Toronto, ON

Fort York Has an Important Tale to Tell

Toronto’s historic Fort York is surrounded on all sides by the modern city

It’s the biggest collection of War of 1812 buildings in Canada, but there’s just no getting away from the fact that Fort York National Historic Site is surrounded on all sides by modern Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

IF THE squadron of 14 American Navy ships that put troops ashore to attack Fort York in 1813 sailed into Toronto harbour today, it’d never find its target. Oh, the fort’s still there, but now it’s wedged between a culvert of nine rail lines to the north and, where Lake Ontario foam once sprayed its southern walls, 500 metres of landfill sprouting apartment towers 20-40 storeys tall. Also, an elevated highway casts its major shadow across the site.

The Fort York National Historic Site has Canada’s largest collection of authentic War of 1812 buildings (eight) and its 17.5 hectares comprise one of the biggest urban archaeological sites in the country, but it’s been so isolated by the modern age that it gets scarcely 30,000 visitors a year—and many of those are school children who don’t have much choice.

The fort has made peace with this to the extent that the cover of its brochure doesn’t even try to disguise its situation: the aerial view clearly shows how the site has been encroached on from all sides.

That doesn’t mean the Friends of Fort York have ever stopped fighting to preserve it: in the 1950s they forced the elevated highway being built to curve to the south rather than run straight through the property; earlier, they had prevented a streetcar line to the much more popular Canadian National Exhibition from dividing the site into halves.

Good thing, too, because Fort York, even if it’s not the most impressive historic site in Canada, has an important tale to tell.

The War of 1812 (which lasted to 1814) decided Canada’s fate: was it to emerge from being a British colony to become its own sovereign nation or be swallowed up by the United States? The war was cloaked in (legitimate) U.S. pique that Britain’s battles with France were adversely affecting American trade, but it was, at heart, a land grab.

The 1813 attack on the town of York (as Toronto was then known), was part of a plan to help New York state’s pro-war governor win re-election. The U.S. had already suffered a number of defeats in the conflict and to try to take the main British naval base at Kingston, Ontario was considered too risky. York was easier pickings.

The fort’s interpretive centre tells the story of the attack and how the Americans took York, burning and looting for six days, but at considerable cost. The British blew up Fort York’s powder magazine (near where the fort’s well stands), killing or wounding more than 250 invaders. A year later, British troops repaid York’s torching by taking Washington and burning the White House and Congress.

The centre explains the pivotal role Canada’s indigenous peoples played in supporting the British, and how the war’s outcome was a draw. The Treaty of Ghent allowed both sides to claim victory. “There was no clear winner,” a panel explains, “but Canada did not become part of the United States.” The New York governor did win re-election, however.



For more information on Fort York National Historic Site visit its website at


For information on Toronto go to the Tourism Toronto website at