Monday, 4 August 2014

John Graves Simcoe: The Man Behind Toronto's Simcoe Day

"Portrait of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe" by Anonymous (c. 1796)
Today, Monday, August 4, 2014, is what is known across Canada as Civic Holiday. It's a public holiday on a similar level as the bank holidays in the UK: times when government offices, banks, and many businesses are closed to give workers a day off. That said, Civic Holiday is one of the more complex Canadian holidays out there, because it varies substantially across the country: some provinces and territories give it statuary status (ex. in Prince Edward Island), while some others don't celebrate it at all (ex. Quebec). And, of those places that do celebrate it, many localities opt for names other than Civic Holiday: British Columbia Day, Saskatchewan Day, Heritage Day (in Alberta), etc.

And then there's Ontario: my home province. Here, the name varies from one municipality to the next - which brings us to the title of this post. In Toronto, the provincial capital and my home city, the Civic Holiday is officially called Simcoe Day. (Note: There have been attempts made to have the name Simcoe Day be applied all across Ontario, but no dice.)

John Graves Simcoe's signature.
Why all this fuss over names? While I do not personally know the official story here, my hypothesis is that with any public holiday, people want to have a reason to celebrate. Of course, getting a day off work to spend relaxing with family and friends is an awesome reason in and of itself. But once politics and governments get involved, there is often a drive for the holiday to commemorate something. Or, in Toronto's case, someone.

So who is the "Simcoe" in Simcoe Day, and why would Toronto's government choose to name the holiday after him in the first place? His full name is John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806) - and people who are in the loop re: current period dramas ought to find the name familiar as he is one of the historical figures featured in AMC's drama TURN, which is set during the American Revolutionary War.

John Graves Simcoe as played by Samuel Roukin in TURN (Photo (c) AMC)
Enthusiasts of the American Revolutionary War would know Simcoe as the man in charge of the Queen's Rangers: a corps composed primarily of Loyalists and American deserters, and through which he gained a reputation as a tactician. For example, the Queens Rangers were deployed on reconnaissance missions during the war, including working alongside Benedict Arnold (yes, that Benedict Arnold - you see where this is going?) on his campaign in Virginia: the same campaign that led to the British occupation that's re-enacted annually at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, as Under the Redcoat.

Given all this, it comes as no real surprise that Simcoe bears a rather negative reputation in the US - and Benedict Arnold, at least, is a pariah in Canada as well due to his known switching of allegiances in the middle of the Revolution. So why would Toronto want to commemorate Simcoe with his own holiday?

Well, Canada is not the United States. And Toronto, especially, has a very different conception of John Graves Simcoe. Here, Simcoe is remembered as the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, a British colony founded in 1791 for the main purpose of accommodating United Empire Loyalists who had taken shelter in Quebec during and after the American Revolutionary War. Not only that, but it was Simcoe and the Queen's Rangers who first began work in 1793 on the colonial capital city of York. If this does not ring a bell, note that York is now known by a different name: TORONTO.

John Graves Simcoe and Augustus Jones, supervising the Queen's Rangers of York cutting trees during the construction of Yonge Street, 1795. Image by Charles William Jeffreys (c. 1795)
And there lies the crux of the question of why Simcoe Day got the name it did in Toronto, and only Toronto. John Graves Simcoe's historical significance here goes beyond what he is known for anywhere else in the province - my guess is that that's why the idea of naming Ontario's Civic Holiday after him didn't pan out. The government of Upper Canada, including the seat of the Lieutenant Governor, is in Toronto; and the first Lieutenant Governor was also the founder of said city.

What this says overall is that the same person can have very different reputations and stigmas attached to them historically depending on who is telling the story. And while TURN's Simcoe can at times be a right regular bastard, the Simcoe that Torontonians know and remember is very different man. Hero or villain? The truth is quite likely somewhere between the two.

Sources

Mealing, S. R. "SIMCOE, JOHN GRAVES." Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003. Web. 4 Aug. 2014.

Schellhammer, Michael. "AMC's "TURN":  Everything Historians Need to Know." Journal of the American Revolution. 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 4 Aug. 2014.

Image Credits

All historical depictions of Simcoe in the public domain

Promotional image from TURN (c) AMC

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