In 1797, two modest brick buildings were constructed to house the Parliament for the recently established province of Upper Canada. The province was then only six years old and its capital had just been moved from Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) to York (now Toronto). Located south of today’s Front Street, and west of Parliament Street, these were the first purpose-built parliament buildings in the province.

Today, four parcels of land in downtown Toronto comprise the original site of the parliament buildings (known collectively as the Parliament block). The Ontario Heritage Trust owns the parcel at 265 Front Street East and the City of Toronto owns the other three parcels at 271 Front Street East, 25 Berkeley Street and 54 Parliament Street. This internationally significant registered archaeological site holds the buried remains of the York Parliament and with it our connection to the early history of Ontario.

Parliament interpretive centre

Opened in February 2012 at 265 Front Street East in Toronto, the Trust’s Parliament interpretive centre was a special project established to commemorate the site of Ontario’s first parliament buildings and the bicentennial of the War of 1812. With the completion of the bicentennial, the interpretive centre closed at the end of 2014.

The interpretive centre featured the exhibit Foundations & Fire: Early Parliament and the War of 1812 Experience at York – now available online. It shares the story of the birth of representative government in Ontario; the burning of the parliament buildings by American troops during the War of 1812 (and the retaliatory burning of the White House in Washington); the establishment of a jail on the site, then of a gasworks that fuelled much of Victorian and Edwardian Toronto; and the fascinating archaeological excavations that brought these stories to light.

Next steps in bringing the Parliament story to life

Following the closure of the interpretive centre, the Trust has developed new plans to continue sharing the story of the Parliament block. These plans will be rolled out over 2015 and include the online version of the Foundations & Fire exhibit, ongoing activities such as lectures and tours, and outdoor signs and multi-media installations that will animate the public spaces on the block. The Trust is in discussions with the City and the community and looks forward to exciting opportunities for collaboration as we move forward with the next phase in the interpretation of this important site. As an interim measure, the Trust’s property is being leased to a commercial tenant, while plans for the long-term revitalization, commemoration and enhancement of the Parliament block are in discussion. Revenues from the lease will allow the Trust to fund activities in the near-term that continue to share and promote the history of the site. Visit this website for updates about these activities throughout 2015.

Long-term plans – Looking to the future

Future plans for the Parliament block are being developed collaboratively between the City of Toronto and the Ontario Heritage Trust. The Trust’s approach to the future of the Parliament block is guided by a set of principles outlining the agency’s long-term vision for the site:

  1. ensure the long-term protection, interpretation and preservation of the site of Ontario's First Parliament Buildings;
  2. be appropriate to the level of significance of the site and reflect that by creating a publicly accessible world-class landmark destination and attraction that serves the public interest;
  3. provide opportunities on site for a range of public education and interpretation that meet the highest standards;
  4. clearly connect, visually and physically, to the public park and open space to the south of the site;
  5. identify the full extent of all existing cultural heritage resources located within the site, prior to any decision on site alterations, using an approach of minimal intervention;
  6. conserve in situ and interpret the significant archaeological resources located on the site to the highest standards incorporating modern interpretive solutions;
  7. be undertaken in a collaborative and inclusive manner that takes into consideration the objectives and goals of the parties and stakeholders involved.

Long-term plans for the block will take several years to come to fruition. In the interim, the Trust’s activities to promote and share the history of the site will continue.

The following are the Trust’s strategic design objectives for the revitalization and enhancement of the Parliament block:

  • The Parliament block, defined as all lands between Front Street and The Esplanade and between Berkeley and Parliament streets, should be conceived, designed and revitalized as a single integrated project through a partnership between the City and the Trust;
  • The Trust should provide legal protection in perpetuity, through ownership or conservation easement, for the areas of the Parliament block that possess the archaeological remains associated with the Parliament era;
  • Interventions and development on the block should completely avoid disturbing the known Parliament era archaeological resources and areas of Parliament era archaeological potential. In general, excavation of the Parliament block should be minimized in order to preserve archaeological resources and to limit the costs and impacts of environmental remediation;
  • The Parliament block should be designed and programmed to engage and integrate activities with adjoining neighbourhoods and communities;
  • Any new construction on the Parliament block should be concentrated at the north end (i.e., Front Street) in order to minimize impact on the archaeology, enhance the landscape, circulation patterns, natural light and open space, as well as provide a physical boundary or frame for the site.
  • The Trust should provide on-site opportunities for a range of public education and interpretation that is thought-provoking, layered, provincially focussed and consistent with its Interpretive Plan;
  • The Trust should retain high public profile and visibility on the Parliament block, including a significant street presence;
  • External sources of funding will have to be identified and secured to address any capital costs associated with the revitalization of the Trust’s Parliament lands;
  • A self-sufficient, sustainable and long-term operating model for the Trust’s Parliament lands will need to be developed to maintain or increase the current rate of net revenue.