The Founding of Toronto


This post contains a section from the book “The Villages Within.” It is a tongue-in cheek version of the founding of Toronto.


Those of us who are familiar with the modern metropolis of Toronto, whom its detractors refer to as central Canada’s seething cesspool of sin, may find it difficult to envision it in the days before the Europeans arrived, when it was a tranquil landscape. It was a paradise of nothingness. Some people believe that zilch has changed.

However, in the final decade of the eighteenth century, though the site now occupied by the city was an untamed frontier, among the bushes and old-growth forests something was indeed happening. Native hunters, as well as an occasional fur trapper, were nimbly treading through the thick stands of oak, maple, birch, and pine, peering from behind the undergrowth to locate their quarry. As the land was uninhabited, nobody objected to solitary hunters prancing through the woods, peeking out from behind bushes. The French glorified these intrepid trailblazers in their stories and poems, referring to them as “voyageurs.” The linguistically challenged believe that “voyageurs” translates into English as “voyeurs.” Alas, this is not true! “Voyeurs” prefer to peek into bedroom and bathroom windows.

Following the American Revolutionary War, the tranquility of the virgin landscape changed drastically when a stampede of Loyalists crashed across the Canadian border to escape the revolting colonies to the south. Although these were the days before the devalued Canadian dollar, the pennywise Loyalist entrepreneurs knew a good deal when they heard it—the land in Canada was free.

They never mentioned in history books that even if the Loyalists had not revolted against the British Crown, they too could be revolting, as bathtubs, clean undergarments, and deodorants were in short supply.

When the Loyalists arrived in the Canadian wilderness, they were unable to deceive the hunters and trappers already residing in the colony. They knew that nothing in the world was as vicious as a bunch of over-eager bargain hunters. In addition, these wise sharpshooters realized that even though the new immigrants had declared loyalty to King George III, they had not declared their firearms. The competition for game would soon increase. They feared the consequences of gratuitous land grants combined with too many farmers’ muskets. Many people today believe that the “joining together” of gun-toting Loyalists with free land was the origin the term “shotgun marriages.”*

It is now necessary to provide a little background about the acquisition of the land that became the site of Toronto.

The story begins in 1785, across the briny sea in England. The British government appointed Sir Guy Carlton as governor general of British North America. The following year, they raised him to the peerage as Lord Dorchester, First Baron of Dorchester, in the county of Oxford. Dorchester was quite pleased with his new title. Like most members of the nobility, he knew that it would be an invaluable asset when he arrived in Canada, as colonists were easily impressed with high-sounding titles.

Thus satisfied, he set sail.

Our Lord Dorchester was a real person, not to be confused with hotels and pubs with similar names—the Lord Simcoe, the Lord Elgin, Lord Knows, Lord Forgive Me, and Lord Help Us. We owe Lord Dorchester a great debt of gratitude, as without him, whom would we have named our streets, public squares, cocktail bars, and hotels after?

The tradition of recycling Dorchester’s name continued for many years. A few older Torontonians might remember a stripper who appeared in the 1960s at the infamous Victory Theatre on Spadina Avenue. Her stage name was “Dimples Dorchester.” Today, I wonder if our portly dear Dorchester possessed a few dimples of his own, but sat on his assets, and never revealed their rippling beauty to the courtesans who hung around the governor’s court seeking high-class contacts.

When Dorchester arrived in Canada, the severity of the climate must have shocked him. He likely welcomed the onslaught of a Quebec winter as warmly as the approach of the Bubonic plague. He did not know the French words for “friggin’ cold,” but even he knew what it meant when he saw his frozen underwear standing upright in the morning, even though he was not inside it. 

I hope that he also discovered that dining on steaming bowls of pea soup provided excellent fortification against the freezing winter winds that funnelled down the St. Lawrence River Valley, and that funnelling copious amount of brandy down his throat added to his defences. The heights of Quebec were not the most important protection against the worst invasion that each year attacked the colony—a Canadian winter.

Compared to the milder climate of the British Isles, Canada was indeed a hostile environment. Lord Dorchester suffered greatly during the dark days of winter, and longed to return to the shores of Mother England. Inside the governor’s residence, gazing out the small panes of glass, frosted by the freezing cold, he despaired at the sight of the endless drifts of snow. He likely thought that the gods of “good times” had deserted him. However, eventually, the land warmed and the trees once more displayed hints of greenery.

In the spring of 1787, Dorchester was in an optimistic mood, as his head had cleared of the brandy and his underwear had thawed. He dispatched Deputy Surveyor-General John Collins to the Toronto Carrying Place to negotiate a major real estate deal.

I do not know if John Collins was related to “Tom Collins.” I Googled “Tom Collins” but was unable to discover any relationship. However, I found a Web site extolling the virtues of the cocktail referred to as a “Tom’s Collins”, a mixture of gin, lemon juice, sugar, and soda water. I concluded that if Tom had existed in the eighteenth century, he would have been too busy at the bar mixing the drink named in his honour to have answered the call of duty from our dear Lord Dorchester.

In 1787, John Collins set forth, and by early July was sailing along the north shore of Lake Ontario in the good ship, Seneca. Finally, early one morning, Collins arrived in Toronto harbour and ordered the ship’s crew to drop anchor. Standing on deck, he must have pondered his dilemma. Dorchester had instructed him to negotiate a major land deal, but there were no real estate companies to be found. Furthermore, they had not yet invented the “Multiple Listing Service,” and anyway, if he had heard the term, he would have assumed it merely meant multiple scribbling on latrine walls.

As a result, Collins decided to follow the only course open to him. He opened his own office on the deck of the ship and extended an invitation to three Mississauga Indian chiefs to lunch with him. Mighty Chief Mayor Hazel McCallion of Mississauga fame, though a great leader, was not among them.

Because it was a hot summer afternoon, before discussing the transaction he most likely ordered an alcoholic repast. For obvious reasons, Tom Collins was unavailable, so he probably demanded that a crewmember, perhaps with a name like Daiquiri Dick, deliver the drinks to the deck. Collins had learned from Dorchester that “booze” anaesthetized a person from the heat as well as the cold.

Perhaps this was the origin of Toronto’s infamous tradition of the “martini lunch.” Without these, the commerce of the city would be paralyzed.

I am confident that Collins poured the alcoholic drinks generously. By the time they reached an agreement, I think they were likely buzzed. How else can we explain that the chiefs consented to sell 250,880 acres for the pitiful sum of seventeen hundred pounds? The huge tract of land extended northward from Lake Ontario and included the site of the Toronto as we know it today. It became known as the “Toronto Purchase.” It does not surprise me that the land north of Sudbury was not included in the deal. Nobody wanted it.

A few trade goods were included in the deal, and I suspect that among them were several bottles of strong drink. After all, by now everyone knew that his majesty’s booze provided excellent insulation against the cold winter months, generating more heat than buckskin underwear.

This story illustrates the point that important negotiations should never be concluded during a martini lunch. However, we should be grateful for Collins’ efforts, as it was likely the last time that a government official in Canada purchased anything with taxpayers’ funds and received a bargain. Had government consultants been available, they would have caused the price of the land to inflate significantly.

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