GRAY (Grey), ROBERT ISAAC DEY, office holder, lawyer, judge, and politician; b. c. 1772, probably in New York, son of James Gray and Elizabeth Low; d. unmarried 7 or 8 Oct. 1804 in the wreck of the Speedy on Lake Ontario.
At the outbreak of the American revolution the Gray family fled to the province of Quebec where James Gray was appointed major in the 1st battalion of Sir John Johnson*’s King’s Royal Regiment of New York. At the end of the war Gray received land and took up residence just east of the loyalist settlement of New Johnstown (Cornwall, Ont.). Robert Isaac Dey Gray received his early education and acquired an interest in law at Quebec, probably under the tutelage of his godfather Isaac Ogden.
Young Gray benefited from the prominence of his father, who had been appointed lieutenant of the county of Stormont by Lieutenant Governor Simcoe. On 5 Sept. 1793 Gray became surrogate court registrar for the Eastern District, serving until his appointment as district court judge for the Home District on 7 June 1796. Along with 15 others he was called to the bar in October 1794 by an act of the legislature. The following month Simcoe recommended him for the vacant office of solicitor general “not only on his Father’s merits” but to enable him to further his education in England “and by these means acquire the habits and character of the English Bar.” The Duke of Portland, the Home secretary, approved Simcoe’s choice in May 1795 but wondered whether “the present state of the Province required both an Attorney and Solicitor General.” Gray became a barrister in Trinity term 1797 and served as treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada from 1798 to 1801.
It was usual in Upper Canada for both the solicitor and the attorney general to hold seats in the House of Assembly and act as administration spokesmen. Gray was no exception. He was elected for the riding of Stormont in the election of 1796 and to the new riding of Stormont and Russell in 1800 and 1804. No scholarly study has yet been made of the alignments in Upper Canada’s parliaments; none the less it is possible to pick out significant events in Gray’s participation in the assembly. He was one of the more active members but did not dominate proceedings as did oppositionists such as Angus Macdonell (Collachie) or David McGregor Rogers*. Although a slave-holder himself, in 1798 he was among the minority that opposed Christopher Robinson*’s bill extending slavery within the province. The following year he voted with the majority defeating a bill to allow Methodists the right to solemnize marriage. In 1800 he was among the eastern members who opposed Samuel Street’s election as speaker and the next year cast his vote against Surveyor General David William Smith*’s election to the speakership. Gray led the resistance to Macdonell’s contempt proceedings in 1803 against the clerk of the crown and pleas, David Burns, yet during the same session he supported Macdonell’s Assessment Bill. In 1804 he favoured the passage of the notorious Sedition Bill [see Robert Fleming Gourlay*]. He regularly served as the assembly’s liaison with the Legislative Council and consistently resisted the assembly’s attempts to curtail or limit the prerogatives of the lieutenant governor. He initiated several pieces of legislation usually concerning the reform of law and its administration and took a particular interest in the regulation of inland trade and designation of ports of entry [see Colin McNabb].
When Attorney General John White* was killed in 1800, Gray temporarily assumed the duties of that office until the arrival of Thomas Scott* in 1801. As solicitor general Gray often represented the crown in criminal cases across the province. On 7 Oct. 1804 he embarked from York (Toronto) on the schooner Speedy to prosecute a murder case. The ship went down with all hands off Presqu’ile Point, Brighton Township, that or the following day. Other victims included Macdonell and the recently appointed judge of the Court of King’s Bench, Thomas Cochrane.
At his death Gray owned 12,000 acres of land and had debts of £1,200. By his will he freed the old family slave Dorinda (Dorine) Baker and left a trust of £1,200 to provide for her welfare. Earlier in the year on a trip to Albany, N.Y., he had purchased her mother Lavine for $50 and “promised her that she may work as much or as little as she pleases, while she lives.” He gave £50 and 200 acres each to Dorinda’s sons, John and Simon Baker. The remainder of his estate he divided among his relatives and friends including £20 to former Chief Justice John Elmsley “in token of my regard and esteem.”
PAC, MG 23, HII, 11; RG 5, B2. Corr. of Lieut. Governor Simcoe (Cruikshank), 1: 10–11; 3: 178; 4: 6, 35. “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” AO Report, 1909. “Petitions for grants of land” (Cruikshank), OH, 26: 197. “The probated wills of men prominent in the public affairs of early Upper Canada,” ed. A. F. Hunter, OH, 23 (1926): 332–33, 337–38. Henry Scadding, Toronto of old, ed. F. H. Armstrong (Toronto, 1966), 210–11, 334–35. Town of York, 1793–1815 (Firth), lvii. “U.C. land book B,” AO Report, 1930: 15, 58, 82. “U.C. land book C,” AO Report, 1931: 24. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology, 23, 160, 164. Wallace, Macmillan dict. Burns, “First elite of Toronto,” 85. J. F. Pringle, Lunenburgh or the old Eastern District; its settlement and early progress . . . (Cornwall, Ont., 1890; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972), 406. Riddell, Legal profession in U.C. G. C. Patterson, “Land settlement in Upper Canada, 1783–1840,” AO Report, 1920: 89. W. R. Riddell, “Robert Isaac Dey Gray, the first solicitor-general of Upper Canada, 1797–1804,” Canadian Law Times (Toronto), 41 (1921): 424–32, 508–18.