John Graves Simcoe, who lived from 1752 to 1806, was the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, now called Ontario. The founder of the city of York, as Toronto was then known, is still remembered by Ontarians today as they enjoy the beauty of Lake Simcoe or drive along the many streets bearing the name Simcoe across this great province.
Beyond the yearly military and artillery displays at Fort York, it becomes important that Ontarians learn more about the man himself and the country he worked to build.
Simcoe lived in a world and a time of dramatic change. Two revolutions, the American and the French, altered the global order permanently. Fueled by the century of Enlightenment, Whiggism, the seeds of the liberal tradition and self-government, were making headway in the minds of our great thinkers and politicians.
These Enlightenment ideas were exploding at the heart of colonial competition between France and Britain, as demonstrated in the naval and land battles that were sprinkled about throughout the Caribbean and North America.
This was less than two decades after the conquest of Quebec by Britain in 1759 and a time when American republicans made overtures to potential rebels in what remained of British North America.
This was the chaos in which Simcoe lived and the world in which Canada was born. Undaunted, he created a robust system of governance that allowed for the peaceful formation of Canada in 1867, nearly a century later.
Simcoe was a soldier who fought in the American Revolutionary War. He arrived in North America serving in the 35th Regiment of Foot, which had been dispatched to the Thirteen Colonies in 1770 to contain the peace amid mounting discontent. After the outbreak of the American Revolution, Simcoe was promoted to commander of the Queen’s Rangers, to which command he gave much.
But Simcoe left his mark in the years that followed. He had served briefly in the British House of Commons, after which, in 1791, he was appointed lieutenant-governor of the newly-formed province called Upper Canada. Imagine Simcoe’s arrival in Kingston, sandwiched between French settlers in the east and republicans in the South — what positive vision could he have had for what remained of British North America?
Simcoe looked west, towards the Great Lakes. He welcomed loyalists by the thousands to southern Ontario. In his 1793 throne speech, Governor Simcoe said that Upper Canada would be the “image and transcript” of Great Britain.
Ontarians should know that Simcoe most famously abolished slavery in Upper Canada in 1793, making it the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to do so. When Simcoe’s bill, An Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, was debated in Upper Canada’s assembly, six of the assembly’s 16 members then owned slaves. Simcoe said that “[the] principles of the British Constitution do not admit of that slavery which Christianity condemns. The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.”
Simcoe undoubtedly had the new United States of America in mind with this piece of legislation — American incursions into Canada seeking their runaway slaves had to be stopped.
Simcoe was no lone reformer. He belonged to a golden generation of English Whigs that recognized the world was changing, advocating for the expansion of rights while remaining cautious and careful.
Above all, Simcoe’s group wanted to avoid another colonial tragedy. They recognized the risk of war with the United States, took a steady path and put in place a system that worked practically.
They were the true builders of Canada — a place in which just a couple generations later a group of Scotsmen could confederate four disparate British North American colonies into the single country called the Dominion of Canada.
Had Simcoe’s project been a failure, there would have been no country and likely the United States would have succeeded in annexing it — which they of course tried some years after Simcoe’s death. During the War of 1812, they burned down his capital, York. Indeed, the moderation of Simcoe’s generation made the compromises of Macdonald’s possible.
Canada, as a nation and as a people, has a lot to be proud of. Facing once again an era of great changes, we must look to the lessons of the past.
Senator Anne C. Cools is the longest serving member of the Senate. She is deputy chair of the Senate Committee on National Finance and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Senate Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament.