Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Toronto in 1851 — a snapshot of the booming city at the dawn of a new age

In 1851, the year this painting was painted, Toronto was beginning to boom. It had been less than 60 years since the first British soldiers showed up to clear the ancient forest and make way for the new capital of Upper Canada, but the population was already skyrocketing. By the time of this painting, there were something like 30,000 people living in the city. The population had doubled over the last decade and would double again over the next. It was truly the dawning of a new age: in 1851 we started building our very first railroad. In fact, the City's own website uses this year as a defining line in the history of Toronto: between "A Provincial Centre" and "An Industrializing City."

There were big new public buildings opening all over town. Some of them are still there today. Near King and Jarvis, the gorgeous St. Lawrence Hall had just opened, the city's main venue for concerts, political meetings and other public events. In 1851, it hosted an important anti-slavery gathering: the North American Convention of Colored Freemen, which included a speech by Frederick Douglass. Today, it's a National Historic Site. A block away, a new building had just been built at the St. Lawrence Market: it served as Toronto's City Hall for the next 50 years and can still be seen in the facade of the current Market. Far to the west on Queen Street, near Parkdale, the new Provincial "Lunatic Asylum" had recently begun taking its very first patients. It lasted all the way to the 1970s before we tore the beautiful old building down. It was in 1851 that the first in a series of brick walls was designed for the grounds. The patients were used as free labour to build them. A section of the walls survives to this day, on the eastern edge of what's now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Meanwhile, the Province of Canada had just become a real democracy. Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine had recently won an overwhelming majority on an election platform demanding the British government allow Canadians to make our own laws. They called it Responsible Government. Some of the Tories who opposed them were so pissed off they attacked the Parliament Buildings in Montreal, burned them to the ground, and threatened further violence. As a result, the capital was moved to Toronto. As 1851 began, Baldwin and LaFontaine were hard at work in our Parliament Buildings down on Front Street (where the CBC building is now). Their government would become known as "The Great Ministry." In a few short years, they brought in public education, a public postal service, an independent judiciary, our jury system, and our appeals system; they brought democratic reform to municipal governments and made sure anyone — not just the upper class — had access to the courts and could be appointed to the civil service. They also extended the right to vote — it wasn't just for property owners anymore — though, at the same time, they restricted that right to men only.

Despite all this change, we still remained an overwhelmingly British city: in 1851, 97% of Torontonians had been born in the British Isles or traced their ancestry there. It would be a long time before that changed: fifty years later, in 1901, the figure was still 92%.

But now, more than ever before, we were a particularly Irish city. Ireland had just been devastated by the Great Famine. More than a million people died in just a few years; many others fled. Tens of thousands of Irish refugees flooded Toronto in the years leading up to 1851 — at one point during the terrible summer of 1847, there were more refugees in the city than non-refugees. Hundreds died of typhoid at the old General Hospital on the corner of King & John (where the TIFF Lightbox is now) and in the temporary fever sheds built out back. It was the beginning of a great wave of Irish immigration that changed the face of our city. Soon, we'd earn the nickname of the "Belfast of North America."

Toronto had always been a very Protestant town. In fact, for the first four decades of the city's history, Anglican ministers were the only ones allowed to perform marriage ceremonies. The Protestant Orange Order was immensely powerful — just like in Belfast — and they didn't hesitate to use that power against Catholics. Prejudice was rampant. In the few decades after 1851, as the city became home to ever-more Irish-Catholics, Toronto found itself dealing with some of the same sectarian violence that plagued Ireland. There would be dozens of riots between Protestants and Catholics before the end of the century.

But it was also a time of growing respect for diversity. Baldwin (an anglophone Protestant from Toronto) and LaFontaine (a francophone Catholic from Montreal) were helping to lay some of the early foundations of Canadian multiculturalism. They made Canada officially bilingual, opened Canadian ports to ships from all over the world, and challenged the exclusive privileges of the Protestant clergy. They took over King's College, an Anglican school in Toronto, severed its ties to the church, and turned it into the secular University of Toronto. Meanwhile, the city's first Catholic cathedral, St. Michael's, had just been consecrated at Church & Shuter. It would soon be joined by St. Michael's College, a Catholic school which would eventually also become part of U of T.

By the end of 1851, however, the era of Baldwin and LaFontaine was suddenly over. They had granted an amnesty to the rebels of 1837, allowing them to return from exile. For the first time in more than a decade, the old trouble-making former mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, was back at home living in Toronto. He was joined by other returning rebels — unsurprisingly, they were more radical than the moderate liberals (like Baldwin and LaFontaine) who had refused to take up arms. It didn't take long for Mackenzie to get elected to parliament and to cause problems for the Great Ministry. Baldwin and LaFontaine were relatively young — in their 40s — but they were already exhausted from years of political struggle and plagued by a variety of illnesses. (Most famously, Baldwin had been suffering from severe depression since the death of his wife 15 years earlier.) When one of Mackenzie's bills to overturn one of Baldwin's new laws got unexpectedly strong support, Baldwin resigned. LaFontaine wasn't far behind.

And so, as 1851 turned into 1852, the Province of Canada was in the hands of a new generation of political leaders. In the wake of the Great Ministry, people like George Brown and John A. Macdonald would rise to prominence. The fight for Responsible Government was over. Now, it was time to start down the road to Confederation.


Image: it was an artist born in Germany who painted this painting. Augustus Köller had been raised in Düsseldorf and now lived in Philadelphia. He made his living off watercolours and lithographs. His work took him to cities all over North America. For this painting, he seems to have taken a vantage point looking out over the city from the ancient shore of the prehistoric Lake Iroquois, just north of Davenport Road now. The land up on top of the hill had long belonged to the city's elite — it's where many had their country estates. In fact, up on that hill right next to where Casa Loma is now, Robert Baldwin's family built the first Spadina House.

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