Tuesday, May 17, 2011

William Lyon Mackenzie Vs. The World

William Lyon Mackenzie
This is the first in a series of posts about the battle for Canadian democracy.

Oh boy, okay, so this is a big one. William Lyon Mackenzie is one of the giant, towering, all-important figures in the history of Toronto. In fact, he's such a big deal that telling his story from start to finish — and with it the story of the birth of democracy in Canada — is going to take at least five long posts. They will span more than 25 years. There will be riots and arson, violent mobs and hangings and people beaten in the streets. There will be plagues and mass graves. For some of it, we'll have to travel all the way to England and the Ganges River delta. By the end of it, Toronto will have grown from a small, isolated backwater into a thriving metropolis of tens of thousands of people. It's going to be crazy. I'm kind of excited. And it all starts with the story of how Mackenzie went from being a struggling newspaperman to one of the most powerful politicians in the city.

So. Dude was born in Scotland, ran a store for a while, wrote for some newspapers, gambled a lot, fathered an illegitimate child, and eventually headed across the ocean to Upper Canada in search of a better life. He settled in Toronto in November of 1824. We were just a small town back then, only about 30 years old, still called York, with a population of about 1600 people.

The whole town — the whole colony, actually — was run by a small group of rich, conservative, mostly British and thoroughly Protestant elites. Fellows like Peter Russell, William Jarvis and John Strachan. Most of them were corrupt assholes. They hated Catholics, true democracy, and maybe more than anything else, the United States of America. Many of them had fought for the British against the Americans during the Revolution; some had seen their best friends killed at the hands of Americans, had their lives and families threatened by them, had been driven out of their homes by angry mobs of them. In fact, the whole point of creating York in the first place was to help guard the Canadas against an invasion from the south. And when Mackenzie arrived, it had only been a decade since their worst fears had been realized: an American army landed near where the Ex is now, marched across the waterfront and occupied York for a few days during the War of 1812.

The invasion had made John Strachan a hero. The way they tell the story, he pretty much just yelled at the Americans until they slunk back across the border. When they came back later that year, people say he made the invaders return the library books they'd stolen from us the first time. But to hold on to power and make sure that American-style democracy didn't spread north, Strachan's allies in the conservative elite seem to have been willing to do pretty much anything. They gave all the swanky government jobs to their friends and families. They seized enormous tracts of land for themselves, stole some of it from the very citizens who were helping them build the town. When people started publicly complaining, they banned public meetings. They blamed the unrest on Americans, banned young American-born Canadians from voting and American-born politicians from getting elected. And when political means didn't work, they attacked their opponents in the streets and beat them senseless. There was tarring and feathering. There were show trials. And hangings.

William Lyon Mackenzie was outraged. He was pro-democracy and pro-American and he hated the living fuck out of the Protestant elites. He'd come to town as the editor of his very own newspaper, the Colonial Advocate, which he used to berate them every chance he got. He called them jackals and hypocrites and demons and bigots and thieves and funguses. He even gave them the nickname people still use to this day: the Family Compact. In return, they called him vermin, a conceited, red-headed reptile, and tried to make his life as miserable as possible.

In those early days, Mackenzie didn't need much help with that. The Colonial Advocate only had 825 subscribers at the beginning of his first full year in town and he soon faced stiff competition for reform-minded readers from the Irish-Catholic Canadian Freeman. His debts mounted. His readership didn't. At one point, he was forced to temporarily stop publishing the paper altogether. Finally, in the Spring of 1826, he high-tailed it out of town, fleeing to the States to avoid his creditors.

Mackenzie's home/shop, Frederick and Front
Present day Google streetview here

That's when his luck finally changed.

