Despite the cynicism many people have about politics and politicians, the
buildings that house our parliamentary institutions are still held with
great affection in the hearts of many Canadians. This article demonstrates
the fondness with which people look upon these buildings.
Few people who have come to Ottawa have not seen them. They stand in a
breathtaking setting, atop limestone cliffs overlooking the junction of
the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River. They are captivating in every season:
in the rich golds, oranges and reds of the fall; when the earth is softly
blanketed by winters snow; amongst the young green leaves of spring and
when the weather is hot and hazy in our all too brief Canadian summer.
They are Gothic revival in style, they are etched in our consciousness,
they are the seat of democracy. They are Canadas Parliament Buildings.
They are on my list of favourite architecture, and I relish showing them
to others. With childlike enthusiasm I bring visitors to tour the Hill,
attend special occasions like Canada Day and to take in the twinkle of
holiday lights and cheerful decorations at Christmas. Sometimes in the
summer, I pop into the grounds to throw pennies in the Centennial Flames
fountain, take a peek at the beautiful flowers, and occasionally reacquaint
myself with the statues of the Fathers of Confederation, Prime Ministers
and royalty. I must confess that I have a particular fondness for the statue
of Queen Victoria, sceptre in hand and a lion at her feet, who as legend
has it, made the following decision with a map and hatpin:1
I am commanded by the Queen to inform you, wrote Henry Labouchère of Downing
Street, London in a letter dated December 31, 1857 to Governor General
Sir Edmund Walker Head, that in the judgement of Her Majesty, the City
of Ottawa combines greater advantages than any other place in Canada for
the permanent Seat of the future Government of the Province and is selected
by Her Majesty accordingly.2
By Imperial Command, this small lumber town was destined for greatness.
The handsome sum of $480,000 was made available to construct a legislative
building and two departmental structures to house the government. From
a prestigious nation wide competition, two groups of architects were selected
one group to design the Centre Block (the legislative building) and the
other the East and West Block (the two departmental structures). Queen
Victorias son, the future Edward the Seventh laid the cornerstone for
the Centre Block on September 1, 1860, and when the new Dominion Parliament
held its first session in 1867, these Gothic buildings were near completion.3
Most of us are too young to remember the original Centre Block with its
ornate Victoria Tower. In the midst of World War 1, on the night of February
3, 1916, it was destroyed by fire. Canadas Prime Minister, Sir Robert
Borden, who was in the building at the time, managed to escape others
were not so fortunate. Fierce were the flames, and lost in them were government
documents, the Mace of the House of Commons and portraits of royalty. Today,
all that remains of the original Centre Block is the magnificent Library
of Parliament (thanks to a quick-witted person who shut its doors preventing
the spread of the fire) and the bell of the Victoria Tower. Luckily, the
East and West Blocks were unharmed.
They rebuilt the Centre Block. Modern Gothic revival in style, constructed
out of Nepean sandstone4, 144 metres long, 75 metres deep and six stories
high, it is one of Canadas architectural jewels. Its focal point is famous
the majestic 92.2 meters high Peace Tower, with its four-faced clock
and carillon of 53 bells built to commemorate Canadas contribution to
the First World War.
We come here to remember. When former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau died
in September 2000, Canadians of all ages, from all walks of life and all
political persuasions, came here to say farewell. Fittingly, Parliament
adjourned in his honour. The Peace Towers bells fell silent, its Canadian
flag at half mast. Septembers sunshine fell on roses and messages strewn
around the Centennial flame. The tributes from all across the nation were
personal and poignant. Perhaps, God will be pleased to have someone to
converse with someone wrote5. And wherever we were in this immense land,
it seemed that our hearts and minds were on the Hill, as we realized that
a great and colourful chapter in Canadian history had ended.
I believe that Canada has been given a destiny: to be a country of acceptance
and forgiveness, a country that is rich in resources and people, but also
limitless in dreams.
If we are alive as a country to all the possibilities
that make us unique, then Canadians truly have something to celebrate not
only on this July the First, but always.
Governor General of Canada,
July 1, 2000)
We come here to celebrate. Bonne Fête Canada! Laughter and chatter fill
these lawns, every year on July the First, as Canadians from all over the
country converge here for Canada Day.
To the lofty strains of O Canada, and with the Governor General, Prime
Minister and a host of other dignitaries in attendance, Parliament Hill
hosts the nation for Canadas birthday party. At this informal, fun-filled
occasion, patriotism abounds an explosion of Canadian flags turns the
hill into a sea of red and white; Canadas best entertain a large family
of 100,000 Canadians camped out for the festivities on the lush summer
grass, and as a grande finale, a dazzling display of fireworks lights up
the Peace Tower and Ottawas night sky.
