The Parliament Buildings
Few Canadian symbols are as well known as the Parliament Buildings. Flanked by the East and West blocks, the Centre Block of Parliament — with its distinctive Peace Tower and Library — is familiar to Canadians and people around the world. Although the buildings are alive with the drama of modern day debates, the echoes of times and personalities long since past still linger there.
Canada’s First Parliament Buildings
In 1841, Lower Canada (now Quebec) and Upper Canada (now Ontario) joined to form the Province of Canada. Its seat of government alternated for many years. In 1857, Queen Victoria was asked to select a permanent capital.
Surprisingly, the Queen chose the rough-and-ready lumber town of Ottawa over the established cities of Toronto, Kingston, Montréal and Québec City. Not only was Ottawa a political compromise but it also lay a more secure distance from the American border.
The Centre, East and West blocks of the Parliament Buildings were built between 1859 and 1866 (excluding the Tower and Library). One year after their completion, Confederation was brought in, and the buildings were immediately chosen as the seat of government for the new Dominion of Canada.
Canada had not celebrated its first half-century when tragedy struck. On February 3, 1916, near 9 p.m., a small fire started in the Commons Reading Room in the Centre Block. It soon grew to a raging blaze that claimed seven lives and reduced all but the northwest wing and the Library to a charred shell. Had an employee not closed the Library’s iron doors in time, thousands of irreplaceable books would also have been lost.
After the fire, Parliament moved to the nearby Victoria Memorial Museum (now the Canadian Museum of Nature). But Canada believed strongly that its Parliament needed a permanent home. It began rebuilding the Centre Block while still fighting in the First World War. The new structure, designed in the Modern Gothic Revival style by John Pearson and Jean Omer Marchand, was completed by 1922. The Peace Tower was finished later in 1927.
Today’s Parliament Buildings
The Parliament Buildings present a fascinating blend of stateliness and vibrancy. Their vaulted ceilings, marble floors and dramatic lighting create an air of dignity, yet the stone walls are alive with decoration. Saucy faces grin at passers-by, birds and animals almost come to life, and events from our history are retold.
In the Senate Chamber, at the east end of the Centre Block, red carpeting and upholstery and a ceiling of gold leaf create an air of regal splendour to signify the place where our Head of State meets Parliament. The names of former governors general are carved in the ceiling. The Chamber’s upper walls are lined with murals depicting stirring scenes from the First World War. Below them, images of Canada’s flora and fauna are carved in stone and wood.
The House of Commons
The House of Commons Chamber, at the west end of the Centre Block, is decorated in green in the tradition of the British House of Commons. The rectangular Chamber is made of white oak and Tyndall limestone from Manitoba. The stone’s freckled surface contains 450-million-year-old fossils.
The Chamber’s ceiling is made of softly coloured linen canvas, painted with symbols from coats of arms. Stained glass windows depict the floral emblems of Canada’s provinces and territories as they existed in 1967 and add bold colour to the dignified room. Below the windows, a series of sculptures explain the components of Canada’s Constitution using imaginative symbols.
The Library of Parliament
Separating the Commons from the Senate are Confederation Hall and the Hall of Honour with their graceful arched ceilings and rich sculpture. At the end of the Hall of Honour is the Library of Parliament, a showpiece of High Victorian Gothic Revival architecture. Its floor features a beautiful pattern of cherry, oak and walnut. Hundreds of flowers, masks and mythical creatures are carved in the panelling of white pine. In the centre of the circular, domed room stands a white marble statue of the young Queen Victoria.
The Peace Tower
The Peace Tower was named in commemoration of Canada’s commitment to peace. On the third floor is the Memorial Chamber, a richly carved room of gentle light built to honour Canadians who died in the armed conflicts in which Canada has fought since Confederation. The 92.2-metre tower also contains an observation area and the Carillon, a series of 53 bells weighing from 4.5 kg to 10,090 kg. The Dominion Carillonneur entertains visitors to Parliament Hill with regular recitals.
In their chambers in the Centre Block, Senators and Members of Parliament debate national issues and make laws. The East and West blocks were originally built as offices for the public service. Today, Parliamentarians have their offices there or in buildings near Parliament Hill. Aside from the East Block, these buildings are not open for tours.
…and Meeting Place
Each year, thousands of people take free guided tours of the Centre Block. When the Senate or the House of Commons is sitting, visitors can watch the action from the galleries while an audio guide explains the key players and activities. Special rooms in the East Block, recreated to look as they did in Sir John A. Macdonald’s time, are also open to the public in the summer. Outdoor walking tours, self-guiding booklets, sound and light shows and the Changing the Guard Ceremony are just some of the activities that feature the history and majesty of the Parliament Buildings.
We produce some public information materials in alternative formats for visually impaired persons.
For more information contact:
Parliament of Canada
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A9
National Capital Region: (613) 992-4793
Fax: (613) 992-1273
TTY: (613) 995-2266
Guided Tours: (613) 996-0896