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History of Toronto and County of York in Ontario
Part IV: Chapter VII. William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rule of Sir John Colborne


ON the annals of Upper Canada the period covered by our last chapter is perhaps the least interesting of any with which the historian has to deal. The era of commotion and disorder which was to follow not only saw much intellectual activity in Parliament and in the press, but saw even considerable progress in their building up of the capital.

All places have their local prejudices, and the infant Town of York was no exception to the rule. Founded near the banks of the Don, its citizens hail determined even thus early to get away from the place of its birth. The town was now growing to the north and to the west. From Windmill Street, to the east of Parliament, the place had extended westward as far as York, or even Graves (now Simcoe), streets; while northward from Palace (now Front), King, Duke, Duchess, and Lot (the modern Queen) streets had been surveyed and in part opened out. West of Church Street ran Market (now Wellington), King, Newgate (now Adelaide), and Hospital (now Richmond) streets; while intersecting them, at right angles, were Jordan, Pay, and York. Already, it will be seen, the town was beginning to assume some proportions, and justify its selection as the capital city.

The year 1824 is notable for the initiation of two enterprises which were fraught with beneficent results to the Province. One of these was the proposal to construct the Welland Canal, to cross the peninsula which lies between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie; the other was the formation of the Canada Land Company, under Imperial Charter. The Welland Canal project was the conception of Mr. W. II. Merritt, a gentleman of U. E. Loyalist parentage, who had been an officer of militia in the War of 1812. He was engaged in large business operations, the importance of which led him early to note the commercial value of an unbroken waterway between the two lakes. Bringing his scheme before the Government, he, after some delays, obtained the aid which justified lus forming a company and proceeding with the work. In live years the enterprise was completed, and it stands to-day a monument to his memory.

The Canada Company was organized with the design of acquiring lands in the Province, and of promoting its colonization. The original agreement was for the purchase from the Imperial Government of tracts of the Crown and Clergy Reserves in Upper Canada, to the extent of over two million acres, for which three shillings and sixpence an acre was to be paid. Owing to objections made to the sale of the Clergy Reserves by the Upper Canada Executive, a block of one million acres of land in the Huron district was sold to the Company in lieu thereof, one-third of the purchase money being allowed the Company for the construction of public works and improvements in the district. To the operations of the Company is due the settling of a large portion of what is now Huron County. The Company was given sixteen years to carry out its contract with the Government, and to pay over the value of the lands in annual installments ranging from £i5,000 to £20,000. Within ten years the Company paid into the Upper Canada Exchequer £250,000, and, mainly through its operations, 5,000 people were settled in the County of Huron.

It was in connection with the Canada Company that York and the Province came to know John Gait, the genial author of "Lawrie Todd," the much-prized contributor to Blackwood, and the father of the present Sir Alexander and Mr. Justice Thomas Gait. Mr. Gait came to the Province in 1826 as commissioner for the Canada Company, and for a time had his home at "The Priory," Guelph, where he and Dr. Dunlop, the witty and eccentric surgeon of the Company, with other kindred spirits, held "high holiday," while at the same time actively organizing Scotch settlements along the valley of the Grand River and its tributary, the Speed.

In the capital, Gait does not seem to have found congenial society, for the social circles of York deemed him proud and reserved in his intercourse—the result, perhaps, of failure to establish cordial relations with Sir Peregrine Maitland and his little court. This want of harmony between him and the Provincial Executive finally led to his recall to England, though at headquarters he was deservedly held in high esteem for his probity.

While a resident of York, notwithstanding his moods and his indifference to the people of the capital, Gait, in the winter of 1827, gave an entertainment, which, considering the prosaic times and the small number likely to be available to take part in the proceedings, was of a rather unusual character. Conjointly with Lady Mary, the wife of Mr. Willis, who had recently been appointed to the Bench of Upper Canada, he gave a Fancy Ball, "at which, for once," as Dr. Scadding tell us, "the potent, grave and reverend seigniors of York, along with their sons and daughters, indulged in a little insanity." The ball, as we learn from Toronto of Old, was held in the assembly room in Frank's Hotel, on the corner of Market Square, which is now known as Colborne Street. The hall used to do duty for the citizens as a concert and ball-room, and was occasionally of service as an extemporized theatre. For an account of the ball, and a list of the characters presented, wre must refer the reader to the work we have already quoted, where those who relish a mild bit of scandal may learn of an incident which formed a denouement of the ball, and of its remoter consequences.

