As the city marks its 180th birthday, a look back at its beginnings and how it got its name.
Flipping through the pages of the March 6, 1834, edition of the Advocate newspaper gives you few hints a momentous occasion would occur that day. The first two pages feature details of debates in Lower Canada over improving colonial governance—not until the fourth column of page three, after pieces on political reform gatherings and odes to leather tanners, do you encounter a story about the provincial legislation [PDF] that created the City of Toronto on that day 180 years ago.
By the dawn of 1834, York was growing fast. Its population had quadrupled in six years, going from around 2,200 residents in 1828 to 9,200. Such growth, unfortunately, magnified the flaws of the existing governance structure: the Town of York was part of the larger Home District, which by 1834 consisted of portions of present-day Durham, Peel, and York Regions. The district was governed by an appointed committee of part-time magistrates known as the Courts of Quarter Sessions of the Peace. Becoming a magistrate was a reflection of one’s social status, which meant the ranks were dominated by the Family Compact and its allies.
As York grew, the magistrates found they couldn’t keep up with its infrastructure demands. Unable to raise tax rates above absurdly low levels, they borrowed money to build courthouses, jails, and markets. Police funding was scant, and volunteers were recruited to provide fire service. Inadequate attempts to build a sewer system contributed to several outbreaks of cholera during the 1830s.
York needed help.
By 1830, provincial attorney-general Henry John Boulton had proposed that York be incorporated as a city with an elected municipal government possessing increased powers of taxation. The usual unproductive partisan bickering between Reformers and Tories delayed the process until a committee drafted a bill in 1833. The bill’s preamble contained a significant change to York’s identity:
And whereas the name of York is common to so many towns and places that it is desirable for avoiding inconvenience and confusion to designate the capital of the Province by a name which will better distinguish it, and none appears more eligible than that by which the site of the present town was known before the name York was assigned to it.
Renaming York as Toronto angered some provincial legislators. During a March 1, 1834 debate in the assembly, detractors like William Jarvis claimed the change would cause confusion. John Willison felt it disrespected the memory of the most recent Duke of York, and pointed out that neither the state nor the city of New York had changed its name. Proponents of Toronto pointed out the name’s aboriginal origins and its meaning, which was then believed to be “meeting place,” and so was well suited to the seat of provincial government. Some legislators, such as William Berczy, felt Toronto rolled off the tongue better than York (“the sound is in every respect better”).
The new city was split into five wards, each of which elected two aldermen and two councilmen. The difference between the two positions was that aldermen possessed more personal property, and could sit on a new city court. The mayor would be chosen by city council from the aldermanic pool. General voting rights were given to male property holders.
The local Reformer press attacked the new bill. Among its harshest critics was the ever-volatile William Lyon Mackenzie, who saw it as a Tory scheme to raise taxes and restrict who sat on city council. “We oppose it because on a careful consideration of its bearings,” Mackenzie wrote 180 years ago today in the Advocate. “We are convinced that it will be injurious to the peace and prosperity of our fellow townsmen.” The Canadian Correspondent observed that “one would scarcely imagine that things could be so disposed of on the continent of North America … that a man’s poverty should be decisive of his despicability, whilst rascality with a few paltry pounds [the currency of the time] may exercise the municipal franchise and be installed LORD MAYOR.”
When it was clear incorporation was going to come to pass, Mackenzie adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. Along with other prominent Reformers, Mackenzie ran for city council when the first municipal election was held on March 27, 1834, and he was among the 12 Reformers who gained the majority of seats. This victory may have seemed like sweet revenge against the Tories to Mackenzie, who had spent the previous year repeatedly being escorted out of the provincial assembly whenever he tried to take his seat. Historian Jesse Edgar Middleton summed up the mood of the electorate:
These voters were not a miscellaneous lot. They were all householders, mostly heads of families, and might be counted as the solid citizens of the community. For the time being they were red-hot because, obviously Mackenzie had been bilked of his constitutional rights. They knew him to be an able man. He had given proof a hundred times of his knowledge of public finance, parliamentary practice, and constitutional law. He had courage to no end. He was sincere, he was incorruptible. While he was inclined to allow his criticism to trail off into coarse abuse, the people remembered that the provocation had been great, and made allowances.
Toronto’s first year was rocky—another cholera epidemic, deadly political riots, Mackenzie alienating people galore—but it was because of the framework established during that time that Toronto grew into the city we celebrate today.
Addition material from Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History by J.M.S. Careless (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1984); The City of York 1815-1834, edited by Edith G. Firth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966); The Story of Toronto by G.P. deT. Glazebrook (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971); The Firebrand by William Kilbourn (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1956); Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934 by Jesse Edgar Middleton (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934); Toronto of Old by Henry Scadding, edited by Frederick H. Armstrong (Toronto: Dundurn, 1987); the March 6, 1834 edition of the Advocate; and the February 8, 1834 edition of the Canadian Correspondent.