At the time this article was published Todd
Decker was Assistant Clerk of the Ontario Legislative Assembly. This article
was written for the 26th Conference of the Canadian Region of CPA, held in
Toronto July 26 - August 2, 1986.
The early political heritage and development
of Ontario were based upon and influenced by considerations of state security
and sovereignty. As early as the American Revolution when annexation attempts
were made on Canada defence was one of the prominent and enduring features
which defined Canadians and Canadian life. The major urban centres of today
Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, St. Catharines and Niagara began as defensive
The American Revolution affected Canadian
political life in another way. It injected a new immigrant class who were loyal
to the Crown and had left the United States in the face of rejection there.
This class, predominately English speaking and Protestant was used to owning
its own land and found land ownership laws in the old Province of Quebec much
different from what they were used to. While the French appreciated the
seignorial system of farming, the Loyalists had aspirations of private land
ownership and participatory government. The conflict between them and the
French Canadian Catholic majority was pronounced. It led eventually to the
division of Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada on August 24, 1791.
The Constitutional Act provided for
political governance of each of the Canadas. A Lieutenant Governor was
appointed for each province with an Executive Council appointed to assist him.
A bicameral legislature was created, consisting of an appointed Legislative
Council and an elected Legislative Assembly. The franchise extended only to
males owning a prescribed amount of land.
In July 1792 a colourful and important
character in Ontario history came on the scene when John Graves Simcoe, the
first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, was sworn in at Kingston. He
commenced a series of civil reforms and advancements. Although some of his
reforms, notably in the field of education, were not successful, he was a
couple of generations ahead of his time in banning the importation of slaves
into Upper Canada. The abolition of slavery throughout the rest of the British
Empire was achieved only fifty years later.
Simcoe issues two proclamations after taking
office, the first provided for the division of Upper Canada into nineteen counties.
The second provided for elections to the Legislative Assembly.
Following the American War of Independence,
a great number of irritants affected relations between the United States and
British North America. The resolution of these problems, including important
boundary conflicts, was achieved with the signing of lay's Treaty in 1794.
Despite the treaty, the Canadians continued
to develop their defences. Since Michilimackinac, Detroit, Niagara, Oswego, and
Oswegatchie had been given to the Americans, an alternative chain of forts took
root on the Canadian side of the border Fort Wellington for Oswegatchie,
Kingston for Oswego, Fort George for Niagara, Fort Malden for Detroit and St.
Joseph's Island for Michilimackinac.
Britain, at war with France, was desperate
to maintain its supremacy on the high seas and its greater military strength.
To replenish and add to its naval force the British followed a policy of
"impressment" whereby merchant ships were raided and their crews
pressed into British naval military service. Although some of these crew
members were the offspring of naturalized Americans, Britain did not accept
this doctrine of naturalization.
The Americans fought back. President Madison
declared war on Britain on June 12, 1812. It was obvious that America could not
challenge Britain on the sea, so it challenged British sovereignty to the
North. Major-General Isaac Brock responded quickly to the declaration of war
and supported by native Indians with whom he had great rapport, seized Fort Michilimackinac.
With support from some Indians, he took Detroit. The Americans next attacked
Queenston Heights and Brock again successfully defended the site although he
was killed in the battle.
The Americans attacked and occupied York.
When they left six days later they burned the "Palace of Government"
and stole the Mace. The original Mace had been ordered by John Graves Simcoe
for the convening of the first parliament at Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake)
in 1792. This early symbol of legislative authority was exceedingly primitive
in appearance. The soft wood, perhaps pine or fir, was turned on a lathe, the
design unstudied and the workmanship ordinary. It was used regularly until
captured by the Americans. They kept it at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis,
Maryland until 1934 Franklin D. Roosevelt, in honour of the centennial year of
the founding of York. Since its return, the mace has been on display in the
Legislative Building at Queen's Park and has also been exhibited at the Royal
Ontario Museum and at Fort York.
The war lasted two and one half years until
it became apparent that neither side could successfully conquer the other. As
Britain and France ended hostilities in Europe the Prime Minister, Lord
Liverpool, and U.S. President Madison agreed that a negotiated peace should be
pursued in North America. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve,
1814. Representative government under the Crown and the strength and security
of Canada were assured.
For many years, the government of Upper
Canada worked fairly well. There were, of course, disagreements between
appointed and elected officials. Two basic political groups gradually
developed: the conservatives and the reformers.
The conservatives wanted appointed officials
the Lieutenant Governor, the Executive Council and the Legislative Councils to
be stronger than the elected Assembly. The reformers, on the other hand,
believed that the Assembly should be the strongest part of the government. The
appointed officials tended to look out for the interests of a small and
relatively wealthy section of the society. The elected members of the Assembly
were more likely to defend the interests of the ordinary settlers, The
conservatives believed that the Executive should be able to raise and spend
money without interference from the Assembly and to give people jobs, or
dismiss them, as they wished. They felt that the control of education, the
granting of land and financial support of the Church of England should be in
the hands of the appointed. Executive. They feared that a more democratic
system would give farmers and labourers too much power.
The reformers wanted the Assembly to control
government money, jobs and land grants. Many did not want the government to
support any church at all. They wanted the Lieutenant Governor, who was
appointed by the British government, to listen to the Assembly and take its
advice. In sum, the reformers wanted to lessen the power held by the small,
wealthy ruling group. While most reformers wanted Canada to remain under
British rule, they thought there were some aspects of the American form of
government that were valuable and should be part of their political system.
They believed that the British system could be adjusted to their needs. The reformers
included two groups the moderates and the radicals. The moderates occasionally
agreed with the conservatives on certain issues; the radicals never did.
