History by mirroring the past, explains the present and illuminates the future.
It is interesting to compare the legislative agenda of Ontario's 36th Parliament in 1996 with that of Upper Canada's 1st legislature two hundred years earlier in 1796.
The provincial parliament of 1996 was long, controversial and conducted with some bitterness and acrimony. Two hundred years earlier the legislative agenda of Upper Canada's 1st Parliament was short and the sessions conducted in a cordial and convivial manner. The meeting of Upper Canada's 1st Parliament in June, 1796, was according to Lieutenant Governor Simcoe marked with "respect and good will." There was little disposition in either the Legislative Council or the House of Assembly to oppose the measures of the Government. That was certainly not the case two hundred years later when the opposition performed its official function in a passionately partisan manner.
Wildlife figured prominently in both sittings. The lawmakers in the first parliament approved a bounty on bears and wolves. This was considered necessary because of "an increase in the human population" and the danger forest creatures posed to life, limb and livestock. Even at that early date wildlife was being evicted from its woodland haunts as human beings rapidly converted forests into farmland. The bounty on bears was subsequently removed because it appears they sensibly sought silence and safety from the rapidly increasing human population by beating a retreat back into the bush. Not so with the wolves who preferred living life on the edge and continued to prey on the livestock roaming freely about the settlements. The price on their heads remained in effect and citizens obligingly hunted them down for the sake of their cows and the cash they represented.
Animals received attention in the 36th Legislature also but the emphasis was on conserving not killing them. Legislation was enacted that protected bears by banning the spring bear hunt. Despite the angry protestations of frustrated hunters these predators are protected today for wildlife so wantonly destroyed two hundred years ago has a high priority with society.
Liquor legislation was enacted by both parliaments. In the 36th Legislature laws were passed dealing with penalties for drinking and driving. In 1796 liquor legislation dealt with the illegal sale of the liquor. The business of dispensing spirits was a lucrative one that attracted entrepreneurial innkeepers without the requisite licence to do so. In frustration the government enacted legislation notifying offenders that failure to acquire a permit after repeatedly being warned that a "Public House" had to be licensed to sell spirits would mean the offenders would be prosecuted as "delinquents."
Then as now taxes occupied much the Members' attention. In 1796 government revenues were badly needed and it was "deemed proper" to amend the Act to Authorize and Direct the Laying and Collecting of Assessments and Rates in every District. Two hundred years later a startling reversal occurred in the unremitting trend to ever more taxation for instead of increasing taxes the 36th Legislature approved legislation to provide tax refunds.
Increased taxes were required in 1796 partly to cover the compensation Members liberly awarded themselves for their labours. Two hundred years later legislators were likewise preoccupied with their own financial wellbeing for in the 36th Legislature they enacted legislation pertaining to their pensions.
In the 36th Parliament one very controversial item involved a group of professionals - medical doctors - and their demands for increased compensation. Two hundred years earlier another controversy raged involving another group of professionals - clergymen. Many of these men of the cloth were appealing in a petition for repeal of parts of the Marriage Act which permitted only ministers of the Church of England [Anglicans] to perform the marriage ceremony.
Presbyterian ministers wanted the same right and they petitioned Governor Simcoe for an amendment to the Marriage Act. Simcoe vigorously opposed this and censured the petitioners as people having "wicked heads and disloyal hearts." While Simcoe rejected the subject of the petition, he was equally outraged at the manner of the ministers' petition which he angrily dnounced for the "impropriety of its terms." Who after all did these "middling and inferior sort of people" think they were. Submissions from them were supposed to seek approval meekly on verbally bended knee, praying for the petition's approval. Simcoe certainly did not expect they would be so bold as to request it, ney demand it in such a rude and outright fashion.
There was, however, no bowing and scraping in this petition. In a fiercely forthright manner the Presbyterian ministers requested redress of what they called a serious grievance."Religion," stated the petition's Presbyterian author, "was a personal thing amenable only to Divine Jurisprudence, not the civil government." They boldly argued that any Christian marriage solemnized in the fear of God should be equally valid in the laws of man. The 93 persons who signed the petition said they were simply stating the truth to the Legislature of a free and fair government.
To offset Simcoe's shock at their suggestion the ministers hastened to assure the governor that it was not a question of their loyalty to the Crown. Presbyterians, they reminded Simcoe, had played their part in the Britain's Protestant revolution of 1688 and should not now be subjected to the tyranny of High Anglican churchmen. They warned that religious intolerance would lead only to political disunion and unChristian wrath. For this reason they argued it should be odious in the eyes of an enlightened government. They concluded their petition by affirming their belief that the Honourable Legislature would repeal those parts of the Marriage Act that made them "aliens in their own land."
This firm, forthright demand for change took Simcoe's breath away. Such a bold, blunt petition from "the many-headed multitude" simply reeked of "republican tendencies," an expression that was synonymous with disloyalty. To add insult to injury the petition was signed much to Simcoe's downright derision by most of the magistrates in the eastern district. Simcoe sarcastically commented that these magistrates affected fear for their lives and claimed they signed it under "a real or feigned pretext of dreading popular tumult if they did not."
Simcoe predicted if the government gave in to this demand that it would lead to other equally outrageous requests. Doubtless it was just a matter of time until these Presbyterian ministers would want a share in the revenue from the Clergy Reserves established by the British government solely for the Church of England. Where would these demands stop? Was there no end to it? What was the world coming to?
Only time would tell. Simcoe would have been appalled to learn that the crisis of 1796 was eventually resolved. The solution: all religions are treated equally; none gets any public financing.
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