His escape came at a moment when the Family Compact was particularly pissed off at him. Years earlier, Samuel Jarvis, the son of the über-corrupt, über-incompetent government official, William Jarvis, had killed a man in a duel. The circumstances were a bit sketchy — the other guy had fired too early and missed, then Jarvis shot him dead (it's kind of an awesome story; you can read about it in this post) — and Mackenzie didn't hesitate to openly accuse him of murder. Now, with Mackenzie in the States, Jarvis seized his opportunity for revenge. He rounded up a bunch of young conservatives, dressed them as natives and attacked the Colonial Advocate offices. They trashed the place, smashed the printing press and threw the typeface into the lake. Mackenzie's family, including his elderly mother, who all lived in the building, were terrorized. The Types Riot, as they call it, happened right smack dab in the middle of town — the offices were at Frederick and Front, a couple of blocks east of the St. Lawrence Market — and senior members of the Family Compact watched it all happen and did nothing.

It was one superdumbass PR move. Mackenzie rushed home to sue for damages. He came out of it looking like a martyr for the cause of reform, and was awarded more money than his equipment was worth. He used it to pay off his debts and expand his operation. The Colonial Advocate was back in circulation and Mackenzie's voice was stronger than ever.

That's when he got into politics. He ran for parliament on the Reform Party ticket and won. The election was a landslide: the party of the Family Compact, the Tory Party, lost their majority and the Reformers took over.

But that didn't really mean very much. Upper Canada was not a democracy. Oh sure, there was the Legislative Assembly to take care of the small stuff, but all of the real power still rested with the Lieutenant Governor. The Lieutenant Governor was appointed by the British government. And the British government was run by... waiiiiit for it... the British Tory Party. Their Prime Minister — the Napoleon-crushing Duke of Wellington himself — had given the post to one his conservative buddies, the awesomely-named Sir Peregrine Maitland. He was a hero of the Battle of Waterloo who also happened to play a kickass game of cricket and even gets a mention in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. More importantly, he was a hardcore supporter of the British crown and wasn't about to let Mackenzie and the Reformers do any reforming.

Since they couldn't get anything done, the Reform Party lost the next election. But Mackenzie didn't let that stop him. He'd been re-elected in his riding and he was determined to screw with the Tories every chance he got. He earned a reputation as a fierce debater, sometimes grabbing the red wig from off his own head and flinging it across the room at his opponents. He refused to join Tory-dominated committees and then showed up anyway to yell at them. He even got kicked out of his own church for trying to get them to cut their ties to the Family Compact. In short, he got all up in the Tories' faces pretty much all of the time.

Parliament/jail/court house, King west of Church, 1829
The Family Compact struck back. But dumbassedly yet again. They used their votes in the Legislative Assembly to kick him out of it. The result? The building (look left) was mobbed by hundreds of Mackenzie's supporters, the voters in his riding re-elected him in a staggering landslide, and then they threw a victory parade down Yonge Street complete with bagpipes and 134 sleighs. The Tories voted him out again; the voters voted him back in again. And again. And again. And again. Conservatives pelted him with garbage, rioted, attacked him in the street and nearly killed him, but were eventually forced to give up and let him stay (while refusing to let him actually vote on anything). The Family Compact was managing to avoid any real reforms, but it was coming at a price: Mackenzie and his ideas were getting more and more popular.

Ten years earlier, he'd been a poor newspaperman running a failing business with few readers. Now, he was one of the most powerful men in the city. He was helping to turn the tide: public opinion was steadily mounting against the Family Compact and in favour of true Canadian democracy.

And that's when the cholera hit.

Continue reading with, "Uh Oh, Everyone's Dying of Cholera, Parts I & II", here.


You can read more about Mackenzie on his Wikipedia page here. And from the much drier Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online here. There's some info about early Toronto newspaper here. About the house where Mackenzie lived and worked up until the Types Riot here. There are some angry quotes here. And a plaque about the Types Riot here.

This post is related to dream
09 The Ghost of John Ridout
Samuel Jarvis, 1826

This post is related to dream
10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837


  1. Yes! I've been waiting for you to do this one. Looking forward to the rest of this awesomely true story.

  2. Great story. Hope you write something about Egerton Ryerson and his feud with John Strachan as well.

  3. Thanks! And yup, I'm sure Ryerson will get his own post someday. I've been looking forward to learning more about him. He would've made a cameo in this one, even, if I wasn't already trying to cram so much in.