Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Day Canada Became A Democracy

Lord Elgin, looking like a badass
This is the eighth in a series of posts about William Lyon Mackenzie, Robert Baldwin and the birth of Canadian democracy. Part one here. Part two here. Part three here. Part four here. Part five here. Part six here. Part seven here.

Yup, here it is. A really really really really really big deal. People in Toronto had been living under authoritarian British rule since the day the city was founded — Canadians in older parts of the country even longer than that. Lieutenant Governors and Governors General had acted like puppet dictators with the power to ignore our elected legislatures. And they did. But now, Toronto's Robert Baldwin and Montreal's Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine had banded together to win an overwhelming majority on a platform demanding real democracy. They had a new idea: Responsible Government. The Prime Minister and his cabinet wouldn't answer to the Governor General, but to parliament itself. To the Canadian people.

Meanwhile, in England, the liberal Whig Party was back in power yet again. And this time, it looked like they might finally be ready to give in. They sent a new, liberal Governor General to the Canadian capital in Montreal: Lord Elgin. He was the son-in-law of Lord Durham — author of the super-important Durham Report, which had famously recommended that the British embrace Baldwin and LaFontaine's idea. Even better: Elgin realized just how much support Responsible Government had with ordinary Canadians. "I am presiding over one of the most democratic communities that ever existed," he wrote in a letter back home to his bosses in London, "[Canada's] constitution is most popular in character". Momentum was building. Over in Nova Scotia, liberals had just won their own battle for Responsible Government. And as Baldwin and LaFontaine's Reform Party began to pass bills dismantling our British-style class system in favour of diversity and inclusion, Elgin signed them all into law.

But the real test was still to come. Would Elgin sign a bill that conservatives vehemently disagreed with? Would he turn his back on the Protestant, monarchy-loving, democracy-hating Tories, who had always had British support? Did the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique still run the country? Or was Canada now a true democracy?

We wouldn't have to wait long to find out. In February, Baldwin and LaFontaine introduced the Rebellion Losses Bill. This was it.

Really, the bill shouldn't have been controversial at all. It was just going to help pay people in Lower Canada whose property had been damaged during the Rebellions of 1837. That seemed fair. When the Tories were in power, they'd already done the same thing for Upper Canadians. Thing is, in Upper Canada, most people were anglophones; in Lower Canada, they spoke French. And since French-Canadians weren't loyal to the British Crown or to the Church of England, as far as the racist Tory Party was concerned, French-Canadians weren't really Canadians at all. Paying them for damages was as good as paying the rebels themselves.

And so, the Tories were outraged. As the bill was debated in parliament, things got vicious. The payments would be "an open encouragement to rebellion," the conservatives claimed. The Reform Party was "under the dominion of French masters". They were "dangerous, criminal and subversive of order". If Baldwin and LaFontaine had their way, Canada would be "ruled by foreigners". (By which, of course, they meant: the wrong kind of foreigners.)

Inside parliament in old Montreal
And if hurling insults wasn't going to do the trick, the Tories were more than willing to hurl fists. When one important Reformer, William Hume Blake, got up in parliament and denounced the conservatives by calling them the true rebels, the Tory leader, Allan McNab, lost it. He'd fought in 1837, marched up Yonge Street against William Lyon Mackenzie and then, after the rebel leader escaped to the States, took a couple thousand men down across the border to continue the fight. Once he got back, he put down another small rebellion outside London. He'd been knighted for it. And he did not bloody well appreciate being called a rebel himself. He and Blake had to be restrained from attacking each other on the floor of parliament. Fighting broke out in the galleries. Women had to be lifted down out of the balconies to safety. And when the debate resumed the next day, Blake was in thick of things again. This time he faced off against John A. Macdonald. Our future Prime Minister was a Tory backbencher back then, so insulted by Blake's arguments that he challenged the man to a duel. He'd already headed outside, ready to fight,  by the time others managed to calm him down.

It was that same month, as tempers flared, that William Lyon Mackenzie was allowed to come home for the first time in more than ten years. Baldwin and LaFontaine's government had granted amnesty to the exiled rebel, who had continued his work as a newspaperman in the United States. He showed up in old Montreal, in parliament, watching the debates from the gallery. He was so loathed by the conservatives that when a Tory ran into him in the library, it nearly caused a riot. When he travelled to Upper Canada, there was a riot in Belleville. They burned him in effigy in Kingston. In Toronto, they burned him in effigy again and attacked the house where he was staying, pelting it with rocks. Fearing for his safety, Mackenzie asked city council for protection. They answered by passing a motion in support of the rioters. One councilor said that the law against murder was the only reason he didn't kill Mackenzie himself.

