Politics

Remembrance Day: Parliament Hill's Centre Block stands as a memorial to fallen soldiers

The Great Fire of 1916, in the midst of the Great War, destroyed the Centre Block on Parliament Hill. It was rebuilt as a memorial to Canada's fallen soldiers from that conflict and all subsequent conflicts.

After a fire in 1916, the Gothic structure was rebuilt as a permanent memorial to Canada's war dead

CBC News takes you into the memorial chamber of Parliament Hill, a building that embodies the sacrifice of Canada's soldiers in our world wars. 3:11

Across Canada people gather on Nov. 11 — the day the hostilities of the First World War ended in 1918 — to honour the courage and devotion of the brave men and women who made the supreme sacrifice for their country.

This sort of remembrance typically takes place at a local memorial, or cenotaph, where the names of the war dead are inscribed.

In Ottawa today, tens of thousands will gather around the National War Memorial for the official ceremony presided over by Governor General David Johnston, Tom Eagles, the dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Ottawa's other memorial to fallen heroes

But there is another structure in Ottawa that also stands as a monument to Canada's fallen soldiers: the main building on Parliament Hill itself.

In the midst of the Great War, in 1916, a fire broke out in the Centre Block on the Hill, burning the Gothic-style building to the ground, sparing only the adjoining Library of Parliament.

The main building on Parliament Hill was destroyed by a fire in 1916, in the midst of the Great War. John Pearson, the chief architect, set out to rebuild it as a tribute to Canada's fallen servicemen and women. (Canadian Press Archives)

As Johanna Mizagala, the House curator, describes in the video above, the government of Canada set out to quickly rebuild and devote the new building to fallen servicemen and women.

The symbols of remembrance on Parliament Hill are pervasive: John McRae's iconic poem, In Flanders Fields, is inscribed on the walls.

The walls of Confederation Hall, the main entrance to Centre Block, and the Hall of Honour, are decorated with commemorative plaques referring to the fire, the Fathers of Confederation and the Great War. Poppies have been carved into virtually every surface in the building.

But the centrepiece is the national shrine, the memorial chamber, a tribute to Canadians who had given their lives during the Great War in France and in Flanders.

John Pearson, the architect who designed the rebuilt Centre Block, described the room as a "sacred grove in the middle of the forest."

The Memorial Chamber, which is also called the Memorial Chapel, contains the Books of Remembrance, inscribed with the names of Canadians who have died in battle. The pages are flipped every day of the year at 11 a.m., to reveal the names of more fallen heroes. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The floors and the walls of the room are made from stone Pearson personally collected from the main battlefields in Europe where Canadians perished. 

And the focal point of the chamber is the altar — a stunning block of British Hoptonwood limestone — which contains the Book of Remembrance that holds the names of over 66,000 Canadians who died during the Great War.

Today, there are six more altars around the chamber with separate books listing those who died in conflicts from the Nile Expedition to the Korean War, to more recent wars.

Watch the video above as CBC News takes you inside Parliament and the memorial chamber. 


What to expect on Nov. 11

There will be prayers, a public wreath-laying, the playing of the Last Post, a salute to the veterans and a moment of silence at today's Remembrance Day national ceremony.

The dignitaries who will be in attendance are as follows: 

  • Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.
  • Their Excellencies the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, and Mrs. Sharon Johnston.
  • Leo Housakos, speaker of the Senate of Canada.
  • Stéphane Dion, minister of foreign affairs.
  • Kent Hehr, minister of veterans affairs.
  • Harjit Singh Sajjan, minister of national defence.
  • Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, Canadian Armed Forces.
  • Tom Eagles, dominion president, Royal Canadian Legion.
  • Brad White, dominion secretary, Royal Canadian Legion.
  • Sheila Anderson, 2015 National Memorial (Silver) Cross Mother.

The CBC's coverage

Join CBC News Wednesday for live coverage of Canada's Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

Follow the conversation online at CBCNews.ca, which will run a live blog starting at 10 a.m. ET and will live stream the ceremony at the same time.

Use the hashtag #HowIRemember to share your thoughts about Remembrance Day.

You can also watch the Remembrance Day special hosted by The National's Peter Mansbridge at 10 a.m. ET on CBC News Network or on CBC Television at 10 a.m. in each time zone.

Listeners can tune in to CBC Radio One at 10:55 a.m. ET for special coverage hosted by Susan Bonner. She'll be joined by Second World War veteran Jim Parks, who landed on Juno Beach with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles infantry regiment on D-Day.


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