Bruce Bell —
By the age of 7, growing up in the wilds of Sudbury, I could recite the last words of American patriot Nathan Hale as he stood on the gallows before being hanged by the British during the American Revolution: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Yet I could tell you nothing about Canadian William Lyon Mackenzie and his fight for our political change.
Canadian history was taught at my school, its just that our American cousins were so much better at telling their history through books, TV shows, cartoons and movies; something we did and do very little of.
Like a lot of other Canadian kids I watched a lot of American TV in the 1960s and what we saw was sometimes very sugar coated but we got the gist of it, and in most cases those American myths stayed with us.
Our mini revolution known as the Rebellion of 1837 should have made it into our collective conscience through books, comics and movies, but with the exception of a few noble productions the grand stories of the rebellion are lost to time.
Very little remains from the era of the 1837 Rebellion when our present well-paved streets were once mud covered roads.
On the southwest corner of King and Church was once the Coopers Inn, built in 1825, a very popular drinking establishment with supporters of the ruling elite the so-called Family Compact.
In 1836 the Inn was taken over by James Bell who changed the name to the Sir Francis Bond Head Inn after the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada.
At first Sir Francis was willing to listen to reformers like William Lyon Mackenzie however Sir Francis stopped listening and started to side with the Family Compact after realizing it was they who could give him what he really wanted: POWER.
Soon whispers of a rebellion began to seep out from the taverns and coffee shops that once lined our streets with the fiercest murmur coming from inside the Mackenzie camp and his basic cry of freedom from oppression being whispered the loudest.
Mackenzie knew what had to be done and so did Sir Francis.
Beginning at nightfall on Dec. 5, 1837 the infamous government-backed fighting force known as the McGraw troupe rode en masse down Church Street to the Sir Francis Bond Head Inn.
Then they dismounted, stabled their horses in a barn behind the inn, downed a few pints, made their plans for the following day and went to bed.
The next morning the McGraw Troupe all saddled up galloped down Colborne Street and went on to meet up with Sir Francis and his 1,000 volunteers headed up Yonge Street to squash Mackenzie’s men.
The two armies met about a half mile below present-day Eglinton Ave. where Sir Francis set off his cannons, which sent Mackenzie and his 150 men running back to their headquarters at Montgomery Tavern just north of Eglinton on Yonge.
Two days later it was over and Mackenzie, knowing all was lost, managed to escape to the United States for the next 10 years.
Twelve of Mackenzie’s supporters —the most famous being Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews—were hanged on the scaffold erected on the northeast corner of King and Toronto streets.
Thousands throughout Upper Canada had signed a petition for clemency and despite explicit warnings for moderation from the British Government in London, Lt. Gov. Sir George Arthur went ahead and hanged Lount and Matthews in an act of what was then thought of as judicial murder.
When news of the hangings made its way to London the Colonial office decreed that all further hangings were to be halted and those spared the noose were shipped off to a penal colony in Australia.
On the day of the execution a fellow prisoner of Samuel Lount wrote the following account a few years later:
“While we were watching and talking we heard steps on the stairs, and then the clank of chains.
It was poor Lount coming up, guarded by his jailers, to say goodbye to us.
“He stopped at the door. We could not see him, but there were sad hearts in that room as we heard Samuel Lount’s voice, without a quiver in it, give us his last greeting ‘Be of good courage boys. I am not ashamed of anything I’ve done, I trust in God, and I’m going to die like a man.’”
This powerful drama, this forgotten human tragedy, this Rosetta stone to our Canadian identity was played out where today the trash compactor for Number 1 Toronto Street noisily goes about crushing its garbage of stained coffee cups and half-eaten pizza crusts.
A few years ago to honour these men the good people at Standard Life who own the property erected a plaque that includes Lount’s final words and for that I am truly grateful.
Now to be fair there have been a handful of Canadian productions about this tumultuous time. In 1976 CBC did a great production of Rick Salutin’s play 1837: A Farmer’s Revolt. Then there’s a wonderful 1985 movie on the life of the Samuel Lount produced by one of his ancestors Elvira Lount. In 2002 a fascinating play, The Mackenzie/Papineau Rebellion by Michael Hollingsworth, was produced here in Toronto. Regardless of these fine productions its still not enough to have that momentous period sink into our communal minds.
Therefore I have come to one conclusion; if Nathan Hale was Canadian, the chances are he would be forgotten.