The current home of Occupy Toronto protestors played a central role in the earliest conflicts over Canadian democracy.
In some ways, St. James Park seems like an odd home for Occupy Toronto. It isn’t, after all, actually in the financial district; the park sees more pot-smoking George Brown students than bankers or CEOs. When it comes to historical symbolism, though, it’s a natural fit. The land where the park is now, along with the church that towers above it, was at the heart of the earliest battles over Canadian democracy. During the first half of the 1800s, the block between King, Adelaide, Church, and Jarvis streets was witness to war, riots, rebellion, and plagues. The events played a central role in the conflict between Canadian liberals and conservatives. The issue then, as it seems to be now for many of the world’s Occupy protesters, was outrage over a small but powerful group who had amassed vast wealth and political influence.
Back when our city was the tiny little town of York being carved out of an ancient forest, the land that is now St. James Park was on the very western edge of it. There were still only a few blocks laid out and a few hundred people living here when they built the town’s very first church. It went up in the same spot where St. James Cathedral now looms over protesters’ tents. The original St. James was small, only one storey high, built from the pine trees that grew on the lot. It was Anglican, of course, one of the most important centres of public life in a fiercely Protestant English colony. Soon, it would be the religious centre for all of Upper Canada, run by our first bishop, one of the most important, powerful, and anti-democratic men in the history of our country.
John Strachan had grown up in Scotland, and arrived here at a pivotal moment: just as the War of 1812 was breaking out. The United States planned to invade and take over all of Canada. The following summer, American warships sailed across Lake Ontario and landed troops at what’s now the Exhibition grounds. Dozens of them were killed and hundreds wounded during a battle at Fort York, but they pushed on into the town itself, where they wandered our streets for days, looting and pillaging. Our parliament buildings went up in flames. So did other government buildings. Most of the rich families who ran the town fled to their country estates.
Strachan stayed behind. When the Americans showed up at the corner of King and Church, planning to loot St. James, the priest was there to meet them. The way they tell the story, he rode his black horse up onto the steps of the church, black cloak billowing out behind him, and launched a tirade against the invaders with the full force of his impressive personality. The soldiers retreated. Strachan berated the American commander, who was still seasick from the voyage over, demanding that the soldiers stop the looting, pay for the damage, and leave us in peace. They did. Some say that when they came back again in a few months, Strachan made them return the library books they’d stolen the first time.
The stand-off on the steps of St. James and the negotiations that followed made Strachan a hero. As York’s population grew, so did his power. Soon he was the undisputed leader of the rich, Protestant, American-hating, and monarchy-loving conservatives who ran the town. Most came to hear him preach at the church every Sunday morning.
Not all of his parishioners thought so highly of him, though. Since it was the official state church, even the most radical liberals attended services at St. James. They denounced the conservative rulers as corrupt, and with good reason: those rulers didn’t hesitate to use public office to make themselves rich. They gave themselves multiple appointments so they could receive multiple salaries. They granted themselves free land and took more from anyone who wasn’t British. They gave cushy jobs to their relatives. If they were caught abusing their power, they—like so many of the executives responsible for the financial crisis nearly 200 years later—usually used their connections to make sure they never saw the inside of a jail cell. The sheriff was one of them; so were most of the judges. As a result, they amassed enormous personal fortunes at the expense of ordinary citizens.
They also loathed democracy. To them, it was a terrifying, American idea. Upper Canada did have an elected assembly, but even when the Tory Party lost an election and the liberal Reform Party won, it didn’t really matter. All the true power was held by the British Lieutenant Governor, who was always happy to have monarchist conservatives running things.
If anyone dared to even ask the question of whether something could be improved in any way, they were attacked. When a liberal named Robert Gourlay circulated a survey asking citizens for their input on civic improvements, the Tories banished him from Upper Canada. His bust now stands in St. James Park, in the midst of the Occupy Toronto tents.
When Francis Collins, an Irish-born Catholic, criticized the Tories in his newspaper, they threw him in jail. When a jury found him not guilty, the judge made them change their verdict. A plaque in Collins’ memory now stands where his print shop used to, on the eastern edge of St. James Park.
Once, William Lyon Mackenzie used his newspaper to call one of Strachan’s students, Samuel Jarvis, a murderer for having killed a man during a duel under suspicious circumstances. Jarvis organized a mob, attacked Mackenzie’s home, terrorized his family, broke his printing press, and threw his type into Lake Ontario. Influential Tories watched it all happen in broad daylight. They did nothing. It was Mackenzie who would give them their nickname: instead of the “one per cent,” he called them the Family Compact.
