Ep. 01: A brief history of Parliament in Ontario




January 20, 2021  13 minutes (audio)

[00:00:05] Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament podcast. I'm Erin, I'm one of the Information and Education Officers that works at the Provincial Parliament of Ontario. You'll find me giving tours and coming up with fun, new programs for the building.

[00:00:18] Stephanie: And I'm Stephanie, I'm the Program Development and Outreach Officer. I get to visit schools to deliver education programs and think of new ways to promote parliament.

[00:00:26] Erin: We both work for the Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations Branch at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

[00:00:32] Stephanie: Okay, Erin, but now say it five times fast.

[00:00:35] Erin: Honestly, that's one tongue twister I don't think that I will succeed at. But what does our branch actually do?

[00:00:41] Stephanie: Our branch is responsible for teaching the public about parliament. As we both already said, that could mean anything from giving tours, visiting schools, teaching students here in the building, or these days online and promoting the history and heritage of Ontario's parliament through social media—which is why we're really excited to launch our new podcast, ON Parliament, to help spread the word on parliament.

[00:01:02] Erin: Every month we'll be releasing a new episode on our website and we'll let you know via social too. During each episode, we'll explore some of the inner workings of parliament and discuss its history. I'm sure we'll talk about the building a whole bunch too. And we might even get to interview some special guests along the way.

[00:01:17] Stephanie: Between the two of us, we know a lot about parliament and we can't wait to share all of our fun facts with you. So, without further ado, let's get into this month's topic: a brief history of parliament in Ontario.

[00:01:29] Erin: Um, I don't know if we're going to be brief, but we'll definitely give it our best shot. The Legislative Assembly of Ontario, or probably as you know it, Queen's Park, is located in downtown Toronto. If you're familiar with the city at all, you'll know that it's pretty centrally located. And the name Queen's Park actually comes from the surrounding parkland, which was officially opened in 1860 and was named by the soon-to-be King Edward VII in honour of his mother - you may have heard of her—Queen Victoria. Since the legislative building opened in 1893, Queen's Park has been the active seat of our provincial parliament.

[00:02:02] Stephanie: Okay. I'm pretty bad at math, but I think that that makes the building over 127 years old?

[00:02:08] Erin: You're right. It is. But our story starts even further back than that; it goes all the way back to 1792. And back then our parliament building wasn't even in Toronto.

[00:02:17] Stephanie: Fun fact: when we first talk about the very first parliament, it wasn't even actually the parliament of Ontario.

[00:02:24] Erin: Ooh. I love these did you know moments!

[00:02:26] Stephanie: Well, I do have a history degree and I like to try and use it. So, let me put it to good use. The Constitution Act of 1791 created the British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada. Now known as Ontario and Quebec.

[00:02:38] Erin: Even though I already know the answer to this and I still always confuse the two.

[00:02:42] Stephanie: It is slightly confusing. Their names seem opposite to what they should be considering that Quebec is higher than Ontario when you look at a map. But really their names are actually related to how the water flows in the St. Lawrence river. So, it makes sense that Ontario was known as Upper Canada since it was upriver and Quebec was known as Lower Canada since it was located downriver.

[00:03:04] Erin: That's actually a pretty good tip. I think I'm going to try to keep that in mind going forward. But now let's throw it back over 200 years ago to where our story really begins with the very first session of the parliament of Upper Canada.

[00:03:17] Stephanie: Erin, imagine: it's 1792 and we find ourselves in the quaint riverside town of Newark, now known as Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is where the first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, opened the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada for the very first time. Back then, the parliamentary sessions moved around between several different buildings, including Navy hall—a military building located along the Niagara River. But they didn't actually stay in Newark very long.

[00:03:43] Erin: You're right. They weren't there for very long at all, because mounting tensions between the Americans and the British led John Graves Simcoe to decide to move the parliament further from the American border. Construction of a new parliament building in York, which is modern-day Toronto, began in the summer of 1794. Upper Canada's first purpose-built parliament building was completed about three years later.

