The earliest trace of a Freemason in what is now Canada may be found on a headstone of a French stonemason bearing the square and compasses and the year “1606” on Goat Island, Nova Scotia. During the 1700’s, the existence of four Grand Lodges in the United Kingdom (Moderns, Ancients, Scottish, and Irish) resulted in the chartering of lodges in North America under various Grand Lodges.
The first recorded lodge in Canada was the Annapolis Royal Lodge of Nova Scotia in 1738 (Moderns). Many other lodges were founded in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick under the jurisdiction of the Ancients and Moderns. There is likewise some evidence that French lodges chartered under the French Grand Lodge (founded in 1728) existed in Quebec during the same period.
What eventually became Ontario did not see meaningful Masonic activity until after the American Revolution and caused a sharp influx of Loyalists to British Upper Canada. Lodges were established in Niagara, Newark, Cataraqui, Cornwall and York. With the official formation of Upper Canada due to the passing of the Constitution Act (1791), the population of Ontario stood at 10,000 . The four lodges working in the Province (2 in Niagara, 1 in Cornwall, 1 in Brockville) counted about 300 members in their ranks.
1792 saw the formation of the first Provincial Grand Lodge of Upper Canada (Ancients). Although this news was initially received with great joy by the lodges within that jurisdiction issues arose that caused the creation of a rival Grand Lodge in 1801. This situation was resolved in 1817 when both groups met and nominated a new Provincial Grand Master. It took a further 5 years for the matter to reach completion and the second Provincial Grand Lodge was formed in 1822.
Having resolved their issues the Provincial Grand Lodge looked forward to new and greater things. Unfortunately, fate would derail whatever aspirations they entertained. In 1823, the Morgan affair rocked both the political and public life in Canada and America. William Morgan, a professed Mason of Batavia, New York threatened to expose Masonic secrets to non – members. Having been jailed for petty theft he was transferred against his will by persons unknown, never to be seen again. His disappearance caused an uproar throughout both countries with Anti-Masonic Leagues (and even an American political party) founded to attack Masonry. The public was incensed and Masonry retreated under the harsh glare of public anger. Many lodges went dark during this period and the Provincial Grand Lodge of Upper Canada likewise fell into disarray. A diminished number of lodges continued to work during these dark times.
It is only in 1845 with the founding of the third Grand Lodge of Canada West that Masonry once again began to return to form. By 1848, a Masonic Ball was held, ostensibly the first public social event staged by a Masonic body in the province. Dormant loges were reinvigorated, membership increased, and things seemed to be on an upswing.
As the Provincial Grand Lodge grew stronger it found it increasingly frustrating to be under the jurisdiction of the UGLE. A number of lodges broke off and formed a Grand Lodge of Canada in 1855 with the remaining lodges forming a second Grand Lodge in 1857. Both bodies joined together in 1858.
With the coming of Confederation in 1867 and the creation of the Dominion of Canada, four provinces came into being; Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. This presented a problem as the title“ Grand Lodge of Canada” was somewhat incompatible with the current organization of the country. This difficulty and others led to the formation of a Grand Lodge of Quebec in 1869 and the release of most of the lodges in that jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Quebec in 1875. Henceforth, the Grand Lodge of Canada would only operate in the province of Ontario. It received its current name in 1887 when it adopted the title, “The Grand Lodge Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of Canada, in the Province of Ontario “.
Moving forward, 1892 marked the Centennial of the first Provincial Grand Lodge with a banquet held on St. John’s day, December 27th, at which 400 Masons were in attendance. The evening was a success as the brethren looked back at the road Masonry traveled in our jurisdiction.
A New Century
The ensuing twenty years were marked by calm, steady progress which culminated in 445 lodges and 58,983 members in 1906. This time period also marked a steady increase in the amount of benevolence contributed to needy persons. Following the Great War our membership numbered 105,339 men in 545 lodges (1925).
In 1935, during the depths of the Depression membership reached 116,998. Unfortunately, tight money and high unemployment forced most lodges to do away with their lavish banquets in favour of more meager fare. Annual budgets were mandated for the first time and the numbers of applicants was on the decrease. A decreasing trend in membership was occurring. Meanwhile, benevolence to the needy was more important than ever before. During these difficult times many brethren took an active part in helping to provide relief and jobs for the unemployed.
As World War II tested the mettle of Canadians, Ontario Masons did their part abroad and at home. 2500 homes were made available for children who were to be evacuated to Canada from Britain by the government. When the government cancelled the initiative Ontario Masons continued the process informally for the many women and children that came unofficially and $245,000 was raised to help support them by 1942. Special committees were also formed to help returning soldiers reintegrate into regular life. The province also undertook a drive to send food packages to Britain to help curb hunger after the armistice. In two years, $250,000 allowed some 33,000 parcels to be sent to Britain.
Baby Boomers and Beyond
By 1955, 591 lodges held 130,177 members. Overall, the fifties brought increasing standardization in regalia, ritual, and finance. Increased communication throughout the Province and with other Grand Lodges helped Masonry prosper. In 1957, a standing Blood Donors Committee was formed to champion the need to donate blood to the Canadian Red Cross. Even today, Masons are at the forefront in this worthy endeavour.
In 1965, the regular and increasingly large amount of money donated to charity necessitated the creation of the Masonic Charitable Foundation of Ontario. It has since disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.
1974 marks an interesting point in Ontario Masonry, it was the first time that Master Masons were allowed to purchase a copy of the Masonic ritual. Until this point all ritual was learned and passed down verbally from one member to the next. Likewise, Masonic Workshops were setup in each district to instruct the brethren in Masonry. All of these initiatives were well received. In 1979, 645 lodges held 110,436 members within the province.
A New Millennium
The Grand Lodge celebrated the passing of the millennium by instituting a special “Millennium Lodge“ which met but once at the Annual Communication. It was scheduled to meet again in 3000 (assuming members were around). As Masonry moves forward into the future, it still follows its original principles; Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth.