Construction, maintenance and expansion of the parliamentary building complex in Québec from 1764 to the present day

Article 5 / 11 , Vol. 44 No. 2 (Summer)


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Construction, maintenance and expansion of the parliamentary building complex in Québec from 1764 to the present day

Christian Blais is an historian with the National Assembly Library.

In northern countries, all buildings must weather the passing years and the harsh climate. Parliaments are no exception. Since 1764, Québec parliamentarians have taken care to build, restore and expand the buildings where they perform their duties. In this article, the author provides an overview of the major projects and concludes that Members and legislative councillors have sought to sit in spaces that are both functional and prestigious.

To perform their duties, Québec parliamentarians have used the Château Saint-Louis, the Bishop’s Palace, the new Parliament Buildings of Lower Canada and the Union, the Parliament of Montréal, the Post-Office Parliament, the Parliament in Ottawa and Québec’s current Parliament Building. The passage of time, the increased number of parliamentarians and the modernization of services that parliaments offer have made the construction, renovation and expansion of buildings necessary. The primary purpose of this work has been to provide parliamentarians with functional workplaces. Another objective has been to ensure that parliament becomes an architectural monument that expresses the dignity of the exercise of legislative power.1

Province of Québec, 1764–1792

After a civil government was established in the Province of Québec in 1764, the members of the Council of Québec were granted the power to legislate. The work related to the drafting of ordinances took place at the Château Saint-Louis, a seat of power where the governors had resided under the French Regime since 1647. The first session was held on August 10, 1764. However, the councillors found that the furnishings of their assembly room were inadequate. On November 8, they passed a resolution to provide the Great Council Chamber with furniture suitable for the performance of their duties.2 Two councillors were assigned to find chairs, tables and an improved heating system. Interestingly, in 1765 and 1766, Governor James Murray convened nine meetings of the Council of Québec at “Sans-Bruit,” his country estate located less than five kilometres from the capital. In short, not a location to confer prestige upon the institution.

In 1774, a Legislative Council was created under the Québec Act. Between 17 and 23 prominent citizens were admitted to that legislature, one third more councillors than under the previous administration. However, the assembly hall in the Château Saint-Louis remained spacious enough to accommodate meetings of both the Legislative and Executive Councils.

The colonial government needed more space to ensure the proper functioning of its administration. As a result, on August 1, 1777,3 the Bishop’s Palace was rented from the Archdiocese of Québec City. The more spacious halls of the Palace are probably the reason why the legislative councillors of the Province of Québec chose to hold their parliamentary assemblies there, starting on January 17, 1781. From then on, the legislature and the Governor in Council had separate addresses. The Bishop’s Palace, therefore, became the symbol of legislative power and the Château Saint-Louis the symbol of executive power.

Through the work of historian Michel Hébert, we can make a comparison with Europe, where the places most frequently used for parliamentary assemblies were also places of worship: palaces, monasteries and convents.4 One well-known example is the Palace of Westminster in England, originally a Benedictine monastery.

Lower Canada, 1792–1841

The Constitutional Act of 1791 was followed by the election of 50 representatives in Lower Canada. On December 17, 1792, the legislative councillors and the first parliamentarians met in the capital. The size of the chapel in the Bishop’s palace was perfectly suited to the activities of the House of Assembly. However, the situation changed after revisions were made to the electoral map in 1829. Following the 1830 general election, the palace chapel had become too small for the 84 parliamentarians.

Age also took its toll on this stone palace built in 1692. Bombed by British troops in 1759, it never regained its former glory. Despite essential renovations, the building fell into disrepair. As early as 1815, the surveyor Joseph Bouchette reported that part of its foundations and walls were in poor condition and that the whole structure “threatens an imminent ruin.”5

In 1831, the government assumed ownership of the Bishop’s Palace, and construction of the new parliament building began. The old chapel was demolished in 1833 to be replaced by the main body and the first wing of a magnificent parliamentary building. Interior finishing work continued until the late fall of 1834. The legislative assembly chamber was not completed in time for the ongoing session of parliament, so members temporarily gathered in the library’s reading room. This was where the Ninety-Two Resolutions were adopted in 1834. This manifesto setting out the demands, grievances and complaints of the parliamentary majority was not well-received in Britain. Then came the rebellions of 1837 and 1838, and the suspension of the Lower Canada Parliamentary Constitution. The adoption of the Act of Union of 1840 put an end to the status of Québec City as capital.