The best known radical was William Lyon
Mackenzie. He founded a political journal the Colonial Advocate which attacked
the group who really controlled the government. They came to be known as the
Family Compact. Mackenzie maintained that this small group, connected by
family, marriage and other ties, controlled most of the government offices and
benefited most from land grants and from such institutions as the Bank of Upper
Canada, the Welland Canal Company and the Canada Company. The Family Compact
ran Upper Canada for its own benefit at the expense of the people. The Family
Compact dominated the Executive and Legislative Councils of Upper Canada until
1837. Its leader was John Strachan.
In 1837 Mackenzie became convinced that
change would not come quickly enough by peaceful means. He and Samuel Lount led
rebel forces mostly farmers down Yonge Street north of Toronto to the city.
Their aim was to overthrow the government but they were easily defeated.
Mackenzie escaped to the United States but others were not so fortunate. Some
were imprisoned; others, like Lount, were hanged. Mackenzie later returned to
Canada under an official agreement that he not be punished.
The British government realized that
something was wrong. Lord Durham, an important aristocrat who strongly
supported reform in Britain, was sent to Canada as Governor-in-Chief and High
Commissioner to investigate the unrest. His Report condemned the Family Compact
and recommended a better land granting system as well as the reuniting of Upper
and Lower Canada. It called for "responsible government", meaning
that the Colonial Executive Council should answer to the Assembly. If the
Executive lost the support of the majority of the Assembly, it would have to
resign. The Governor would have to take the advice of the responsible
Executive. In this way the Assembly's voice would be the strongest in the
government. Britain granted this important reform in 1848. It came because of
changing attitudes in Britain along with the demands for it from Canadian
By 1841, Upper Canadians had created a
flourishing agricultural society. In many ways it had passed beyond the pioneer
stage. Farming areas along the lakeshores and in the Niagara Peninsula were
developing features of a mature society: villages and towns which served
farmers' needs, mills, roads, and regular stage coach service carrying passengers
and mail. Farm machinery, agricultural societies and big new homes and barns
were other indicators of maturity. Communities like Toronto, Kingston and
Niagara were no longer small settlements on the edge of the forest. They were
busy urban centres whose merchants dealt with such distant cities as London,
England and New York.
The political leaders of this era, Robert
Baldwin, Francis Hincks, George Brown, Allan MacNab, Sandfield Macdonald and
John A. Macdonald were strong characters who sought to maximize gains in the
areas in which Ontario excelled or could excel.
At the same time the parliamentary system
based on British principles, a political system different from that in the
United States continued to evolve.
Following Confederation, the first
legislature of Ontario met in December 1867. The eighty-two members, whom
commentators of the day expected to ~e little more than a "glorified city
council", were elected from the same constituencies that elected members
to the federal House of Commons. The principle of dual representation was
abolished during the term of office of Edward Blake and broke the link between
the federal and provincial legislatures.
The Buildings of Parliament
The first Parliament of Upper Canada met in
Navy Hall, Newark and various other locations have been used over the years.
The first legislative building to be built to a design was completed in 1796.
It faced west at the foot of Parliament Street in York overlooking the Bay. The
buildings were given a rather grand title "Palace of Government".
After they were burned by the Americans the Assembly met in some unusual
buildings including Jordan's Hotel in York and a house later owned by Chief
A new building finished in 1820 lasted only
four years before it went up in flames. The old General Hospital served as the
Legislature from 18251828 but the urgent needs of the hospital for its original
purpose dictated yet another move. This time the exodus was to The Old Court
In 1832, the Assembly moved to the Parliament
Buildings on Front Street. Between 1840 and 1867 the joint legislature of the
United Province of Canada wandered from one capital to another; first to
Kingston, then to Montreal, then back and forth between Toronto and Quebec
City. After Confederation the provincial legislature returned to the Parliament
Buildings on Front Street but soon legislators were demanding better
accommodation. The old Building was in no condition for rehabilitation nor
could additional space be added. It was, therefore, decided to build a new
Parliament Building and a site was selected on a knoll north of College Street
in Queen's Park.
The present building, finished in 1893, was
dedicated by Oliver Mowat who is rumoured to have said upon arriving for the
ceremony, "My God, how will we ever fill it in 100 years. " That, of
course, proved to be no problem. There were other problems, though.
In September, 1909, a disastrous fire
destroyed the west wing of the building, begun when tinsmiths working on the
roof got careless. The wing was rebuilt but not in a fashion symmetrical with
the east wing.
Significant changes in the Chamber have been
undertaken recently to bring the Assembly into the Twentieth Century. However,
every effort has been made to preserve the Chamber's historic decor.
The greatest renovation project since the
construction of the building will soon occur to accommodate a proposed
permanent electronic Hansard system. The Chamber will be fitted with five
remote controlled cameras. One will film the Speaker from an opera box over the
main entrance to the Chamber. The other four will be recessed into the walls of
the Chamber at each corner. The system will be fully automatic and will provide
"gavel to gavel,, coverage of the proceedings commencing in the fall of
To accommodate the camera set up, the
three-tiered arrangement will be modified to four tiers and a completely new
sub-floor installed to support the members' desks. An indirect lighting system
is also being implemented to provide adequate illumination for the cameras.
The pre-eminent factor in the extensive
renovations will be preservation of the character of the Chamber and
integration of all new components to be consistent with the decorum of the
Chamber. Even the advancements of the technological age are being manipulated
in such a way as to preserve the Legislative Building itself, the proudest and
most beautiful tribute we have to our parliamentary heritage.