[00:04:05] Stephanie: The new parliament was located at modern-day Front and Parliament Streets. Fun fact: that's why it's called Parliament Street because that's where the parliament building used to be. I'm sorry. I'm very excited because when I first moved to Toronto, I didn't understand why it was called Parliament Street when Queen's Park is so far away. The building, which was made of locally fired red bricks, was meant to look like the nearby courthouse. The construction of the structure would have also been a pretty big deal considering that York only had a population of about 600 people at the time—including the 200-man Garrison at nearby Fort York.

[00:04:38] Erin: And it was actually Fort York that was the main reason why Simcoe picked York over his first choice of London, Ontario. Fun fact: it was actually Simcoe himself who named the town of London. But tensions between the British and Americans continued to grow finally coming to a head in a war - which you may have heard of the war of 1812. In April of 1813, during the infamous battle of York, American troops invaded the town. During the battle, they set fire to a number of buildings, including our original parliament, and they even made off with our Legislative Mace!

[00:05:10] Stephanie: Stay tuned for an exciting future episode where we'll talk about the Mace. Despite the loss of the building and Mace, it didn't stop parliament from meeting. They temporarily relocated to a nearby hotel during the construction of a new building. It was completed in 1820 on the same site as the original. Unfortunately, only four short years later, it was destroyed in another fire—this time accidental.

[00:05:32] Erin: Hmm. I dunno Stephanie. Fire seems to be a common recurring theme in our parliamentary history.

[00:05:38] Stephanie: We do have a terrible track record with fires. We honestly could do a whole episode just about them.

[00:05:44] Erin: Ooh. I like that idea a lot. We'll have to keep that one on the back burner for later.

[00:05:48] Stephanie: Ha! Back-burner.

[00:05:50] Erin: Well, I do love my puns, but I digress. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Getting back to our real story. The parliament then met temporarily at the courthouses at Church and King Streets until the replacement building opened in 1832. The new, new parliament building was located at modern-day Front and Simcoe Streets. So not too far away. It was a more complex structure, which included two chambers—one for the elected Legislative Assembly, and one for the appointed Legislative Council. It also had a few offices too.

[00:06:23] Stephanie: Although it was built to house Upper Canada's parliament, the structure would soon be repurposed to serve as the meeting place for the new Province of Canada. Established in 1840 by the Act of Union, it combined seats from Upper and Lower Canada, which became Canada West and Canada East. Fun fact: the capital of the Province of Canada moved six times up until the time of Confederation in 1867. So, the building was used infrequently.

[00:06:47] Erin: So by the 1870s, the building was actually pretty run down. This led the newly formed Province of Ontario to later launch an international design competition to design a new structure on our current site of Queen's Park in the 1880s. A three-person jury was chosen to review the design submissions, including British-born architect, Richard Waite. He, along with the rest of the jury, declared all of the submissions to be unsuitable for one reason or another - because they were all projected to go over the $500,000 budget or other reasons. The government of the time agreed to increase the budget up to $750,000, which was a considerable increase back then. And they asked the jury to review the submissions once again.

[00:07:28] Stephanie: Even with this increased budget and revised plans, the jury still found all of the submissions to be unsuitable. In fact, Waite even joked that he could design a better building with one hand tied behind his back. Such confidence. In a controversial move, the government asked Waite to submit his own plans for the new structure. They quickly approved them, and construction finally began in 1886. Fun fact: Waite being awarded the contract, angered some of the other architects and led them to create the Ontario Association of Architects shortly thereafter.

[00:07:58] Erin: And just over six years later, the new parliament building finally opened on April 4th, 1893. And, over 127 years later, we're still going strong.

[00:08:09] Stephanie: Wow. That was pretty good at staying brief, but that was a lot to cover. Well, now that we've talked about the history of the buildings, let's learn a little bit more about the people who make parliament run: the elected officials or Members of Provincial Parliament AKA MPPs.

[00:08:26] Erin: Our modern-day MPPs, would probably be unrecognizable to their original counterparts in 13th century England. Although to be fair, what wouldn't be unrecognizable to those people nowadays?

[00:08:37] Stephanie: Imagine them seeing electricity.

