Historic moves: Parliament in the Victoria Memorial Museum 1916-1920

Article 7 / 11 , Vol. 44 No. 2 (Summer)


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Historic moves: Parliament in the Victoria Memorial Museum 1916-1920

Johanna K. Mizgala is Curator of the House of Commons.

After a great fire destroyed its building, Canada’s Parliament needed to seek out temporary quarters. For a four-year period during reconstruction, Members of Parliament and Senators sat in the Victoria Memorial Museum. In this article, the author describes the damage of the fire, the desire to keep parliamentary proceedings going with limited disruption, and what was required to make the museum building useable for its new purpose. In contrast with the current renovation project in Centre Block, the move to the Victoria Museum could not be planned well in advance and modifications were made as best as possible under the circumstances.

February 3, 1916 was a Thursday, during the sixth Session of the 12th Parliament. In the Chamber of the House of Commons, the business of the day included a lengthy exchange about the fish trade, in which Bowman Brown Law, MP for Yarmouth (NS), gently chided his colleagues for their lack of enthusiasm.1 Following the dinner break, the House resumed at 8 pm. Deputy Speaker Edgar Nelson Rhodes took the Speaker’s Chair for the first time that evening, and was congratulated by his colleagues as a result. Apart from this personal milestone, it was a sitting much like any other.2

At 8:55 pm, Francis Glass, MP for Middlesex East (ON), was sitting in the House of Commons Reading Room, located in the old Parliament Building between the Chambers of the House and the Senate.3 Mr. Glass recalled smelling smoke, and although cigarettes and cigars were permitted in certain of rooms of the Parliament Building, they were not allowed in the reading room. He noticed a small fire below one of the shelves and immediately called for help. Constable T.S. Moore of the Dominion Police Force ran to get the only fire extinguisher in the room, but was unable to put out the fire. Instead, the extinguisher spread the embers up to the rows of newspapers hanging from long rods above the shelves and the fire soon ignited the recently oiled and varnished pine panelled walls.

By 9 pm, C.R. Stewart, Chief Doorkeeper of the House of Commons, ran into the chamber, yelling, “There is a big fire in the reading room; everybody get out quickly!4” The Hansard for the day’s proceedings records that the sitting:

was immediately suspended without formality, and members, officials, and visitors in the galleries, fled from the Chamber. Some of them were almost overcome by the rapidly advancing smoke and flames before reaching a place of safety. The fire, which had originated in the reading room, gained momentum with extreme rapidity and was soon beyond control.5

The fire spread rapidly onto the roof and throughout the corridors. Within the hour, the centre portion of the Parliament Building was a raging inferno. Members of the 77th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) realised what was happening and quickly abandoned their dinner to rush to Parliament Hill. Some 70 members of the CEF stayed through the night and into the morning helping the firefighters battle the blaze and controlling the gathering crowd.6

As the fire raged, Prime Minister Borden, members of his cabinet, and the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, met at the Chateau Laurier, determined to find a place to continue the business of government the next day. The Minister of Public Works was entrusted with finding a suitable location.

The following morning Canadians woke up to an ice-covered smouldering ruin where the majestic neo-Gothic building once stood. Only the Library of Parliament remained intact; its iron fire doors and the valiant efforts of the firefighting crews who doused the Library roof with water throughout the night saved the structure from ruin. News spread that seven people had lost their lives during the fire7. Also destroyed was the mace of the House of Commons —that precious symbol of the authority of the Speaker and the right conferred on the Commons by the Crown to meet and create legislation. In spite of this impediment, the House decided to meet as usual. The following day, at 3 pm, in the Victoria Memorial Museum (now home to the Canadian Museum of Nature) – the House borrowed the mace from the Senate and sat for the first time in this interim location.

