Parliament’s Centre Block Fire of 1916


The Centre Block is the main building of the Canadian parliamentary complex on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Ninety-nine years ago the Centre Block was completely destroyed by a fire that began while the House of Commons was in evening session on 3 February 1916. Among those who died in the blaze was Bowman Brown Law, the Liberal member of parliament for Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia. Because of this unusual link with Yarmouth County I became interested to view images of both the Centre Block and the fire that destroyed it. I found that Library and Archives Canada has fascinating online collections of such photographs [1–4]. Below I present a selection of them in chronologically-ordered groups:

    Centre Block (1860 to 1916),

    Centre Block Fire of 1916, and

    New Centre Block (1916 to present).

References and Notes

    [1] Library and Archives Canada: Centre Block Fire.

    [2] Library and Archives Canada: Centre Block Construction.

    [3] Library and Archives Canada: Old Centre Block.

    [4] Library and Archives Canada: New Centre Block.

    [5] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Centre Block.

    [6] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Parliament Hill.

    [7] Greg Stacey: Canada in Historic Photographs.

    [8] The Windsor Star: The Mystery of the Parliament Hill Fire.

    [9] “The story how Ottawa came to be chosen as Canada’s capital is of the greatest interest to the present generation. After the riots in Montreal in 1849 and the wilful destruction of the Parliament Buildings there, it was decided that the seat of Government should alternate between Toronto and Quebec, and for a number of years this scheme was carried out––a compromise to allay the rivalry between Upper and Lower Canada. The fixed centre of legislation was, however, found to be absolutely essential, and the question became a lively feature of Canadian politics. Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto all clamoured for the honour, with such a degree of warmth that reference to a high arbitrator became necessary, and, with the befitting respect, Queen Victoria was requested to act, to the lasting honour of the Ministry of the day, of which Sir John Macdonald was the real head. Though strong objection came from those who feared the move would endanger responsible government, the Ministry were sustained by a majority of nine, and the request was formally submitted to the Queen. On December 1, 1857, the Colonial Secretary informed the Government that Ottawa had been selected. A storm of violent opposition immediately arose, and a motion by Mr. Piche (member for Berthier)––‘That Ottawa should not be the permanent seat of Government’––was adopted by a majority of 14. The Government resigned, but the leaders of the Opposition were unable to command a majority, and the Governor-General again placed office at the disposal of Sir John Macdonald and his party. During 1859 the subject was finally settled, Sir John and his colleagues insisting on acceptance of the Queen’s choice.” –– “Burning of the Canadian Houses of Parliament,” Otautau Standard and Wallace County Chronicle, vol. XI, issue 565, 21 March 1916, page 2. Available online.

William Day (1 February 2015)