Opening of the Parliament interpretive centre

Defending a Nation – the opening of the Parliament interpretive centre

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

As Chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust and on behalf of its Board of Directors, it is my sincere pleasure to welcome you, and to be in your company today, to launch Ontario’s celebration of Heritage Week 2012, with the opening of the Trust’s Parliament interpretive centre and the special exhibit, Foundations & Fire: Early Parliament and the War of 1812 Experience at York.

I am particularly pleased that the representative of our Queen, the Honourable David Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, is able to be here with us today for this special heritage celebration. The Trust values its relationship with the Office of the Lieutenant Governor and appreciates the ongoing support that his Honour and the Office give to provincial heritage initiatives. Welcome, Your Honour, and thank you for being here today.

Each year, Heritage Week provides communities across the province with an opportunity to reflect on the importance of their heritage, and to recognize those individuals and organizations that devote valuable time and energy to its preservation and commemoration.

This year, Heritage Week takes on a particular significance as Ontario reflects on the theme of “defending a nation” through its commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The opening of this interpretive centre today – and the numerous special events and initiatives taking place across Ontario this week and in the months to come – demonstrate the central place of this conflict within the collective memory and symbolic experience of the province.

In this year of its bicentennial, the War of 1812 can be remembered as 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 its young capital city – including this very site – was captured and burned. And, in an early example of a different kind of reciprocity, the Royal Navy and British forces responded by capturing Washington and burning the White House.

In what was then Upper Canada, the war brought together disparate elements of the province’s small population in defence of its territory and institutions. Aboriginal peoples, United Empire Loyalists, French-speaking inhabitants, members of the Black community, and many other settlers fought alongside British regulars, achieving a remarkable degree of success against a much larger opponent.

While much of the fighting, and a good deal of the fiercest fighting, took place in or in relationship to Upper Canada, the War of 1812 was of course not confined to this province. Quebec and Atlantic Canada were also directly affected and involved in the struggle with the United States. The war precipitated a closer relationship between the British North American colonies, reminding them of common interests and much-shared heritage, and laying the seeds for a confederation to come and for its extension in due time to the west and to the north.

There may be debate as to who won the War of 1812. But for Canadians, the answer is clear. Had there been a different outcome, as desired by the invaders, there would be no Canada today. The successful defence of this province was the cornerstone in the struggle for a yet-unborn nation to survive.

The War of 1812 therefore represents a crucial point in the evolution of this province’s identity, institutions and values. But, as we commemorate the war’s bicentennial here in Ontario and across the country, we should realize that there is also much for Canada and the United States to celebrate together – in particular, the gradual emergence of a state of permanent peace between our two countries arising from the steady growth of the view that discourse and negotiation are the correct and only way for two such neighbours to resolve differences. This realization, too, is ample cause for rejoicing.

Out of the ashes of 1813 came the opportunity to build a province and a nation with an identity distinct from that of its neighbour to the south, and with a unique and evolving role to play within North America, within the Commonwealth and on the world stage.

As we gather here today, at this historic site, to celebrate Heritage Week, I cannot think of a more appropriate place from which to consider the growth of a province and a nation.

This site is of great heritage value to Toronto, to Ontario and to Canada. As the location of Upper Canada’s first purpose-built parliament buildings, it played an important role in the evolution and development of the province’s democratic traditions.

Legislation passed at this site contributed to the further development of the province’s military, legal, political, social and economic institutions and practices. Much of the planning and preparations for the successful defence of the province were done here. At the same time, more was added to an already significant legislative record, which included the adoption of a resolution as early as June 1793, acknowledging French-language rights in the province by stipulating “that such Acts as have already passed or may hereafter pass the Legislature of this Province be translated into the French language for the benefit of the Western District of this province and other French settlers who may come to reside within this Province.”

The first anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire was also passed by the province’s legislature, meeting at Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) in 1793. This legislation set the stage for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade by Britain in 1807, and the outright abolition of slavery across the British Empire on August 1, 1834 – three decades before its abolition in the United States. This fact is an important point of pride not only for Ontarians, but for people concerned with parliamentary government and civil liberties everywhere.

Legislation specific to this site continued to promote the welfare and well-being of the citizens of Upper Canada, including: An Act to provide for the Education and Support of Orphan Children; An Act for the better regulation of the practice of Law; and An Act to establish Public Schools in each and every District of this Province. Such measures represented a truly impressive record of progressive legislation for such a young province.

With the opening of the interpretive centre here today, the Ontario Heritage Trust looks forward to continuing to work 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 – to achieve and maintain the shared goal of protecting and commemorating this significant site.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge, with thanks, the presence of so many guests and organizations here with us today who have provided invaluable assistance to the Ontario Heritage Trust as it worked to create this interpretive centre, and to prepare an exhibit that would reflect the local, provincial, national and international significance of this location.

The Ontario Heritage Trust looks forward to welcoming visitors here from all parts of the province, and from further afield, to engage with the early history of Toronto and Ontario, and to consider the significance of the War of 1812 to the province and, indeed, to the Canadian nation.

Thank you.