Was Jarvis Street named after a city-builder, or a slave-owner? Prepare for a debate

Jarvis Street shares its name with one of Toronto's founding families, who can be remembered as city builders, politicians, war heroes and slave-owners.

Black Lives Matter plans to lead discussions of the unsavoury parts of Toronto's history

Jarvis Street at Shuter, once the home of the Jarvis family. (Google Maps)

Jarvis Street shares its name with one of Toronto's founding families, who can be remembered as city builders, politicians and war heroes.

But the name Jarvis also recalls an uncomfortable history in the city — one of slavery, violence and inequality.

That dark history is soon to be revisited. The protest group Black Lives Matter is organizing to call attention to names of Toronto landmarks like Jarvis and Ryerson in an effort to reframe the city's past.

"We hear these neat stories of heroic initiatives of white men, but we don't get to hear the whole story," said Janaya Khan of Black Lives Matter.

She points to Ryerson University, named after Egerton Ryerson, whose ideas about compulsory education inspired the Indian Residential School system that devastated First Nations, Métis and Inuit across Canada.

And then there are the Jarvises, whose name can be linked directly with the ills of slavery. That name remains in plain sight on downtown Toronto street signs.

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A champion of slavery

Samuel Jarvis fought in the War of 1812, and was part of the city's pioneering political class when Toronto was incorporated. His father, William Jarvis, was a militiaman and member of early local governments in York, the town that eventually became Toronto.

William Jarvis, on the right, and his son, Samuel. The family kept at least six slaves at their mansion on Caroline Street. (Royal Ontario Museum)
But most historians argue the Jarvises were unsavoury characters — "turkeys," "incompetent," "lazy," "selfish," and "dishonest" are just some of the adjectives that can be found in Toronto literature to describe the father and son.

Keeping to the facts, the Jarvis family were indeed slave-holders. The Jarvises owned at least six slaves, according to John Ross Robertson's 1894 book Landmarks of Toronto, even as the mood and law in Upper Canada was decidedly anti-slavery.

According to historians, William Jarvis didn't only fight to keep his own slaves, but wanted slavery to be legally available to all white men in Upper Canada.

When Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe sought to make slavery illegal in Upper Canada in 1793, Jarvis is thought to have rigorously opposed him. Because of that opposition, Simcoe's law was watered down to gradually phase out slavery instead of ending it altogether.

Even after the anti-slavery legislation was passed, records exist of Jarvis petitioning the court to punish two slaves who escaped his Caroline Street mansion.

Samuel Jarvis, William's son, is also not fondly remembered. The younger Jarvis was notoriously hostile to First Nations in Toronto. At one point, he even spent time in jail for murder.

Both Jarvis men were caught stealing in their roles with Upper Canada's government, but Samuel was the first Jarvis to have to repay the money he stole.

When he was the Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Upper Canada, Samuel was found guilty of embezzling some £4,000 from First Nations groups in the area.

After he was caught, the younger Jarvis was forced to sell his land to reimburse Toronto. His property, called Hazel Burn, was sold to the city to pay the debt, and a boulevard in that property is now known as Jarvis Street.

A symbol of slavery, in plain sight

William Jarvis has been described as a "tireless defender of the rich." There is historical evidence he owned numerous slaves. (Libraries and Archives of Canada)
In the United States, streets and buildings named after men like John C. Calhoun and Thomas Jefferson — slave-owners, both — have been the subject of protest. Efforts to rebrand public spaces named after men involved in slavery has even gone to referendums.

Khan said Black Lives Matter does not necessarily want the renaming of Toronto institutions, but instead a public discussion of the "legacies of atrocities" of the people they are named after.

"Let's name these folks who are celebrated but who have murdered, pillaged and colonized. And let's name those things they did," said Khan.

She said that part of the discussion is giving a say to the communities affected by racism — a form of restorative justice, she said. Khan would like to see all aspects of the stories of the controversial men taught in schools.

"We don't want to continue those legacies. We want to have an intervention," she said. "That's what Black Lives Matter is: an intervention."

What's in a name?

If Jarvis Street does indeed carry the legacy of white supremacy, it is likely in violation of the Toronto Street Naming Policy, though it came into effect a century after the Jarvis name was bestowed on the street.

But some historians make the distinction the street is simply named for the former Jarvis property line.

The sprawling 10-acre Jarvis property Hazel Burn, called so because of the hazel trees and the stream - the burn - on the land. The estate was sold to cover Samuel Jarvis's debt to Toronto. The house is where Jarvis and Shuter streets intersect today.
"Jarvis Collegiate was not named in honour of William Jarvis or his son, Samuel," wrote David Schreiber, a history teacher at the high school on Jarvis Street. He notes the original name of the school was Jarvis Street Collegiate Institute.

In the mid-1990s, Schreiber was tasked with writing about the school's origins. He wrote more than 40 articles on Toronto history around the Jarvises, with almost 30 different sources.

He characterized the Jarvises as money-driven louts, lazy self-promoters and entitled liars. He became so frustrated with the behaviour of the Jarvis men in his research, he almost quit the project.

But as for the naming of Jarvis Street, Schreiber steers clear of those origins. When Jarvis asked fellow Torontonian John Howard to survey the land in order to sell it and settle his debts around 1845, Howard named Mutual Street, George Street and others, but saved the name Jarvis for the grandest boulevard on the property.

'A slippery slope'

None of the historical revelations about the Jarvis family are news to George McNeillie. William Jarvis was his great uncle, four times removed. He is also an alumnus of Jarvis Collegiate. McNeillie and other descendants of Jarvis celebrated their history as city-builders at a family gathering at Fort York in 2011.

"I have certainly discussed with my Jarvis cousins that we've had less than savoury members of the family tree," said McNeillie. "But that's true of any family."

He said he's looked into his family tree and found horse thieves and royalty — "most people have both in their families," he said.

"There were a number of members of the Jarvis family who were distinguished. And there were some who were not," he said. 

He noted George Washington had slaves, but there is no talk of renaming the American capital named after him.
Samuel Jarvis was a member of The Family Compact, a group of an elite political and business class in Ontario in the 1800s. (Toronto Public Library)

"To my mind, that doesn't excuse slavery. It was a horrible institution. But it was somewhat endemic," he said.

Joseph Brant, a Mohawk leader, hero of the War of 1812 and early Ontarian settler who has a street in Toronto named after him, also kept slaves, McNeillie correctly pointed out.

Still, he agrees with the spirit of discussion that members of Black Lives Matter spoke about.

"My person opinion is we're right to bring pass injustices to light," he said. "That's a discussion that should be had. I was dismayed to find I had ancestors who were slave-holders."

But McNeillie does not want to see Jarvis Street renamed. "It's a slippery slope," he said.

He argued the Jarvises, both good and bad, are part of the history of the city.

"It's a difficult question, but we would be wrong in some cases to be revisionist and rewrite history," he said. "It's healthy to debate all these things and bring them into the light and not pretend they didn't happen."


Joshua Errett

Senior Producer, Features

Joshua Errett has been a reporter, editor and digital manager in Toronto since the early 2000s. He has been described as "a tornado of innovation, diligence and authenticity." Got a story idea?