The Province is Now Claiming First Parliament Site in Toronto

The West Don Lands’ historic Dominion Foundry buildings continue to make headlines as their hasty demolition persists and tensions mount between Premier Doug Ford’s government and vocal opponents who want to save the storied structures.

Now — just a few blocks away at Front and Parliament Streets — the site of Ontario’s first parliament buildings could suffer the same messy fate.

In a move that will inevitably deepen existing tensions between the Ford government and the City of Toronto, the Province now intends to take ownership of two municipally owned Toronto properties that sit on land known as the First Parliament site.

The land consumes an entire city block in Toronto’s increasingly coveted — and rapidly changing — Corktown neighbourhood. First populated by Indigenous settlements, the site became the home of the first purpose-built buildings of the Parliament of Upper Canada in 1797. Following their destruction during the War of 1812, the land went on to house another parliament building, a local jail, and Consumers’ Gas Company buildings throughout the years.

READ: Historic Home with Ties to Upper Canada Rebellion Up for $4.8M

Recognizing the significance of the land’s layered past, the late Deputy Mayor McConnell relentlessly — and, eventually, successfully — fought to uncover its archeological heritage. It was later allocated to the Ontario Heritage Trust and the City of Toronto. When 2021 started, First Parliament was in the midst of undergoing a multi-faceted master plan revitalization strategy to develop the site over the next 10 to 20 years — one that was years in the making and included community-led recommendations like affordable housing, a City Council-approved library, and green space.

Then the Province stepped in. Again.

The intention to expropriate the land was outlined in letters dated January 11 to the City of Toronto from lawyers representing Crown transit agency Metrolinx. According to Metrolinx, the history-rich properties at 25 Berkeley St. and 271 Front St. E. are essential for the creation of the Corktown station on the upcoming 15-station Ontario Line, which will be completed by 2030.

Not surprisingly — as with the case with the Foundry buildings — the move has been met with passionate pushback from local politicians like Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York) and Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 13, Toronto Centre), who say this is yet another recent example of the province boldly using its power to impose on the City and its affairs.

 “The move by the Province to expropriate the First Parliament lands raises serious concerns for the active plans for public uses for this important historic site, including critical community facilities such as the district library,” says Councillor Cressy. “Successful city-building requires collaboration between government partners working together on shared objectives, not secrets and surprises.”

What’s not a secret nor a surprise is Cressy’s opposition to the move. The outspoken councillor outlined his thoughts on the First Parliament site in a lengthy statement on his website yesterday. He acknowledges that he knew Metrolinx would build a station in the vicinity of the site (it was announced last year), but that the use of First Parliament land would be construction-related and temporary. Cressy points to a lack of collaboration by the Province, and the potential risks to the historical site and city-building project.

Image: Joe Cressy statmement

The Province assures that the future of the First Parliament site will aptly honour the location’s rich history.

“We make every effort to minimize impacts on cultural and heritage sites, and we work with experts to ensure cultural and heritage spaces are treated with care,” says Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikens. “We’re currently working with the City, the Ministry of Heritage Sport Tourism and Culture Industries and the Ontario Heritage Trust to ensure the work at the site can be done in a way that ensures any archaeological findings are properly studied and, where possible, made available for the public to learn more about.”

According to Aikins, the shiny new Ontario Line station will capture the history of the site and Metrolinx will consult with the community, Indigenous populations, and cultural heritage experts to explore options for commemoration of on-site findings. “This will occur in consultation with the City of Toronto Heritage Preservation Services and the Ontario Heritage Trust,” she says.

The threat to the First Parliament site is an especially tough blow for those who highlight that Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark has ordered a staggering number of backlash-provoking Municipal Zoning Orders (MZO) as of late. Part of Ontario’s Planning Act, an MZO is a tool that allows the Province to decide how a piece of land is to be used, superseding typical municipal planning and consultation processes. Squashing the chance for appeal by municipalities, citizens, or special interest groups like heritage or environmental advocates, an MVO was used over 35 times in 2020.

Those who defend the use of MZOs point to their merit in accelerating the creation of more sustainable communities, affordable housing, and important infrastructure, as well as the fact that MZOs are typically issued at the request of municipalities. While things like affordable housing and — in the case of the First Parliament, transit — are essential to Toronto’s future, the big question is whether they should come at the cost of destroying the city’s cultural heritage and history.

In the case of the First Parliament Cressy and Wong-Tam call for the City and Province to collectively develop a plan to save the site. “I urge Metrolinx, and the Government of Ontario to honour the aspirations of Deputy Mayor McConnell. I invite them to collaborate with the City and our communities and to find a way to work together to ensure success for the revitalization of the First Parliament site,” wrote Wong-Tam in a Tweet.

Hopefully, it will work out. But, if the past — or present — is any indication, this is just the first we’ll hear of the hotly-contested fate of First Parliament.

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