Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Brexit, Eton & The History of Toronto

The most famous boarding school in the world just got a little bit more famous. Thanks to the shocking result of the Brexit referendum, Eton College has been popping up in the news quite a lot in recent years. The posh boarding school is where two of the architects of the mess spent their teenage years. Both former Prime Minster David Cameron and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson graduated from Eton in the early 1980s. And now — three years after the referendum — Boris will become the new Prime Minister, elected as Tory leader on a promise to ram through Brexit no matter what toll it takes on the country.

So if you want to understand the breathtaking, aristocratic entitlement that has led the United Kingdom into self-inflicted disaster, it helps to understand Eton. And in understanding Eton, you can also better understand the history of Toronto — because it's not just where Boris and Dave went, it's where the man who founded our city went, too.

Eton sits on the banks of the River Thames, not far outside London, just across the river from Windsor Castle. It was founded all the way back in the 1400s; King Henry VI started the school as a charity meant to provide free education to the poor.

But oh how things have changed since then. In recent centuries, Eton has made its reputation by catering to the children of the rich and powerful, helping to perpetuate the strict British class system. Yearly tuition can cost as much as the equivalent of $60,000 in Canadian currency. For a long time, the school's official uniform was literally a top hat and tails. (They finally ditched the top hat in the 1960s, but they've kept the tails.) The school is synonymous with the idea of British entitlement: that the children of the country's ruling class should naturally become its next generation of rulers.

Nineteen British Prime Ministers have been students at Eton. Both Prince Harry and Prince William went there, too. So did George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Percy Shelley and John Maynard Keynes. And if you're counting fictional characters, then so did James Bond and Captain Hook and Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey

Eton College
And so, it's not surprising to find that two of today's most powerful Conservative politicians both went to Eton, too. The old Prime Minster, David Cameron (inept champion of Remain), and the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson (Leave-supporting buffoon), both graduated from Eton in the early 1980s. They say you can trace the roots of their rivalry all the way back there — and with it, some of the very beginnings of the Brexit disaster.

As a student, Boris was older, more popular and more successful than Cameron — things that mattered even more than usual at such an aristocratic school. And since Johnson did better at Eton — and then again when both young men attended Oxford University — they say it drove him nuts that Cameron had risen to greater heights since then. Boris might have been the former Mayor of London, a Member of Parliament, and a newspaper columnist who got paid more than £250,000 last year (or "chicken feed" as he calls it) for writing one article every week — but that, apparently, wasn't enough.

"Yes," Sonia Purnell writes in The Independent, "the fact that Cameron was two years below him at Eton – a terrifically hierarchical school – rankles deeply. As does the fact that it was Boris who shone there, not Cameron. Masters recall Johnson as a remarkable teenager. They do not recall Cameron at all."

According to countless media reports, Boris made it his mission to topple his old friend Dave and take his place as Prime Minster. If that meant joining the Leave campaign... well, that's what he was willing to do — whether or not he actually believed that leaving the European Union was a good idea for Britain.

Meanwhile, some suggest that Cameron's lifelong sense of entitlement — reinforced by his time at Eton — gave him a false sense of his own superiority. Slate describes him as "an establishment man through and through... the sort of person who gets away with too many things and comes to mistake his privilege for innate luck." When given the chance to gamble the future of his country in return for his own personal political gain, he did so. After all, he's been getting his way his entire life. Why would this time be any different? In order to appease the lunatic far-right fringe of his party, Cameron agreed to hold the Brexit referendum, confident that a Leave vote would never actually happen.

Boris and Dave
But when Boris — who is thought to have personally reassured Cameron that he would never support the Leave campaign — betrayed his old friend, things suddenly became much more complicated. Johnson's support gave legitimacy to the Leave faction, even while it descended into absurd lies and bigoted violence. The racists behind Brexit never would have won, according to The Daily Beast, "without the fig leaf of Boris's charm."

The result: a stunning victory for the Leave campaign, an economy in disarray, bigotry and xenophobia on the rise, the murder of an MP, the end of Cameron's career, and scenes of Boris Johnson being booed the moment he poked his head outside his front door. The Old Etonians had suddenly become two of the most hated men in the country they were raised to rule.

At first, it looked like Johnson's plan hadn't even worked: betrayed, in turn, by one of his own supporters (die-hard-Brexiter Michael Gove), Johnson was been forced out of the race to replace Cameron as PM. Theresa May won instead.

But now, Johnson's spectacular self-serving maneuverings have finally paid off: Boris has won the Tory leadership contest to replace May and will take over as the new Prime Minister.

