While the battlefield has been silent for two centuries, the site of the Battle of York is the scene of attack once again, leaving the citizens of Toronto to defend the city against a formidable opponent, a U.S. casino giant.
Torontonians rarely celebrate their city and country’s history with the same splendour as our American cousins. But while Toronto residents might not always demonstrate their civic and national pride with such fervour, we certainly value our heritage and trust it will be protected and preserved by our civic leaders.
The prospect of building a mega-casino at Exhibition Place has dominated the media without even a passing mention of its impact on the tremendous historic and symbolic value of this site.
Two hundred years ago, almost to the day, American forces landed on the shore of the Humber Bay, just west of Exhibition Place and fought their way eastward towards Fort York. A fierce battle took place on the doorstep of the Fort, on the lands that are now known as Exhibition Place. First Nations warriors fought alongside British Regulars and local Canadian militia against American invaders. The Battle of York was a pivotal moment in the history of our city and the future nation of Canada.
Our shared history at Exhibition Place goes back even further than the War of 1812. In 1750, Fort Rouillé (or Fort Toronto), built by the French at the foot of what is today Dufferin Street, was immediately popular with peoples from First Nations as a trading post, and marks the beginning of inter-cultural diplomacy and community-building in Toronto. The site of Fort Rouillé, now buried and marked with a very old monument (itself, historic) and commemorative inscriptions, was later at the centre of some of the most intense fighting during the Battle of York during the War of 1812.
Exhibition Place is also the site of the New Fort – a military complex built in 1842 intended originally to replace Fort York. The first recruits for the North West Mounted Police (later, the RCMP) assembled and trained in the New Fort in the 1870s.
Stanley Barracks is the remaining building at the New Fort site. Impressive foundations and other material belonging to other structures demolished in the 1950s are now being excavated by archaeologists as part of a plan to expose and interpret them in place.
Exhibition Place also preserves Toronto’s oldest home, Scadding Cabin. Built in 1794, this square-timbered cabin was moved to its current site on the Exhibition Place grounds by the York Pioneers in 1879.
Also in 1879, the Toronto Industrial Exhibition opened here for the first time (renamed the Canadian National Exhibition in 1912). The CNE has operated for 135 consecutive years and is visited by more than one million people a year.
The seeds of our great city were planted on the site now targeted by U.S. corporations for a mega-casino. All of the previous events, memories, sites as well as the historic and cultural values they symbolize will be overshadowed, surrounded, buried and destroyed by the scale and anonymity of the proposed enormous parking garage, casino, hotel and mall.
Over the past two years, many lectures have been given by politicians of all political stripes on the lead-up to the bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812. They spoke of the historic importance. They spoke of the legacy of the warriors and the soldiers who died fighting for their homeland. They spoke about how the War of 1812 contributed to the birth of a nation and was essential in forging a lasting peace with our neighbour to the south. Now these same voices have retreated in the face of foreign casino tycoons making promises of limitless wealth and envisioning Toronto’s only War of 1812 battlefield as their golden mile.
How painfully ironic that after 200 years, as we commemorate a critical moment in the history of our nation and our city, an American casino conglomerate schemes to capture our city’s most historic land. Thankfully, in this battle we have the citizens of nocasinotoronto.com fighting against almost insurmountable odds to protect our city’s future and heritage.
Mike Layton is a Toronto city councillor