Announcement of the plans for Toronto’s Parliament site

Thomas H.B. Symons, C.C., O.Ont, FRSC, LL.D., D.Litt., D.U., D.Cn.L., FRGS, KSS – Chairman, Ontario Heritage Trust

Ministers, distinguished guests and colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

As Chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust and on behalf of its Board of directors, it is my sincere pleasure to be here today at the First Parliament site to participate in the presentation of the initial plans for this significant location.

I am particularly pleased that the Honourable Michael Chan is with us today and I would formally like to acknowledge his support for this initiative. His understanding of the site’s historic significance and its exciting potential as a centre of commemoration for the First Parliament buildings, and also the bicentennial of the War of 1812, has provided inspiration to the Trust as it moves forward with its vision for 265 Front Street East.

As the province’s lead heritage agency, the Ontario Heritage Trust is responsible for identifying, preserving, protecting and promoting built, cultural and natural heritage across the province. As it fulfills this role, the Trust is committed to the long-term protection, preservation and interpretation of the site of Ontario’s First Parliament buildings – a place of great significance to the history of self-government in our province and in our nation.

I would like to acknowledge with thanks the presence of so many guests and organizations here with us today, who care deeply about the history of this area of the city, as is evidenced by their commendable and ongoing efforts to preserve and celebrate the rich heritage of old-town Toronto. The Trust looks forward to identifying common goals, sharing information and building further partnerships with neighbours, community groups and local and provincial heritage organizations interested in the commemoration of the First Parliament site and the bicentennial of the War of 1812. It is our goal to ensure that the First Parliament site makes an important and lasting contribution to the heritage life of this locale and of our province.

In 2003, in response to an immediate threat to the First Parliament Site, the Ontario Cabinet approved the acquisition of 265 Front Street East in the Trust’s name. The acquisition of the site was achieved by a strong and creative partnership between the province, the city and a passionate group of community members, and is demonstrative of what can be accomplished when stakeholders combine efforts to work together in pursuit of a common cause.

The site is of great heritage value to Toronto, to Ontario and to Canada. As the location of Upper Canada’s first parliament buildings, it played an important role in the evolution and development of the province’s democratic traditions. In addition to housing the Legislative Council and the House of Assembly, the buildings served a judicial function as the site of the Court of Appeal, the Court of King’s Bench and the District Court. York’s first Anglican congregation also gathered in the buildings, most frequently between 1797 and 1807.

The history of the first parliament buildings as tangible physical structures, however, is relatively short-lived. If we were standing right here nearly 200 years ago, the smell of smoke would permeate the air. The almost complete destruction of the buildings by fire, at the hands of the Americans in 1813, forms an important part of the broader narrative of the War of 1812.

As its bicentennial approaches, the War of 1812 can be considered the most traumatic event in the history of Ontario. Put simply, the province was attacked and invaded. It resisted and, indeed, successfully expelled the invaders, but not before the capital city – including the first parliament site – was captured and burned. In various ways, this fierce struggle – with its remarkable outcome – shaped the province and its fundamental values during its critical formative years. The war brought together Native peoples, United Empire Loyalists, French-speaking inhabitants, companies from the Black community and many others who fought alongside British regulars in defence of their homes and of the province’s territory and institutions. Together, these men and women achieved a remarkable degree of success against a much larger opponent.

The War of 1812 represents a crucial point in the evolution of the province’s identity, institutions and values. We must work together to ensure that this defining moment in the history of the province is recognized and understood.

The Trust also has a responsibility to acknowledge and commemorate the history of the First Parliament site following the events of the War of 1812. Stories of newly arrived immigrants, of a last attempt to rebuild the parliament buildings, of the Home District Gaol and of the growth of the Consumers’ Gas Company all shape the narrative of the site. Its institutional and industrial heritage speaks profoundly to societal and technological developments in late-19th- and early-20th-century Toronto and Ontario.

We are well aware of the great potential of the site and are delighted to discuss today the most immediate plans for the creation of a commemorative centre to interpret the First Parliament buildings and the bicentennial of the War of 1812. These plans will engage with commemorative efforts on the part of many heritage organizations provincewide, and will connect to the Trust’s commemoration of the bicentennial at its own properties across Ontario.

Our agency is pleased to have made the cost-effective and environmentally responsible decision to reuse this building, which was purpose-built as a display space, to showcase the rich history of this site and its significance to the War of 1812 through a series of engaging exhibits and displays. This initiative also presents exciting opportunities for educational and public programming. The rest of the building will be rented out through public tender and the revenue will support the operational costs of the centre.

The Ontario Heritage Trust looks forward to working with members of the community, with local, provincial and federal organizations, and with First Nations, whose members played such a key role in the successful defence of the province. Together, we can achieve and maintain the shared goal of protecting and commemorating this significant site. We welcome your comments, suggestions and imagination throughout this initiative. Your interest and enthusiasm will contribute to a positive and enriching commemorative experience at the First Parliament site during the bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812.

I look forward to welcoming you all back here on February 17, 2012, when the centre will be officially opened.

Thank you.