Historic elm tree faces axe for Centre Block renovations

It has witnessed decades of Canada Day celebrations and cabinet shuffles and even survived the devastating Dutch elm disease, but the major renovation of Centre Block will likely mean the demise of a historic elm tree on Parliament Hill.

Government says too expensive and risky to move estimated 100-year-old elm

A historic elm tree next to the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill will likely be cut down to make room for the major renovations of Centre Block. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

It has witnessed decades of Canada Day celebrations and cabinet shuffles and even survived the devastating Dutch elm disease, but the major renovation of Centre Block will likely mean the demise of a historic elm tree on Parliament Hill.

Though no one can be sure of its exact age, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) estimates the tree is about 100 years old, during which time it has grown as high as the offices on the fifth storey of Centre Block, from its base next to a statue of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. 

"It frames almost any shot of Centre Block. It's part of the picture, it's part of the scene, it's part of our heritage," said Paul Johanis, chair of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital.

Johanis and his colleagues at the alliance are raising the alarm now that PSPC, the department responsible for the renovations of Centre Block, has confirmed they'll ask the National Capital Commission to cut it down to make room for construction. 

"Mature trees play a very specific and important role in the forest cover, and we keep losing them through projects like renovations and infill," Johanis said. "In Centretown Ottawa, it's become a crisis. We want to make sure that doesn't happen with this tree."

Paul Johanis, chair of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital, wants the NCC to deny PSPC's application to cut down the elm tree over the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald's on the east side of Centre Block. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

'Low potential for survivability'

In all 30 trees in the section east of Centre Block have been tagged for either relocation or permanent removal to accommodate excavation work near the buildings, said Jennifer Garrett, director general for the Centre Block rehabilitation program.

The department needs to cut down 16 of those — eight of which are invasive — and relocate the remaining 14.

Unfortunately, a 2018 arborist's report determined the tree is in poor condition and is being held together by cables in the upper section as a result of deterioration in its centre, and that it has a "low potential for survivability" if moved, Garrett said.

"We took very seriously the decision and the analysis around the tree," Garrett said. "Nobody in PSPC wants to take down a tree. But the facts are the facts, and the realities are the tree is not in very good condition, and it wouldn't be prudent of us to invest taxpayer money."

PSPC estimates the cost to move the roughly 20-metre-tall tree would reach $400,000.

"The best course of action, on behalf of taxpayers, is to remove that tree, meaning cut it down, and re-use the wood for commemorative purposes," Garrett said.

Jennifer Garrett, the director general for the Centre Block rehabilitation program, says relocating the elm tree would cost an estimated $400,000, and the tree is unlikely to survive the move. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Cutting down or moving trees on Parliament Hill requires what's called a federal land use approval, which means requesting permission from the National Capital Commission (NCC).

In a written response to CBC, the NCC said it's reviewing all of PSPC's Centre Block rehabilitation project, and addressed the elm tree in particular.

"As the elm tree in question is the property of PSPC, the ultimate decision on how to proceed rests with them," read the statement.

Upon learning of the NCC's response, Paul Johanis said the alliance will immediately ask the NCC to deny PSPC's application to cut down the elm.

As part of the Centre Block's renovations the foundation will be rehabilitated, meaning the area in proximity to the building will be excavated. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Elm could live on as a sculpture

If the elm is cut down, the wood would likely end up in the hands of the Dominion Sculptor, Phil White, whose work includes wooden decorative and commemorative carvings and sculptures in the temporary home of the Senate.

"Let's say we could salvage 50 per cent of the wood, we could be looking at elements of furniture, chairs, tables, or even sculptural elements," said White. "We could actually take a section of that tree and create a sculpture from it. Something that honours the memory of the tree."​