Peel Heritage Complex

GTA Tripping: Peel County Jail (and Hello, Brampton!)

I heard (through painstaking Google research) that Brampton was once home to a famously deplorable jail that spent most of its life stuffed to twice its capacity with Brampton's favourite criminals: "vagrants". (Is vagrancy still a crime? What about laziness? I hope not.)

Not all of Peel County's "guests" have been underachievers, however. Black Panthers co-founder and all-around handsome dude Huey P. Newton spent five days here after being arrested in 1977 on his way home from a three-year exile in Cuba. Newton withstood a lot in his life, but apparently Peel County was too much for him; he complained that the jail was far worse than anything he'd seen in third-world Cuba.

Heading out to Brampton to visit the jail was exciting for me because a) jails and historical things are sweet and b) this would be my first trip ever to Brampton, a place that is famous for many things, like Indian culture and Michael Cera. I had a feeling Brampton would be a gold mine of interesting stuff for future editions of this column, and it definitely didn't disappoint.

Peel County Jail


Jumping off the GO bus, hungry for some hot historical jail action, I quickly found myself at the crossroads of Main St. and Queen St. West - completely lost. When I looked up from my little notebook where (I would learn much later) the wrong address had been written, I noticed that every vehicle stopped at the intersection was notably badass.

The first, a pick-up almost running me over, was faded yellow and contained a supercharged snowmobile. To my left there was an expensive, MTV-borne tow truck emblazoned with spurting tribal tattoo art surrounding the word "Lions," with tinted windows, blinding rims (spinners‽) and a revving engine (libido‽). The third, a doorless Jeep TJ, rocked out across the street, one of its pilots leaning out the door declaring, "Wooo!" for all to hear.

The Peel County Jail was opened in 1866, and its six cells have seen a lot of action. While it did house many serious criminals (and executed three of them by hanging), Peel County's main function for much of its early life was to house and/or imprison the homeless. After an ill homeless man died there in 1882, public opinion of the jail went south. The Women's Christian Temperance Union of Brampton and Port Credit eventually pressured the local government to build a separate refuge for "vagrants," believing that arresting people for being homeless wasn't right (doi).

After the Black Panthers' 1977 visit, the jail was soon closed. In the 1980s the big, barred-up stony block, along with the surrounding former municipal buildings, became the Peel Heritage Complex.

Peel County Jail


During hour one of my 3.5-hour odyssey, I stumbled into Mr. Pepper's Pizza at Queen and Mill to ask for directions. The lovely young girl grabbed a map and Google and kindly set to work telling me where the street I was looking for was (again, using the incorrect address).

I asked her if there were any other "crazy" things to see in Brampton, to which she replied, with a jadedness charmingly well beyond her years, "Nothing happens in Brampton." Then she sold me an ice-cream sandwich for one dollar, which was definitely something.

The jail today is rather nicer than it once was. Home to various placards, displays and a big binder full of newspaper articles and information, the small jail makes for an interesting and visceral trip into history. The upstairs is a museum and archive, and though there seems to be no particular focus (the artifacts, photos and documents range from ancient to modern), the cozy exaggerated-Grandma's-attic feel was well worth climbing the stairs.

Peel Heritage Complex museum


After being lost a solid two more hours en route (actually, severely off route) and stranded along the Queen St. East budget strip, I saw the guys in the doorless Jeep once more, and noticed that on this Saturday afternoon many other Bramptonians were also driving around with the express purpose of killing time.

It was at this desperate point that I decided to employ the infiltration techniques of the late, great Ninjalicious. I strolled into a Holiday Inn pretending to be a guest, fully confident in my should-be-there-ness. I held my head high and walked past the golden Hindu deities in the lobby, ducked into the business center, and set to work finding the correct address of the Peel Heritage Complex. Leaving my last blogTO post on the computer's screen as cheap advertising, I ordered the concierge to call me a taxi, where I met the Encyclopedia Indo-Bramptonia.

The driver had moved from India to Brampton decades ago and he graciously shared many insights into the thriving Indian community there with me. He told me about the Bollywood features playing at all the multiplexes, the seven Indian radio stations and the Dixie/Derry Temple (which, he said, accommodates 10-15 thousand worshipers), and proudly declared, "We have things here they don't even have in India... restaurants, shops, everything!"

The rest of the Peel Heritage Complex is home to gallery spaces running various exhibitions. The main featured exhibition, running now until May 17th, is the 36th annual Juried Show of Fine Art. The exhibition was pretty decent and completely all over the place, offering a satisfying and rewarding half-hour of chin scratching.

Peel Heritage Complex gallery

I left just as the complex was closing, and though the jail was interesting (and would be especially so for children, I would imagine), my GO bus ride back to Union was spent dreaming not of vagrants and Panthers, but of muscle cars and saris. I'll be back, Brampton!

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