The order papers on February 4, 1916 include the speeches of Prime Minister Borden and the Leader of the Opposition, Wilfrid Laurier. One followed the other, paying tribute to those lost in the fire, whom they considered not simply colleagues but dear friends. Regarding the destruction of the building, Prime Minister Borden stated:

As to the historic building itself, my own association with it has extended over a period of nearly twenty years; my right hon. friend on the other side of the House has been associated with it for more than twice that period. The building dates from the very earliest years of Confederation, or even before Confederation. In that Chamber the great policies were debated and worked out which have touched the development of our country and its future destiny. In that Chamber the great men who founded this Confederation spoke, and did their duty as representatives of the people in Parliament from the inception of Confederation through the active period of their lifetime.8

He went on to read into the day’s proceedings the messages of condolence from the King, the Governor General, the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of the province of Saskatchewan, and from the Premier of Quebec.

When it was his turn to speak, Sir Wilfrid Laurier rose to utter the following:

Sad indeed are the circumstances under which we meet to-day. The old Parliament Building in which we sat yesterday, and which has been identified with the life of the Canadian people since Confederation, is a mass of ruins. Great though the material loss is to every Member of Parliament, to those of the present day and to those of an older generation still living, the loss of life is still more appalling. We had become attached to the scene and to everything which pertained to that building.9

Laurier concluded his speech by echoing the thoughts of the Prime Minister – it was essential that the House should go on with the business of the country. Both men urged their colleagues to proceed, with “firm hearts and renewed resolve” in the discharge of their duties in service to Canadians.

While the reconstruction project dominated the landscape of Parliament Hill through the First World War and the eventual Armistice, the Parliament of Canada sat in its interim location on McLeod Street. Built between 1905 and 1911, the Victoria Memorial Museum was designed by Chief Dominion Architect, David Ewart. It was the first purpose built federal museum in Canada, and one of the many building projects in Ottawa credited, in part, to Laurier’s vision for the city as the capital of the country. In thinking about the future of Ottawa and of the country at the turn of the century, Laurier suggested the following:

…and when the day comes, as it will come by and by, it shall be my pleasure and that of my colleagues, I am sure, to make the city of Ottawa as attractive as possibly could be; to make it the centre of the intellectual development of this country and above all the Washington of the North.10

Aside from the need to transform Ottawa from a lumber town to a nation’s capital, the Museum is further associated with the building of similar institutions across North American and Europe to house growing collections of specimens, artifacts and art – many of these amassed by wealthy patrons and by eager nations wanting to display these pieces and attract the growing public who wanted to experience them.

When the Museum opened in 1911, it housed not only the National Gallery of Canada, but also the Geological and Natural History of Canada Survey Collections. The Neo-Gothic structure, built in Tyndall limestone and Nepean brownstone, stood alone in a green park at the base of Metcalfe Street. The site leads directly to Parliament Hill, which likely contributed to its selection as an interim location. More importantly, the Museum was large enough to accommodate both Chambers, but it was impossible to find a direct substitute for the Parliament Building. Although the exhibition halls could be transformed into the respective Chambers for the Senate and for the House of Commons, there wasn’t adequate space for Parliamentary Offices and the respective administrative groups were crammed together. The Library of Parliament, the only structure that survived the fire, remained in operation on the Hill throughout the four years of construction.

While the Museum was occupied by Parliament, the Geological Survey was required to move their specimens, including fossils and other extinct creatures, to other spaces in the building and to off-site locations. The National Gallery’s collection had to be relocated as well. All activities of the Museum were on hold for the duration of the temporary occupation by Parliament and the spaces utilized for the Chambers were fitted up as well as possible for their requirements. The Museum’s large auditorium space was transformed into the House of Commons Chamber. The room was fitted up with gallery seating on the second floor that was ideal to accommodate not only the Press Gallery but also any visitors wishing to watch the proceedings. Very little furnishings were salvaged from the fire, so the set-up was somewhat makeshift with chairs on either side of a long aisle. Photographs from 1918, however, show that in addition to seating, MPs were equipped with desks and a table was in place for the Clerk and other Table Officers. Likewise, while the House was in this interim location, they continued the tradition of commissioning a new chair for the Speaker. Edgar Nelson Rhodes, who became Speaker in 1917, was the last to have a personalised chair, which was brought to the new building in 1920 and used until the permanent Speaker’s Chair, a gift from Great Britain, was presented to Parliament in 1921.11

