Toronto councillors warn First Parliament area 'not for sale' as province seeks to seize historic site

The Doug Ford government's decision to expropriate downtown Toronto properties once home to Upper Canada's first parliament came as a surprise, city officials say — prompting one councillor to insist the land is "not for sale."

Metrolinx says site needed for Ontario Line, but promises to engage with community

Toronto's First Parliament site is a parcel of land that was once home to Upper Canada's first parliament buildings. (City of Toronto)

The Doug Ford government's decision to expropriate downtown Toronto properties once home to Upper Canada's first parliament came as a surprise, city officials say — prompting one councillor to insist the land is "not for sale."

City staff were informed last week that the provincial government was starting expropriation proceedings for two city-owned parcels of land needed for the construction of the Ontario Line — a rapid transit route projected to stretch more than 15 kilometres from the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place and the Canadian National Exhibition grounds.

The property in question is known as the First Parliament Site, located at the intersection of Front Street East and Parliament Street. It is a full city block and nearly the size of Nathan Phillips Square.

Its historical significance dates back thousands of years to Indigenous settlements but the site is currently home to parking lots, a car dealership and a car wash.

"I would say to the province right now, these lands are not for sale," Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents the area, said in an interview.

Historical drawing of the first Upper Canada parliament buildings in Toronto, built in 1796. (City of Toronto)

Wong-Tam says years of city planning and public consultation have already gone into developing a comprehensive master plan for the site, which includes proposals for a library and park. And she has a message for the province.

"The community doesn't want to sell these lands to you. We want to work with you to build transit, to build out the master plan. And we believe that we can do that without conveying the lands to you."

Tweets from Coun.Joe Cressy, who represents Spadina-Fort York, echoed Wong-Tam's concern.

"There is no good reason to throw out years of hard work on this landmark project. The Province should work with the City and community," Cressy wrote.

City staff say they received notice about the expropriation on Jan. 11 from Metrolinx, the province's transit agency for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. 

"I guess we weren't necessarily expecting to receive it," Mayor John Tory said Thursday.

But Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins says the agency has been in "ongoing discussions" with the city about its Ontario Line plans, "including discussions that were held in advance of our fall 2020 virtual consultations where details on the First Parliament site were provided." 

The parcels required will be used for construction of the Ontario Line's Corktown station. "Some parcels may be temporarily needed for construction and then would be restored," Aikins said.

'Hugely significant site'

Between 1795 and 1824, the site was home to Upper Canada's first and second parliament buildings. They were rebuilt after being burned down during the War of 1812.

The site also housed the Home District Gaol (jail) and the Consumers Gas Company.

The site was also home to a 19th-century jail know as the Home District Gaol. (City of Toronto)

"It's a hugely significant site and there was a great deal of excitement when it was discovered," Upper Canada historian and York University PhD. student Wendy Smith said in an interview.

Smith said previous archeological digs at the site have unearthed artifacts and it's believed many more remain buried in the ground.

Injunction sought for foundry site

The expropriation effort, first reported Thursday by the Toronto Star, comes after the Ford government's controversial decision to fast track the development of another nearby heritage site on the West Don Lands.

Earlier this week, demolition of the Dominion Foundry building on that site sparked a backlash and legal action in the community. The St Lawrence Neighbourhood Association has filed an application for a court injunction to preserve the building.

Tory said Thursday he sees these conflicts over planning as "growing pains" in the city's relationship with the Ford government and its cooperative effort to build housing and transit.

"I think these are all lessons as to how we're going to have to sit together as two governments and, yes, get affordable housing built and, yes, get transit built, but do it in a way that involves proper consultation with the city, with the communities, and respect for all the various other policies that go beyond housing and transit," Tory said.

The Consumers Gas Company building that once stood at the First Parliament site in Toronto. (City of Toronto)

With First Parliament, Aikins says the local community has assurance from Metrolinx that it will engage with them on plans for the site.

"We also remain committed to capturing the history of the site in the new Ontario Line station and will be consulting with the community, Indigenous communities, and cultural heritage experts to explore options for commemoration of findings in consultation with the City of Toronto Heritage Preservation Services and the Ontario Heritage Trust," she said.