Century-old elm tree on Parliament Hill gets the axe

A century-old American elm tree on Parliament Hill that became the subject of passionate pleas for its preservation has been cut down.

Advocates had called for tree to be saved, to no avail

Construction fencing surrounds the space where a century-old elm tree once stood on Parliament Hill on April 13, 2019. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

A century-old American elm tree on Parliament Hill has been cut down, despite passionate pleas for its preservation.

On Saturday evening, construction fencing surrounded the former site of the five-storey tree, which towered over a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald on the east side of Centre Block.

Visible in photos dating to the 1920s, the elm tree stood in the way of plans for an expanded Parliament Hill visitor centre being built as part of the forthcoming Centre Block renovations.

The elm tree can be seen on the east side of Centre Block. Historical photos show the tree has been there since the 1920s — and was possibly planted after the 1916 fire. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Memorial planned

"We'd kind of reconciled with the fact that we weren't going to be able to save it," said Paul Johanis, chair of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital.

The group had been advocating for the tree to be protected during those renovations, but was unable to sway a parliamentary committee that was tasked earlier this month with deciding the tree's fate.

Johanis said members of the group had been checking the Parliament Hill web camera daily, and when they saw construction crews working this morning, they knew the tree's time had come.

"A few of our members actually went down and took some photos," said Johanis. "We're going to put together a memorial for the tree — like an obituary, almost."

Paul Johanis, chair of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital, said he hoped saplings grown from the elm tree's genetic material will one day grace Parliament Hill. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Legacy could live on

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), the department responsible for the Centre Block renovations, had pointed to a 2018 arborist's report that stated the tree was in poor condition and was being held together by cables. 

Jennifer Garrett, director general for the Centre Block rehabilitation program, said in February the best plan would be to cut down the tree and "re-use the wood for commemorative purposes."

Johanis said he'd been told by PSPC that would indeed happen, with the wood potentially being used for new House of Commons furniture.

Genetic material from the elm was also collected by the Elm Recovery Centre in Guelph, Ont., and Johanis said they were using it to grow 50 saplings — saplings that could one day be planted on Parliament Hill, continuing the tree's legacy.

"This tree didn't make it, but it became kind of famous," he said.

"So maybe it'll become a flashpoint for efforts towards saving our urban forest and our mature trees."