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Friday, April 19, 2024
Niagara’s History Unveiled: W.L. Mackenzie Part 1 of 2

The Birthplace of Responsible Government

At the turn of the 20th century, lying hidden at the bottom of the Niagara escarpment in Queenston, Ontario, was a building with only a few walls left standing. A stone marker was all that could be seen that told the curious tourist that this had been the home of William Lyon Mackenzie.

In 1936, the Provincial Ministry of Highways and Public Works, under the direction of Thomas McQuesten, began restoring and reconstructing historic sites in Ontario. This was to provide relief work during the Great Depression, to build tourism infrastructure and to instil in Canadians a pride in our past achievements.

Among the sites reconstructed was the Mackenzie house. The remaining ruins were used in the reconstruction of the building which was based on typical building styles of the 1820s era.

On June 18, 1938, the 126th anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812, the Mackenzie home was opened to the public by Willian Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada (1921-30 & 1935-48) and the grandson of William Lyon Mackenzie.

William Lyon Mackenzie was born in Scotland in 1795 and immigrated to Upper Canada in 1820. By 1824 while living in Queenston, he became involved in politics and founded a newspaper called the Colonial Advocate. Mackenzie’s editorials criticized the ruling oligarchy who were known as the Family Compact because their positions in government were filled through nepotism.

The Lieutenant Governors of the province, appointed by the British parliament, tended to appoint very conservative, wealthy men who had gained prominence in the War of 1812 or who were successful businessmen to the Executive Council.

Upper Canada did have an elected assembly but the real power lay with the Lieutenant Governor and the unelected Executive Council. Those who could vote for the Legislative Assembly were limited to land owners with property worth a certain amount. Farmers renting their property, many minor tradesmen and labourers were not enfranchised.

Mackenzie was very critical of this and by 1824 decided to move his paper to York (Toronto) where he could respond much more quickly to government decisions. By 1826 he was deeply in debt with his creditors threatening to have him arrested.

Mackenzie fled to the United States in May of that year. Shortly after his move, his entire printery in York was vandalized by his political opponents. He was awarded damages and this enabled him to return to York, repay his debts and set himself up again in the newspaper business once again.

Not to be restricted to just voicing his political views in the paper, Mackenzie entered politics and was elected to the Provincial Parliament in 1828. His primary goal was to have fair government representation for the people.

He had quite the colourful political career, always attacking and criticizing his political opponents. He was expelled six times from the Legislature by the Tory Majority, only to be returned to office by his constituents in subsequent by-elections.

In 1834 the town of York was incorporated as the City of Toronto. Mackenzie was elected as the Mayor of Toronto but was defeated in the 1835 election. The following year he lost his provincial parliamentary seat. At this time, Mackenzie founded a more radical newspaper, the Constitution where he continued to savagely criticise the provincial parliament.

It was during the depression of 1837 that talk of rebellion was being bantered about in local taverns and in Mackenzie’s paper. Free grants of land were only available to United Empire Loyalists and their families, veterans of the War of 1812 and to immigrants from the British Isles. American immigrants had to purchase or lease their land.

Only those who owned property worth a certain amount (5-10 pounds depending on the period) and who had sworn the oath of Loyalty to the Crown were eligible to vote. Understandably, there were many discontented new immigrants from the United States.

With the economic turn down and two years of failed harvests, many of the colony’s farmers were subject to harsh debt-collection laws.

The seeds of discontent had been planted, a rebellion was inevitable.

In December of 1837, around 500 would-be revolutionaries gathered at Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge Street. They were ill-equipped for any type of battle but they decided to march south on Yonge with the aim of seizing muskets and ammunition from the Armoury at Fort York. They were opposed by 27 Loyalist volunteers who fired a volley of musket fire, killing three and wounding five of the rebels.

The remaining rebels quickly retreated to Montgomery’s Tavern. Later that evening and the following day hundreds of loyal militia, including many farmers from York County and the Hamilton area arrived to bolster the government forces. This force then marched towards Montgomery’s Tavern, disbursing the remaining rebels.

After the failure at Toronto, Mackenzie fled to the Buffalo area and garnered support. In the winter of 1838, Mackenzie and his remaining rebels, along with some American supporters occupied Navy Island in the Niagara River, south of the Horseshoe Falls. Mackenzie claimed the island as the capital of the Republic of Upper Canada.

However this too was short-lived when a group of Canadian volunteers captured and burned the supply ship, Caroline, that the rebels were using and bombarded the island from the mainland with cannon and mortar fire.

The rebellion was over in Toronto and the rebels had been driven from Navy Island, but it was not over. There were a few more skirmishes in 1838 including invasions by Upper Canadian rebels and American supporters in Essex County, Niagara and Prescott.

In each of these actions the rebels were defeated by strong forces of loyal militia and British regulars. The people of Upper Canada did not rise up to join the rebels, support for armed insurrection ended. Farmers had to get back to their land and merchants could not afford to host the rebels for fear of government retaliation.

Several of the rebels were caught and their leaders were executed. Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews were executed in Toronto. Many other rebels were exiled to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Australia.

Read Part 2 next week.


To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

Ascenzo is a regular Niagara Now contributor. Her full profile can be found here.

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