Senator caps lifelong fight protecting heritage buildings by tackling Château Laurier

A soon-to-be-retired senator has taken his decades-long fight to protect important heritage buildings to Ottawa, where his final act before leaving the Red Chamber for good is aimed at protecting the area around Parliament Hill.

Senator Serge Joyal's private member’s bill seeks to protect iconic Ottawa hotel

The privately-owned Château Laurier is considered by many to be a part of the Parliamentary Precinct, which includes many other federal buildings along Wellington Street. (Larco Investments)

A soon-to-be-retired senator has taken his decades-long fight to protect important heritage buildings to Ottawa, where his final act before leaving the Red Chamber for good is aimed at protecting the area around Parliament Hill.

Sen. Serge Joyal's initiative is a private member's bill introduced earlier this month that seeks to extend the federal government's power to limit changes to land and buildings around the so-called Parliamentary Precinct.

The objective of the bill is to "prevent demolition, restoration, addition, and destruction that would change the immediate vicinity of Parliament Hill," Joyal told Radio-Canada.

That includes the proposed addition to Ottawa's iconic Château Laurier, which is privately owned.

"We want to prevent a situation similar to the one we've known with the expansion of Château Laurier," Joyal said. "It seems to me that there is a legislative solution."

The proposed addition is meant to contrast with the hotel's French-castle style, which was itself an anachronism when it was built in the early 20th century. The addition's many critics have variously described it as resembling a giant air conditioner, shipping container or radiator tacked onto the side of the regal Château.

Feds have little authority

Despite the public outcry, Ottawa city council in July upheld an earlier decision to allow the addition, though it's since been delayed by a zoning technicality.

Around that time, Joyal started looking into what the federal government could do about the proposal — and discovered that Ottawa city council held most of the power.

The senator, who is set to retire from the Senate when he turns 75 on Feb. 1, said some of that power should be shifted to the National Capital Commission (NCC), the federal body responsible for planning and development in the capital region.

Senator Serge Joyal told Radio-Canada that existing legislation is "totally inadequate" to handle the expansion of Ottawa's downtown core. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

The authorization for such projects, Joyal explained, should be "sought from the Commission for any project that would really destroy the immediate environment of Parliament Hill."

This lack of federal power around any federal historic and heritage sites was previously flagged by the House of Commons' heritage committee in December 2017, which noted that Canada was the only G7 country that did not have legislation to that effect.

The Château Laurier's owner, Vancouver-based Larco Investments, through its representative Momentum Planning and Communication, did not respond to requests for comment.

Senator 'heading in the right direction,' councillor says

Joyal's bill has been lauded by opponents of the proposed Château Laurier addition, including Coun. Mathieu Fleury, whose ward includes the hotel and who disagrees with those who say government should not be allowed to limit what a private company can do with its property.

"I believe the Senator is heading in the right direction. I think what he's proposing is very meaningful," Fleury told Radio-Canada.

What the Senator is bringing forward is not against the city.- Coun. Mathieu Fleury

Fleury believes that unlike the NCC, city council is poorly placed to make decisions on matters of national importance thanks to its competing interests, its four-year election cycle and the limited scope of its powers.

"I believe that what the Senator is bringing forward is not against the city — because the city has its own processes under the Planning Act, under the Municipal Act — but allows an additional oversight and authority from the National Capital Commission who has that mandate to look at elements that are important for the capital," Fleury said.

Joyal's long fight to save heritage sites

Joyal has been fighting to save heritage sites since 1966. One of his first battles involved an ultimately unsuccessful effort to save the Van Horne mansion in Montreal's historic Golden Square Mile.

Built in 1869, the Victorian mansion was purchased 20 years later by Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. But in 1973, with mayor Jean Drapeau's approval, it was bulldozed in the middle of the night to avoid protests and replaced by a high-rise.

Joyal later took part in a successful effort to save the Maison Alcan in Montreal and the neighbourhood around Gatineau's Museum of History.

The bill will continue to be championed by Sen. Patricia Bovey when the Red Chamber resumes sittings on Feb. 4. The Manitoba senator is an art historian and former gallery director in Victoria and Winnipeg.

With files from Radio-Canada