In commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta by King John I of England, in 1215, this seminal human rights document, along with the accompanying Charter of the Forest, has been put on a travelling exhibition across Canada to coincide with our nation's upcoming 150th birthday. Having already made stops at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, this special exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty & Legacy, will be in Toronto from October 4 to November 7, 2015 at Fort York National Historic Site.

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoVisitor Centre Entrance, Fort York National Historic Site, image by Adrian Gamble

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoVisitor Centre Entrance, under the Gardiner Expressway, image by Adrian Gamble

Visitors to the exhibition will learn about the significance of the Magna Carta through a ten minute video presentation on its history and its connection to Canadian Confederation, to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and more broadly, to modern understandings of Human Rights around the world. The video comes with royal pedigree, thanks in no small measure to narration by none other than the Prince of Wales.

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoA Royal Welcome, Prince Charles greets visitors in a video presentation, image by Adrian Gamble

The exhibition is broken into three distinct parts; History, Legacy, and Justice Today.

  • History sets up the historical context for the Magna Carta, which at its core, was a binding legal document that sought to limit the power of the Monarchy, to ensure that no one was above the law, to provide the right to a free trial (including the notion of habeas corpus), and for the first time, legal protection for widows and their property.
  • Legacy seeks to link the legal essence of the Magna Carta to the history of Canada, from the Royal Proclamation of 1763, to the British North America Act of 1867, to the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
  • Justice Today deals with contemporary Human Rights issues around the world.

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoVisitors gather in the main gallery space, image by Adrian Gamble

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoMedieval costumes on display with accompanying audio component, image by Adrian Gamble

The main gallery space, a softly lit room containing a series of explanatory information boards and interactive displays, is focused on the priceless Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest and accompanying artefacts. The documents are each held in their own illuminated display cases. Those with cameras will be gently asked to keep a distance, and to turn flashes off; super-sensitive security sensors are wired directly to the Magna Cart's permanent home at Durham Castle in the United Kingdom.

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoThe Magna Carta, one of twenty-four copies made between 1215 and 1300, image by Adrian Gamble

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoCharter of the Forest, accompanying document to the Magna Carta, image by Adrian Gamble

A small adjoining room contains the Justice Today section, where exhibits highlight the Human Rights struggles of various groups through history. A bronze bust of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abolitionist and early women's rights activist, is a focal point of the space.

Fort York National Historic Site, Toronto"Justice Today," charting the history of various groups' paths to equality, image by Adrian Gamble

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoHarriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96), American Abolitionist and Women's Rights Advocate, image by Adrian Gamble

Along with the special exhibition, visitors will also be welcome into the Fort itself. While little has changed at Fort York proper—long a rite of passage for visiting high school students from across the GTA—it is astonishing to contemplate the quaint, historic grounds of the Fort juxtaposed to the surrounding cityscape. 

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoNew Visitor Centre access from just outside of Historic Fort York, image by Adrian Gamble

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoBack to the future, image by Adrian Gamble

Nearly eradicated in the early 1950s for the Gardiner Expressway, Fort York has remained one of the city's most underrated hidden treasures. And, while the Fort's long-defunct cannons now sit silently trained on their old nemesis, the Gardiner Expressway, it is interesting to ponder a time long ago when the shores of Lake Ontario would have abutted the ancient walls, the water lapping at the stone ramparts below.

Fort York National Historic Site, TorontoDefending the city from enemies both past and present, image by Adrian Gamble

While the link between the ancient, medieval documents on display and our own, relatively brief history may seem tenuous at first blush, the efforts made by the team of curators to make the Canadian connection come to life succeed in proving visitors with a fresh perspective on the legal origins of Canada and Canadian values.

Fort York National Historic Site, Toronto

Proud member of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, Liverpool Battalion, image by Adrian Gamble

Admission to the exhibition is $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, or $10 for children. From here, the exhibition will make one final stop at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta Visitor Centre in Edmonton before returning to its permanent home at Durham Castle.