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A First for Upper Canada: John Graves Simcoe

For the week of Monday February 22, 2010

On February 25, 1752, John Graves Simcoe, the man that would become Upper Canada’s (now Ontario) first Lieutenant Governor, was born. He is remembered for his political contributions that shaped the territory that would one day become part of Canada.

Portrait of Governor John Graves Simcoe, ca1900
© Library and Archives Canada / C-008111

John Graves Simcoe was born in Cotterstock, England, to Katherine Stamford and Captain John Simcoe. In 1770, Simcoe began his military career in the Navy, eventually seeing service during the American Revolution, taking command of the Queen’s Rangers, a military unit that fought for the British Loyalists in America from 1777-81.

Simcoe was appointed Upper Canada’s First Lieutenant Governor when the province was created under the Constitutional Act of 1791. Simcoe made the journey with his family to North America, settling in the capital of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake). His first priority was to maintain British-American relations when war broke out between France and Britain in 1791. It was Simcoe’s responsibility to ensure that the Americans, who sympathized with the French, maintained neutrality during the war.

Statue of General John Graves Simcoe, Queen's Park, Toronto, Ontario
© Parks Canada / Michelle Cinanni, 2009

Simcoe soon realized that Newark was too close to the American border. If the Americans decided to attack, they could quickly capture the capital and the province’s leaders. In 1793, Simcoe decided to move the capital to a location less susceptible to American attacks, and named it York (now Toronto) after Frederick, Duke of York, son of King George III.

Simcoe is best remembered for his role in creating the civil administration in Upper Canada. He instituted a settlement policy that included land grants, laid out a system of townships and counties for the territory, and also built roads. But, most notably, in 1793 Simcoe passed the Act Against Slavery, the first act to limit slavery in the British Empire through a gradual phasing out of slavery over time by allowing no new slaves to be brought into the province. This act would lead to the abolition of slavery in Upper Canada by 1810, and then eventually to the Emancipation Act of 1833, which abolished slavery in all British lands.

When Simcoe became ill in 1796 he returned to England and resigned as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe died on October 26, 1806, and was buried on the family estate, near Honiton, England.

John Graves Simcoe was designated a National Historic Person in 1974. A plaque commemorating his contribution to Canadian politics was erected in 1976. For more information on slavery abolition, see Slavery Attacked in Upper Canada.
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