The Senate took over a large exhibition space in the southwest wing of the Museum, and the Department of Public Works worked round the clock to recreate the original Chamber, down to the red carpet, in time for the Senators to sit on February 8, 1916.12 By a stroke of good fortune, the Senate had not been sitting on the evening of the fire in the Parliament Building. This contributed to the fact that there had been time to salvage the portrait of Queen Victoria, some furnishings and of course, their mace.

Although the House had been able to borrow the Senate’s Mace temporarily, this was not a long-term solution. A wooden mace, painted gold, was employed by the House of Commons until March 28, 1917, when the new mace was presented in London to Prime Minister Robert L. Borden.13 The mace is similar in designed to the one used by the British House of Commons and bears the following inscription:

THE MACE, REPLACING THE ORIGINAL MACE OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS OF THE DOMINION OF CANADA DESTROYED BY FIRE ON FEBRUARY 3RD 1916, WAS PRESENTED BY COLONEL THE RIGHT HONOURABLE SIR CHARLES CHEERS WAKEFIELD, LORD MAYOR OF LONDON, AND BY THE SHERIFFS OF LONDON, GEORGE ALEXANDER TOUCHE, ESQ., M.P. AND SAMUEL GEORGE SHEAD, ESQ14

Parliamentary lore tells the story of a molten piece of the old mace having been found in the rubble of the fire and incorporated into the new mace. Sadly, this lovely continuity is untrue: analysis performed by the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company revealed that the metal was not from the mace, so it was not incorporated.15In 2017, the mace was restored on its centenary and contemporary analysis confirmed these findings.16

Although deeply tied to the history and heritage of place, the 1916 fire underscored the notion that the business of Parliament could not stop to wait for its permanent home to be rebuilt. The fact that the House of Commons met the day following the fire, albeit for only 40 minutes, speaks to the belief that Parliament must carry on, especially during war time. Following the largely ceremonial act of sitting on February 4, 1916, full efforts were devoted to transforming the Museum into Parliament, and between 1916 and 1920, some 485 Acts received Royal Assent, including:

  • An Act to Amend the Canada Temperance Act, May 18, 1916
  • An Act to authorize the levying of a War Tax on certain incomes, September 20, 1917
  • A War-time Elections Act, September 20, 1917
  • An Act to provide Compensation where Employees of His Majesty are killed or suffer injuries while performing their duties, May 24, 1918
  • An Act to confer the Electoral Franchise on Women, May 24, 1918
  • An Act respecting the Department of Health, June 6, 1919

This legislation, as well as the effect of the First World War, would radically transform the country and would set the stage for the Canada in the twentieth century and beyond.

February in Ottawa continued to be cruel – on February 17, 1919 Wilfrid Laurier succumbed to a stroke, while still in office as Leader of the Opposition. On February 20, 1919, on opening of the second Session of the 13th Parliament of Canada, the Speech from the Throne was read into the record. Prime Minister Borden was in Europe at the time, and so Acting Prime Minister Sir Thomas White had the duty to inform the House of plans for the funeral of Laurier:

Mr. Speaker, we meet today under the shadow of a great loss and a deep and widespread personal sorrow. The Right Honourable Sir Wilfrid Laurier, senior member of this House, has passed away and the entire nation mourns his death. It is my intention later to ask the adjournment of the House until Tuesday next, out of respect to and in honour of his memory… In the meantime the Government, desirous of paying every appropriate mark of respect, has arranged, with the consent of the family, for a State funeral, which will take place on Saturday morning in accordance with the public announcement which has been made. From eight o’clock this evening the remains will lie in state in this Chamber, when all will have the opportunity of looking upon his face for the last time.17

Once again, the Museum was transformed, from Chamber of the House of Commons to a location fit for lying in state. Contemporary news accounts estimate that 50,000 people made the journey to the Museum to pay their respects during the 36 hours that Laurier laid in state within the Chamber of the House of Commons. The Chamber was draped in mourning and filled with floral tributes. In a touching show of respect, the floral wreath from the Parliamentary Press Gallery was adorned with a floral number 30 — in reference to the shorthand for indicating the end of the story.

