into one geeky pursuit with no finite endpoint. In mid-2011, Brenninkmeijer emailed eight model railway clubs around the GTHA, asking for help building the Canadian equivalent of Miniatur Wunderland. Most ignored him. Others balked—they said it would be too complex, too costly. Many of these clubs had spent tens of thousands of hours and dollars building compact approximations of nondescript rural towns, and here was Brenninkmeijer, a novice, proposing to construct the entire country. “They thought I was mad,” he says.

For the sake of verisimilitude, a random assortment of the Royal York hotel’s windows light up, while others have drawn curtains

All but one, that is. Brenninkmeijer’s email piqued the interest of David MacLean, then president of the Model Railroad Club of Toronto. A FedEx manager by day and miniature wonk by night, he had a degree in civil engineering and a taste for challenges that made others recoil. He invited Brenninkmeijer to visit his clubhouse in the basement of a former munitions factory in Liberty Village, where his compatriots—a smattering of hobbyists and retired railway workers—had recreated the defunct Central Ontario Railway, which ran through Prince Edward County until 1984. The display was obsessively faithful, a tangle of trains, bridges and tunnels dotted with roundhouses, farms and waterfalls. Just beneath the surface, a vast network of wires and microchips kept the trains chugging along collision-free. It was an impressive testament to what MacLean and his club could pull off.

Brenninkmeijer and MacLean met for lunch at the Moxie’s in Square One to start wrapping their heads around how they might recreate Canada in miniature. Of course, it would be impossible to replicate the entire country from coast to coast, but they figured they could miniaturize certain cities and landmarks. They brainstormed which ones to build, and from what materials. Where would they put Little Canada, they wondered, and who should they hire to help them? There was so much to discuss that they decided to meet again at Moxie’s two weeks later, and then again two weeks after that. It was such an epic undertaking that they ended up meeting every other Thursday for 18 months. In 2013, they incorporated a company called Our Home and Miniature Land. When they signed the documents, they asked the Moxie’s manager to act as a witness. Brenninkmeijer became a Canadian citizen soon after.

The Scotiabank Arena was still called the Air Canada Centre when Brenninkmeijer’s team began working on it

In January 2014, the duo leased an empty warehouse unit in Mississauga, hired six veteran miniature makers and went to work. They started with Toronto, the densest and most difficult location; if they’d embarked on a Sisyphean task, at least they’d find out fast. They stocked up on parts from model train manufacturers, which sell a dizzying selection of generic minuscule objects: buildings, street signs, tiny people in every imaginable occupation. But in order to make their scaled-down city actually look like Toronto, Brenninkmeijer and his staff made innumerable additions and alterations. The bones of the buildings along Queen and King streets, for example, came from off-the-shelf kits, but the team custom-made all the details that render the scene believable—bus stops, manhole covers, pipes, vents, chimneys, façades—studying Google Street View images to ensure they were getting the details right. Brenninkmeijer made about 300 calls to companies like Tim Hortons, CBC and the Big Five banks, asking to license their logos. His team even assembled mini-wheelchairs and painted the skin of the prefab figurines, which were all white when they arrived, to reflect the diversity of the country they were recreating.

For the big stuff—the CN Tower, the Scotiabank Arena and the financial district towers—the team digitally sketched the buildings in 3-D, divided the structures into small pieces, then used a laser cutter to make them out of materials such as plywood, balsa or styrene. From there, it was just a matter of painting, gluing, assembling and praying nothing would fall apart.

Most of Little Canada is built at a scale of 1:87—the standard for HO model trains—but some structures, including the Mies van der Rohe–designed Toronto-Dominion Centre, needed to be scaled down to avoid hitting the ceiling

With Toronto and Hamilton well under way, Brenninkmeijer turned to Ottawa, starting with its crown jewel, Parliament Hill. They leased a second warehouse in Mississauga for construction, and he navigated layers of bureaucracy to secure architectural drawings of the parliament building. From there, his team started laser cutting hundreds of intricate windows into sheets of fibreboard, assembling dozens of spires and laying down the perfectly manicured fabric lawn. Its fence alone consists of 200 toothpick-thin pieces of laserboard, each of which took six and a half minutes to make with an engraver. All told, three people spent 3,000 hours creating the Hill.

Before long, the warehouse looked like Santa’s workshop. Its shelves were lined with bins of plastic people and miniature trees. The space was stuffed with all manner of materials—paints, wires, sculpting clays, foams, acrylic sheets, wooden planks, LED lights—and tools big and small: brushes, saws, levels, drills, laser engravers, 3-D printers. There were guns for spray-painting, guns for soldering, guns for nailing. The team was growing, too. Brenninkmeijer and MacLean hired architects, electricians, mechatronics specialists, sculptors, painters, digital artists, visual artists, plumbers and, eventually, all the administrative staff his ballooning company required. (By opening day, Little Canada will employ nearly 100 people.)

The world they were building was small, but the price tag was not. A single square foot of Little Canada could cost between $500 (a sparsely detailed scene in rural Quebec, for example) and $1,200 (a packed city block in downtown Toronto). The five-by-five-foot Rogers Centre alone was $60,000, enough to buy a Tesla. To date, Brenninkmeijer has spent roughly $10 million of his own money on Little Canada. He’s raised several million more from institutional and high-profile investors, including ZoomerMedia founder Moses Znaimer and a number of Brenninkmeijer’s relatives. But his venture is in large part bankrolled by a zealous contingent of 150 investors, including miniatures enthusiasts and model railway society members, who pledged $14 million to Little Canada through a crowdfunding campaign.

