The Fires of Parliament

by Mary Ducharme (August 2017)

Fire at Montreal Parliament – 1849 Public Archives of Canada

The first Canadian Parliament in Montreal was burned on April 25, 1849 by a mob protesting the Rebellion Losses Bill. The bill was enacted to compensate Lower Canadians who lost property during the Rebellions of 1837 and it provoked weeks of riots by Tories. Protesters hurled rocks and garbage at government officials, and at night a mob invaded the Parliament building, sacked the Assembly chamber and smashed lighting-gas mains resulting in fires. The homes of supporters of the bill were vandalized, and stables were torched. After this incident Montreal was thought to be too incendiary because of Anglo-Franco ethnic tensions, and government sessions rotated between Toronto and Quebec City.

After heated debate among factions about the location of a permanent seat of government, Queen Victoria was asked to make the final decision: she chose Ottawa. Ottawa (originally Bytown) boasted The Bytown and Prescott railway which first crossed through in April 1855, opening up great transportation potentials. As well, Ottawa was too far from the border for surprise American invasion, further aided by an excellent defensive location on a cliff overlooking the Ottawa River. Not less important, Ottawa bridged the line between English and French Canada. Nonetheless, there were other cities larger and more developed, and Joseph Howe, in surprise and anger, grumpily described Ottawa as a shabby lumber-town. He was not alone in his opinion. But there was joy in Ottawa fired by plans for a brilliant future.

Construction of Parliament building in 1863
Courtesy of Public Archives of Canada

Queen Victoria had declared that the British North America Act, creating the new Confederation of Canada would take effect on July 1, 1867. Canada was a new country, abolishing the old United Province of Canada. Some historians object to giving Victoria the title of “Mother of Confederation” for she did not bother to mention Confederation in her personal memoirs, but she did play a supportive role in the development of the Dominion of Canada,bringing together political figures from the British North American colonies through their shared loyalty to the Crown.“I take the deepest interest in it,” Victoria told a Nova Scotian delegation in London, “for I believe it will make the provinces great and prosperous.”

Constructing a Parliament building to express the high aspirations of a new nation was a massive undertaking. In a competition organized in 1859, several firms submitted 298 drawings in many architectural styles, and Thomas Fuller et Chilion Jones won part of the competition with his Gothic Revival style which was thought to best represent parliamentary democracy. Their design was for the Centre Block and Parlimentary Library, along with the grand central Victoria Tower. The East and West block designs were awarded to Thomas Stent and Augustus Laver.

Work for the Parliament building began on December 20, 1859 and the future King Edward VII laid the cornerstone. Thus Barrack Hill, once used by the Royal Engineers working on the Rideau, became the site of the biggest building project in North America. It required the workers to blast through deep layers of bedrock to complete the foundations.

Construction workers on Parliament Hill
Courtesy of Public Archives of Canada

Labourers on the project suffered terribly through summer heat and winters of snow, wind, and icy scaffolding. Working days started at 5 am and ending at 8 pm with half hour lunch and dinner breaks. For this they were paid $1.00 a day; children and women were paid half of that; and more skilled artisans earned $3.00. Several workers died on the site but any worker lodging complaints about dangerous conditions, or not showing up could find himself in jail at the request of his employer. Though unions were illegal, several strikes slowed down the construction.

Work was further impeded by mismanagement. Massive costs of nearly one and a half million dollars were incurred during the initial construction phase and building was halted while a commission carried out investigations. Work resumed after the commission’s enquiry, and Parliament structures along with surrounding fences and gates were finally complete in 1866.

On November 7 1867, the first Parliament of the Dominion of Canada was an affair of great pomp and ceremony. A huge crowd was kept in order by rows of soldiers. Inside Governor General Monck read the first speech from the throne and on his right stood the first prime minister John A. Macdonald who was resplendent in his “court costume.” In September he had won the joint federal-provincial election in a landslide victory. Despite the festive patriotic spirit, there are some in the crowd not so pleased, especially the anti-confederation contingent from Nova Scotia. There were long troubled years to come before the dream of “sea to sea” became a reality, but the work of nation building was well begun.

At 8 pm one night in February of 1916, a fire broke out in the Centre Block’s House of Commons reading room. The House of Commons was in session, and the building was full. There was a strong wind that night and flames and smoke raged through the corridors so quickly that escape was a frantic scramble, and seven people lost their lives in the fire. After midnight the bell in the Victoria Tower crashed to the ground. All that remained the following morning were the building’s exterior walls, glazed with ice, and piles of furniture still burning. Fortunately, the Parliamentary Library was spared. Rumours were that German agentswere responsible, and more than 1,200 soldiers kept vigil over the smouldering rubble. However, the fire was later deemed accidental. (Many years later, in 1952, a fire in the Parliamentary Library caused by faulty wiring could have destroyed its irreplaceable collections. Luckily, it was quickly controlled.)

Despite the financial and other hardships of an ongoing war, reconstruction after the 1916 fire began with the laying of the orignal cornerstone by the Duke of Connaught, 56 years after his brother King Edward had set it. The new tower was completed and dedicated as the Peace Tower in 1927 in honour of those who had lost their lives in the First World War.

In 2002 began a major program to rehabilitate Parliament, especially the East Block which needed attention to masonry, the foundation, and windows. Over decades, improvements have made the complex structures of Parliament Hill safer: marble and plaster replace wood; exits are easier to find; sprinklers have been added; gates and security are enhanced.

The Hill has hosted many significant events including the first visit of King George and Queen Elizabeth in 1939, the first raising of the country’s new national flag in 1965, and the centennial of Confederation in 1967. But Parliament Hill was never just an arena of power games, celebratory fireworks, and patriotism. Politics aside, the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa is sacred ground, and any threat shakes us to the core. The illusion of safety in North America was finally shattered by 911 but long before the need for vigilance was there. In April of 1 1989, a Greyhound Lines bus was hijacked and driven on the lawn of the Centre Block; in 1996, an individual smashed his car into the Centre Block doors. More recently several shooting incidents occurred around Parliament Hill, once of which resulted in the death of a Canadian army soldier who was a ceremonial guard at the National War Museum.

Canada is still very young as a nation and through international firestorms in the 21st century, it is comforting to have distinctly Canadian symbols intact, along with the historical narrative that has much to teach us about negotiating an uncertain future.

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