Mourners came by the tens of thousands to line the streets to watch Laurier’s cortege make its journey from the Museum to the funeral services at Notre-Dame Basilica. Though he did not live to see the opening of the new building on Parliament Hill, it is clear that its architects John A. Pearson and Joseph-Omer Marchand had taken into consideration Laurier’s pronouncements on the 20th-century being the century of Canada.18

Instead of undertaking a reconstruction of the Parliament Building, which by 1916 had been renovated and expanded in an effort to match the growing country and its accompanying needs for representation, the new building was a distinctly 20th-century design that not only acknowledged the traditions of the past but also heralded the future. As we undertake the current restoration and rehabilitation project, let us keep those messages from the past in mind and continue to pay tribute to its legacy.

Notes

1 House of Commons Debates, 12th Parliament, 6th Session: Vol. 1, 3 February 1916, page 571.

2 House of Commons Debates, 12th Parliament, 6th Session: Vol. 1, 3 February 1916, page 574.

3 Royal Commission: Parliament Buildings Fire at Ottawa, February 3, 1916, Reports of Commissioners and Evidence, Ottawa, 1916, page 16.

4 House of Commons Debates, 12th Parliament, 6th Session: Vol. 1, 3 February 1916, page 578.

5 House of Commons Debates, 12th Parliament, 6th Session: Vol. 1, 3 February 1916, page 578.

6 Vakardis, Jane and Lucile Finsten, Fire on Parliament Hill, Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1988, page 22.

7 Killed in the 1916 fire were Florence Bray and Mabel Morin, both guests at the Sévigny residence in the Parliament Building; Constable Alphonse Desjardins, Dominion Police Force; Alphone Desjardins, steamfitter, Department of Public Works; Randolph Fanning, Post Office Department; J.B. René Laplante, Assistant Clerk, House of Commons, and Bowman Brown Law, Member of Parliament for Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

8 House of Commons Debates, 12th Parliament, 6th Session: Vol. 1, 3 February 1916, pages 578-579.

9 House of Commons Debates, 12th Parliament, 6th Session: Vol. 1, 3 February 1916, page 581.

10 Wilfrid Laurier as Leader of the Opposition in the Address to the Reform Association of Ottawa, 19 June 1893.

11 The Permanent Speaker’s Chair proved impossible to move to the interim Chamber in West Block during the rehabilitation and restoration period, and so it was decided to use the Rhodes Speaker Chair once again, in honour of the last time the House of Commons sat in an interim location.

12 Vakardis, Jane and Lucile Finsten, Fire on Parliament Hill, Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1988, page 51.

13 Tradition dictates that the wooden mace continues to be used annually in the House of Commons on the sitting date closest to the anniversary of the fire.

14 Mace of the House of Commons, created by Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company (Great Britain), gilded sterling silver, 1917.

15 The Mace in History, Arts and Architecture, Parliament of Canada, https://www.ourcommons.ca/About/HistoryArtsArchitecture/decorative_arts/ceremonial/2872-e.htm, accessed February 5, 2021.

16 The Mace of the House of Commons, conservation reports, House of Commons Heritage Collection, 2017.

17 House of Commons Debates, 13th Parliament, 2nd Session: Vol. 1, 20 February 1919, pages 2-3.

18 This phrase appears in Laurier’s speech at Toronto’s Massey Hall, 14 October 1904 and in other speeches of the time.