Parliament Leaves Centre Block

By Andrew Thomson | December 17, 2018 9:46amET

When the House of Commons and Senate rose for the last time before Christmas, many who work in Centre Block said goodbye — or at least goodbye for their professional lives.

The new year will see MPs and senators move out for at least a decade, as the nearly-100-year-old building closes down for the largest and most complex heritage rehabilitation project ever seen in Canada.

The House of Commons will sit in the recently-reopened West Block. The Senate’s temporary chamber will be down the street, at the Government Conference Centre.

Nearly $762 million has been set aside to date for the Centre Block project, including the cost next year to decommission the building and prepare for construction.

But officials aren’t sure how long Centre Block will be closed, and how much the work will ultimately cost.

More structural investigation during 2019 will hopefully provide a better idea of the project’s cost and time frame. That’s what MPs heard Wednesday at a committee hearing where questions were raised about the amount of consultation done to date with parliamentarians — and what taxpayers will ultimately be responsible for.

“At this point the baseline schedule or budget has not been firmly established,” said Rob Wright, a Public Works assistant deputy minister responsible for Parliament Hill.

Centre Block hasn’t seen a major upgrade in its history. Without the upcoming restoration, the structure would be at risk of “critical failure” by 2019 and “total failure” by 2025, according to Wright’s department:

Structural steel is rusting and at risk of losing its integrity. Major building systems, including life safety, are approaching failure. The 100 year-old embedded electrical and mechanical systems cannot be accessed or serviced in an occupied building and have been stretched beyond a useful lifecycle. Leaking roofs, walls, windows and plumbing are damaging historic interiors.

Mechanical failures (for example elevators) are affecting parliamentary business and tourist operations. The building does not meet current seismic construction standards. It is located in an active earthquake zone and is exhibiting signs of seismic damage (that is cracking in masonry), particularly in the Peace Tower.

CPAC’s Marc-André Cossette has more on the West Block renovations and the temporary House of Commons chamber:

As Centre Block prepares to close, likely until the 2030s, look back to why it was built in the first place, when the doors first opened, and how the transition is being marked.



1916: The Fire

At 8:37 p.m. on Feb. 3, 1916, a fire begins in a wastebasket in the Centre Block’s Reading Room. By the time someone can take action, the fire is out of control and begins to spread.

The House of Commons is still sitting that night. A doorkeeper interrupts proceedings to announce that everyone must evacuate the building.

Most people manage to leave on their own or by following others in a human chain. Some manage to save files and artwork, including a portrait of Queen Victoria, and even some furniture.

Others are trapped inside, succumbing to either the smoke or the fire.

Centre Block Fire 1916

Fire rages on the night of Feb. 3, 1916. (Library and Archives Canada)

Only half an hour after the fire is noticed, an explosion rocks the building. At least four more are observed through the night. The central clock tower collapses just after midnight, faltering from structural damage as a breeze pushes the fire towards the Senate side of the building.

The fire rages on for almost 12 hours before finally being doused. The next day, the Centre Block’s blackened remains are caked in ice and surrounded by snow.

Daylight on Feb. 4 shows the fire’s aftermath. (Library and Archives Canada)

The only part still standing is the Library of Parliament, saved by the quick thinking of employee Michael MacCormac and the skill of the firefighters.

Seven people die that night, including two women visiting with the Speaker’s wife, an MP, a House of Commons clerk, a pipefitter working in the building’s boiler room, and the rescue party that trying to save him. Several others are burned from the fire or injure themselves while trying to escape. Many on the second floor jump out of windows into the snowbanks below.

A special bulletin from the Ottawa Citizen. (Toronto Public Library)

In the midst of war, there are rumours that German saboteurs are to blame, but no solid proof is ever found during the subsequent investigation.

Parliament has to resume sitting in the meantime, and MPs and senators immediately move to the Victoria Memorial Museum building (now the Canadian Museum of Nature), remaining there in the years to come while Centre Block is reconstructed.

Centre Block’s new design is chosen to match the original style, but with updated materials and an extra floor for more office space. Architects John A. Pearson and Jean-Omar Marchand change the interior layout to incorporate the Beaux-Arts design.

Construction begins on the new Centre Block five months after the fire and is completed in just four years; finishing the ornamentation takes another three years.

Watch more: CPAC’s 2016 look at the 100th anniversary of the fire

1920: The Opening

On Feb. 26, 1920, Governor General the Duke of Devonshire stepped foot in the new House of Commons chamber to officially open the new Centre Block.

This would normally be a break in parliamentary protocol; the monarch and their vice-regal representatives do not enter the lower house as a historic nod to the independence of MPs.

In this case, the Senate chamber simply wasn’t ready yet. So, for one day, the upper chamber sat in the House of Commons so the Speech from the Throne could be delivered.

Opening the new Centre Block in 1920. (Library and Archives Canada)

“I congratulate you that after an enforced absence of four years, it is possible for you to assemble in your new legislative home, resting in trustful security upon the old foundations and surrounded by the picturesque and historic setting of Parliament Hill,” said the governor general.

“Though not entirely completed, its noble proportions, its wide and convenient spaces, its beauty of design and chasteness of finish and its unique local situation mark it as a most striking and dignified structure, worthy of the people whose national life it will henceforth serve.”

Also sending a well wish, via telegram, was King George V himself: “It is my firm assurance that the deliberations of the Parliament of Canada will as in the past redound to the happiness and prosperity of the great Dominion whose well-being is so vital to the whole Empire.”

House of Commons Chamber during reconstruction 1920 - PA-180327

Preparing the new House of Commons chamber in January 1920. (Library and Archives Canada)

Sir George Foster, the acting prime minister speaking on behalf of an ill Sir Robert Borden, told MPs:

“As we cross the threshold of this the noble home of Canada’s Parliament of to-day, it behooves us to contrast ourselves with the men of the past. We must look to the proud record which has been made and which has been handed down in trust to us. We must question ourselves as to what manner of workmen we shall prove ourselves to be as we bring forth the tools of our art and apply them to the work that yet remains to he done. Are we fitted to carry on the work so well begun?”

Opposition Leader W.L. Mackenzie King:

“These Halls of Parliament, like those yonder, represent our nation’s story; they are the centre of our nation’s story; they are the centre of our national life … The stone of which the walls of the interior are constructed bears upon its surface the marks of the sea, though it comes all the way from the Middle West. It is Canadian stone. Like the Laurentians which we see as we look toward the the setting sun, it reminds us that, recent as our country’s written history may be, its material foundations belong to the oldest known geological formations to be found anywhere on the surface of the globe.”

2018: The Goodbye

On Dec. 12, MPs spent some of their final moments inside the House of Commons chamber before the Christmas break and move to West Block.

Above them, the intricate sculptures and woodwork, the wrought-iron and opal chandeliers, the canvas ceiling with Canada’s various coats of arms, the stained glass windows commissioned in 1967 as a Centennial project, and the broadcast lights installed in 1977 as TV coverage came to the Commons.

There were tributes to Centre Block’s history during Members’ Statements. After that, a boisterous question period unfolded before packed public and press galleries. Part of the back-and-forth saw Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer offered Christmas wishes to each other and the rest of the House.

And then they rose to give their own tributes to Centre Block, followed by other leaders and the speaker:

Watch Inside Centre Block: CPAC’s breathtaking five-part series on the storied building’s history, architecture, and traditions.

Inside Centre Block