Happy Simcoe Day: How Good Planning Changed a Country

220 years ago a lot of people wanted to move to Canada. Here is how they were welcomed.

Friendly border where mountie meets DHS
Friendly border where mountie meets DHS.

 Public Domain

The first Monday of August in most of Canada is a holiday, an extra-long weekend in our extra-short summers. In Toronto it is called Simcoe Day, honoring John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the 1790s. I have written about him because his actions regarding development set a pattern that still reverberates here. But there is more about Simcoe that I just learned from Dan Gardner, writing in the Globe and Mail:

John Graves Simcoe was a British officer who fought with distinction in the American revolution. In one engagement, Simcoe scattered some rebels and – this is likely apocryphal but let’s not waste a good story – ordered his soldiers not to fire on three fleeing men, one of whom was the future first president of the United States.

Later, when he became lieutenant-governor, he had a problem: How to cope with tens of thousands of Americans who were loyal to the crown during the American Revolution and were no longer welcome or comfortable in the new United States of America. But then he was worried that this might be too much of a good thing, that Upper Canada would essentially be all American, so he wanted to attract more British and European settlers too.

County atlas
 County Atlas Project McGill University

So he had his surveyors lay out a vast super-grid across the province that is remarkably accurate. You can be driving north on a country road and have to jog a bit at an intersection; this is an adjustment for the curvature of the earth, to keep the lines from converging as you go toward the North Pole.

An immigrant receiving a land grant had to clear the road on all four sides within a period of time to get title to the land. Ontario got a grid of lines and concessions that made transport of agricultural and then industrial goods easier than anywhere else in the country. The province became the Canadian industrial and agricultural powerhouse because of a planning and design decision made in 1795.

seigneuries in Quebec
Seigneuries in Quebec/.  

In Quebec, they relied on rivers for transport well into the 20th century. Land was divided according to the seigneurial system, based on thin strips of land leading to the water. These would get thinner and thinner as they were subdivided for inheritances; the rest of the province was considered one big woodlot. Many believe that this was a major cause of economic development lagging considerably behind Ontario; there was really no way to get around.

Buildings come and go, but the underlying decisions about how land gets subdivided and distributed affect us for centuries. That's why it's so important to get it right.