“Degrassi” evokes realistic high school drama for fans of the long running Degrassi TV series. There are no schools on Toronto’s Degrassi Street in Riverdale, though nearby Earl Grey school is one of several used as a setting for early episodes. While teaching at Earl Grey, Linda Schuyler, aware that there were no compelling depictions of teen school life, got the idea for the groundbreaking series, still running after more than 30 years.
Long before Degrassi TV, two De Grassi sisters, Charlotte, 15, and Cornelia, 13, starred in a real life drama of 1837 Ontario. Their father, Phillipe, supported the government against William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebels. His young daughters, excellent riders, rode with him one moonlit early December night from their Forks of the Don homestead to Government House in Toronto. Lieutenant-Governor Sir Francis Bond Head, had to know the numbers and strength of the rebels before confronting them.
Cornelia and Charlotte risked their lives to spy on the rebels and report vital information to Bond Head.
At a wheelwright’s shop near Montgomery’s tavern Cornelia pretended to ask the price of a sleigh. The rebels, suspecting her of spying, ordered her to dismount. She rode off at high speed. One musket ball went through her saddle; another grazed her clothing. When Cornelia told Bond Head that the number of rebels had been exaggerated, he revised his strategy. Mackenzie later wrote that one of the loyalists “had employed a woman as a spy (De Grassi, I think he called her) who we had let pass.”
Charlotte relayed messages behind enemy lines, carrying an important dispatch along Kingston Road and returning to the city with the answer. As she headed home, rebels shot at her, wounding her and her pony.
On December 7, Cornelia followed loyalist troops to Yonge Street to observe the cannon and gunfire and report to the chief justice. Homeward bound, she saw that rebels had set fire to the Don Bridge. She raced back to the city to raise the alarm.
The short-lived Rebellion of Upper Canada soon ended. Phillipe De Grassi recorded his family’s contributions in a diary. The exploits of Charlotte (d. 1872) and Cornelia (d. 1885) seen as inspiring examples of courage at the time, were not widely remembered as years passed. The De Grassi property was expropriated in 1968 for recreation and flood control.
Degrassi Street in Riverdale honours either Phillipe or a son, Alfio, a merchant and Mason well known in Toronto in the 1870s.
The De Grassi Family
Phillipe De Grassi (1793-1877) his English wife, Charlotte Hearn, and eight children came to Canada in 1831. Born in Italy, De Grassi served under Napoleon, was taken prisoner by the British, but later obtained a commission in the British army. On their 200 acres in the “Boatbuildery” area of the Don River and a further 200 acres added later, the family suffered setbacks including a devastating fire that left them with just the clothes on their backs. They moved into a shelter built for horses, where De Grassi said one child was “literally born in a stable and laid in a manger.” Phillipe died penniless in Lindsay, Ontario.
Print sources include:
Foster, Merna. 100 More Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. Toronto: Dundurn, 2011.
Sauriol, Charles. Remembering the Don: a Rare Record of Earlier Times within the Don River Valley. Scarborough, Ontario: Consolidated Amethyst Communications, Inc., 1981.
The Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography, by W. Stewart Wallace. Toronto: MacMillan, 1963.
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