Still, there were some strides toward true democracy. One of the most important came in the 1830s, as cholera swept across the globe. Millions died sudden and gruesome deaths. The town of York—whose population was skyrocketing past 10,000—wasn’t prepared. In fact, it was a disgusting, disease-ridden mess. This was a time when people still poured their urine and feces into the streets. Their dead animals were tossed into the lake, which is where they got their drinking water. When cholera arrived, it spread like wildfire.
Again, the ruling class fled to the countryside. Strachan and Mackenzie stayed behind. They both volunteered as attendants for the death carts. They toured the town picking up corpses and took the bodies of the victims to be buried at St. James. There, mass graves had been dug in the cemetery beside the church. It’s believed that there may be as many as hundreds or even thousands of cholera victims still buried there, beneath the Occupy Toronto tents. Some claim that after a particularly hard rain, pieces of bone turn up in the park.
“It is situated where no cemetery ought to be,” Francis Collins complained in his newspaper, “in the very centre of town at King and Church, and so crowded they had to bury the cholera sufferers in a swampy corner where it’s revolting to see remains of human beings deposited in mud and dirty water. Bodies were secretly interred in the dark and so carelessly that in walking across the cemetery this spring we saw some of the graves down to the coffin lids. The cholera swamp ought to be covered with six inches of lime.” Collins spent hours at the hospital, comforting victims. That’s probably where he caught it. He, his wife, his daughter, his brother, and his sister-in-law would all die of cholera within three weeks of each other. He left three orphans behind.
The inept response to the plague helped force the Family Compact’s hand. Even they had to admit the town would need more power over its affairs in order to fight the disease. The Lieutenant Governor’s preparations had centred around a day of “Public Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer.” It didn’t seem to work. They needed to be able to quickly pass laws to clean up the streets—without worrying about him getting in the way. It was agreed that the Town of York would become the City of Toronto. It would have a democratically elected mayor and council, with real power to pass laws and enforce them. Our first City Hall was in the St. Lawrence Market, a block to the south of today’s St. James Park. Mackenzie became our first mayor.
Progress after that was slow, but St. James continued to play an important role. A few years after the cholera outbreak, an impatient Mackenzie marched an army down Yonge Street in an attempt to overthrow the Family Compact and bring full democracy to Canada. It was the bells of St. James that rang out in warning (as soon as they’d found the key to the bell tower). Days later, it was John Strachan who rode at the Lieutenant Governor’s side as their army marched north to crush the rebels in the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern. Two of the rebels would undergo a show trial and be hanged. A petition with thousands of signatures begging for mercy was ignored. The men spent their final moments on a gallows raised a block to the west of where Occupy Toronto is happening now.
In the end, it would take another liberal member of the congregation at St. James to finally bring real democracy to Canada. Robert Baldwin had been born on Front Street, just a few blocks away from the church. He and his francophone ally, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, rejected the violence of the rebellions. Instead, they combined their political support from both English- and French-speaking Canadians and swept to power in a landslide election. In 1849, backed by that overwhelming popular support, they brought in Responsible Government. The Canadian legislature passed our own laws and the Governor General agreed to them. Conservatives were outraged. They rioted, attacked the Governor General’s carriage and burned the parliament buildings in Montreal to the ground, but to no avail. The Family Compact’s stranglehold on power had been broken.
Coincidentally, the Great Fire of 1849 tore through downtown Toronto that same month. The entire block between King, Adelaide, Church, and Jarvis went up flames. The old St. James Church, which had already been rebuilt and upgraded several times, was destroyed. In the wake of the fire, John Strachan would oversee the construction of a new St. James: that same grand cathedral that towers above the Occupy Toronto protesters today.
Strachan was still bishop, but his power was waning. Just a couple of blocks from the priest’s home on Front Street, Baldwin and LaFontaine were hard at work in the new parliament buildings, laying the foundations for a nation built on democratic principles, diversity, and religious freedom. Strachan died, an old man, in the same year our nation was born: 1867. Thousands of Torontonians attended his state funeral. His body was interred in the place where it remains to this day: beneath the chancel in the Cathedral Church of St. James.
Nearly 200 years after he first set foot in Toronto, Strachan rests at the heart of a city and a country that share little in common with his vision for Canada. Not even his own church shares his views anymore. There was a time when the priest of St. James Cathedral would demand the arrest and exile of democratic protesters. His modern successor has released a statement supporting their right to peaceful dissent. The cathedral has even shared its electricity supply with Occupy Toronto tents. This block along King Street East has seen a lot over the years—and it seems it might have learned a few things, too.