By MPP Toby Barrett
‘Tastes like pork’ was the report of Lady Simcoe, wife of John Graves, on first having raccoon, or ‘Canadian monkey’, as she described it at the time.
So many stories of well over two centuries ago were relayed this past Sept. 17 at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Several events were held to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the opening of Canada’s First Parliament by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe.
On Sept. 12 this fall – on the 226 anniversary of the appointment of Simcoe as Lieutenant Governor in 1791 – I rose in the House to introduce legislation proclaiming the first Monday of each August as Simcoe Day. It would recognize his contributions to our province and his role in creating the first formal structures of democracy for our country.
The first session of the First Parliament opened on Sept. 17, 1792, with the presentation of the Speech from the Throne by Lt. Gov. Simcoe. The first action of the House of Assembly was to elect unanimously John McDonell as speaker. McDonell was a veteran of Butler’s Rangers and the representative sent from Glengarry. Present-day MPP Jim McDonell has a close connection, and I’m a descendant of Colonel John Butler.
Then, as now, the speaker is responsible for presiding over debate and delivering rulings on matters or order. Current speaker Dave Levac describes the role as overseeing the “healthy functioning of democracy at the provincial level.”
Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe was the wife of John Graves Simcoe and left a valuable record of life in Upper Canada through her letters and diary. She was also an accomplished watercolourist and sketch artist, and skillfully chronicled her travels in Upper Canada.
Several important acts were passed by the First Parliament including the establishment of English civil law and trial by jury, the building of a court house and gaol in every district of the province, and the introduction of a standard system of weights and measures. In 1793, Simcoe’s Legislative Council passed “An Act to Prevent Further Introduction of Slaves, and to Limit the Terms of Contracts for Servitude within this Province.” This was the first such legislation in the British Empire.
Settlers in the capital were mostly refugees from the American War of Independence, veterans of Butler’s Rangers, and Loyalists with their families and their indentured servants or slaves. After 1793, a slave entering Upper Canada would be free and children born to slaves after 1793 became free at age 25. They were treated equally under the law and the government. Their vote was sought in elections, they won law suits, their children attended the public schools and they were able to buy houses.
Most of Niagara’s early settlers were either disbanded Butler’s Rangers or veterans of the British Indian Department. The settlement was established on the river’s west bank in 1778 by Colonel Butler. During the years 1781-91, it was called the Settlement at Niagara, Loyal Town, Butler’s Town or Butlersburg. Simcoe was an advocate of using English names for Upper Canada’s early settlements, and he called the town Newark. On Jan. 1, 1800, the town of Newark, and its surrounding township, were changed to Niagara through an act of the Upper Canada legislature.
Given the significant contributions of John Graves Simcoe, I feel naming the August Civic Holiday in his honour is warranted.