Day 6

Remnants of Upper Canada's first Parliament site buried under a Toronto car wash

Back in 2000, archeologists found some of the charred remains of the Upper Canada Parliament Buildings under an unassuming patch of land that is currently home to a car wash, car rental and auto dealership. Brent Bambury investigates.
A computer-generated image shows what the two brick buildings of Upper Canada's first Parliament would have looked like in the early 1800s. (Robert Grillo/ASI)

If you pass by the corner of King and Parliament streets in downtown Toronto, you'll notice it's a typical busy intersection. Cars and bikes whiz by, while tourists stop on the sidewalk to check their maps and pick up a coffee.

Looking around, you'd never know the small patch of asphalt in the southeast corner was once home to the birthplace of Canadian democracy.

The site is now occupied by a car wash, car-rental agency and a Nissan dealership and may not be much to look at on the surface, but historians had long been aware of its historical importance as the place where Upper Canada's first Parliament Buildings once stood.

In the fall of 2000, the City of Toronto hired archeologist Ron Williamson's firm, Archaeological Services Inc., to determine whether any remnants of the original brick buildings had survived.

To Williamson, the odds of finding anything seemed slim. The buildings had burned down not just once, but twice — first in an attack by American forces during the War of 1812, and then again during a fire in 1824.

But Rollo Myers, a longtime urban history enthusiast and the former manager of the Architecture Conservancy of Ontario, strongly believed there was something there, after poring over maps and models of the area.

It turned out he was right: on Oct. 24, 2000, Williamson and his team unearthed part of the charred floorboards of the Upper Canada Parliament.

Day 6 host Brent Bambury, urban history activist Rollo Myers and archeologist Ron Williamson pose at the site where Upper Canada's first Parliament was discovered during a dig by Williamson's firm in October 2000. (Graeme Steel/CBC)

In the leadup to Canada's 150th anniversary, Day 6 host Brent Bambury joined Myers and Williamson at the site where the surprising discovery was made.           

An unexpected find

"To find the exact spot where something might survive was Herculean, even. Rollo pointed the way, we put our thing in the soil, and voila," Williamson says.

Myers had pinpointed the area where remnants might be found through his work with 3D imaging techniques. His curiosity had been piqued when he started researching the first Parliament Buildings while working on a map of the old city of York.

Myers — whom Williamson credits with pushing the City of Toronto to finally undertake the excavation — strongly suspected that something had survived, even though nothing was unearthed early on.

A map shows the excavation area around the second trench dug by Williamson and his team at the site. ('Government on Fire'/East End Books)

But even his confidence had started to wane by the time Williamson finally called to tell him the archeologists had found telltale signs of the Parliament Buildings — including charred floorboards, limestone footings and fragments of ceramics  — while digging with a backhoe.

Digging deep

Williamson and his team dug three trenches in the area where they thought they might find the buildings' remains, based on historical documentation and archival research.

It was in "Trench 2" where they uncovered what is believed to be the east wall of the southern building of the first Parliament, underneath the parking area just beside where the car wash sits now.

Archeology is like punctuated equilibrium: hours of boredom, and then suddenly you find something.- Archeologist Ron Williamson

Williamson calls the Parliament dig one of the most surprising finds of his career. He was so bowled over by the discovery that he wrote a short book about the buildings with his colleague Frank Dieterman.

"Archeology is like punctuated equilibrium — hours of boredom, and then suddenly you find something and you go, 'What!' So we're working away, and these linear stains with charcoal in them started appearing, and all of us kind of went together, 'These look like burned floorboards!' And then we started finding some artifacts — pieces of ceramics, called creamware, that date to the 1780s to 1820s."

"And as we were excavating it, we were thinking to ourselves, quite literally, 'This could be one of the most important colonial historical sites in Canada."

Photo gallery: Day 6 visits the site of Upper Canada's first Parliament Buildings

Public purpose

Myers points out that not only was the site one of the earliest seats of government in Canada, it also was one of the first purposeful public buildings.

"What I find important about the buildings is what went on in the buildings. When people first arrived in Toronto — immigrants — if they didn't have a place to go, they would chalk out a space for them on the floors of these public buildings," he explains.

When immigrants first arrived in Toronto, if they didn't have a place to go, they would chalk out a space for them on the floors of [this] building.- Urban history activist Rollo Myers

"St. James Cathedral traces its earliest church services to the north building; the law society used to meet in the south [one]. The district magistrates who are the predecessors of today's city councillors, they used to meet here as well."

A key part of Canadian history

All these years after the discovery of the Parliament's remains, there's still nothing at the site to mark its significance aside from a nearby historical plaque.

Williamson's team was only on site for a few weeks, and carefully covered up the excavations afterward, but soil analysis suggests that more remnants of the burned buildings lie intact under the paved surface.

The site where Upper Canada's Parliament once sat is currently home to this car wash — until the city figures out how it plans to eventually commemorate the site. (Graeme Steel/CBC)

"The notion was to document this exceptionally carefully, and we decided that we would cover it and retain it so that 15, 20, 40, 100 years from now, people can come back and have another look at it," Williamson says.

"So there are treasures in this parking lot that could still be uncovered."

What's next?

Seventeen years after seeing the remnants of Upper Canada's first Parliament, Myers and Williamson agree that whatever ends up on the site needs to adequately memorialize what lies beneath the pavement — a place that helped lay the foundations for good government in Canada.

Ron Williamson (left) and Rollo Myers pose at the spot where the remains of the Upper Canada Parliament were found in 2000. (Graeme Steel/CBC)

After years of wrangling, the land is now publicly owned, and the Parliament's history will eventually be commemorated. The City of Toronto recently began a process to hire a team to assess the significance of the site and figure out what might be the best option for that spot.

Suggestions over the years have included a library or interpretive centre that explains the history of the Upper Canada Parliament and some of the other heritage buildings in the area.

Torched during the War of 1812

Curious as to how the Parliament burned down in 1813? The original buildings were constructed in 1797 when Upper Canada, which would later become Ontario, was only six years old.

This computer reconstruction shows the Upper Canada parliament buildings ablaze after the invading American army set it on fire in 1813. The buildings were rebuilt but were destroyed by fire again in 1824. (Robert Grillo/ASI)

Within its brick walls, debates, decisions and laws were undertaken that would lay the foundations of democracy in the region.

But during the War of 1812, invading American troops set fire to the buildings — an act that later prompted the retaliatory burning of the White House in Washington. The damage necessitated the construction of a second set of Parliament Buildings.

Listen to Rollo Myers and Ron Williamson telling us more about this moment in Canadian history:

To hear more from Brent's visit to the site of the first Upper Canada Parliament, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.