After nine days in Toronto, it was clear to our city's first mayor that things weren't safe for him here. Mackenzie abandoned his plan to move his family home to Canada and headed back south. He would wait for things to calm down — for a time when he could live in Toronto without fearing for his life.

Meanwhile, back in Montreal, the debate over the Rebellion Losses Bill raged on for the rest of the month and into March. The Tories filibustered their asses off. Every hour of every day, they were on the floor of the legislature, denouncing the bill, killing time while right-wing newspapers printed inflammatory headlines. Anger among Tory supporters grew. They called on Lord Elgin to do what the appointed Governors had always done when they were backed into a corner: step in on the side of the conservatives and dissolve parliament, snuffing out the bill — and with it, our democracy. "The Tory party," Elgin wrote in another letter home to England, "are doing what they can by menace, intimidation and appeals of passions to drive me to a coup d'etat."

But Elgin did nothing. On March 9th, the Rebellion Losses Bill passed. Now all it needed was his signature.

For nearly two whole months after that, it wasn't clear what Elgin would do next. He literally just stayed home, at the Governor General's residence outside Montreal. While Baldwin and LaFontaine waited for his signature, Tories and their supporters begged and pleaded and threatened, demanding that Elgin not sign the bill. It would doom the country, they claimed. But in the meantime, dozens of other laws had been passed by parliament. They needed signatures, too. One way or another, the Governor General was going to have to decide.

Elgin gets into his carriage
It was on a Wednesday – on April 25th – that Lord Elgin stepped outside his home, climbed into his carriage and headed into the capital. He pulled up to the parliament buildings around four o'clock in the afternoon. He was escorted upstairs, where he signed every single one of the bills that was waiting for him. Including the Rebellion Losses Bill.

The fight had taken nearly fifty years. Canadians had died for democracy. They had been hanged for it, rotted in jail for it, been banished from the country they loved. But now, Baldwin and LaFontaine and the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of English- and French-speaking Canadians united behind them had won. The head of the British government in Canada had just acknowledged the people of Canada as the true rulers of our country.

Canada was a democracy.

The exact timing came as a bit of a surprise; it seems Elgin hadn't told anyone he was coming. But news travelled fast. By the time the Governor General got back outside, an angry mob of conservatives was already waiting for him. He climbed into his carriage under a rain of insults, boos, eggs and tomatoes. He was drenched. But that was just a faint hint of things to come. Tories were pissed the fuck off. They weren't ready to give up – they were ready to get violent. The fight wasn't quite over yet, and the next stage of the struggle would begin that very night, as the parliament buildings burned.

I'll tell that part of the story in my next post in this series. 


A whole heck of a lot of this comes from John Raulston Saul's amazing Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin book, which, if you're at interested in this stuff, you should absolutely totally definitely check out. You can buy it here, or get it from the library here. I also got some of the info about Mackenzie's brief trip home from here

Kind of an interesting footnote on the Rebellion Losses Bill: the Reformers did compromise with the Tories a bit. Originally, the bill paid damages to any Lower Canadians, regardless of their involvement in the Rebellions. But eventually, the Reformers agreed to deny funds to anyone who was convicted in the wake of the violence. That was controversial since the courts that convicted them weren't impartial – they were headed by John Colborne, the very same Governor General who had laid the government troops against the rebels. Not exactly the most unbiased jurist. So guys like the amnestied Lower Canadian rebel, Louis-Joesph Papineau were outraged by the compromise and caused real trouble for Baldwin and LaFontaine as they tried to the pass the bill.

And, finally, as I mention briefly in the body of the post, Responsible Government, actually came to Nova Scotia before it came to the Province of Canada. There, the fight was led by a reformer by the name of Joseph Howe. There, the British government began to relent by the end of 1847. The Colonial Secretary, John Grey (sort of the liaison between the English government and the colonies – who also happened to be Lord Elgin's uncle-in-law (is that a thing?)) wrote to the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia in November of that year: "It is neither possible nor desirable, to govern any of the British provinces of North America in opposition to the opinion of its inhabitants."

