Building on history

Exhibition Place is Toronto's Plains of Abraham, and Fort York is our citadel. If this comparison seems far-fetched, it may be because we have a lot to learn from Québec.

The Plains of Abraham Battlefields Park, established in Québec City in 1908 as Canada's first national urban park, was one of the first historic parks in the country. Its benefits to Québec, and to Canada, are incalculable — contributing to our national spirit and setting the stage for Expo 67 in Montréal.

Ironically, it was around this time that the City of Toronto acquired Fort York from the federal military authorities, on Ottawa's condition that it be preserved as a historic site. The city proceeded immediately to allow parts of the fort to be demolished for industry and streetcar lines.

Much of Exhibition Place (the CNE grounds), including its vast acreage of parking lot south of Princes' Boulevard, covers part of another battlefield. On the morning of April 27, 1813, under cover of their ships' guns, an American invasion force stormed ashore from Humber Bay two kilometres west of the garrison (Fort York), which protected what was then the Town of York (Toronto). As the Americans advanced eastward, 3,000 combatants were engaged in a six-hour battle for the town and its naval assets. The Battle of York was fought in between the landing place and the fort, on ground that is today's Exhibition Place. The British, Native, and Canadian defenders were defeated, Fort York destroyed, the parliament buildings burned, and York, Upper Canada's capital, seized by the U.S. army for ten days.

Rebuilding started almost immediately. The result, today's "Old" Fort York, is one of the most intact forts on the continent from the War of 1812. After 30 years, it yielded its role as the primary site of Toronto's defense to the "New Fort," built further west in what is now Exhibition Place. As a result mostly of neglect, the old fort retained its antique, Napoleonic-era feel. It is one of the best-preserved examples of War of 1812 architecture, landscape, and archaeological features in North America, and includes half of all buildings from this war in Canada.

The New Fort, constructed in 1841 on a part of the old battleground, was a set of limestone buildings around a parade square. It was built on a promontory of the original shorecliff of Lake Ontario — a location now on the embankment (former shoreline) above Lake Shore Boulevard, just west of the Automotive Building in Exhibition Place. Today, the building known as Stanley Barracks is all that remains above ground of the New Fort; the CNE tore down most of it in the 1950s. But a four-hectare archaeological site, which contains foundations of the fort's buildings and thousands of artifacts, remains intact — sealed below the parking lot surface.

The Battle of York in 1813 was not the climactic clash of empires that occurred on the Plains of Abraham during 1759 outside the walls of Québec. The comparison to be made between the two events lies in the ability of descendant generations to seize the historical moment and make something of lasting value. In Toronto, our opportunity comes with the approaching War of 1812 bicentennial and the potential to leverage the storehouse of history, archaeology, architecture, and landscape that lies in wait at Fort York and within Exhibition Place. The early 20th century decision to create a landscape park on the Plains of Abraham yielded permanent aesthetic, economic, and city-building benefits to Québec and to Canada. But the groundwork for history must be deliberately laid by people living in the present; it does not spring from the earth fully formed. Nor does it survive piecemeal development.

The New Fort is an archaeological complex of equivalent value. It could be showcased — at least part of it becoming a permanent exhibit within the landscape of a new park. Its remaining structure (the Stanley Barracks) could be the centrepiece of this exhibit, serving to interpret both the fort and the battlefield. Its location on the embankment presents an opportunity to restore and connect the route of the 1813 action, joining Fort York to its historically contested landscape. A new linear "Embankment Park," centred on the New Fort site and overlooking the lake (well, okay, Ontario Place), would capture the original shoreline, the Battle of York, and the fort that stood there for more than a century.

Since its founding in 1793, Fort York has been a critical ground for engagement — at first with the enemy, and then with our past and future interests. As we approach the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the Battle of York, we have an opportunity to regroup. We can enlarge our history on the western waterfront and reclaim this historic landscape, thereby creating an asset that will compound for the next 100 years. Who knows where it will lead. But judging from Québec's experience, it will not fail to inspire and please.

Toronto Archives photo: fonds 1257, series 1057, item 704