The power of Eton College hasn't just been limited to British politics, either. Thanks to the Empire, the school's reach has historically extended far beyond England's own borders. In Toronto, you can trace Eton's influence all the way back to the founding of our modern city. More than two hundred years before Boris and Dave, there was John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe went to Eton in the 1760s. And he too bought into its aristocratic vision for Britain. Years later, when he became the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, he was determined to make that aristocratic heritage an important part of his new province.

Before he sailed for Canada, Simcoe got in touch with another Eton graduate: the famous scientist Sir Joseph Banks. In his letter, Simcoe asked for any advice Banks might be able to offer, and laid out his vision for his new Upper Canadian capital: the city that would eventually become Toronto.

A strict class system, he insisted, would play a vital role. Simcoe didn't trust the general public; they couldn't be allowed to have real power. As a solider, he'd seen the bloody results of the American Revolution with his own eyes — and more recently, he'd heard the terrifying reports coming out of Paris during the French Revolution. In fact, the Reign of Terror began the very same summer Simcoe founded Toronto. In his experience, when the people gained power, they had a nasty habit of beheading the elites. And so Simcoe was determined that his new city would be free from what he called "tyrannical democracy."

"There are inherent defects in the congressional form of Government," he wrote in his letter to Banks, "the absolute prohibition of any order of nobility is a glaring one. I hope to have a hereditary council with some mark of nobility."

John Graves Simcoe
He would never quite get his wish: Toronto never developed an officially aristocratic system like the one they had back home in England. But Simcoe did make sure that power rested in the hands of a few loyal Tory families. For the first few decades of our city's history, families like the slave-owning Jarvis clan kept all of the best government jobs and appointments for themselves and their friends. The habit would eventually earn Toronto's ruling class a derisive nickname: The Family Compact.

With the backing of their British overlords, the Family Compact dominated the Legislative Assembly, blocked all democratic reform, and cracked down on dissent. Anyone who disagreed with the Tory elite or demanded change quickly found themselves subject to threats and intimidation — sometimes even violence or imprisonment.

The Family Compact had no doubt they were meant to be the natural rulers of the province — a sense of entitlement that would look familiar to anyone who has been following Boris and Dave during the Brexit fiasco.

To help ensure that the power of the Family Compact would continue long into the future, they even founded a Torontonian version of Eton. It's still around today: Upper Canada College. The school's own website describes it as being "modeled after the great public schools of Britain [what we call private schools in Canada], most notably Eton College." UCC's job would much be the same as Eton's job on the other side of the Atlantic: training the sons of the rich and powerful to become the new generation of elites.

And it worked. As Wikipedia points out, "The school has produced six lieutenant governors, four premiers, seven chief justices, and four Mayors of Toronto." There have been plenty of other rich and powerful graduates, too, like Michael Ignatieff, Ted Rogers, Galen Weston and Ken Thomson. In Toronto, the Old Boys of Upper Canada College have played something of a similar role to that of the Old Etonians in England.

But not everyone in Toronto was happy with the Family Compact. There was plenty of resentment against the ruling class in those early years. The opposition gained momentum over the city's first few decades, building into a reform movement led by the radical newspaper publisher and first Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie. He was becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of democracy in Upper Canada. He made appeal after appeal to the British government, but his complaints fell on deaf ears — which was maybe not entirely surprising: nearly all of the British Prime Ministers during that period were Old Etonians themselves.

William Lyon Mackenzie
In the end, Mackenzie finally gave up on trying to find a peaceful solution; after a disappointing trip to London, he became convinced that revolution was the only way to break the Family Compact's grip on power. In 1837, he gathered an army north of Toronto and marched down toward the city with the aim of overthrowing the government.

Even the street the rebels marched down was a reminder of Eton's influence. Simcoe named the biggest road in Toronto after another one of his Old Etonian friends: Sir George Yonge.

In the end, of course, Mackenzie's rebellion failed. Democratic reform came peacefully a decade later under the name of Responsible Government. The leading champion of the cause was the moderate Robert Baldwin, who had been educated by the leader of the Family Compact. And Baldwin was able to convince the British of its value thanks in part to the support of Lord Durham, yet another Eton graduate. Change didn't come to Canada until the people advocating for it were members of the old boys club themselves.

More than a hundred and fifty years later, you can still see some echoes of that seminal divide in the Toronto politics of today. We saw it on stunning display in recent years, when Rob Ford was able to frame his mayoral campaign as a campaign against the "elites" by positioning himself as an outsider and purposefully distancing himself from the traditional, Upper Canada College-style Tories. Those who felt ignored by the establishment voted for Ford in droves. Casting a ballot for an apparent outsider seemed like a rare opportunity to give voice to their anger. Now his brother Doug has done the same, becoming Premier of Ontario.

