By Brian Burton
When you come to Parliament on your first day, you wonder how you ever got here. After that, you wonder how the other 263 members got here,” said John Diefenbaker while addressing the Canadian speaker’s forum, the Empire Club, during the Canadian flag debate in 1967.
Diefenbaker—along with Lester Pearson, Canada’s 21st prime minister—compared the Parliament Buildings to an ancient family mansion that has been lived in for centuries and must be maintained and preserved for future generations at any cost. The ongoing remediation on Parliament Hill reflects a similar sentiment expressed during the same speech—that the Parliament Buildings must “constantly evolve in order to meet the needs of the modern world” while remaining “changeless in … concept and tradition.”
In the time it takes to read this article, some of the more than 200 skilled masons currently working on rehabilitating Canada’s Parliament Buildings will have time to rake out and repoint another kilometre of mortar and complete another ‘Dutchman repair,’ or specialized stone indent repair, on these enduring Canadian landmarks.
A Canada with no capital
The original design and construction of Canada’s Parliament Buildings were uniquely Canadian undertakings in all respects. Work on this remarkable group of buildings, which began as the ‘Provincial Buildings Project,’ did not proceed without its share of conflicts, heated debates, and controversies, as the official record clearly shows.
As the Dominion of Canada approached the end of 1867, it had no permanent capital, and its parliamentary government had no fixed home. Acting on local advice, Queen Victoria exercised ‘royal prerogative’ and solved these problems by naming Ottawa as the seat of government. Officials moved quickly thereafter to requisition funds, hire architects, award contracts, and break ground after clearing off the structures remaining on what was known locally as ‘Barracks Hill.’ Overlooking the Chaudière Rapids on the Ottawa River—one of the gateways to the continent when canoes were the primary mode of transport—this area had previously served well as the site offices for the construction of the Rideau Canal under the direction of Colonel John By from 1826 to 1831.
A selection committee composed of government employees visited two other sites in addition to Barracks Hill, which, at the time of the visit in May 1859, still contained the Rideau Canal site’s buildings and infrastructure. Although there were no specific or formal requirements for the site selection, Ottawa, or Bytown as it was then known, had a relatively small population, and finding sufficient space for the proposed buildings did not present a problem. Little is known about the committee’s discussions regarding comparisons between Barracks Hill and the other two sites, but there was general agreement the former was well-suited for the project.
With the location of the capital finally established after moving it from one city to another for decades, workers were soon removing the small, self-contained village left behind by the Rideau Canal ‘sappers and miners.’ That same month, a competition was launched to find architects for the Parliament Buildings, with a deadline of August 1, 1859. Although no specific theme was specified in the design competition announcement, Public Works did suggest the buildings feature hammer-dressed masonry, materials from the surrounding area, neatly pointed features, and a plain, substantial style.
These suggestions were intended to provide direction to those interested in the advertisement for anonymous submissions. They also indicated the government’s intention to construct buildings with a focus on austerity, simplicity, and use of local materials.