The roots of democracy: Ontario’s first parliament buildings

York, Upper Canada, ca.1804 (detail), Elizabeth Frances Hale Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, 1970-188-2092.

Photo: York, Upper Canada, ca.1804 (detail), Elizabeth Frances Hale Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, 1970-188-2092.


Wayne Kelly

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: May 31, 2011

As the bicentennial of the War of 1812 approaches, excitement is building at the site of Ontario’s first parliament buildings in Toronto.

Responding to fears of war with the United States, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe decided to move the provincial capital inland, from Niagara to York (now Toronto). In the newlyfounded town, he established Ontario’s first purpose-built parliament buildings – two singlestorey brick structures near the intersection of present-day Front and Parliament streets. After opening in June 1797, the buildings served many purposes in the young community; they were used for court proceedings, religious services and government.

The site of the first parliament buildings witnessed moments in history that helped to shape early Ontario, including: the birth of representative government, the establishment of York as provincial capital, the settlement and defence of the province, and the limitation of slavery in Upper Canada – making Ontario the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to take steps to do so.

The site also endured through times of war. In 1812, the United States declared war on Britain, hoping to expand its borders into Upper Canada. American forces attacked York in April 1813, overwhelming the small garrison through gallant fighting. After occupying the town from April 27 to May 2, American troops set fire to the parliament buildings and took as war booty (or trophies) the royal standard from Fort York and the speaker’s mace and lion statue from the parliament buildings. The mace was returned to Canada in 1934 and is displayed at the Ontario Legislative Building. The royal standard and lion statue are held as trophies of war at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

By December 1820, the parliament buildings had been rebuilt on the same site, but were destroyed again by an accidental chimney fire in 1824. The site took on new life, becoming home to the district jail and later an expansive gas works.

Today, the site is historically significant for its association with the early beginnings of our representative government. The Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled a provincial plaque to commemorate Ontario’s First Parliament Buildings in 1988. Archaeological excavations have yielded artifacts, including remnants of burnt timbers that provide tangible reminders of the War of 1812.

The Trust acquired part of the site in 2005, and seeks to protect the remainder of the property in the long term. The site has the potential to enable people to discover our early history, to understand the roots of democracy in Ontario, to commemorate the War of 1812 bicentennial and to reflect on the values and laws that define this province.