In 2016, we saw similar emotions lead to similar results in the United Kingdom. The Leave side denounced the experts and vilified the establishment even though the leaders of the Leave campaign were establishment figures themselves. Boris Johnson has made a career out of playing the blond buffoon, a carefully crafted image, trying to seem like a man of the people instead of a millionaire raised in privilege. The Brexiters, much like Ford, managed to convince vast numbers of people that the real cause of their problems was a dastardly combination of expert opinion and immigration. Not, say, the damaging policies those very same Conservative politicians have been hawking for decades: like tax cuts for the rich paid for by service cuts for everyone else. 

Both campaigns were illusions. Rob Ford was a millionaire born into a political family. His policies were the same old Conservative policies that have been hurting the working class for years. His successor, the aptly-named John Tory, is one of the most establishment-friendly politician you could possibly imagine — and in general his policies are usually in line with those Ford was pushing. Even a vote against the establishment led to establishment-friendly policies; they were just served with a side of crack cocaine.
Six thousand kilometers and an entire ocean away, angry Britons voted in protest against their own elites, unleashing a wave of bigotry and decimating their nation's economy in the process. They have managed to drive one establishment-friendly leader out of power: Cameron, forced to resign in disgrace, will be remembered as one of the worst Prime Ministers in modern British history. But they replaced him with another contender to that title: Theresa May. And now they've replaced her with Cameron's old schoolmate Johnson, yet another establishment-friendly Tory leader moving into 10 Downing Street, ready to pick up right where the last one left off.  

The Old Etonian is dead. Long live the Old Etonian.


Via Viv Lynch on Flickr

This post was originally published in 2016 — in the week after the Brexit referendum — and has been updated on July 23, 2019 to reflect Boris Johnson's victory in the Tory leadership contest to replace Theresa May.

You can learn more about the connection between the histories of Toronto and England with A Torontonian Historical Map of London here. Read more about Simcoe's vision for Toronto here. And more about Mackenzie's failed mission to London here.

There's a whole dramatized documentary about Johnson and Cameron's early years, "When Boris Met Dave," which you can watch on Vimeo here.

The main image of "Toffs and Toughs" via Rare Historical Photos here.  Photo of Boris and Dave via The Sun. Photo of Eton College by me as part of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, which explored the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

How A Canadian Prime Minister Saved The Richest Family In America

Wall Street. Home to the New York Stock Exchange. The heart of the American economy. Every day, countless tourists flock to this spot — and to a statue just down the block: the Wall Street Bull is a symbol recognized around the world. But as dozens of tourists wait for their chance to take a photo with the bronze beast, no one pays any attention to the obscure piece of Canadian history standing right next to it. It was from this spot, at 26 Broadway, that a Canadian prime minister once saved the richest family in the United States. 

William Lyon Mackenzie King was born and raised in Toronto, but his family had roots in New York long before he arrived in the city. His grandfather was the very similarly named William Lyon Mackenzie — the notorious rebel mayor of Toronto, who once led an armed rebellion against the government of Upper Canada. When his revolution failed, the rebel mayor fled across the border into the United States. He and his wife Isabel spent a few years living in exile in New York City. That's where their daughter Isabella was born. And she, in turn, would have a son named after his rebellious ancestor. 

Mackenzie King followed in his grandfather's political footsteps. As a young member of parliament he served in the Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier, appointed as Canada’s first ever Labour Minister. But when the Liberals lost the next election, King accepted a new job. He would head south to work for one of the world's most famously rich families.

John D. Rockefeller had made his fortune in oil. He was the first billionaire in U.S. history, founder of the company that has since morphed into ExxonMobile. But by the 1914, the Rockefellers were in trouble. The coal miners who worked for them in Colorado were on strike: thousands of miners demanded things like an 8-hour workday and the enforcement of safety regulations. 

The company refused. The miners and their families were evicted from their company-owned housing, forced to set up tent cities. And then the National Guard was sent in, along with strikebreakers and private detectives. Things turned brutally violent. There were gunfights. Bullets fired into random tents. A tent city burned to the ground in what become known as the Ludlow Massacre. No one is quite sure how many people died during the Colorado Coalfield War, but it was somewhere between 69 and 199 — even babies were killed. Historians have called it the “deadliest strike in the history of the United States” and “perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history”.

