Residents’ Associations, oh how I love thee

Several months ago I was travelling through the Moore Park area and it was blanketed by little white signs pleading “Save Our Green Space”.  The locals were up in arms about the impending felling of trees and development of a visitation centre at nearby Mount Pleasant Cemetery.  They appear to have lost that battle.

Members of the Moore Park Residents’ Association appear to have lost a 2½-year battle yesterday to prevent the construction of a 1,115-square-metre visitation centre at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Several outraged neighbours watched a crew remove dozens of trees from land that will be used for the new centre.

Central to the dispute has been whether the cemetery is owned by the province.

— Dakshana Bascaramurty, “Neighbours outraged as cemetery clears trees“. Globe and Mail, December 19th, 2007.

Yes, heaven forbid that construction—and an eventual increase in mourners—should interfere with the vital neighbourhood business of rollerblading and having one’s dogs defecate on the final resting places of the dearly departed.

Readers who recall my election coverage on the old blog will know that I have no patience for the little cliques of neighbourhood busybodies who band together under the guise of residents’ associations.  But in this case, I believe the annoying little bastards have the correct interpretation.

“It’s not a public trust,” said Rick Cowan, assistant vice-president of marketing and communications for Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries.

“There’s a misconception that the cemetery is a public park space. It’s a privately operated cemetery.”

Margot Boyd, a member of the Moore Park Residents’ Association, vigorously contests that point.

She found a document at a University of Toronto law library that she says confirms that her great-great-great-grandfather, Sir John Beverley Robinson, had passed a bill in the provincial legislature (then the government of Upper Canada) to create the cemetery as a public trust in 1826.

“He was a man who did not set up multimillion-dollar corporations,” she said with a wry laugh.

“He was committed to public service.”

It would have been nice if the Globe had thought to reprint the relevant sections of said bill, so the readers could decide for themselves.   At least the Moore Park Residents’ Association, however, takes the time to quote the relevant bits (again, without identifying the specific bill or document) on their website:

The original governing statutes of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery created a Trust that was accountable to the householders of Toronto.  The householders of Toronto had the right to choose who could serve as a Trustee – and thus govern the affairs of the Cemetery.  The governance of the Cemetery was “open” to the public’s involvement.

At the time of the creation of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery the Trustees released a public announcement that said, among other things:

The purchase of the land and its improvements have been effected by the Trustees of the Toronto Generally Burying Grounds [former name of the MPGC] for the general use of the inhabitants of the city and the surrounding country; being under no denominational or sectarian restriction whatever.

MOUNT PLEASANT CEMETERY is therefore the property of the citizens and its affairs are managed by a Board of Trustees, chosen according to law…

With this language the Trustees’ indicated their belief that they were administering this cemetery for the greater good of the citizens of Toronto.

Seems clear to me.  Just try not to read too far into the site or you’ll run across curmudgeonly rants against leaf-blowers and so on.  My understanding is that lawn care outfits generally work during the daylight hours.  I don’t hear High Park’s leaf-blowers from the towers at King and Bay.  Perhaps if I were retired, or an underemployed scion of the Family Compact, I might be home during the hours that commercial leaf-blowing activity traditionally occurs.  I can’t say it’s a major irritant right now, though.

Speaking of the Family Compact, I don’t think Ms. Boyd is overly familiar with the activities of her Old Tory ancestor, Sir John Beverly Robinson.  He may not have been in the habit of setting up million-dollar corporations, but then he didn’t need to.   The man led a rather extraordinary and priviledged life.

Upon the death of his father, young Robinson’s guardian was the Right Reverend John Strachan, future Bishop of Toronto.  When Strachan moved to another parish, JBR studied law under the Attorney-General, Col. MacDonnell.  The Colonel was subsequently killed, along with General Isaac Brock, at the Battle of Queenston Heights.   Who replaced MacDonnell as Acting Attorney-General?  Twenty-one-year-old law student John Beverly Robinson.  Who went on to prosecute several notable capital trials, including the Bloody Assize.  Ask yourself if you or your kin would like to die as the result of prosecution by an acting AG who is, at that time, a mere law student.

But that’s not all.  JBR was also elected to the province’s Legislative Assembly several times.  And after attaining his legal credentials in England, JBR would return to be appointed Solicitor-General and actual, no-longer-acting Attorney-General.  In fact he would be appointed Chief Justice, and serve concurrently as Chief Justice, President of the Executive Council, and Speaker of the Legislative Council—until British parliamentary reforms forbade sitting judges from concurrently serving in the executive branch.  Robinson also prosecuted reformers and opponents like Robert Gourlay, earning no small enmity while doing so.

Considering Robinson’s own example, it is nothing short of hilarious that one of his descendants is freaking out when a senior government agency magisterially overrides the prerogatives of the local burghers.

In September, 2006, Toronto City Council voted 41-2 against the cemetery owners’ plans for the visitation centre, but power to approve the site plans was turned over to the Ontario Municipal Board, which gave owners the green light.

Ms. Boyd and her Residents’ Association are going about it the wrong way.  Think of your dignity, man.  The Family Compact whines not, and suffers no defeat.  It simply does.  Your ancestors crushed a rebellion and kept Catholics under their boot for decades, for heaven’s sake.  Call out the colonial militia, read the Riot Act, and order the developers to disperse on point of bayonet.  The stragglers can be charged with sedition and prosecuted by whatever 21-year-old law-student scion is waiting in the wings.  You still have some of those handy, don’t you?

UPDATE 021823Z JAN 2008: The aforementioned Ms. Boyd wrote me a good-natured email indicating that she was, in fact, quite well-acquainted with the exploits of her ancestor, Sir John Beverly Robinson.  Let me assure everyone that his legacy is quite storied and with good reason; I had left out most of the admirable do-gooding parts.

One of JBR’s most endearing traits was his steadfast adherence to the principles of English Common Law and the supermacy of Parliament.  Would that our present Supreme Court justices be so punctilious in their interpretation of the law.  Patrick Brode’s Sir John Beverly Robinson: Bone and Sinew of the Compact is a particularly detailed read focusing on JBR’s legal career and decisions.  I had referenced this work while writing the post, but the entire book is far more well-rounded a picture than I have painted here.

I am also delighted to note that JBR was, like John Graves Simcoe, an abolitionist.  In an 1819 pronouncement, he ruled residence in Canada made blacks free, and they were to enjoy the protection of British law.

JBR was also a defender of religious minorities.  As Ms. Boyd writes:

As early in his career as the 1820s, when JBR was an elected official of the legislature of Upper Canada, he was viewed as a “defender of religious minorities.” (Patrick Bode, p. 119)  The ‘reformers’ leading representative, one John Rolph of Middlesex (who was supported by William Lyon Mackenzie) spoke out against a bill to permit religious societies to hold land. “Rolph denounced the measure as vague and claimed that it was dangerous to permit some denominations, notably the Roman Catholics, to hold land.” (Patrick Bode, p. 119) JBR’s response denouncing Rolph’s bigotry and defending the Catholic Church was quoted in the Colonial Advocate on January 27, 1825. He called the Catholic Church “a learned body, and no more to be dreaded than any other sect.”

I am sure you will deduce by this time that JBR was not the cardboard cutout Family Compact villain that kids are presented with in schools.  He had a rather distinguished, moral career.

Although, if you look at Toronto’s inflationary housing prices today, maybe allowing Catholics to own land wasn’t such a great idea after all.

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