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The QEW Looked A Whole Lot Different in 1939

The QEW started out as a much smaller highway called the Middle Road. It was built as a government works project during the Great Depression, connecting Toronto to Hamilton as an alternative between Lake Shore and Dundas, which were getting clogged with traffic. Not long after it was built, it was expanded and extended all the way to Niagara Falls, becoming Queen Elizabeth Way. It was modeled on the autobahns in Germany, the first of its kind in North America, with the longest uninterrupted stretch of streetlamps in the world. The stuttering King George VI was here to officially open it with his wife, Elizabeth, who it was named after. (You might know her better as the Queen Mum, or Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech.)

This photo was taken in Etobicoke around the time the highway officially opened. It shows the interchange with what's now Highway 427. Today, this spot is a tangle of concrete ramps in the midst of a big box wasteland just west of Kipling, not far from Sherway Gardens.

Here some more old photos of the highway, mostly found here and here.

The rural road in the days before the QEW
The royal opening ceremonies in St. Catherines, 1939
King George VI and Elizabeth on the QEW, 1939
The entrance to the QEW in Toronto, 1940
East of Oakville, 1938
Fruit trees in spring, Grimsby, 1949

Monday, November 14, 2011

An Especially Neat-Looking TTC Transit Map from 1955

Click to enlarge

One of the most beautiful books written about the history of our city is Derek Hayes' Historical Atlas of Toronto. It's filled with gorgeous maps of the city, stretching all the way back to the time of the earliest European settlers. One of my favourite discoveries is this map of our fledgling downtown transit system from 1955, ringed with images of some of our most iconic attractions.

At least, our most iconic attractions at the time. Some of them (coughthebusterminalcough) might have trouble making that list today. Most obviously, the CN Tower and the SkyDome have gone up since. The ROM and the AGO look a bit different these days. The CBC has moved from Cabbagetown to Front Street. And the Armouries on University Avenue, which are included here, aren't there anymore. In 1955, they stood just north of Queen, behind Osgoode Hall, having been built in the late-1800s. Soldiers were trained there to fight in the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Boer War before that. But it was demolished in the '60s to make way for the new courthouse.

You can click to enlarge the map. And you'll find the Historical Atlas of Toronto for sale here among other places.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Toppy Topham Crosses The Rhine

Operation Varsity above the Rhine River

The war was nearly over. It had already been nine months since the Allies landed in Normandy. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had been there, students and shopkeepers and dentists from places like Calgary and Saskatoon and Toronto leaping out of planes into the air above France, dropping behind German lines to secure bridges and roads. Hundreds of them had died doing it. Then, the following winter, the battalion had patrolled the freezing snows of the Ardennes Forest, resisting the brutal German counter-attack at the Battle of the Bulge. Now it was March, and the Allies had pushed all the way across Western Europe into Germany itself. But hundreds of thousands of people were still dying. And the Allies still had one more mammoth task ahead them before they could fan out across the country and overrun it: they needed to cross the Rhine River. What was left of Hitler's army was waiting for them on the other side.

The morning of March 24, 1945 saw the biggest airborne operation in the history of anything ever. Thousands upon thousands of planes and gliders took off in England and soared across the skies of Europe toward the river. They stretched out for more than 300 kilometers — the distance from London to Paris — and took two and half hours to pass by. When they got to the Rhine, tens of thousands of men leapt out of the planes, white parachutes bursting open in the morning light. They were easy targets for the bullets and anti-aircraft shells that rose to meet them. Many men died before they'd even hit the ground. Hundreds of planes fell burning from the sky.

One of the lucky men who did survive the drop was Frederick George Topham. He'd been born in Toronto during the First World War, had gone to school at Runnymede Collegiate on Jane Street, and spent some time working as a miner at Kirkland Lake. His friends called him Toppy. He was in Europe as a medic with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, stitching up men on the front lines. That morning on the banks of the Rhine, they needed it. Many of the men had been shot on their way down. Their commanding officer, a guy from Winnipeg who'd won the Grey Cup with the Blue Bombers in the '30s, had already been killed. So Topham got to work, rushing from one injured paratrooper to the next: performing first aid, tending to wounds, saving lives.

