In 2015, Infrastructure Ontario (IO), on behalf of the Ministry of the Attorney General, led a complex excavation and archaeological dig of a new Toronto courthouse site, just steps from City Hall. The excavation revealed tens of thousands of artifacts from the neighbourhood known as St. John's Ward, or “the Ward”. As one of Toronto's earliest immigrant and migrant settlements, the Ward in the 19th century was a place of refuge for Black settlers-including fugitive slaves and freed persons-as well as Irish, Italian, Jewish and later Chinese immigrants.

As part of their work, IO's heritage specialists and archaeologists from Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants, recovered and documented artifacts including: leather shoes, women's hosiery, perfume and nail polish bottles, smoking pipes, children's toys and ceramic kitchenware. Additionally, the foundations of a British Methodist Episcopal church and several residential buildings and businesses were uncovered.

Due to the artifact collection's considerable size, variety, and degree of preservation, the archaeological assessment of the new Toronto courthouse site has provided an unprecedented level of insight into Toronto's early multicultural history.

Showcasing the Artifacts:

As part of the heritage interpretation efforts currently underway, IO and the City of Toronto developed a unique partnership to create opportunities to share the artifacts and their stories in four display cases at City Hall. Over the next several years, IO and the City will be showcasing a rotating display of these artifacts in the City Hall rotunda to help share the story of Toronto's multicultural past.

In honour of Black History Month, the City of Toronto and IO revealed a new rotating historical display in the City Hall rotunda with artifacts discovered during the construction of the new Toronto courthouse. The first exhibit features artifacts significant to Toronto's Black history, including remnants of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded by five African-Americans who fled slavery and came to Canada by the Underground Railroad. Other items on display include a plate inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, and a 19th century Black doll's head.

Stakeholder Engagement:

Recognizing the importance of the site's history, and the vested personal interests of the communities with ties to it, IO struck a Heritage Interpretation Working Group (HIWG). The group includes representatives from government, the City of Toronto, and various community groups. The HIWG provides a forum for information sharing, feedback, guidance and advice regarding appropriate considerations and suggestions for public interpretation themes and approaches.

IO will continue to work with the City of Toronto, the HIWG and stakeholders to develop short term initiatives to exhibit a portion of the many artifacts found on site, with the goal of establishing long term and permanent solutions for meaningful and appropriate interpretation. Long term heritage interpretation plans will be incorporated into the design of the new Toronto courthouse.

Media contact:

Cary Mignault
Infrastructure Ontario