Monday, 1 August 2016

Monday Moanings - August 1, 2016

It's a holiday Monday!

Back in the 1800's the government of the day recognized the need for an extra day of relaxation in mid-summer. Winter hardy Canadians needed a long holiday weekend to revel in the all too short pleasures of summer living - boating, water skiing, swimming, bbq's, beer, baseball, wine spritzers, and lounging in the sunshine.

It's called Simcoe Day here in these parts, though around Ontario other names prevail: Colonel By Day in Ottawa, Joseph Brant Day in Burlington and Benjamin Vaughan Day in the City of Vaughan. And around the country still other names head up this first Monday in August: Regatta Day in Newfoundland, Natal Day in Nova Scotia & Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick Day in New Brunswick, Saskatchewan Day in Saskatchewan, Heritage Day in Alberta, and British Columbia Day in, you guessed it, British Columbia.

Amidst all the summer celebrations and libations on this day,  I suspect poor old John Graves Simcoe gets nary a thought, which is a shame because he contributed much to the history of Ontario. He was the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (largely what is now the province of Ontario). A British Army officer and member of the Queen's Rangers, his tenure as lieutenant governor lasted just five years, (1791 - 1796) but in that time he racked up an admirable number of achievements.

English through and through, Simcoe set about to uphold the supremacy of just about all things British, which on the whole was not a bad thing. He introduced English Common Law, trial by jury, the Court of Queen's Bench, and free hold land tenure. His adamant opposition to slavery shone through with legislation that banned the purchase and importation of slaves in 1793. By 1810 there were no slaves in Upper Canada, a full twenty-four years before slavery was officially abolished in the whole of British Empire (1834). Well done John!

Simcoe was also charged with the responsibility of establishing a capital, a seat of government and justice in the province. He stopped only briefly in Kingston, already a hub of trade and industry and headed further west to Niagara (Butlersburg) which he quickly renamed Newark and we now know as Niagara-on-the-Lake. The first few sessions of the legislature were held there, but the area was way too vulnerable to attack from the Americans.

Simcoe set his sights even further southwest to a location at the forks of  the La Tranche River, a river he renamed The Thames (I mentioned this guy was English, right?), near where London, Ontario is today. Unfortunately Simcoe's boss, Guy Carleton was unimpressed and strongly suggested (in the army that means 'ordered'), that Simcoe take a look at some land to the east, between two rivers (the Humber and the Don) that boasted a great harbour.

There was already a small garrison there, Fort Toronto. So in August 1793, Simcoe upped sticks and moved east, renamed the garrison Fort York and the surrounding settlement, York (I told you he was English!). Forty-one years later the citizens of York successfully petitioned the government to have the name changed back to Toronto (1834).

The Simcoe family seemed to have liked York, even though it claimed their daughter Katherine in the Spring of 1794. She's buried in the shadow of the King West condos, somewhere underneath Victoria Square. John, his wife Elizabeth Gwillim and son Francis even built a summer home, Castle Frank, on the west side of the Don River. In July of 1796 the family sailed out of York on the Onondaga bound for England, leaving behind a tidy little community of one storey frame buildings, the beginnings of a great north-south street, Yonge Street and an east-west route, Dundas Street.

Today I celebrate the great city of my birth, the little hamlet that grew, Toronto.
Thank you John Graves Simcoe for being a good soldier and following orders!

©2016 April Hoeller


  1. Thank you for this piece of history! My 7 year old son told me this morning that today was a holiday. I said No it's not! Then realized he had looked on the calendar and seen that it is a Canadian holiday!

  2. Thanks for this history. I am not from Ontario and even my other half who has grown up here did not know all this. But he did tell me there is a meaning to the word Toronto and he says it means "place where trees stand in water". That is supposed to be from the Iroquois.