By MPP Toby Barrett
This coming Sept. 17th will mark the 225th anniversary of the opening of the First Session of the First Parliament of Upper Canada. Ontario pre-dates Canada by 75 years.
The Constitutional Act of June 10, 1791 divided the British colony into two governments – west of the Ottawa River became Upper Canada and the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence became Lower Canada. But we did not see Ontario’s first parliament meet until September 17, 1792 at Newark, now Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The First Session of what is now known as the Legislative Assembly of Ontario sat under the Great Seal and Mace of Upper Canada, 1791.
Those who were elected to the House of Assembly for the first Parliament were, by and large, representative of the colony. Most arrived after the American Revolution, having served in the militia or regular forces. They were fiercely loyal to both Great Britain and the Monarchy.
The appointed Legislative Councillors of Upper Canada, unlike the elected settlers, tended to have been born in the British Isles. They were chosen for their posts partly on the basis of their success in business or government.
The first leader of this new wilderness society was Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe.
Governmental institutions were established, first at Newark and then at the new capitol at York, although Simcoe had envisioned London as the eventual seat of government. Simcoe used troops to build a series of primary roads, got land boards and land distribution under way, established the judiciary, abolished the importation of slaves, and showed a keen interest in promoting Anglican affairs. Simcoe left the province in 1796.
The first sitting was short – Sept. 17 to Oct. 15 – but productive.
Within days, Ephraim Jones from Grenville had introduced legislation calling for the establishment of trial by jury and the destruction of wolves. Jeremiah French of Stormont wanted better regulation of surveyors, their fees and jurisdiction.
Some things haven’t changed – taxes were proposed on wine and spirits, and anti-smuggling legislation was introduced.
The new Legislature authorized town meetings, established the Winchester system of weights and measures, looked for better regulation of highways, and empowered magistrates to raise money for jails and courthouses.
It’s remains unclear exactly where the first sitting was held. Cases have been made for Navy Hall, Butler’s Barracks, the Masonic Lodge, and a large marquee tent pitched under what is now known as Parliament Oak.
On Sept. 17, 1992, 130 MPPs went by bus to the place where Ontario’s provincial parliament first convened to commemorate the 200th anniversary. The program featured Premier Bob Rae, Opposition Leader Lyn McLeod, Progressive Conservative Leader Mike Harris and Lieutenant Governor Henry Jackman. An oak tree was planted and a commemorative plaque unveiled. Special guests at the ceremony were the Speakers of both the Ontario and Quebec Assemblies. After the ceremony, the assembled party retired to Navy Hall for tea.
As for this year and the 225th anniversary, I have suggested interested MPPs meet again. At this point nothing has been organized except for a municipal ceremony courtesy the town of Niagara-On-The-Lake. But this is restricted to MPPs from the original ridings of 225 years ago.
Come what may, I plan on being in Niagara-on-the-Lake Sunday, Sept. 17 to celebrate the 225th anniversary of Ontario and its Parliament.