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Choosing Canada’s Capital

For the week of Monday December 26, 2005

On December 31, 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa to be the capital of the Province of Canada. This announcement, which came after years of debate, was not immediately accepted, leaving Ottawa’s destiny uncertain.

Her Majesty Queen Victoria.
© Library and Archives Canada / W. and D. Downey / C-019313

In the Union Act of 1840, which bound Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada, Kingston was named its capital, and a new building was constructed for the legislature. But by 1843, the capital had been moved to Montréal, although this shift was not permanent either. The Rebellion Loses Bill of 1849 resulted in riots in Montréal, which saw its parliament buildings burnt. The destruction of the legislature resulted in a new search for a capital. The Assembly of the Province of Canada made the first attempt. Unable to decide on a site, Governor General Lord Elgin called for a system whereby the capital would move between Toronto and Québec City every four years. This pleased no one.

As a last resort, Queen Victoria was invited to make the decision. The next Governor General of the Province of Canada, Sir Edmund Walker Head, sent information about all of the proposed sites to the Queen, and added a glowing review of Ottawa, his choice for the capital. By the end of December, the Queen’s choice was revealed.

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Ottawa's scenic Rideau Canal with the Parliament Buildings in the background
© Parks Canada / B. Morin / 1991

Ottawa was an ideal capital for several reasons, many of which Head made clear to the Queen. The most important of these was its location within Canada West with only a bridge separating it from Canada East. This meant a partial victory for both sections of the Province, and a full victory for neither.

However, this declaration still had to be accepted by the Provincial Assembly. This was not an easy task because George Brown, the leader of the Clear Grits, tried to use this issue to overthrow the Macdonald-Cartier government and take power. Despite Brown’s resistance, Ottawa became the capital of the Province of Canada in February 1859.

The establishment of Ottawa as Canada’s Capital was declared a National Historic Event in 1976.

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