Glen Murray (MPP, Toronto Centre, and Ontario Minister of Research and Innovation), Michael Chan (Ontario Minister of Tourism and Culture), and the design for Parliament, the interpretive centre commemorating both the site of Ontario’s first parliament buildings and the War of 1812. Photo by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.
If only an army officer with a taste for curios hadn’t sent an Upper Canadian government clerk a scalp in the mail.
According to an account recorded by 19th century local political activist Robert Gourlay, the legislators who received the scalp and its accompanying letter were not amused by their “present” and tossed it aside. Legend has it that during the siege of York in late April 1813, a group of invading American sailors found the scalp hanging like a trophy inside one of the Ontario parliament buildings, at the southeast corner of Front and Berkeley streets. The sailors were offended by what appeared to be an act of British barbarism committed against an unfortunate countryman. Though it’s possible that orders came from above, the most likely scenario is that the sailors acted like unhappy Vancouver hockey fans and torched the joint (which we avenged by torching Washington, D.C. the following year).
Flash forward two centuries. The last smoke seen coming from a building at that corner emerged from the tailpipe of a Porsche, and the last torn scalp belonged to a bureaucrat tearing their hair out during the long, unfinished process of acquiring that block, running along the south side of Front to Parliament Street. But now, thanks to the efforts of local preservationists and the provincial government, the former car dealership at 265 Front Street East will soon be celebrating Ontario’s first parliament buildings and the conflict that led to their fiery demise.
Design concept for Parliament. Image courtesy of the Ontario Heritage Trust.
At a press conference held on site yesterday afternoon, Ontario Minister of Tourism and Culture Michael Chan and Ontario Heritage Trust (OHT) Chairman Dr. Thomas Symons unveiled the sketch of Parliament, an interpretive centre that will be among the $32 million of projects funded by the province to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Scheduled to open on February 17, 2012, the front of the OHT-operated centre will include historical displays and exhibits, as well as providing space for educational activities and special events. We imagine there will be references to the archaeological dig conducted in 2000, which uncovered remnants of the original foundations and burnt floorboards. To assist with operating costs, part of the building will be leased out to commercial tenants.
Several speakers hinted at the “interim” nature of the centre—hopes were expressed that long-running negotiations with other property owners on the east end of the block will result in an enlarged commemorative site in the future. According to the Star’s Christopher Hume, at least two larger proposals have been made: one envisioning a large public space that includes a library and further digging in the ground, the other keeping some public space alongside a 57-storey condo. (Guess which one Hume prefers.) The centre’s current design screams temporary, especially the wraparound sign that resembles those found on construction hoarding.
A sketch of the first parliament buildings. Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto Volume 1 by John Ross Robertson (Toronto: John Ross Robertson, 1894).
The site was chosen for the seat of government by John Graves Simcoe in 1793. The government operated temporarily out of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) until the buildings were officially opened in 1797. According to historian Henry Scadding, the buildings were “humble but commodious structures, of wood” that consisted of “two elegant halls, with convenient offices for the accommodation of the Legislature and the courts of justice.”
Following the fire, the remaining brick walls were patched up and used as barracks during the rest of the war. New government buildings on the site opened in 1818, but they met with an accidental fiery demise six years later. At that point legislators gave up on the site and eventually settled in a new home further west on Front Street, in the block where CBC now sits. Later occupants included a jail, a gasworks, and various automotive-related businesses.
The sentiments expressed about the site’s significance at yesterday’s opening echoed those made by Scadding in the 1870s:
Objectionable as the first site of the Legislative Buildings at York may appear to ourselves, and alienated as it now is to lower uses, we cannot but gaze upon it with a certain degree of emotion when we remember that here it was the first skirmishes took place in the great war of principles which afterwards with such determination and effect was fought out in Canada. Here it was that first loomed up before the minds of our early lawmakers the ecclesiastical question, the education question, the constitutional question. Here it was that first was heard the open discussion—childlike, indeed, and vague, but pregnant with very weighty consequences—of topics, social and national, which at the time, even in the parent state itself, were mastered but by few.
Additional material from Toronto of Old by Henry Scadding, edited by Frederick H. Armstrong (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1966) and The Battle of Little York by C.P. Stacey (Toronto: Toronto Historical Board, 1977).