U of T in its Historic Setting

A Place in Time:

The University of Toronto In its Historic Setting

The land on which the three campuses of University of Toronto are built has been a site of human activity for thousands of years. It was about 5000 years ago that water reached its current level in Lake Ontario. With the exception of land-filling done in the nineteenth century, the shoreline was much like what we know today, with major rivers like the Rouge, Don, Humber and Credit flowing into the lake’s north shore.

The first humans to explore the shore were ancestors of today’s First Nations peoples. They were skilled at hunting, fishing, and gathering the plant products that would have been plentiful for much of the year. Evidence of their presence is scant, since they moved frequently, lived in small groups, and tended to favour the same locales inhabited by later communities.

By about 1600 years ago, people of the north shore were moving towards a new, more settled life that was dependent on cultivation of corn (Zea maize) and other crops to supplement their continued reliance on wild foods.

The people who lived along the central north shore of Lake Ontario were the ancestors of the Huron (Wendat) and Petun First Nations. They built their longhouses, with surrounding palisades, at locations with good land for farming and access to the waterways. Their discarded pottery, tobacco pipes and hunting equipment, plus the sites themselves, supplement later European ethnographic accounts to provide a portrait of the rich lives of these Iroquoian-speaking peoples.

Their language may have given the city of Toronto its name, which is based either on a Huron word for their territory or, more likely, a Mohawk word for “trees standing in water.”

When European explorers and missionaries reached the north shore of Lake Ontario in the 17th century, disruptive forces in the form of internecine conflict over resources existed throughout the region. The French established a small trading post in Toronto in the early 18th century, encountering the Seneca and other Iroquois from south-central Ontario, who had displaced the Huron in the mid-seventeenth century. The Seneca then abandoned the north shore around the turn of the eighteenth century because of both the French attacks on their homeland in New York State and pressure from Algonkian-speaking peoples who had moved southward from their homeland along the north shore of Lake Huron.

The latter group were known to early French explorers as the Mississaugas; the University’s westernmost campus bears their name. With English ascendancy by the mid-eighteenth century, the government of the day purchased the Toronto area from the Mississaugas on September 23, 1787, for £1,700 in cash and goods. Assurances were made to them that their descendants would have access to hunting and fishing in what ultimately became the metropolitan region, but as development occurred, these promises often fell by the wayside. Only in 2010 were grievances related to this purchase finally settled by the Mississauga of New Credit First Nation and the Crown.

In 1793, John Graves Simcoe, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, established a military post and civilian town to improve the colony's defences during a period of threatened American invasion. He named his settlement 'York' and moved the provincial capital here from the vulnerable border village of Niagara.

York grew slowly to only 720 people by 1814 and faced numerous blows in its early years, including American attacks and occupations during the War of 1812. Nevertheless, the settlement expanded quickly after 1815 because of its importance as the colonial capital, which also attracted institutions with province-wide interests, such as banks and schools. Additionally, it was geographically well positioned to serve the commercial needs of a newly-settling hinterland at a time of expanding trade and improving transportation. When the province incorporated the town as the City of Toronto in 1834 (to provide mechanisms to meet the needs of an urbanizing population), the community was Upper Canada's largest with 9,250 souls. This population continued to grow, reaching 30,775 in 1851 on the eve of the railway era. However, various tribulations threatened the city: the economy suffered serious downturns at various times, rebellion divided Toronto violently in 1837-8, cholera ravaged the population in 1832, 1834, and 1849, and typhus struck in 1847-8. Yet, b y 1853, the year the first trains pulled out of Toronto, a recognizably modern city had taken shape, with distinct residential and commercial neighbourhoods, gas lighting, piped water, and such notable public buildings as St Lawrence Hall and St James' Cathedral.

Industrialization, beginning modestly in the mid-19th century, expanded greatly after Confederation, and contributed significantly to shaping the city's environment and prosperity. By 1901, the industrial, commercial, financial, and institutional centre had a population of 208,000, which rose to 667,500 by 1941. During these years, Toronto began to compete with Montreal as the nation's premier centre, not only economically, but also culturally, as exemplified by the founding of the Royal Ontario Museum in 1912 and the Toronto Symphony in 1922. Toronto's population eventually surpassed Montreal's in 1976, by which time the city had become Canada's most important economic and cultural engine.

As late as the 1940s, Toronto's population was largely Protestant (72 per cent in 1941), and fundamentally British (78 per cent, but mainly Canadian-born). As might be expected given these statistics, the world wars saw Torontonians flock to the colours with particular fervour compared to other parts of Canada. At the same time the great 20th-century conflicts contributed to dramatic increases in the city's economic, industrial, and technological enterprises as well as in breaking down social barriers such as the presence of increasing numbers of women in the workforce. Torontonians faced numerous other challenges during the 20th century, ranging from the poverty suffered by many families across the generations to the shorter-term disaster of the Great Depression.

A great shift in the spirit of the community began with the numerous waves of immigrants after 1945. By 2001, Toronto had become one of the most multicultural cities on the planet, where 152 languages and dialects were spoken in an atmosphere of comparative harmony. According to that year's census, more than half of Toronto's 2.5 million residents were born outside Canada, and a million people belonged to visible minorities. These post-war decades also saw the compact city of 1945 burst its boundaries like other North American cities to consume some of Canada's best farmland, both within Toronto's ultimate 632-square-kilometre boundary, and far beyond into the bedroom communities of Ontario's 'Golden Horseshoe.'

Today's Toronto is a large and complex urban centre. Like any similarly large city it faces important challenges and competing opinions on how to face them. At the same time, Toronto continues to flourish as a tremendously exciting city, embracing a strong and prospering economy, rich cultural underpinnings, and retaining its long heritage as a comparatively safe, orderly, and inclusive community, where working and living conditions are among the very best to be had on the planet.

With information from:

  • CARL BENN, Adapted from The Oxford Companion to Canadian History, 2004.
  • Toronto: An Illustrated History of its First 12,000 Years .R.F.Williamson, ed., Lorimer Press, 2008.[chapters by R.I.MacDonald, R.F. Williamson, C. Benn]
  • Heritage Toronto