5 secrets of Parliament Hill

Hundreds of thousands of people visit Parliament Hill every year, but most don't get to go behind the scenes in one of the country's most important buildings. From secret doors to the Speaker's Scotch, CBC News has a two-part series to show you 9 things you probably don't know about Parliament Hill.

Even those who work every day on Parliament Hill don't know all of these secrets

Hundreds of thousands of people visit Parliament Hill every year, but most don't get to go behind the scenes in one of the country's most important buildings. From secret doors to the Speaker's Scotch, CBC News has a two-part series to show you 10 things you probably didn't know about Parliament Hill. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

More than 325,000 people tour Parliament Hill in Ottawa every year, but most don't get to go behind the scenes in one of the country's most important buildings. From secret doors to the Speaker's Scotch, CBC News offers up nine things you probably don't know about Parliament Hill — in a two-part series.

1. One man controls time on Parliament Hill

Public Works employee Robert Labonté is responsible for many of the most prominent elements on Parliament Hill, but the most visible may be the Peace Tower clock.
The Peace Tower clock on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, as photographed from inside the tower. (Robert Labonté)

Controlled from a small room inside the tower, Labonté sets the big clock using a pilot clock that simulates the same time. The pilot clock is locked, with only three or four people holding a key for it, he said.

"I can tell from here what the Peace Tower clock is reading. I can move them at the same time. So when I change the hour, I’m actually looking at this and not outside," he told CBC News.

Public Works sets the clock by the National Research Council official Canadian time and, twice a year, it's Labonté's job to change the time.

Because the clock was built in 1927, the mechanism won't allow it to turn backwards. So, when most other Canadians turn their clocks back an hour in the fall, Labonté goes in at 2 a.m., stops the Peace Tower clock for an hour, re-sets other clocks around Parliament Hill, and starts up the Peace Tower clock when 2 a.m. hits for the second time.

"It is 1927 design. We can’t turn back time. We can stop it, but we can’t go back in time. So you’ll never see the dials go backwards," he said.

2. The flame in the middle of the lawn isn't eternal — but coins thrown into the fountain fund research

Many people refer to the Centennial Flame as an eternal flame — but the flame is turned off four times a year for a thorough cleaning of the fountain.
The Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill is fenced off as a worker does routine cleaning and maintenance. (Laura Payton/CBC)

Public Works employees every week collect the coins thrown into the fountain around the flame, and the House of Commons human resources committee uses the $4,000 to $5,000 collected every year to fund research into disabilities.

The 2013 award, according to the parliamentary website, went to Sara Carleton for her research looking at Olympian Clara Hughes and how she has affected the way Canadians think about mental health disorders. Hughes helps to raise awareness about depression.

3. There's a secret door in Tom Mulcair's office 

The leader of the Official Opposition gets an elaborate office on the fourth floor of Centre Block, just above the Prime Minister's Office, that includes a fireplace and detailed frescoes depicting soldiers in battle.

The office also has what may be Centre Block's only secret door.

Identical wood panels decorate the wall on either side of the fireplace, but one actually sits on hidden hinges.

"This panel on this side here," Mulcair told CBC News, pointing to the panel to the left of the fireplace, "is actually a secret door."

The door opens into the next office, occupied by Mulcair's executive assistant, George Smith.

"The legend is that [former prime minister William Lyon] Mackenzie King, especially in the day when there wasn’t a lot of security, people used to just wander in and when there were people out there he didn’t want to see, there was another door and he could sneak out the back way," Mulcair said.

4. Animals abound in Centre Block

While Centre Block is a Gothic building, House curator David Monaghan says that style of architecture can be light and whimsical as well as dark.

"The selection of subjects in the building, for a Parliament, is not always political," he said in the building's main hall, known as the rotunda or Confederation Hall.
An owl is carved into the stone decorating an archway in Centre Block on Parliament Hill. (Laura Payton/CBC)

"A recurring theme in the building is Canadian flora and fauna. You see pictures of owls and snow geese and fish. It's not exactly terribly serious when you think about it: that you have a place where kings and prime ministers walk through [and it] is adorned with fish and fowl," Monaghan said, pointing out that the animals, including beavers and bears, are even frolicking.

The main entrance, one floor above the visitor entrance and used by parliamentary staff and journalists, is filled with architectural detail. One Monaghan loves to point out starts from the central column in the hall.

Green and white marble are arranged as a compass rose (the design on the compass face), with a wavy green strip circling the rotunda. A straight green circle encompasses the wavy one.

A marble design on the floor inside Confederation Hall in Centre Block on Parliament Hill denotes water. (Laura Payton/CBC)
"When you look at it, it's just a lovely pattern and most individuals don't realize much about it," Monaghan said.

"The wavy line represents the ocean on the floor. The circle represents the earth ... [Parliament]'s the point at which we find direction, not only in the building but also for the country," he said.

It fits with the architect's idea of Parliament as the ship of state, he added. The floors in the offices of the House and Senate speakers, the prime minister, the Official Opposition leader and the House of Commons all have teak floors with ebony inlay, copying the teak used on great ships.

The ebony represents the tar that would have been used to seal a ship's floor, Mulcair told CBC News from inside his fourth-floor office.

5. An enormous portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald hangs in the PMO

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office has little other than some chairs and an imposing desk, leaving one item to dominate the decor: a portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister — a Conservative.

When Google Streetview was allowed into Harper's office, it was just as tidy as when press secretary Carl Vallée showed CBC News around. A Beatles mug sits on the desk and photos of Harper with his family hang on the wall that would be to his right when he's seated at the desk.

A portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, hangs in the Centre Block office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Laura Payton/CBC)
​The office was kept by Conservative leaders from 1924 until 1963, lending it special meaning to Harper, Vallée said.

"He’s personalized it," Vallée said, pointing to the row of family photos along one wall.

"But it speaks to the history of Parliament. So he comes in and he can appreciate where he works. And this is the mandate that he received from Canadians, [so] he can come here and work hard for them. And it serves as a great reminder of the privilege and the honour that he has to work here."

In a statement, Harper said Centre Block is an important part of Canada's rich history.

"From official visits to daily parliamentary duties, my office reminds me of the effort and dedication of all those who have walked the halls of Parliament Hill before me and who have contributed to making Canada into the strong, beautiful country we know today," Harper said.


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