Book remains found, shed light on Canadian history

hi-parliament-dig.jpg The House of Assembly of Montreal, circa 1848, is shown in this drawing by James Duncan. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/National Gallery of Canada)

First aired on As It Happens (27/8/13)

They knew there was a library, but they weren't expecting books. Archaeologists are excavating the site of one of Canada's pre-Confederation parliaments in Montreal. The building, along with its library, was burned to the ground during riots in 1849. Now the team members believe they've unearthed some fragments from the collection.

The library at the House Assembly of Montreal originally housed over 24,000 books and other important documents, some which dated back to 17th-century France. It was one of the richest libraries in North America at the time. The parliament building burned on April 25, 1849, during anglophone riots protesting government plans to compensate French landowners for losses occurred during the rebellions of 1837 and 1838. "They came inside the building, the fought with the parliament, they destroyed a few things," Louise Pothier, the supervisor of the archaeological dig, told As It Happens. However, she said it's still unclear how the fire started -- just that it was "extremely intense" and everything "burned very, very quickly."

Given the intensity of the fire, Pothier was uncertain whether her team would uncover any books, but she remained hopeful. They have been digging at the site since 2010, but books were only discovered earlier this week. A team member came across a charred, unidentified object that appeared to be layered. When she pulled the layers apart, she noticed text on each layer -- and that it was in French. It was a book, and it turned out to be the first of many they would uncover.

In general, the books are in rough condition and are "barely recognizable." However, that doesn't undermine the importance of this discovery -- both for Pothier's team and for Canadian history. "This is an extraordinary symbolic discovery in the history of the building that we didn't dare hope for [any more]," Pothier said. "We hoped to find what might be the remains of a library -- and it's starting to look that way, so we're very happy."

-- with files from the Canadian Press

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