Sunday, July 8, 2012

# 31 ~ Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor, Then and Now

NOW : The modern day crest of Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor.

220 years ago today, on July 8, 1792, John Graves Simcoe was sworn in as the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada.  The swearing in ceremony was held at St. George's (Anglican) Church on King Street, in Kingston.  This was the first Anglican church - or indeed, the first church of any denomination - to be built in Kingston.  It was built on the edge of Kingston's Market Square earlier in 1792.  Constructed of wood, it stood only 12 x 10 metres, and was painted blue.  Sadly, the church was demolished in 1827 but was soon replaced by another church of the same name, which would go on to become today's Anglican cathedral for Kingston. 

THEN : Portrait of Simcoe as a young man, circa 1770, attributed to the artist Johann Joseph Zoffany.

Of course, in the last two centuries, Simcoe has fallen in amongst the most studied historical characters in the history of the Province of Ontario.  But for those of us who live here, Simcoe's life outside of what is now Ontario may be somewhat unfamiliar. He was born in Cotterstock, in England, on February 25, 1752. He was actually the third of four sons, but as was sadly all too common at the time, he was the only one of his brothers to survive into adulthood. His father, also John, served as a naval officer, and died during expedition that was of great significance to Canadians – the campaign to capture Quebec from the French. This senior John Simcoe died not of wounds received in battle, but rather, of an illness, most likely pneumonia. His widow relocated the family to Exeter, and thus it was Exeter that would become the childhood home of the young John Simcoe. 

Studying at the Exeter Grammar School and then Eton College and Merton College at Oxford University, Simcoe entertained a brief flirtation with a career in law. Soon, though, he turned away towards a career in the military, following in his father's footsteps, so to speak. Though he was a young boy when his father died, the elder Simcoe seems to have left his son with a strong impression. The virtues of loyalty, bravery, morality and diligence were all handed down, and an impression was made that an academic education should go hand in hand with military training. Thus, a posting as a military administrator was just as worthwhile as the glorious of leadership in combat. The young Simcoe would do his best to imbue himself with the qualities that he felt his father had exemplified, and Simcoe's posting as a sort of military governor of Upper Canada would be the one for which he is most remembered today.

After receiving the benefit of instruction under a military tutor, Simcoe joined the military in 1770. Not for him was his father's branch of service in the Royal Navy. Rather, the young Simcoe was aided by the influence of his mother's family, and was given a commission as an ensign. It was a busy time for the Imperial military, and Simcoe was sent with his regiment to fight against the rebellious Americans. They shipped out to Boston in 1775. His career in America would offer him advancement, and also bring him in to contact with some of the noted British commanders in North America – Lord Cornwallis, and the two brothers, Sir William Howe and Lord Richard Howe. Further, Simcoe would be wounded a total of three times through the American Revolutionary War, with his most pronounced injury received at the Battle of Brandywine in September of 1777. Simcoe would struggle with less than exuberant health for his entire life.

THEN : The Battle of Brandywine, fought in 1777, was where Simcoe received the most serious of his injuries.  Even as a young man, he never enjoyed particularly vigorous health, and his wartime wounds would stay with him for his entire life.
It was in October of 1777 that Simcoe would be given command of the regiment with which he was long associated.  Elevated to the rank of general – now, a far cry from the rank of ensign with which he was initiated in to the British Army – he led the Queen's Rangers. European military tactics were changing, and the British army recognized the need for men who knew the local terrain and who were able to live and travel ruggedly through rough land. Ranger regiments were largely made up by those who lived on the frontier and therefore knew the land. These rangers knew how to live in the wild, how to silently scout out an enemy, and how to engage in guerrilla warfare. The Queen's Rangers would become one of the few non-aboriginal units to be able to mobilize in the harshest of conditions. In many ways, the regular British Army would remain unadapted to the challenging conditions of the New World, but this wily regiments were valuable adjuncts to any army.


THEN : A familiar portrait of John Graves Simcoe, wearing the green tunic of the Queen's Rangers.

The Queen's Rangers served to gather information on the movement of enemy troops, and to move swiftly and with great stealth when called to attack. They spent less time drilled on the formality of the parade square, and had more emphasis placed on what was crucial to their light, fast and stealthy manner of warfare. A keen physical strength, the ability for speed, and drill at close-quarters hand and bayonet combat were more important to the men of the Queen's Rangers than the ability to quickly form up in rank and file. Despite the popular image of every historical British soldier dressed as a“redcoat”, the tunics of the the Queen's Rangers were green, and not red. This allowed them to blend in better in the wooded areas in which they could conceal themselves. They also often carried rifles, which held a greater range and accuracy than the muskets given to more standard troops. This was important as the men of the Queen's Rangers would be shooting from a greater distance, from within the trees in which they would conceal themselves.

THEN : The badge of the Queen's Rangers.

Simcoe had great success with the Queen's Rangers, which he commanded until shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, on September 3, 1783. The colonies had been lost to the Crown, but Simcoe had personally gained a celebrated military career. There were few regimental commanders who could claim more frequent success than Simcoe, and he soon earned the respect of military authorities for his grasp of good tactics. Simcoe in turn gave much credit to the men of the Queen's Rangers. He bragged of their performance and good conduct, their abstaining from the plundering and destruction of civilian property, their alertness in battle and their never having a sentry surprised. After the Treaty of Paris, the Queen's Rangers was disbanded, with many of its members settling in the Atlantic regions, where in fact a number of the regiment's former members received land grants in Queensbury, New Brunswick. Simcoe left North America and travelled home to England, and although the Queen's Rangers were disbanded, the regiment would be mustered up again when Simcoe returned. When they were called back in to service, after the foundation of the Province of Upper Canada in 1791, it's easy to think of these rugged men clearing the forest to build the roads, town and fortifications around the old Town of York.

NOW : A reenactment group of Queen's Rangers.  For more information visit

After the war, Simcoe returned to England.  While recuperating from his wartime injuries, he stayed at the home of his godfather, Admiral Samuel Graves. It was here that Simcoe entered into marriage with Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim, a young ward of Admiral Graves. She was the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gwillim and Elizabeth Spinkes. Born in 1762, she was a full decade younger than Simcoe, and her infancy had been full of tragedy. Her father, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gwillim, died before she was born, which explains her curious middle name of “Posthuma”. Her mother, Elizabeth Spinkes, died in childbirth. Young Elizabeth was baptized on September 22, 1762, and her mother's funeral was held the next day. Elizabeth was raised by her aunt, Margaret, who became the wife of Admiral Graves, and together the couple raised Elizabeth as their very own child. Elizabeth and John Graves Simcoe were married on December 30, 1762, and would be nearly inseparable for the next two-dozen years, right up until the time of Simcoe's death. But for the tragedy in the early death of Elizabeth's parents, the story of her upbringing, and her introduction to her future husband, might have been lifted from the scores of a comic Victorian operetta.

THEN : Elizabeth Simcoe.  She was an incredible woman, venturing across the Atlantic with her husband, to live with him in the wilderness, at a time when most women would have happily remained at home.  John and Elizabeth had a daughter, Katherine, born in Upper Canada - one of the first European children to be born in the province - but sadly, Katherine died shortly after.  Katherine Simcoe was laid to rest in the cemetery near Fort York.  Over time, the cemetery has evolved into today's Victoria Memorial Square.

While back in England, Simcoe had a brief career in the House of Commons, but his real yearning was for an appointment as governor in the colonies. Plans to establish Upper Canada as a new province had been underway for sometime before it was created in 1791. Simcoe was of course chosen to be the first viceroy for the new province. There were several significant dates in Simcoe's early career as such. The appointment was made official on September 12, 1791. Shortly thereafter Simcoe departed England and spent two months crossing the Atlantic. Wintering in Quebec, he first arrived across the borders of Upper Canada in June 24, 1792. Finally, it was on July 8, 1792, that an investiture ceremony was held, as described, at St. George's Church in Kingston.

As mentioned, the few years that Simcoe spent in Upper Canada have been thoroughly chronicled. When he crossed the Atlantic, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth and three of their children, he brought with him grand schemes to plant a seed of England in the raging wilderness of Upper Canada. Simcoe left it for later generations to cultivate, and one wonders what he would have made of the society that Ontario has grown in to. Free education, accessible healthcare, an admired judicial process and overall, a general sense of liberty, have all grown out of the institutions that Simcoe implanted on the shores of our province over two centuries ago. Simcoe's time in the province was short, only lasting a few years, but there was an urgency to his planning, and they were ardent enough to outstrip the enthusiasms of his superiors. His plans were often checked by both Lord Dorchester in Quebec, and the colonial authorities back in England, simply because they were too expensive and represented a dedication and speed that went unshared by Simcoe's superiors.

Just as Upper Canada has spent more than two hundred years evolving into the modern day Province of Ontario, the role of the Lieutenant-Governor has changed, too. Simcoe was essentially a military governor, who led the reassembled men of the Queen's Rangers in exploring and settling, laying roads, building forts, and generally carving the Town of York, that primordial entity that became today's City of Toronto, out of the enormous forest that stretched north all the way from today's Front Street, at the edge of Lake Ontario. Today, the role of the Lieutenant-Governor is a more modern one. The viceroy of Ontario serves as the Queen's official representative in the province, and is an emblem of Canada's constitutional monarchy, which binds us not only with other Commonwealth communities around the world, but also serves to unite us with our own democratic heritage. Canada is one of the few nations in the world who peacefully talked its way into independence, without the real use of force or violence, and we are fortunate to carry on an association with our regal heritage. 

Constitutionally, the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario represents the highest ranking position in the province, followed by the Premier, then the Attorney-General, and then the Speaker. However, it is as a community figure that recent Lieutenant-Governors of Ontario have really entered into the eye of the public. Viceregal representatives each take on important roles in lending their patronage to local community causes, by attending countless events and meeting Ontario's residents by the thousands. The ceremonial and community role of the Lieutenant-Governor is indeed the most prolific, and each appointed representative traditionally makes a committment towards certain special causes. Ontario's current Lieutenant-Governor, David Onley, has made it his goal to raise awareness regarding issues of accessibility. There have been several “firsts” in the Lieutenant-Governor's office over recent decades. Pauline McGibbon served as viceroy from 1974 until 1980, and became the first female Lieutenant-Governor of the Province. Lincoln Alexander, who served from 1985 until 1991, was Ontario's first viceroy of West Indian ancestry. Lincoln Alexander was used to breaking records – in 1968, he was elected to the House of Commons to represent Hamilton West, becoming Canada's first black Member of Parliament.

There were eight Lieutenant-Govenors of Upper Canada, including the first, John Graves Simcoe, between 1791 and 1841. That year, the Province of Upper Canada became the Province of Canada West, and there would be only two viceroys in office over the next twenty-six years until Canadian Confederation in 1867. Since Confederation, there have been a total of twenty-eight men and women who have held the office of Lieutenant-Governor. Onley's appointment as such was announced to the public on July 10, 2007 – another anniversary that is just a few days away.

NOW : Ontario's current Lieutenant-Governor, the Honourable David C. Onley.  The source of the photograph is the official website of Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor, listed below.

It's been a long time since Simcoe carved the British institutions of parliament, justice and freedom out of the old forests of Ontario, and we've spent more than two centuries making them our own. It's satisfying, on a certain level, to trace their origins back to a small ceremony held in a wooden church in Kingston on this day, 220 years ago.
For more extensive information on the role of today's Lieutenant-Governor, please visit :

NOW : There are various monuments to the Simcoes all across Ontario.  This one, in Niagara, commemorates the opening of the first Parliament in Upper Canada.  The inscription reads :

Here at Niagara on September 17, 1792
he presided over the first
representative assembly
of this province.

His genius foresaw the greatness of
this country and he threw himself
into its building with ardour and
enthusiasm. By his exalted aims, his
conspicuous integrity, his tireless
industry and unflagging fortitude
he brought courage to the hearts
of the early settlers and led them
to carve a civilization out of a
wilderness. In all this he was
unfailingly helped by his wife

Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim

who like her husband has left the
impress of her spirit and her
name on the letters and locations
of this province. Her diaries and
drawings give an authentic record
of the life of the period and the
aspect of the land

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