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1916: Fire destroys Parliament Buildings

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The Parliament Buildings are as much a part of our heritage as hockey and the maple leaf. But on this February evening in 1916, they are struck by tragedy. As members of Parliament engage in heated debate, a small fire suddenly erupts in the nearby reading room. Within minutes, the flames engulf everything in their path, quickly spreading out of control. By midnight the blaze consumes the building, collapsing the central tower and killing seven. Many years have passed since that fateful night but, as these witnesses recount in a 1966 documentary, the memories live on.
• When Lower Canada and Upper Canada joined to form the Province of Canada in 1841, its seat of government alternated for a number of years until Queen Victoria established a permanent capital in Ottawa in 1857. The Parliament Buildings were subsequently built between 1859 and 1866, though the library was only completed in 1876. After Confederation, the buildings were chosen as the seat of government for the new Dominion of Canada.

• The destruction could have been worse were it not for a quick-thinking Parliament employee. By promptly closing the heavy metal doors that separated the Parliamentary library from the rest of the Centre Block, librarian Connolly MacCormac was able to save the priceless collection of books. The ingenious design of the Library, specifically the iron doors, acted as a fortuitous fire barrier.

• Many eyewitnesses claimed that immediately after they heard the clock tower chime at midnight, it was overtaken by flames and crashed to the ground below.

• Since the source of the fire was unknown and Canada was involved in the First World War, a debate erupted over whether arson or an accident had been the cause. A German conspiracy was initially suspected. "The fire was put!" declared Montréal Mayor Médéric Martin. Even when it was later reported that an unattended cigar had been the culprit, the controversy continued. The Toronto Globe wrote, "unofficial Ottawa declare, 'the Hun hath done this thing.'"

• After the fire, the Victoria Memorial Museum - today the location of the Canadian Museum of Nature - was chosen as the interim site for Parliament. But creating a permanent home quickly became top priority. So, despite their wartime concerns, rebuilding began immediately in July 1916. The new structure, designed by John Pearson and Jean Omer Marchand, was finished by 1922. The Peace Tower was completed in 1927.

• On Sept. 1, 1916, the governor general of Canada, the Duke of Connaught, laid the cornerstone for the new building at a commemorative ceremony. "Let us hope," he declared, "that in the new Parliament Buildings that are about to spring up, many a speech will be made by many a distinguished man of the future, all for the good and advancement of Canada."
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special
Broadcast Date: Feb. 2, 1966
Guest(s): Carl Dunning, Reg Sissons
Host: Mac Atkinson
Duration: 5:14
Photo: D.A. McLaughlin / Library and Archives Canada / C-017502

Last updated: October 24, 2014

Page consulted on October 24, 2014

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