United Province of Canada, 1841–1867

Kingston was the capital of the Province of Canada from 1841 to 1843. The general hospital served as a parliamentary building, despite its “miserable furnishings” and small rooms.6 The 84 MPs felt cramped. A move was planned as early as 1842.

When Montréal became the capital in 1844, major work was undertaken to refurbish St. Ann’s Market, built from 1832 to 1834, to turn it into a splendid parliament building. The assembly chambers of parliamentarians and legislative councillors were carefully decorated with paintings and carved coats of arms of Great Britain7. This comfortable and spacious building also included library and committee rooms.8 In the Legislative Council Chamber, the governor sanctioned the Rebellion Losses Bill for the victims of the 1837–1838 rebellion, which led English-speaking imperialists to revolt. On the evening of April 25, 1849, these Tory rioters set fire to Parliament. The building was destroyed by the fire. As a result, Montréal ceased to be the capital.

Parliamentary proceedings now alternated between the former parliaments of Toronto and Québec City, marking the beginning of the second phase of construction of the parliament building of Lower Canada, where parliamentarians had last sat in 1837. The last remnants of the old Bishop’s Palace were demolished in 1850. The new wing of the building was completed in 1851 to house the Parliamentarians gathered there for the 1852 session.

Many believed that it was the most beautiful building in the capital. The Legislative Assembly Chamber was high and spacious, with large windows providing plenty of natural light. It also stood out thanks to its modern infrastructure, especially its ventilation system. The gas lighting was state-of-the-art and of fashionable design. A journalist wrote: “From the vaulted ceiling are suspended two handsome massive gas lustres, with 130 burners on each, surrounded by rows of innumerable prisms, producing a most brilliant effect when lighted.”9 However, on February 1, 1854, the new wing caught fire and, within a few hours, the whole building became “a pile of smoking ruins.”10 An inquiry commission ruled that the fire was accidental, probably caused by a cracked chimney or a faulty furnace.11

After the fire, the parliamentarians determined that public finances would not allow them to build a new parliament in Québec City while simultaneously renovating the one in Toronto that needed work as well. The concept of an alternating capital had to give way to that of a permanent location. Kingston, Montréal, Québec City, Toronto and Bytown (Ottawa) all lined up to become the seat of government. After much debate, Queen Victoria made a decision in 1857, and Ottawa was named the capital of the Province of Canada.

Until 1866, when the construction of a parliament in the new capital was completed, parliamentary proceedings were held in Québec City. A building was hastily constructed in 1859 on the site of the former parliament that burned down on the Côte de la Montagne. It was a modest structure made of Scottish bricks that was expected to be converted into a post office.

Confederation to the Present Day

Québec City regained its status as a capital with Confederation. For lack of anything better, parliamentarians and legislative councillors met in the Post Office building. Its architecture was ordinary, with no special ornamentation, but the rooms were functional. In fact, the main problem was that the building was built with poor quality materials, which led to it deteriorating prematurely. Construction defects caused rain and snow to infiltrate and damage the walls, paint and carpets.12 Renovation work needed to be repeated every year. However, the idea of building a new parliament was hindered by the province’s low income and the economic crisis of the early 1870s.

In 1874, the government of Charles-Eugène Boucher de Boucherville loosened the purse strings to establish a proper parliament in Québec City. The following year, Eugène-Étienne Taché designed a stunning Parliament building, which was constructed in two stages. First, the three wings to be used by the ministries and the lieutenant-governor were built between 1877 and 1880, and second, the main facade called “the Legislative Building” was built between 1883 and 1886.

Yet another disaster occurred. On April 19, 1883, the Parliament of the Côte de la Montagne burned to the ground. Temporary rooms had to be set up in the new parliament still under construction: the Legislative Assembly was installed on the first floor of an unfinished wing, while the Legislative Council was housed in the library. These arrangements were completed just in time for the 1884 session. Then the facade was shaken by the explosion of two bombs. This criminal attack, never to be resolved, forced the reconstruction of the damaged wing.

