Earlier tonight, as the geese flew south and a banjo played over by the LCBO, a group of SWIHHP mailing list members examined the foundations of buildings dating back two hundred years. It was pretty atmospheric, thinking about all the things that have and haven’t changed at Wellington and Queen Streets. Oddly, perhaps, a parking lot has protected a wealth of historical material since the buildings were torn down in the 1970s, and it is plans for new development that are allowing the history to be known again. Homestead Holdings is planning to build there, and they are required to excavate and document the site fully before they do so.
And so it was that Nick Gromoff of Groundtruth Archaeology and historian Jennifer McKendry were retained to research the site, and were available to tell us what they are learning. Nick showed how the bedrock allows us to see that the area was originally a hill, perhaps sloping down to a creek. Jennifer explained that these lots lay in back of Government House, which straddled Queen Street just west of King, and she told about the Montreal merchants who owned, rented them out, mortgaged and remortgaged them over the years. We saw foundations of a roughly built structure that may have been a carpenter’s shop and a blacksmith. We then compared that with a cleanly built larger house from some time around 1820 that by 1901 was a Temperance Hotel. We saw a trench running in front of the Queen Street houses where the archaeologists found marbles, coins, pieces of smoking pipes, and a doll’s parasol handle made of bone — the mislaid mementoes of front porch life. We saw a square patch in the asphalt were a “Brown Bess” bayonet was found a few feet down. Lots of soldiers lost lots of brass buttons in these buildings. Maybe they weren’t too good with the needle and thread.
My favourite story of the evening I can hardly wait to research further. But in a nutshell, it is this. As Jennifer discovered, these lots were once owned by William Connolly, a former fur trader. When he was up in Athabasca country, he had married a Cree woman named Suzanne. They had six children and when his fur trading days were over, he brought her and the children back to Montreal. Once there, however, he decided to marry his cousin Julia. In due course, he died, and then Julia died, and she left the estate to the two children she had had with William. Whereupon one of Suzanne’s sons sued — and won, in a landmark case establishing that marriage “à la façon du pays” was in fact marriage. And what year was this case decided, a case that asserted women’s rights over marital assets and that recognizes Indigenous laws? 1867. And didn’t I always say there was something else happening in this town besides Sir John A?
Thanks so much to Jennifer and Nick for their knowledge and their generosity in sharing it. By next week, all these foundations will be covered over again. But at least we know they were there. And in due course Jennifer and Nick’s reports will be available to the public. We will let you know when they are.
— Laura Murray