[00:08:39] Erin: Honestly, it would blow my mind if I was them. But we digress. But since our parliament is based off of the British Westminster system, we can actually trace the origins of our MPPs back to about that time. Back then, parliament consisted of well-known men, mostly from the upper class that were summoned at the will of the King maybe once or twice a year at most. Their meetings were varied, but they often dealt with questions of taxation. Over time, the power of parliament grew and more and more commoners were involved in parliamentary proceedings.

[00:09:10] Stephanie: Fast forward to the British colonies and the first parliament of Upper Canada. Instead of being summoned by the King, a small group of Members were elected by the colonists. Their role though was extremely limited since the Lieutenant Governor and his appointed Executive Council had the power to veto their decisions. This changed considerably thanks to the introduction of Responsible Government in 1848. This new concept, Responsible Government, ensured that the elected Members of Parliament had the ability to hold the Government to account for their actions. The system is still in use today, and it's why the Executive Council can't make decisions unchecked. The approval of the Government's Budget is a great example of Responsible Government in action today.

[00:09:50] Erin: Stay tuned for a later episode when we talk a little bit more about Responsible Government. After the introduction of Responsible Government, there were many changes up to the time of Confederation in 1867. That's really the date we consider to be the beginning of our modern-day parliament in Ontario. At this first meeting, there were only 82 elected Members and they represented communities mostly in the South of the province. Their role as Members of Parliament would have been a part-time one; most would have had other careers like farmers, doctors, lawyers—really any profession at the time. The legislature sat infrequently and most MPPs didn't even have offices in the building. Instead, they just used coat racks while they worked in the Chamber.

[00:10:29] Stephanie: Contrast that to today. Now being an MPP is a full-time job. Members will split their time between their communities and Queen's Park. They often meet with constituents, attend community events, take part in debates about proposed legislation, meet with stakeholders and participate in committee meetings.

[00:10:46] Erin: The number of Members has also changed quite a bit over time, along with the population of the province. Fun fact: when the building first opened, there were many empty offices, but we've had to expand over the years to other buildings across the street because we've actually run out of space. Currently, though, we have 124 MPPs, which may seem like a lot, but we've actually seen as many as 130 in the past. And we've come a long way from only having 82 at the very first parliament back in 1867.

[00:11:12] Stephanie: So as a quick recap: their jobs have changed, their numbers have changed and their titles have also actually changed. Originally, Ontario's elected officials were known as both Members of Provincial Parliament and Members of the Legislative Assembly. This remained true up until about the 1980s when Members began to be exclusively referred to as MPPs. In fact, most other provinces and territories in Canada still use the term MLA - meaning Member of the Legislative Assembly - with the exception of Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and us, Ontario.

[00:11:46] Erin: Wow Stephanie. Honestly, all of this is fascinating, but look at the time! We've covered so much today.

[00:11:52] Stephanie: Okay. But most importantly, what is our fun fact count?

[00:11:56] Erin: Ah, can't leave the people hanging. That's definitely the most important thing. But by my count today, I think it was six.

[00:12:03] Stephanie: Excellent. We should try and make it seven next time.

[00:12:06] Erin: Agreed.

[00:12:07] Stephanie: And we still have so much to talk about. We hope you'll tune in next time to learn a little bit more about parliament and government.

[00:12:14] Erin: Yeah. Do they actually mean the same thing or what's the difference?

[00:12:17] Stephanie: Thanks for listening to ON Parliament. Where we spread the word on parliament.

[00:12:20] Erin: We've got to go. I think I hear the bells.

[00:12:29] Stephanie: The ON Parliament podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

[00:12:35] Erin: Social media by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

[00:12:41] Stephanie: Additional research provided by the Table Research Office for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

[00:12:45] Erin: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today's episode, please support the podcast by sharing it with others and subscribing.

[00:12:52] Stephanie: For more fun facts about Ontario's parliament, follow us on Twitter and Instagram: @onparleducation. Et en français sur Twitter: @parloneducation.

[00:13:03] Erin: Thanks again, and see you next time.