Upon completion, Québec City’s Parliament Building raised the status of Québec City as a capital. Built in the Second Empire style, it is firmly French. However, Old Regime fleurs-de-lis carved in stone blend with English roses. The monogram of Victoria Regina appears at the top of the tower, but the historiated architecture mainly features, through bronzes and engravings, historical figures who were sympathetic to the French-Canadian cause. This monument, dedicated to the glory of a national history as it was perceived at the time, is entitled Je me souviens.

The maintenance and management of the Parliament Buildings were entrusted to the department of public works, which was also responsible for modernizing its infrastructure. With this in mind, a new expansion project was conducted in the interior courtyard from 1912 to 1917. The new building housed the parliamentary restaurant as well as the heating and electrical systems.13

Year after year, Québec winters and the north wind blowing on Parliament Hill took their toll, causing the stones of the century-old Parliament building to deteriorate, crack and break. Substantial restoration work was required and took place between 1977 and 1983. The building envelope was refurbished.14 Inside, the frame of the National Assembly Chamber was reinforced, among other things. Then, in 1978, the necessary installations were set up to broadcast parliamentary debates on television.15 Thereafter, the chamber of the parliamentarians, the Green Room, was repainted blue. Camera tests previously showed that, in an environment dominated by green, the parliamentarians looked “sick” on the screen. In addition, this represented a break with the British custom of using green as the colour of the legislative assemblies.16

In 1983, the department of public works handed over the management of the parliament building to the National Assembly. Since then, the Building Management and Material Resources Directorate has been overseeing the preventive maintenance, conservation and renovation of the Parliament Buildings.17 Among the most important work carried out in the 21st century was the complete restoration, in 2005–2006, of the crowning of the central tower of the parliament, built in wrought iron in 1895.18 In 2010, the damaged stones and sculptures of the main facade were replaced. Centre de conservation du Québec was called upon to restore the patina of all the bronze statues that decorate the facade.

More recently, in 2016, work started on a new expansion project. The main objectives were to make parliament more open to citizens, to build two new parliamentary committee rooms, and to make the facilities more secure.19 Built underground, this modern construction has the quality of not distorting the heritage character of the Parliament Building. This new reception pavilion was inaugurated by President François Paradis on May 29, 2019.

In conclusion

Parliamentarians in a capital city need a building in which to perform their duties. First, a parliament building must meet functional requirements which means that the size of the space available is important.20 A large room is needed to gather the Members of the National Assembly, another one for the legislative councillors and finally, nearby rooms for the commissions. Today, the essential support services (library, protocol, communications, computers, reception of visitors, political staff, security, etc.) must be accommodated as well.

But there is more. A parliament must satisfy the symbolic requirements of assemblies as the place where legislative power is exercised.21 Dignity, consideration and prestige of the institution (dignitas) are concepts that guide the construction and decoration of the parliamentary buildings.22 An architectural setting often inspired by Westminster, an ornamentation of the arms of the British Crown and an arrangement of the furniture that mimics the furnishings of the English Commons add historical depth to any parliamentary complex. Moreover, distinctive identity symbols have been added to the current Québec Parliament Building: a motto, fleurs-de-lis, bronze statues, names of historical figures engraved in stone and woodwork, as well as historical frescoes on canvas are there to express the unity with which Quebecers made the British tradition of parliamentary institutions their own.

In short, since 1764, the purpose of the construction, maintenance and expansion of the parliamentary buildings in Québec has been to provide Members with workplaces that are both functional and spacious, in a building that commands respect for the institutions and representative figures of democracy. However, it must be noted that these requirements in terms of space and dignity were met to varying degrees in the Château Saint-Louis, the Bishop’s Palace, the new Parliament of Lower Canada and the Union, the Parliament of Montréal, the Post Office Parliament, the Parliament of Ottawa and the present-day Parliament Building. Today, following more than two and a half centuries of evolution, Québec has a parliamentary building adapted to the needs of the 21st century, which combines heritage and modernity better than ever.

Notes

1 The author wishes to thank Marie-Hélène Fournier, Rachel Plante, Danielle Simard, Jules Racine St-Jacques and Frédéric Lemieux for their comments on the draft version of this article.

