This Week in History

Archives

Fire!

This story was initially published in 1999

On February 3, 1916, a spectacular evening fire destroyed the Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Almost overnight Canada was left without a legislative home.

Parliament on Fire

Parliament on Fire
© Library and Archives Canada

Ottawa was selected as the capital for the united Upper and Lower Canadas (now Ontario and Quebec) by Queen Victoria. This location offered a romantic site for the 1859 Gothic Parliament Buildings, 45 metres above the junction of the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal. The buildings remained as the seat of government after Confederation.

The two-day long blaze caused injury and death. People were forced to escape the building quickly. The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, had to crawl out on his hands and knees! Government papers were found 400 metres away. Spray from firemen's hoses turned to ice in the cold night air making the ruins look ghostly white. Only the library was saved thanks to an employee who closed its iron fire-proof doors.

Only the library survived

Only the library survived
© Library and Archives Canada

Since it happened in the middle of the First World War, many people suspected that the fire was no accident. Some even accused German spies! It was important to rebuild Parliament quickly so that Canadians would not feel vulnerable. The government was moved to the Victoria Memorial Museum (now the Canadian Museum of Nature) while the Centre Block was being rebuilt. Because extra room was needed for a growing government, the new building was larger and cost more than double what the initial buildings had cost.

Added to the new construction was the Peace Tower. It houses the Books of Remembrance, listing thousands of Canada's war-dead. The floor of the Tower's chapel is made of stones from French battlefields.

Because of their importance to the nation's political life, the Parliament Buildings were designated a National Historic Site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1976.

Date Modified: