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Who knows what would have become of the Rebellion of 1837 if Mackenzie’s plan to sack Toronto's first bank and steal all its gold had come to pass
By Enzo DiMatteo
Sep 19, 2021
Bank of Upper Canada building
252 Adelaide East
When William Lyon Mackenzie led his band of not-so-merry rebels from the Montgomery Tavern down Yonge Street to launch his rebellion against the Family Compact in December 1837, they had more than just sending a message to those that ruled over the colony on their minds.
While it would ultimately help spark democratic reform, to call the uprising a “rebellion” may be overstating it. Most of the several hundred rebels who took part in the insurrection fled in confusion soon after government-backed militias began firing.
Mackenzie would flee to the U.S. with about 200 rebels, from where he would launch a number of cross-border assaults in subsequent years from his base on Navy Island in the Niagara River. He would not return to Upper Canada until after he received a pardon in 1849.
But who knows what would have become of the rebellion if Mackenzie’s plan to sack the Bank of Upper Canada and steal all its gold had come to pass.
It’s a little-known part of the famous uprising that Mackenzie and his men had planned to rob the bank, the first in the colonies. It was its ties to the seat of power – most of the bank’s 14 founding directors were members of the Family Compact – that made it a flashpoint. For Mackenzie, the bank was a symbol of the Family Compact’s corruption and oligarchic rule. But his fight for more transparency in the bank’s operations would also become personal.
The original bank first opened in 1822 in a storefront at the southeast corner of Frederick and King. In 1825, the bank purchased the lot at its current location on Adelaide. It opened its doors in 1827.
But while its stated objective was to encourage investment and support commercial activity, there were also suggestions that shareholders (or at least those who could afford to buy shares in the bank) were in it mostly for themselves.
Its investments, particularly in railway development and land speculation, became the subjects of controversy that “annoyed” local commercial interests, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Mackenzie was an outspoken critic of the bank’s loan practices, which he thought to be too speculative, not to mention its aggressive pursuit of merchants who owed money.
He published a series of articles in his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate, shortly after it opened, calling for, among other things, an end to the bank’s monopoly on local commerce. Mackenzie’s criticism struck a nerve. In 1826, while he was out of town on business, a dozen or so supporters of the Family Compact broke into his newspaper’s offices and destroyed the press in what was known as the Types Riot. Some of Mackenzie’s equipment ended up in Toronto Harbour.
He would sue and win a judgement in a highly publicized case.
When it was built, the Bank of Upper Canada was one of the few stone buildings at the time in York. Today, it’s one of the last remaining in the city that predates the 1834 incorporation of Toronto.
The original building had a flat roof. A mansard roof and portico would later be added giving the building its distinctive Neoclassical and Second Empire architectural stylings. Ironically, it’s William Baldwin – the son of Robert Baldwin, a driving force behind the push for responsible government – who is credited with the bank’s original design. But other sources suggest Francis Hall, the contractor hired to build the bank, had a more important hand in that.
The bank was initially successful owing to the fact the government of Upper Canada was a major shareholder.
But by the time of Mackenzie’s insurrection, both Upper and Lower Canada were in the midst of economic upheaval, which coincided with the shift away from the trade in fur and timber to wheat and flour. Financial panic would soon grip the colonies as the St. Lawrence, the main trading route into North America, remained under the control of the British Empire. It was this backdrop that ultimately led to the rebellions in both Canadas.
The bank’s fortunes would take a turn for the worst in the 1840s. The economic collapse of 1857 would ultimately lead to insolvency and its closure in 1866.
The property would end up being sold in 1870 to De La Salle Roman Catholic boys school, which occupied the site and buildings next to it until 1913 when the building would be used as a recruitment centre during the First World War. The United Farmers’ Cooperative bought the building in 1925 and built a three-storey addition before selling it in 1956. By the 1970s the building was boarded up and slated for demolition after a fire destroyed much of the roof.
But in 1978 it was declared a National Historic Site and saved. A restoration would be completed in the early 1980s. The plaque outside notes the building’s architectural importance and contributions to the early commerce of Upper Canada. On the latter, Mackenzie might disagree.
Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks.
Enzo was born in Belgium and emigrated with his family to Canada in the heat of Trudeaumania. He is a winner of numerous writing awards and the only (alleged) Commie banned from entering Cuba. It’s complicated. Claims to fame: champion wood-chopper.