The Rockefellers had put a lot of effort into establishing a positive public image. John D. Rockefeller Jr. had used his dad's money to set up the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the biggest charities the U.S. had ever seen. But now his reputation was taking a beating; many people blamed him for the massacre. So now he used the Rockefeller Foundation to hire Canada’s former labour minister to give him advice. King would delve into a deep study of labour relations… and help save Rockefeller’s reputation in the process.

King spent the next few years travelling back and forth between his home in Ottawa and the Rockefeller Foundation offices at 26 Broadway Avenue — right next to where the Wall Street Bull now stands — studying and learning, working on what would eventually become a book on the subject. He even travelled to Colorado himself, touring the mine and meeting with miners. 

His instincts seemed to lean toward the workers' cause. “One could not help feeling as one looked at the huge seams of coal," King admitted, "that this wealth of nature was never intended to be privately owned, but was intended in reality for society as a whole.” But he was also deeply fond of Rockefeller Jr. King admitted he knew “of no man living who I more admire.” And Rockefeller returned his admiration: “Seldom have I ever been so impressed with a man at first appearance.” His biographer claims King was “the closest friend he ever had. 

During his time in New York, King essentially organized a public relations campaign on Rockefeller’s behalf. He had him meet with labour leaders and personally orchestrated his tour of the coalfields. When Rockefeller was called to testify before Congress, King was there, passing him notes during his testimony. “I was merely King’s mouthpiece,” Rockefeller remembered, “I needed education. No other man did so much for me.” And it worked. Even the radical labour organizer Mother Jones gave them a glowing quote for the papers.

Mackenzie’s advice helped to bring an end to the strike as the union ran out of money — his “Colorado Plan” became a model followed by companies across the United States. In fact, things went so well that Rockefeller seems to have wanted King to stay on in New York, joining the oil company as an executive. But King was absolutely appalled by the idea. He had no interest in big business. He had even bigger plans.

With the Rockefeller crisis solved, King returned to Ottawa to finish his book — and to run for office once again. Soon, he was elected Prime Minister of Canada for his very first term. By the time he retired, the man who had once saved the richest family in the United States had been in office for more than 21 years — the longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history.


This post also appears on the Canadiana blog. It's the documentary web series I host, on the hunt for the most incredible stories in Canadian history. You should subscribe on YouTube — it's 100% free and you'll get an email letting you know when every new episode comes out.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

When Belfast Battles Were Fought On Toronto Streets

St. Patrick’s Day, 1858: a bloody day in the history of Toronto. Thomas D'Arcy McGee has come to town. He was once was an Irish revolutionary, but now he's one of Canada's leading politicians. He will go on to become a Father of Confederation and Sir John A. Macdonald's right-hand man. And thanks to his transformation from Irish freedom fighter to a loyal British subject, he's also a deeply controversial figure: on the fault line between Protestants and Irish-Catholics.

McGee has come to Toronto to attend a banquet and give a speech. On the surface, it doesn't seem like a particularly divisive itinerary. But this is a deeply Irish city. More than a third of its residents were born in Ireland — a higher percentage than any other North American city, even Boston or New York. McGee's mere presence is enough to help plunge the city into violence — the riot that is about to rock King Street is just one example of the sectarian battles that will earn Toronto the nickname, "The Belfast of North America".

Many of Toronto's Irish residents are relative newcomers, having arrived just a decade before McGee's fateful speech. During the summer of 1847, nearly 40,000 Irish refugees flooded into Toronto — twice the population of the entire city. They were driven out of Ireland by the Great Famine along with forced evictions by landlords who seized the opportunity to run them off their land.

The vast majority of the new arrivals were Catholic… and they didn’t exactly find themselves welcomed into the city with open arms. Seventy-five percent of Toronto residents were Protestants; many of them were members of the Orange Order, a deeply anti-Catholic organization founded in Northern Ireland during the late 1700s. Orangemen are still a major presence in Belfast to this day; even in the 21st century, their annual parades frequently descend into riots.

The Orange Order basically ran Toronto, keeping a stranglehold on municipal politics for a century. From the 1860s to the 1950s, nearly every Mayor of Toronto was a member of the Order. City councillors, too. And police. And firefighters. Just about all city employees. At the time that all those famine refugees were pouring into the city, there wasn’t a single Catholic who held municipal office in Toronto. For many decades to come, well into the 1900s, Catholics had trouble getting hired for any public job in the city.

Discrimination against Irish-Catholics became a defining feature of life in Toronto. “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere,” the Globe newspaper wrote, “and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor. They are lazy, improvident, and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons and are as brutish in their superstition as Hindoos." By 1864, the city’s Catholic bishop was actively discouraging Irish-Catholics from moving to Toronto, warning them off because of the Protestant domination of the city and the terrible discrimination Catholics faced there.