The year before these frolics of the elders of the town took place, a frolic of another sort had been indulged in by the younger blood of the capital, which was attended with like unpleasant consequences. In the wrecking of Mackenzie's Printing Office—the escapade to which we have reference—we have a bit of history which, with the ball, somewhat relieves the dull chronicle of those early times, but which, properly to introduce, it will be necessary to go back to the first coming on the scene of him who was thenceforth to fill a large section of the canvas of Upper Canadian history.

William Lyon Mackenzie was born at Dundee, Scotland, in 1795. and five years later, so poor was his then widowed mother, that we are told she had to part with the tartan plaid of the family clan, in exchange for a little coarse barley meal, to tide over for a time the necessities of herself and her youthful son. Humble as was his origin, and nurtured, as we have just said, on the scant fare of a Scottish peasant, Mackenzie, like many a sturdy Scot, determined at an early age to rise from the poverty of his surroundings. Deficient as was his education, he made up for the lack of schooling by a zealously pursued course of self-training and omnivorous reading. Between the years 1806 and 1819, he himself tells us he read nine hundred and fifty-eight volumes, in almost every department of literature. His mother used to say of him that he would be found at his books every evening till midnight, until she thought "the laddie vera Id read hunsel' oot o his judgment." And what he read he remembered.

In 1820, he came to Canada, though prior to this he had seen something of the world, in England as well as in Scotland, and had even ventured upon a visit to Paris. He possessed good business abilities, had a clear, and for his age, well-stored brain, and was a shrewd critic of his fellowship and a keen observer of the world. Mr. Charles Lindsey, his son irl-law and biographer, thus describes his personal appearance. "He was of slight build and scarcely of medium height, being only live feet six inches in stature. His massive head, high and broad in the frontal region and well-rounded, looked too large for the slight and wiry frame il surmounted. He was already bald from the effects of a fever. His keen, restless, piercing blue eye, which threatened to read your most inmost thought, and the ceaseless and expressive activity of his fingers, which unconsciously opened and closed, betrayed a temperament that could not brook inaction. The chin was long and rather broad ; and the firm-set mouth indicated a will which, however it might be baffled and thwarted, could not be subdued."

For a time Mackenzie was engaged in the combined business of druggist and bookseller, first in York, then in Dundas, where he married, and, at a somewhat later date, in Queenston. At the latter village he renounced trade and espoused journalism, for which he was not unfitted, as he had the gifts of a ready and forcible writer, and was not unfamiliar with politics and political literature. At Queenston, on the 18th of May, 1824, appeared the first number of the Colonial Advocate, Mackenzie's earliest effort in journalism. The character of the publication may be judged from ts editor's views of the state of the country at the time of its appearing. It had not come into existence to add to the number of Government bulletins or official gazettes. It was a new departure ;n journalism. Previous to his taking up the pen of a journalist, he had never, as he tells us, interfered hi the public concerns of the colony, until the day on which I issued twelve hundred copies of a newspaper, without having asked or received a single subscriber." In the first number of the paper he adds:— "I stated my sentiments, and the objects I had m view, fully and frankly. I had long seen the country in the hands of a few shrewd, crafty, covetous men, under whose management one of the most lovely and desirable sections of America remained a comparative desert. The most obvious public improvements were stayed, dissension was created among classes, citizens were banished and imprisoned in defiance of all law, the people had been long forbidden, under severe pains and penalties, from meeting anywhere to petition for justice, large estates were wrested from their owners m utter contempt of even the forms of the Courts ; the Church of England, the adherents of which were few, monopolized as much of the lands of the colony as all the religious houses and dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church had had control of in Scotland at the era of the Reformation; other sects were treated with contempt, and scarcely tolerated; a sordid band of land-jobbers grasped the soil as their patrimony, and with a few leading officials, who divided the public revenue among themselves, formed the 'Family Compact,' and were the avowed enemies of common schools, of civil and religious liberty, of all legislative or other checks to their own will."