It was about 11 o'clock — an hour after his jump — when Topham heard a cry for help. An injured solider was lying out in the open, bullets whizzing around him. A medical orderly ran over to help, knelt down at the man's side, and was shot dead. A second medic died the same way. Topham saw it all happen — and then rushed out to help. 

Canadian paratroopers in the drop zone
They say the air was laced with machine gun and sniper fire, but he made it all the way through to the wounded soldier, and began tending to his patient among the dead bodies. That's how Topham got shot, too. In the face. Fighting the pain, blood pouring from his mangled nose and cheek, he stood his ground, gave the solider first aid and then picked him up and carried him through the hail of bullets into the woods to safety. Then he turned around and headed right back out again, to help more of the wounded men. For the next two hours, he refused to stop working, refused to let anyone take care of his bloodied face until the entire area had been cleared of casualties.

And his day wasn't over yet. On his way back to join his company, he came across an armoured machine gun carrier that had been hit by a shell. Mortars were still landing all around it. Flames leapt from it; there were explosions. An officer warned everyone to stand back.

Topham rushed in. He found three men inside and carried each of them to safety. One died of his wounds, but the other two made it. They wouldn't be the last lives he saved that day. The medic kept working for hours.

It would take the Allies a day and a half to win the battle. Then they pressed on deeper into Germany, until they ran into the Soviet army coming the other way. The war in Europe was over. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was the very first unit sent home to Canada. They arrived in Halifax on June 21st, having completed every mission they'd ever been given, and having never given up an objective they'd won.

Back in Toronto, the city had been waiting to celebrate their new hero. They threw Toppy Topham a parade down Bay Street to Old City Hall, with a hundred members of his battalion serving as an honour guard. He was asked to lay the cornerstone for the new Sunnybrook Memorial Hospital for veterans of the war. Soon, an entire post-war neighbourhood on St. Clair East would bear his name: Topham Park. And King George V would award him the Victoria Cross — the highest military honour you can get in the Commonwealth. Nearly 60 years later, when the medal went up for auction in 2004, the members of his old battalion raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it in Canada. They gave it to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa; you can see it on display.

As for Topham himself, he went to work for Toronto Hydro when he got back. That, absurdly, is how he died: in an electrical accident in 1974. Today, you'll find him buried in Sanctuary Park Cemetery at Lawrence and Royal York Road.


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller
You can read more about Toppy Topham and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion here and here and here and here. There's a plaque to his memory outside the old Etobicoke City Hall. I went to his old high school, Runnymede, for a couple of years and don't remember ever having heard about him while I was there, which seems like more than a shame.

Here are some more posts for Remembrance Day:

The story of Toronto's John McCrae writing "In Flanders Fields" amidst the muck and death of Western Belgium here.
What William Faulkner was doing drunk in the cockpit on a biplane in Toronto on the day the Great War ended in 1918 here
The story of bloodshirtsy fighter pilot hero Billy Bishop here
How Canadian troops held occupy Iceland during WWII here.
What it looked like in Toronto on the day the Great War ended here.
A great photo of a women working in a Toronto munitions factory during WWII here.
The story behind on the most famous photos of all-time, "Getting Napalmed As A Child In South Vietnam" here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What A $1 Bill Looked Like in 1859

During the 1800s — and even into the early 1900s — there wasn't just one national bank in Canada with the power to print money. Instead, there were dozens of "chartered" banks who had permission from the government to roll out their own bills. This is one of those, a $1 bill issued by Toronto's very own Colonial Bank of Canada. It was printed in 1859, during Queen Victoria's reign. That's her over there on the left-hand side of the money, while a woodsman / lumberjack / boy toy from a 19th century romance novel hangs out in the middle.

Finally, in 1935, we established the Bank of Canada and it began to print a centralized national currency with standardized denominations. (Which soon also meant the end of strange numbers showing up on our money, like this $4 bill from 1882.)

The Battles at St. James

This is a photo of St. James Cathedral on King Street East, which towers above the park where the Occupy Toronto protesters are camped today, more than 100 years after this image (by old Toronto photographer guy Frank Micklethwaite) was captured. Since it's not actually in the financial district, St. James Park seems like an odd choice as the home of the protests. But historically speaking, there's some justification for it: that block of the city — from Church to Jarvis and Adelaide to King — has been at the centre of the battles over Canadian democracy for about 200 years. Last week, I wrote a piece about it for Torontoist, complete with war, riots, rebellion and plague. You can read it here.