2 Christian BLAIS, Aux sources du parlementarisme dans la Province de Québec, 1764-1791, Thesis (Ph. D.), Québec, Université Laval, 2019, pp. 199-200.

3 Christian BLAIS, Gilles GALLICHAN, Frédéric LEMIEUX and Jocelyn SAINT-PIERRE, Québec : quatre siècles d’une capitale, Québec, Les Publications du Québec / Assemblée nationale du Québec, 2008, p. 176.

4 Michel HÉBERT, Parlementer. Assemblées représentatives et échange politique en Europe occidentale à la fin du Moyen Âge, Paris, Boccard, 2014, p. 297.

5 Joseph BOUCHETTE, Description topographique de la province du Bas-Canada, London, W. Faden, 1815, p. 463.

6 Le Canadien, 15 February 1841, p. 2.

7 Journaux du Conseil législatif, de la Province du Canada… étant la première session du second parlement provincial, 1844-5, Montréal, J.C. Fisher & W. Kemble, [1845], appendix, p. b26.

8 Gilles GALLICHAN, “De Kingston à Montréal : à la recherche d’une capitale 1841-1844”, Les Cahiers des Dix, no 70, 2016, p. 69.

9 The Québec Mercury, 31 August 1852, p. 2

10 “Incendie du palais législatif”, Le Canadien, 1 February 1854, p. 2.

11 C. BLAIS, G. GALLICHAN, F. LEMIEUX et J. SAINT-PIERRE, Québec : quatre siècles…, p. 282.

12 “The Session”, The Morning Chronicle, 5 December 1877, p. 3; “The Parliamentary Wigwam”, The Morning Chronicle, 9 October 1877, p. 3.

13 Gaston DESCHÊNES, Le parlement de Québec. Histoire, anecdotes et légendes, Québec, Multimondes, 2005, p. 184-186.

14 Jean-François COSSETTE, “Défis et responsabilités de l’entretien et de la restauration de l’Hôtel du Parlement”, Bulletin de la Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée nationale, vol. 40, no 1 (2011), p. 19.

15 Luc NOPPEN et Gaston DESCHÊNES, L’Hôtel du Parlement : témoin de notre histoire, Sainte-Foy, Publications du Québec, 1996, p. 172-176.

16 “Salon vert », Encyclopédie du parlementarisme québécois, Assemblée nationale du Québec, 10 octobre 2014, http://www.assnat.qc.ca/fr/patrimoine/lexique/salon-vert.html.

17 In 1983, the name was Direction de l’aménagement.

18 Jean-François COSSETTE, “La restauration du couronnement de la tour centrale de l’Hôtel du Parlement”, Bulletin de la Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée nationale, vol. 35, nos 1-2 (2006), p. 19-21.

19 See also: Frédéric LEMIEUX, “Agrandir le parlement? Trois projets oubliés”, Bulletin de la Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée nationale, vol. 45, no 1 (2016), p. 16-23.

19 M. HÉBERT, Parlementer…, p. 296.

20 Ibid.

21 Concerning the concept of dignity, see also: Martin PÂQUET, “Le deuil comme consensus. Les rituels funéraires des responsables politiques au Canada et au Québec, 1868-2000”, Bulletin d’histoire politique, vol. 14, no1 (2005), p. 73-88.

Parliament Hill

Originally, the Parliament Building in Québec City was indistinctly called “legislative building” or “government building” because the legislative and executive powers shared the same workspace. The creation of new departments at the beginning of the 20th century quickly caused difficulties in housing all government services. Consequently, the Pamphile-Le May (1915), Honoré-Mercier (1925), Jean-Antoine-Panet (1932) and André-Laurendeau (1935) buildings were inaugurated on Parliament Hill. Until they were named after these historical figures in 1980, these buildings were referred to by the letters “B,” “C,” “D” and “E.” This custom is still maintained by some public servants today.

Finally, a truly parliamentary complex unfolds when the National Assembly fully or partially took over these Beaux-Arts-style buildings, as of the mid-1970s. The Honoré-Mercier Building, acquired by the National Assembly at the end of the 1980s, was ceded in 2001 to house the Prime Minister’s offices in return for the André-Laurendeau Building. Today, all the Assembly’s services are concentrated around the Parliament Building.