With this severe indictment of the then rulers of Upper Canada, Mackenzie set out as a public censor, and bravely began the agitation for those reforms which, after years of unparalleled toil and wrecked happiness, he was yet to see secured to the country. But for a time Reform was to accomplish little. What, indeed, could it accomplish, with so radically defective a system of administration? To attack abuses in detail was only to court annoyance, and in the end to sutfer defeat. And for long this was the fate of Mackenzie, as it had been that of Gourlay. The Executive was supreme and impregnable, and hardly less so was the Crown-nominated Upper Chamber. The popular Assembly, even when it really represented the people, was powerless against the ruling party. The latter could snap its fingers at the polls, and reject every bill the Assembly saw fit to pass. As Mackenzie's biographer remarks: "The difficulty was that these representative Assemblies were mocked with the semblance of that legislative power, with the substantial possession of which they were never endowed."

Against Mackenzie and his journal there was now directed unceasing malevolence, which, when both were transferred from Queenston to the capital—which transfer shortly took place—was to find expression in a thousand acts of hostility and petty annoyance. Two instances of this hostile feeling may be cited. The first is connected with the re-interring of the remains of Sir Isaac Brock at Queenston Heights; the second, with the wrecking of his printing office and the throw ing of the type into Toronto Bay. At the ceremony of laying the remains of General Brock finally to rest, under the column which the country had erected to his memory, it seems that some friend of Mackenzie had clandestinely deposited a copy of his journal, the Colonial Advocate, in the cavity where the customary coins and official journals were placed. This fact was presently bruited about, and, coining to the ears of the authorities, the foundation-stone of the structure was ordered to be removed, and the contaminating paper cast forth from its place of honour.

The other incident took place on a summer evening, im June, 1826, and shows how deeply Mackenzie had cut nto the personal susceptibilities of the "Family Compact" by his freelance criticism in the Colonial Advocate.

Two years before this period, the general elections of 1824 had returned a large Reform majority to the House. Seriously affected by this circumstance, and much exasperated by the crusade Mackenzie had actively entered upon in his journal, the position of the ruling powers was beginning to be exceedingly uncomfortable. The fact was patent, the high-handed, unrighteous stewards of the Upper Canada vineyard were now having an uneasy time of it. Nor could the troubles of the precious junto be concealed. The younger generation, sons of the placemen and pensioners who were mis-ruling the country, had got to know pretty well the facts, and the quarrel was taken up by the hot-bloods among them. Mackenzie they held responsible, and he it was who was to suffer. Taking advantage of the latter's temporary absence from the town, a band of these lawless youths effected an entrance into his office, broke up his "forms," scattered his type—much of it they threw into the bay—demolished his printing press, and generally wrecked his establishment. This act of valour on the part of the young chivalry of York, if not actually encouraged, was at least winked at, by two magistrates who were said to be close by the scene of the outrage at the time of its occurring. To these representatives of Justice blindfold, as well as to all the members of the "Family Compact, the summer evening's escapade was, doubtless, a joyful one, though the young rioters, or their fathers for them, had, after process of law, to indemnify Mackenzie for the loss sustained by him. The amount he recovered, after a good deal of haggling, wras £625, a sum which enabled him to make good his loss, and to equip his office more efficiently. But beyond the legal satisfaction he was fortunate enough to obtain in Court, Mackenzie had a more substantial solatum in the sympathy of the people, who were greatly incensed at the affair, and whose denunciations of the act, and of those high an authority who connived at it, were both loud and deep. The hostility of the party in power against their critic and censor woefully miscarried, and the effort to crush Mackenzie and his journal only recoiled upon those who had instigated the foul act.

