Sheltered from the rain in the old Porsche dealership on Front Street at Berkeley, the Ontario Government announced yesterday the next step in the ongoing efforts to honour the site of the first parliament buildings of Ontario, then Upper Canada.  

The event was hosted by Richard Moorhouse, Executive Director of the Ontario Heritage Trust, and the announcement was made by Michael Chan, Minister of Tourism and Culture. Other speakers included Glen Murray, MPP for Toronto Centre, Dr. Thomas Symons, Chairman for the Ontario Heritage Trust, and Rollo Myers, co-founder of Citizens for the Old Town. Pam McConnell, Councillor for Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale, was also in attendance. 

Drawing of Upper Canada's first parliament buildings. Canadian Heritage Gallery.Drawing of Upper Canada's first parliament buildings. Image from Canadian Heritage Gallery.

Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque marking site of the first parliament buildingOntario Heritage Foundation plaque currently marking site of the first parliament buildings. Image from torontohistory.org.

If anyone came to the event hoping to hear that the site would soon be cleared to unearth the remains of the First Parliament that are buried beneath the surface, they quickly learned that would not be the case. Amidst years of discussion to reunite the entire site, negotiations are ongoing, and no one should realistically expect an imminent resolution: the land remains divided into four properties. One parcel is owned by City of Toronto, one by the Ontario Heritage Trust on behalf of the Province, and the other two by PNF Holdings. While PNF pursues a zoning change to allow the erection of two condominium towers, rising to 20 and 57 storeys above an L-shaped podium, on their properties which surround the publicly owned portions, The City, Citizens for the Old Town, and the Heritage Trust seek to swap PNF's land for surplus publicly owned land nearby.

In light of the rapidly approaching bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the burning of the first parliament buildings by invading American forces, the purpose of this gathering was to announce plans to reuse the former Porsche dealership onsite to house an interim First Parliament Interpretive Centre.

Michael Chan and Dr. Thomas Symons with First Parliament Interpretive CentreThe Hon. Michael Chan and Dr. Thomas H.B. Symons take the wraps off the wrap, image by Craig White

Rendering of First Parliament Building Interpretive Centre. Image courtesy of thRendering of First Parliament Building Interpretive Centre. Image courtesy of the Ontario Heritage Trust

A large wrap covering the upper glass facade will identify the new centre, while exhibits will be installed where luxury sports cars were once showcased. The centre will open for Heritage Week next February when the Province begins its commemoration of the War of 1812.  

The idea for this interim centre came from a series of consultations with the local heritage community where the concern was raised that most passersby have not read the heritage plaque and are unaware of the significance of the site. An increased awareness of the site's history should foster the momentum required to create a permanent centre in the future.

As a teaser, some interesting pieces of history were told about the site and its surrounding area: 

  • Legislation was passed at the first parliament which established the Bank of Upper Canada, as well as the road to Kingston and Montreal. 
  • It was where postal service was founded, and from where post offices throughout Upper Canada were established. 
  • It was here where the Board of Education was established, and grammar schools were built. 
  • The first 10 blocks of the city grew west from here to George Street. 
  • The first house was built a block away, in 1795.  
  • The parliament buildings were the first brick buildings in the city. 
  • Everything east of Berkeley was set aside as Crown reserve land. Everything south of Front all the way to about Peter Street was set aside as public land and public promenade. If you took all of that land, it exceeded the area of Central Park in New York City, over 1000 acres of park land set aside for public use. 
  • Recent arrivals were bunked down in the buildings. 
  • The first election was held here in 1800. Turns out that someone shut down the building right after the person that he wanted in was two votes ahead. He effectively closed the polls, and a riot ensued. 
  • The parliament buildings were burnt by American forces, they were hastily rebuilt in 1813 as temporary barracks for soldiers displaced by destruction of Fort York. 
  • In Annapolis, Maryland there still exists a collection of 'war booty' which was looted from this site during the war. The Heritage Trust hopes to get some of it back, or obtain it on loan. The lion figure below, for example, is an item which was removed from the site.  

Image of a lion figure,  'war booty' removed from site during War of 1812.Image of a lion figure, 'war booty' removed from site during War of 1812. Slide rephotographed by Dumitru Onceanu.

Some interesting stories indeed, and just a sample of what is to come next February 17th when the interim Interpretive Centre opens.  

Members of the modern day Fort York Guard, image by Craig WhiteMembers of the modern day Fort York Guard on hand to celebrate the event, image by Craig White

What do you think of the plans? Leave a comment below, or join the conversation in UrbanToronto's First Parliament Site thread.