Simcoe Day: How should we celebrate a myopic vision of Canada?

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John Graves Simcoe, whose "day" we're celebrating, finally got some serious recognition this year, courtesy of U.S. TV. He appears as a magnificent British villain in Turn: Washington's Spies, on AMC, the Mad Men network. It recounts "America's first spy network," during the American Revolution. Simcoe is played by Samuel Roukin, a U.S. actor with BBC cred: he sneers, he taunts, he tortures, he kills. Every actor knows the real heroes are the villains.

I consider myself an Ontario history buff but hadn't known our first lieutenant-governor was a player in that revolution. Why do we learn so much about ourselves from U.S. culture? I first heard about the United Empire Loyalists, who created Anglo Canada after the revolution, in Oliver Wiswell, a historical novel by U.S. writer Kenneth Roberts. I read it in high school. He wrote another called Rabble in Arms; the hero was history's iconic traitor, Benedict Arnold. Roberts was a cranky conservative in the heyday of American liberalism. I don't recall him elevating Simcoe, but maybe I didn't twig to it.

Simcoe went the Eton-Oxford route in England, then came out to help put down the uprising in the colonies. He was one of the more effective British officers. He took over a renowned/infamous unit called Roger's Rangers (Roberts also wrote a novel on them) and renamed them the Queen's Rangers. Their colours sit in Fort York today.

He was accused of atrocities, always hard to sort out in wartime, like massacring prisoners and trying to assassinate Washington. He was captured in the British defeat at Yorktown and returned to England where he married an heiress, who financed his election to parliament. He relentlessly self-promoted ("Nothing is more essential than to profess Correct Opinions unless it is to possess correct Acquaintances"). Eventually he got the subordinate position of lieutenant-governor in Upper Canada -- newly severed from Quebec.

He had a vision all right: recreate genteel English society in forests you couldn't find a footpath through. Entice tatty British aristocrats with land grants -- even vets of the Queen's Rangers weren't good enough. Cancel plans for New England-style town halls. "Establish" a church. It would be a beacon for the U.S., who'd forsake their revolution and rejoin the Empire. Make London (Ont.) its capital on the Thames (Ont.) -- a plan countermanded by his superior in Quebec, who ordered the capital for Toronto. So Simcoe changed its name to York, after the winner of some European battle. What resulted were some roads named after lords and ministers (Bathurst, Yonge, Dundas) and the first bill abolishing slavery in the Empire, though it was toothless, then rescinded.

You could caption his era: Canada is Hard to See. I swipe this from "America Is Hard to See" by U.S. poet Robert Frost. Frost says Columbus, like all the Europeans who followed him, failed to see the potential of their "new" world because he was obsessed with reaching India and its riches, so that, "They say his flagship's unlaid ghost/Still probes and dents our rocky coast/ With animus approaching hate . . ." Canada's leaders until now -- with exceptions like Champlain -- revel in the same myopia. What Simcoe notably missed was the model of the native peoples and their sense of place -- though he'd never have survived a month without them, as his wife, Elizabeth, noted in her diaries.

Simcoe shipped back to England and was eventually appointed commander-in-chief for India. He diverted to Portugal en route, to take on Napoleon, but fell ill, returned to England and died. His son Francis, for whom Castle Frank (as in the subway stop) is named, did die fighting Napoleon. Simcoe would surely have preferred that. Frost says Columbus got "such posthumous renown/ (A country named for him, a town,/ A holiday) as, where he is,/ He may not recognize for his." For Simcoe, there's a lake (no, sorry, he named that after his dad), a county, a street, a building (at U of T). You could say he saw a lot but didn't notice much.

I heard about Elizabeth Simcoe's diaries from artist Charles Pachter who, I solemnly disclose, I've known since we were eight. He's obsessed over Simcoe and other Canadian icons: the flag, the Queen, the moose, Toronto streetcars. This spring he mounted a show at Queen's Park about the First World War under the patronage of outgoing Lt.-Gov. David Onley. At the opening, Onley, who's disabled, greeted guests on his scooter, his aide-de-camp at his side. Other bemedalled figures hovered nearby. Aside from Pachter's paintings, the walls were stacked with portraits of Onley's mutton-chopped precursors. Our newly elected lesbian grandma premier wasn't there but maybe she came later. It's hard not to wonder what Onley's predecessor, John Graves, would've made of it. What Would Simcoe Say?

So how should we celebrate Simcoe's Day? By distributing bumper stickers that read WWSS? Or not at all? If history was written by others than the winners, we might be celebrating Tecumseh Day -- the legendary Shawnee leader and Simcoe contemporary. The truest guidance being offered, in the current crisis of our planet, comes from Indigenous peoples here and elsewhere. "Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth?" Tecumseh said.

He was politically astute, he understood that all real politics is about alliances and devoted his energy to forging them. Our current leaders should be as wise, instead of pursuing narrow party goals. And he was humane: "Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place." The way boaters wave as they go by each other on a lake, where I am now, surrounded by sky, water, rocks -- the elements we came from and will return to.

One of Simcoe's successors, Isaac Brock, yearned, like him, to fight in Europe against Napoleon, though he died here in the War of 1812. But unlike Simcoe, he noticed what was around him. Of Tecumseh, he said: "A more sagacious or more gallant warrior does not, I believe, exist. He was the admiration of everyone who conversed with him."

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Lone Primate/flickr

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