There’s a custom-made replica of the Monument to Multiculturalism in front of Union Station

One of them is Russell Deacon, an electrical engineer from the Kitchener-Waterloo area who grew up spending his newspaper delivery earnings on model trains. When he visited the warehouse in April 2018, he was blown away. “This was not a railway demonstration,” he says. “This was a true representation of Canada.” Everywhere he looked, a detail delighted him. There was a construction site with a working jackhammer, and people hanging out inside houses. He couldn’t help but marvel at the Rogers Centre. It has 20,000 individual seats, each big enough for a tiny fan figurine. Its dome opens exactly as it does IRL, and its floodlights—in fanatical devotion to the real thing—gradually brighten when turned on, mimicking the in-stadium experience. The team is working with the Blue Jays on a deal where the jumbotron, about the size of an iPad Mini screen, plays reruns of the team’s World Series wins. Deacon initially planned to put $10,000 into Little Canada, but he has since invested more than $200,000. “If you told me, ‘You have as much space as you want to build the most incredible train set ever,’ this would be it,” he says. “This is my dream.”

By 2019, Brenninkmeijer was getting closer to achieving his own dream. But he didn’t want Little Canada to live in a warehouse forever; he wanted people to see it. After scouting more than 60 locations, he signed a lease for two subterranean floors at 10 Dundas East, a space that used to house a GoodLife gym. Tens of thousands of commuters, students and tourists file through that building every day.

Or at least they used to. Just as soon as Brenninkmeijer and the team had deconstructed Little Canada into eight-by-eight-foot squares, the pandemic hit. The leases expired on their Mississauga warehouses, but Covid restrictions prevented them from moving into their downtown space. The entire exhibition sat inside 14 tractor-trailers for three months. When they were finally allowed to take possession in June 2020, the logistical nightmare continued. The trailers didn’t fit through the building’s garage doors, and the elevator wasn’t big enough to fit the squares. A structural pillar obstructed the way down via an escalator, and the stairwell was simply too narrow to allow anything through. The only solution was to cut a hole in the floor of the building, install a crane and lower everything in. Last August, decked out in a face mask, hard hat and safety vest, Brenninkmeijer watched plank upon plank of his custom-made country disappear into the floor. One wrong move could erase tens of thousands of hours of work. “It was nothing like opening a retail store, where you’ve done the same thing 20 or 30 times,” he says. “No one has done this before.”

The team constructed a mini version of Hamilton’s steel mills by combining ready-made kits of industrial structures

When Toronto reopens, almost everything—working in an office, dining in a restaurant, dancing in a club—will feel surreal. But Little Canada will be particularly uncanny. It is both minuscule and massive, eerily lifelike yet obviously unreal. When you arrive, you hear the thunderous roar of Niagara Falls, but as you turn the corner, the awe-inspiring deluge is no taller than a dining room table. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, entire vineyards are the length of a wine bottle. Squint and you’ll see grapes the size of grains of sand.

Little Toronto bustles as if the pandemic never happened. GO trains shuffle in and out of Union Station. Cyclists pedal down city streets on paper-thin bikes. Cars the size of Hot Wheels drive themselves along magnetic strips hidden under the Don Valley Parkway. Every 15 minutes, day fades to night, and 30,000 LEDs illuminate the end of pen-sized streetlights and the windows of downtown skyscrapers. Across the city, fantastical vignettes reveal the whimsical sense of humour of Little Canada’s creators: EdgeWalkers hang off the side of the CN Tower, three little pigs stop traffic on the 401, an out-of-place penguin waits for a bus.

Little Canada’s big-ticket structures will surely fill your Instagram feed for the rest of 2021, but the exhibit’s real marvel is the verisimilitude of seemingly inconsequential details. A single unkempt lawn contains thousands of fibres, each six millimetres tall and made using glue imbued with an electrical charge to ensure they stand up straight. Every tree in Little Canada is unique. Some are made from strands of wire, twisted into gnarly trunks, peeled to create the illusion of branches, then adorned with bunches of ground-up green foam. Others deeper in the display are simpler—a Brillo-esque polyfibre affixed to a wooden stick. “One of the challenges is knowing how far to take something,” says Kurt Jensen, a miniature maker who’s built bridges, houses and cliffs. “You can spend 40 hours on one square foot and then realize no one will be able to see it because it’s in the back corner behind three buildings. When you enjoy this work, the temptation is to go all out.”

Each member of the Little Canada team designed the interior of one suite at the Château Laurier in Little Ottawa

In those unseen nooks and crannies, Brenninkmeijer encouraged Little Canada’s three dozen miniature makers to leave their signatures—random injections of personality that mimic the spontaneity of real life. Jensen left his initials at the bottom of a cliff he designed, as if spray-painted by a teenage tagger. Even if people will never see a detail, it would be sacrilege to cut corners. “I’ve often wondered what it is about people who like building models. Is it control?” says Jensen. “Because what we’re really doing is building our own world, which has some interesting implications if you follow it down a rabbit hole.”

Brenninkmeijer, of course, is Little Canada’s de facto deity, but he seems utterly uninterested in taking his day of rest. Covid-willing, as crowds begin to file through his world this summer, he’ll be placing wee polar bears in the Arctic exhibition. Come back in a few years and you may find him inspecting the peaks of the Rockies or filling the seats of Olympic Stadium. He has plans to take his creation beyond Canada’s borders, crafting a Vimy Ridge and building a toy-sized International Space Station, complete with a guitar-strumming Chris Hadfield. Lucky for Brenninkmeijer—a man who loves the process more than the end product—there will always be something new to build. Even in miniature, Canada is a big place.

 


This story appears in the July 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.