Ottawa – Parliament Hill and the Centennial Flame

Wellington Street

Parliament Hill and its federal buildings form the heart of the nation’s capital, Ottawa.  This architectural grouping is the main part that a visitor must see during a visit. Today, there are more offices in the city to support the administration of the country, but this place is the original site of importance.

Parliament Hill includes a set of three (3) pavilions at the top of a cliff that carry the historical places of the establishment of a permanent capital in the country. Just before Ottawa was named the administration center of the country, Toronto and Quebec shared the role alternately every four years. Many were surprised by Queen Victoria’s choice of Ottawa. The reasons that justified the selection of Ottawa were that the village was just far enough from the American border, had a water connection with a large center, there was terrain where a cliff allowed you to see the enemy approaching and it sits on the border of French Quebec and English-speaking Ontario.

The construction of the buildings began in 1859 following the surprising participation of 298 bidders for the concept. The first parliamentary session took place in 1867, while construction ended several years later.

Again, there are 3 main buildings which are simply called the center, east and west buildings. In 1876, the library and the queen’s door were added. In 1906, annexes were added to meet the growing needs of a developing country.

The central part did not originally have such an imposing tower, but on February 3, 1916, in the evening and during a parliamentary session, a major fire broke out, killing 7 people and destroying a large part of the central area and the tower. Only the library was spared by vigilance of the manager to close the firewall doors during the evacuation. The redesign of the building after the fire brought some architectural changes to the center block, an additional floor, a higher tower and a better interior layout to facilitate access to emergency exits.   

While waiting for the reconstruction in 1916-1920, the activities were transferred to the Victoria Commemorative Museum which is the current place of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

The new tower was completed in 1927 for the 60th anniversary of the Confederation. The clock, with four faces, was donated by the United Kingdom for this occasion. Interestingly, it is not possible to turn the hands of the clock backward. Consequently, when the time comes to set the time back once a year, an assigned person has to disconnect the mechanism for that period of time.

The tower was renamed the Peace Tower to honor the memory of Canadian soldiers who died in the First World War. There is the Memorial Chapel, a place of meditation and where a few books list the names of the soldiers who gave their lives for the country. This represents more than ten thousand names. Every day at 11 a.m., the pages are turned to display a new set of names, allowing each to be displayed at least once a year. The magnificent stained glass windows around the chapel represent the call to battle.

The tower also includes a carillon of 53 bells which are heard every 15 minutes.

Small note on the flag that adorns the top of the tower: it is changed every working day. Canadian citizens who wish to obtain an old flag can apply for it. There will be a 100-year wait.

In 1952, a short circuit in the library dome created historic havoc in the country’s archives.

In 1955, the Supreme Court, which was on the hill, was demolished. After 66 years of service, it was considered too worn. The new building was erected further down Wellington Street. The same fate was envisaged for the east and west buildings in 1961, but in the end, they opted to keep them but there were renovations. The east block houses the administrative offices, those of senators and deputies. The offices of Sir John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier are in this wing. On the side of the West Block, recently renovated in 2018, we now find the temporary House of Commons (since the center wing is under repairs) with a glass roof, meeting rooms and modern offices.

In the center building, the first large central room, we find ourselves in the Hall of Confederation, also known as the rotunda. This room connects the long corridors leading on one side to the House of Commons, on the other to the Senate and straight ahead to the library. There are a lot of meanings in the Hall of Confederation.  A guide will detail the designs all around which refer to the provinces and territories of the country and the central pillar is intended as a sign of unison at the federal level. The compass design on the floor reminds us of explorations and the pattern of the waves for the water that unites us from coast to coast.

The House of Commons furniture was moved to the West Block while the work is ongoing (2022-ongoing). Even the paintings of former Prime Ministers that were in the foyer of the chamber have been moved to the West Block. This is where the press conferences take place.

The Senate was moved to another building; the old train station during the renovations. The red-carpeted Great Room reuses furniture and incorporates classic room elements with a special place for royalty, who are often represented by the Governor. Even the paintings of kings and queens have been moved. The paintings in the Center Block are found in the Senate foyer. The large impressive arches will be rejuvenated.  It is not yet known if the sculptures will be modified. A story says that because the sculptors, associated with the original work of the ceiling, did not have the right to affix their signatures, they had secretly chosen to integrate their faces and much to the surprise of many was only revealed at the time of the original unveiling.

Eventually, if you walk through the hall of honor, you will reach the library. Although it has suffered damage over the years, it is the only room to survive the terrible fire of 1916. A very attractive marble sculpture of Queen Victoria is in the center of the octagonal room. It is a very glazed section and faces the Ottawa River.

The configuration of the center block is unique. The main entrance is usually at the foot of the tower. On the other hand, the center building is currently, and will, until 2029, be under major renovation. You must follow the instructions for access.

The large green zone in front of the main building leads to gatherings, meetings and also demonstrations. During the warmer months, some have a picnic, others admire the tulips. There are several sculptures of politicians and monuments on the hill. In 2022-2023 some have been moved around the city due to construction. The area is pretty any time of the day. In the evening, a multimedia projection illuminates the central building and visually presents the story of the country in a 15 minute video loop.

On the grounds, notice the Iron Gate built in 1872 named the Queen’s Gate. Although there are other accesses to the hill, the Queen’s Gate is the one on Wellington Street which is aligned with the Peace Tower. Between the gate and the tower, the centennial flame continues to be active even though it was intended to be temporary for the centennial celebrations. The flame sits at the top of a fountain and includes the symbols of each province and territory. It was Lester B. Pearson who lit the flame on December 31, 1966, to launch the festivities. The fountain and the flame are functional 12 months of the year except during maintenance.

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