But if you come here when the leaves turn, and the summers tourists are
gone for another year, you will find that this place does not have time
for nostalgia it gears up for work! Parliament is about to reconvene,
MPs and Senators converge on the Hill, to introduce bills, debate them
and turn them into law. For here, our voices are heard they are Canadas
Parliament Buildings and the site of the nations government.
Since 1867 echoes of history are everywhere.
It was in the House of Commons in 1872 that the construction of Canadas
Pacific railway erupted into a scandal for Sir John A. MacDonalds Government.
A defiant Winston Churchill addressed the House on December 30, 1941, three
weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour.
It was here, in 1963, that John Diefenbaker fought to keep the Red Ensign
as our national flag.
On Friday October 16, 1970 Pierre Trudeau announced that the Government
had invoked the War Measures Act to deal with the FLQ crisis.
Government and opposition members paid tribute on June 29, 1981 to a brave
young man named Terry Fox who ran across Canada to raise money for cancer,
to which he eventually succumbed.
It was at a Joint Sitting of the Senate and the House of Commons on September
24, 1998, President Nelson Mandela of South Africa thanked Canadians for
the opportunity to make a second visit to a people that have made our aspirations
their own, and who have insisted that the rights which the world declares
to be universal should also be the rights of all South Africans.
Here, the House observed a moment of silence for the women, men and children
in America who never came home on September 11, 2001.
Throughout the fall, winter and spring, from the visitors' galleries in
the House of Commons and the Senate we have the opportunity to see a wonderful
cast of Canadians our MPs and Senators at work. It is worth making a
trip here to see Parliament in action! And when summer days come again,
the curtain comes down on the national stage, Parliament adjourns, and
MPs and Senators head home. If you visit these two empty Chambers during
these months, you will find that they are compelling in their own way.
Stand just inside the entrance to the House of Commons, and you are immediately
struck by the serenity of this green decorated Chamber. The House itself
is divided by a centre aisle, on each side of the aisle are MPs chairs.
The Speaker of the Houses Chair lies at the north end of the Chamber,
on its left stands the Canadian flag. Above you on the west, east and north
walls, sunlight dances through 12 magnificent stained glass windows adorned
with the floral emblems of the provinces and territories reminding you
of the vast land that is governed from here; and if you linger in the ethereal
silence, you can almost feel the presence of great Canadians who have gone
Nowhere is the presence of the Crown more keenly felt than in the Senate
Chamber. Resplendent in red, with glittering chandeliers hanging from a
gilded ceiling, it has a regal air to it. Here the Speakers Chair sits
in front of the Throne Chairs reminding you that kings, queens and governors
general traditionally open Parliament. But the opulence of the Senate is
tempered by an aura of humility arising from paintings on its walls. They
depict scenes from World War One a haunting reminder of what misuse of
power can lead to.
Endlessly enchanting through the circle of the seasons, I have come up
to the Hill to see these lawns sprinkled with the first crocuses of a gentle
Ottawa spring, during the lazy days of summer to watch the Changing of
the Guard, in the crisp fall air to see the trees in full glory, and to
see Parliament beautifully floodlit late on a winters night.
Impressive, arent they? said a voice behind me. It was a summers eve,
and the voice belonged to an elderly gentleman, who saw me transfixed by
these great Gothic masterpieces, now romantically softened by a pink and
amber sky. He added that it made him proud to be a Canadian.
These buildings are a constant in our lives our past, present and future
are inextricably linked with them. Our story as a nation continues to be
written here an epic tale one of a vast, beautiful land from the Pacific
to the Arctic to the Atlantic; of a country rich with cultural diversity;
of people with determination, endurance and resilience; of a place of hope,
peace, and progress, and of a nation that is one of the greatest democracies
in the world.
They are majestic, magical, magnificent they are Canadas Parliament
1. This tale originates from Pax Britannica by James Morris. Historical
documentation shows that the choice of Ottawa was well thought out.
2. Letter to Governor General Sir Edmund Walker Head from Henry Labouchère,
Downing Street, London, December 31, 1857. Tabled March 16, 1858, in Journal
of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. (1858)
3. The library took another nine years to finish.
4.T he interior of the Centre Block is largely Tyndall limestone from Manitoba.
The exterior of the Centre Block is sandstone from Nepean, Ontario.
5. From the article Roses, Tributes, Tears: Canada Begins to Grieve The
Saturday Star Saturday, September 30, 2000. Quotation by Lois Scott Christensen.