The First Parliament:Good Government for New Tenants
Today, we all know the Queen’s Park building, grand and architecturally significant, as the seat of government for Ontario. But like our city, our Parliament started much smaller at a much humbler location.
In the Fall of 2000 beneath the parking lot of an unassuming carwash at Front St. and Berkeley, a team of archeological sleuths found the remains of Upper Canada’s first parliament buildings. The buildings were constructed in 1797 under orders of Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe.
Simcoe was intent upon establishing a capital for his new province (today’s Ontario) away from the Yankee threat across the Niagara frontier from his first capital, Newark (today’s Niaga ra-on-the-Lake). The town site on the shore of Toronto Bay was not the governor’s first choice, but it was a convenient sailing voyage from Newark. So Simcoe established a military base and seat of government in the settlement he called York, but today we call Toronto.
Wartime Revenge Burns Hot
Until 1813 these two buildings housed legislatures when they were in session. They were also appropriated for other public functions, including courthouse for various levels of the judiciary (Court of Appeal, Court of King’s Bench, etc.), and church for the Anglican congregation. Then disaster struck.
In 1812 the upstart, rebellious Americans declared war, yet again, on His Majesty. On April 27, 1812, they attacked the tiny, poorly defended Upper Canadian capital. With superior numbers, they overwhelmed the British garrison at Fort York. As the defenders retreated east towards the town, they blew up the fort’s gunpowder magazine in a devastating explosion that killed or wounded almost one-tenth of the American invading force.
Outraged at the carnage, the American surviving troops went on a destructive rampage. They looted private property and destroyed the First Parliament Buildings, which were burned to charred shells.
After six days the American forces withdrew. Subsequently the British military, Canadian militias and native allies successfully defended Canada in the War of 1812, as we call the conflict today. The Parliament buildings were rebuilt in 1819 but burned again accidentally in 1824. The site then went through a series of uses – a jail, which was demolished in 1887, a Consumers’ Gas works, demolished in 1963, and finally a succession of filling stations, car parks and car washes.
It's the Third Toronto We Live In
This was history’s third “Toronto” that became the capital for the English – new tenants of the land along the north shore of the Great Lakes. The first Toronto had been a First Nations meeting place at the “Narrows” between Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching,near today’s Orillia. In Mohawk the name “Tkaronto” meant “Place of the Fishing Weirs” (literally, “Where trees stand in the water”) for the wooden stakes – still visible under the surface at the Narrows – that Wendat and Chippewa peoples used to capture fish as they migrated between the lakes.
The second Toronto was the French trading “factory” and fort near the mouth of the Humber River. This place was the entrance to the overland portage from Lake Ontario to the first “Toronto”, a route that came to be known as the “Toronto Carrying Place”. The name was transported to the Humber location along with the animal pelts that French coureurs de bois and their First Nations business partners brought to trade in Montreal.
Simcoe felt that aboriginal names were vulgar, so he gave his settlement the “proper” English name of York, a name that happily has not been retained (except for the county). He located his outpost within the bay that formed at the mouth of the river he called the Don.
The First Parliament buildings were located just east of today’s Berkeley Street. They were modest structures, as befitted the most far-flung upstart colony of the British Empire. They would perhaps resemble some century-old town hall in a small rural township that we might encounter on a day trip outside Toronto. Two structures of plastered brick, one for the upper house, the Legislative Council (“worthies” appointed by thegovernor), and one for the Legislative Assembly (elected by “qualified”, landowning, male, white voters). Each building’s dimensions were 40 feet by 24 feet, one-and-a-half storeys, and they were joined by a colonnade.
Unearthing the Past
In the 1990s a group known as Citizens for the Old Town identified the likely location of the First Parliament buildings and pulled together resources, to launch an archeological excavation of the parking lot at Front and Berkeley.
The archeological team, led by Ronald Williamson of Archeological Services Inc., found artifacts from each of the occupations of the site, from gas works to the foundation of the First Parliament buildings themselves. At that level they discovered wooden floorboards, charred from the American burning, limestone footings and dozens of shards, brick fragments and other remains.
The First Parliament site’s restoration and interpretation is now led by Ontario Heritage Trust. They have opened a Parliament Interpretive Centre at 245 Front St. East. The City of Toronto has acquired a large portion of the site from its former private owner. With the participation of the Province of Ontario, there are plans for a library and larger interpretive centre to establish a new tenancy befitting the seminal historical importance of Upper Canada’s First Parliament to Toronto and all Ontarians.