The First Parliament Site

People strolling along Front, southern Berkeley and Parliament Streets, downtown Toronto, would find a car wash, a parking lot, and a car rental agency and a Porsche dealership. However, if it was possible to peek underneath the pavement, one would find an impressive relict of our national history – Upper Canada’s First and Second Parliament buildings (1797-1824).

Although the land overlying the Parliament site has been used for private and industrial purposes for over a century, historians have always been aware of the area’s importance. Indeed, the Canadian Club had commemorated the parliament buildings with a stone tablet on this property in 1899 and almost a century later in 1997, the Old City of Toronto designated the property under the Ontario Heritage Act. In the fall of 2000, a proposed change in land use made it possible for the Culture Division, Economic Development, Culture and Tourism Department, City of Toronto, in partnership with the to ask Archaeological Services Inc. to conduct an archaeological assessment of the site. Our objective was to determine whether or not any buried remnants of the Parliament buildings still survived.

Computer reconstruction of the Parliament fire.
Computer reconstruction of the Parliament fire.

Built between 1795 and 1797, the brick structures of Upper Canada’s first Parliament buildings housed what would eventually become Ontario’s Legislature. Sadly, these buildings were destroyed by American troops in 1813. In response, British troops invaded the U.S., eventually burning the American Capitol in Washington, D.C. in retaliation. In 1819, building of the second Parliament complex commenced on the same site. Coincidentally, these structures were also destroyed by fire in 1824-the result of an over heated chimney flue.

Although the south wing was saved from complete destruction, it was decided not to rebuild and the property was abandoned until 1838, when construction began on the Home District Gaol. Since then, the site has been used as a gasworks by Consumers’ Gas, and also by various small-scale automotive companies.

ASI’s investigations took the form of three trenches dug in areas of high potential, based on historic documentation and archival research. Trench 2 was the richest in terms of archaeological evidence, and is believed to have uncovered the east wall of the southern building of the first Parliament buildings.

Our analyses of historic building techniques discovered that the structural remains located in the trench were typical of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century construction methods. In fact, the footings uncovered at the Parliament site follow similar construction methods as the footings of certain late eighteenth century buildings at the Fort York garrison. Along with indicating their date of construction, this corroborates the archival evidence of military involvement with the construction of the first Parliament buildings. Even more startling was the discovery of charred floor joists and floorboards overlying soil that had bean reddened by fire, probably remnants of the American military visit.

Taken together, the combined evidence proves that the remains of the parliamentary buildings of Upper Canada-a site of local, provincial, national, and international significance-still exist beneath the pavement of the modern city.

For further reading about the First Parliament site check out the book Government on Fire.