An exhibit at Fort York celebrates how the 13th-century document has inspired the fight for democracy and human rights.
King John was not the luckiest of English monarchs. Before coming to the throne, he was nicknamed “Lackland” because, as the youngest son of King Henry II’s brood, he was never expected to inherit anything significant. Once the crown rested on his head, he lived up to his nickname by losing much of his ancestral land in France. His reputation for bad behaviour and dishonesty were exaggerated to the point that he became a perfect villain for later writers, especially anyone dabbling with Robin Hood.
John’s relationship with his feudal barons deteriorated to the point that, on June 15, 1215, he signed a document curbing his powers. That charter, the Magna Carta, evolved from a peace settlement into a cornerstone of modern Western traditions of law and democracy. Historian Ralph V. Turner has observed that over time it fostered, especially among Americans, “a tradition of opposing government’s threats to individual liberties that peoples throughout the world now seek to imitate in their struggles against tyranny.”
The document currently displayed at Fort York is one of six surviving copies of the edition produced in 1300, which bear the seal of King Edward I. It is accompanied by a copy from the same year of the Charter of the Forest, originally signed by Henry III in 1217 to allow greater use of royal lands. Both fragile documents belong to Durham Cathedral, which is closely monitoring their presentation from across the Atlantic. Don’t you dare use a flash when snapping photos of the papers, which are insured for $37 million.
Fort York is the third stop in a four-city tour presented by Magna Carta Canada, an organization devoted to educating the public about the charter’s legacies as it marks its 800th anniversary. First approached about displaying the documents four years ago, Magna Carta Canada co-chair Len Rodness believed there was a great opportunity “to experience a document which is iconic and central to the development of the rule of law and our democratic governance and human rights and freedoms that we enjoy here in Canada today.”
The exhibition illustrates the history of Magna Carta, setting it within the context of 13th-century England. After passing the protective cases housing the documents, pillars outline constitutional and civil rights developments through Canadian history. An interactive globe traces Magna Carta’s influence around the world, while a set of magnets allows visitors to express their thoughts of what a modern-day charter should include.
Unlike other stops, local content has been added by the city’s museums division, providing a perspective on how Torontonians have contributed to issues surrounding democracy, human rights, and justice. The walls tell stories of significant figures stretching from John Graves Simcoe to Jane Doe divided into themes of good governance, women’s rights, and LGBT acceptance. Items on display include a finely etched, heart-shaped prisoners’ box carved by someone rounded up after the Rebellion of 1837; a book of Upper Canadian legislation flipped to the pages where slavery was outlawed; a bust of Emily Stowe which sat long-neglected in City Hall; and the robe and bulletproof vest worn by Brent Hawkes while performing the city’s first legal same-sex marriage.
A tie-in lecture series includes six talks by historian Carolyn Harris (who was written about Magna Carta’s impact on Canada), and sessions featuring several people mentioned on the exhibit’s walls, including Doe, Hawkes, and former mayor John Sewell.
Additional material from Magna Carta by Ralph V. Turner (Toronto: Pearson Longman, 2003).