And it wasn’t just Toronto. Orange Lodges spread across Canada from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. At one point, there were more Orange Lodges in Canada than there were in Northern Ireland itself. At the time of Confederation, a third of all Protestant men in Canada were current or former members of the Orange Order — including Sir John A. Macdonald. Three future prime ministers would be, too; one of them, Sir Mackenzie Bowell, had been the Grandmaster of the Canadian lodge. It was said that any time they were in power, the federal Conservatives always reserved three seats in Cabinet for Orange MPs.

But no city in Canada was more Orange than Toronto. And some of the local Orangemen were willing to kill and be killed in order to maintain their grip on power.

In Toronto, just like in Belfast, the riots frequently started with a parade. Every year on the 12th of July, the Orange Order would hold a big march to commemorate the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over Catholics in Ireland in the 1600s. “The Twelfth” was practically an official holiday in Toronto: municipal employees even got the day off so they could attend — with pay. At its height, thousands of Torontonians marched in the annual parade while tens of thousands cheered them on.

Catholics would generally stay indoors that day, and keep their children close. But not all of them. The parades would occasionally erupt into violence between Orangemen and Irish-Catholics, the battles of Belfast being fought in Canadian streets. And it wasn’t just on the Twelfth. Protestant-Catholic riots became an almost annual occurrence: after political meetings and elections, on Guy Fawkes Day, when the Prince of Wales visited... religious processions attacked, St. Michael’s Cathedral under siege, the bishop pelted with stones... Once, the Orange Order even once attacked a circus: the clowns cut in front of some Orange Order firefighters waiting in line outside a brothel.

When an Irish revolutionary came to town to deliver a lecture, Orangemen rioted for two days, smashed the windows of St. Patrick's Hall, destroyed a tavern, and trashed stores on Queen Street.

When Catholics celebrated the Papal Jubilee, stones rained down from above. Shots were fired. Thousands battled in the streets. By the time it was over, a Catholic stable hand lay dead.

That was from the only time a life was lost to the violence between Toronto's Protestants and Irish Catholics. And one of those lives would be lost on St. Patrick's Day, 1858: the day Thomas D'Arcy McGee gave his speech in Toronto. With the controversial politician in town, tensions were high. It was no surprise when the annual St. Patrick's Day parade descended into violence. An Orangemen drove a horse and cart into the procession, trying to disrupt it. Catholics fought back, chasing him into a nearby alley where a violence struggle ended with an Irish-Catholic man murdered: stabbed to death.

The incident would lead Toronto's Irish-Catholics to create a new organization that would eventually evolve into the Fenian Brotherhood: a revolutionary group dedicated to the cause of Irish independence from Britain. A decade later, American Fenians would march across the border to launch an invasion of Canada in the hope that it would help put pressure on the British to leave Ireland. The attack was doomed to fail, but dozens died and even more were wounded. Toronto's very first war memorial was dedicated to the memory of the students from the University of Toronto who died fighting against those Fenian invaders.

By then, even Thomas D'Arcy McGee himself was dead. The Father of Confederation was gunned down in the streets of Ottawa in 1868, assassinated as he returned home from a late night session of parliament. A man suspected of being a Fenian agent, Patrick Whelan, was hanged for the murder (though even today, it's unclear whether he was the real murderer).

Before long, the situation had gotten so out of hand that Toronto decided to take drastic action: beginning in the 1870s, the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade was banned. And it would remain that way for more than 100 years. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Orange stranglehold on Toronto was broken. After the Second World War, Toronto was becoming more and more multicultural. For the first time in 118 years the city elected a mayor who wasn’t Protestant: the Jewish Nathan Phillips. And the tensions between Protestants and Catholics began to fade away.

And so in the 1980s, Toronto decided it was finally safe enough for another St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The sectarian violence that had once rocked the city on a regular basis was now nothing more than a distant memory of a long-ago time. Today, St. Patrick's Day is a cherished tradition in Toronto, just as it in so many other cities across Canada and the rest of the world. As the streets fill with people wearing their shamrock hats and bars sell gallons of green beer, it feels as if the whole city celebrates the holiday — without a hint of the violence that once spilled blood in its streets.


Want to know more about the assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee and the mystery of who shot him? We reopen the country's most notorious cold case in a recent episode of Canadiana — the Canadian history web series I host: 

I wrote more about the summer the Irish Famine refugees arrived in Toronto and the power of the Orange Order in The Toronto Book of the Dead, which you can find at the favourite local Toronto bookstore or order from Amazon or Indigo.

Image: The Jubillee Riots of 1876 via Wikimedia Commons.