The year 1828 witnessed a change in the administration of the affair of the Province. Sir Peregrine Maitland was transferred to Nova Scotia, and Sir John Colborne reigned in his stead. The latter, Lke his predecessor, was essentially a military man, having been distinguished both in the Peninsula and at Waterloo. His regime was, almost from the very outset, characterized by stormy scenes in the Legislature, and may be regarded as the transition period in the political history of the Province. The new Governor met Lis first Parliament on the 9th of January, 1829, in the old brick hospital on King Street West, which had been the scene of its deliberations since the destruction of the old buildings by tire five years before. During this session the attitude of the Reformers became more aggressive than ever; the forces of the Compact were reduced in numbers, and the tone of the debate on the Address .was a significant warning as to the state of public feeling. Mr. Mackenzie was a member of this House, having been elected for the County of York in 1828. The House adjourned towards the end of March, and shortly afterwards the editor of the Colonial Advocate once more came into prominence. In July of this year Sir John Beverley Robinson, the Attorney-General, was raised to the bench as Chief-Justice of Upper Canada. This created a vacancy n the representation of York, for which Robert Baldwin, then twenty-five years of age, presented himself as a candidate and was elected. During the campaign he was vigorously supported by the Colonial Advocate, which published a series of fierce attacks upon Mr. Small, Mr. Baldwin's opponent, and upon the Compact, of which he was the nominee. Mr. Small retaliated with an action for libel; and the increased bitterness thus engendered culminated the following year in the expulsion of Mr. Mackenzie from the House, by virtue of an obsolete rule which prohibited the unauthorized publication of the Parliamentary proceedings. This was followed by a popular demonstration in his favour in the streets of York, and by his re-election and re-expulsion no less than five times in succession. Finally the constituency was punished by being deprived of one of its members, and Mr. Mackenzie disappeared for a time from the scene of his struggles and triumphs, having embarked on a mission to England as the bearer of petitions to the Home Government in his favour.

It may not be out of place here to quote a description by Mr. "Mackenzie himself, given in his "Sketches," of the demonstration above alluded to, as giving an idea of a scene in those days not unfrequently to be witnessed on the streets of York: "A procession was formed at the Red Lion Inn on Yonge Street, Price's or Tiers', where the hustings were in front of it was an immense sleigh belonging to Mr. Montgomery "—on which stood the hero of the day, wearing a gold chain and medal just presented to him by his constituents—"which was drawn by four horses, and carried between twenty and thirty men and two or three Highland pipers. From fifty to one hundred sleighs followed, and between one and two thousand of the inhabitants. The procession passed by the Government House, from thence to the Parliament House, thence to Mr. Cawthra's and then to Mr. Mackenzie's own house, giving cheers at each of these places. One of the most sins. of curiosities of the day was a little printing-press, placed in one of the sleighs, warmed by a furnace, on which a couple of boys continued, while moving through the streets, to strike off their New Year's Address and throw it to the people. Over the press was hoisted a crimson flag, with the motto 'The Liberty of the Press.' The mottoes on the other flags were: 'King William IV. and Reform'; 'Bidwell and the Glorious Minority' '1832, a Good Beginning'; 'A Free Press, the Terror of Sycophants.' "

The first two years of Sir John Colborne's administration were marked, in so far as York was specially concerned, by notable additions to its public buildings. In 1829 Upper Canada College—an institution on the model of the great English public schools—was founded, and was formally opened in January of the following year in the York Home District Grammar School, on Adelaide Street, pending the completion of the embryo of the present college buildings. The College Avenue, the Don tubular bridge and the St. James' Church which was destroyed by fire in 1839, also date from this period. In 1829, too, immediately after the close of the session, advertisements appeared asking for tenders for the construction of Legislative buildings on what was then known as "Simcoe Place." And, finally, in the same year the construction of "Lawyers' Hall," the original of the present Osgoode Hall, was commenced. Further and fuller accounts of these and other public buildings and works will be found in the chapter which treats of the institutions and industries of Toronto.

Among other noteworthy events occurring during this period of the history of York, may be mentioned the establishment, in 1829, of what is now the oldest journal in the City of Toronto, viz., the Christian Guardian, which, whilst pre-eminently the organ of a special religious body, at the same time devoted considerable space to the publication of the current news and of general reading. Another noteworthy event—as being rare in the society annals of York, if it were not indeed the first of its kind—was the opening, in 1832, of a fancy bazaar, the proceeds of which were intended to be applied to the relief of the cholera sufferers. It was under the patronage of Lady Colborne and was held on September 2nd, in one of the Commissariat storehouses near the foot of John Street. The proceeds of the sales amounted to £311. The cholera visitation paralyzed, for a time, the business enterprise of York, but it had a good effect in paving the way for much-needed sanitary reforms.


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