Thursday, October 2, 2014

Three Dreams in the Heart of the British Empire

Once upon a time, this was the heart of the British Empire. It's a huge building in the middle of Whitehall, the London neighbourhood filled with  government offices. Right next door — on the very edge of this photo — is the Prime Minister's residence on Downing Street. Just a few doors in the other direction: Westminster and Big Ben. Today, they call this building the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. But it used to be known as the Colonial Office. It's in this building that British bureaucrats ruled over the biggest empire the world has ever seen.

And that, of course, included Canada — which means that some of the most important moments in Canadian history happened right here. For instance: in 1929, this is where British judges declared that Canadian women were persons, too. Even if Canadian judges didn't think so.

This summer, when I came to London during The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, I left three dreams outside the building:

One was for William Lyon Mackenzie. Earlier this week, I wrote a post about his mission to London. He spent more than a year living in the city, trying to convince the British government to make Upper Canada a more democratic place. His attempts failed — helping to convince him that an armed rebellion was the only way to change things. He visited the old Colonial Office (an earlier building that stood on this same spot) many times during his year in England. You can read the full story here.

Three decades later, while this building was being built, the famous Canadian engineer Sir Sandford Fleming made his own visit to the Colonial Office. In 1863, he arrived with a petition from the Red River Colony in what would one day become Manitoba. They were hoping the British government would build a railroad to connect them to Upper Canada. But the English refused. The settlement became more and more alienated from the rest of the Canadian colonies. A few years later, it was the site of the famous Red River Resistance led by Louis Riel.

The third was for Macdonald, who dreams of Riel. Our first Prime Minister came here in 1866, while he was in town for the London Conference — the last of the big meetings on the road to Canadian Confederation.


This post is part of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, exploring the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom. You can read more here

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10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837

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21 Standard Time
Sir Sandford Fleming, 1878

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Sir John A. Macdonald, 1891


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