The Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are shown before the 1916 fire. (National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)
It happened in the middle of the First World War, and there were many at the time who believed it had been deliberately set by German saboteurs. Just weeks before the fire, an unsavoury American businessman told a newspaper editor that Germans were planning an attack on Ottawa's capital buildings — the U.S. was not yet at war. American justice officials had received the tip, but the message apparently never made it to Canadian authorities. Still, an official inquiry came up with no firm conclusion on whether it was arson, a careless smoker, or maybe faulty wiring. "You can look at all the facts, and fit them into these theories as best you can, and come to your own conclusion," said Don Nixon, a retired Parliament Hill engineer who explores the arguments in his book "The Other Side of the Hill." "I think it probably was deliberate, I say probably because we don't know. The things we know about the fire, it seems to me point in that direction."
"At one time Sir Wilfrid's voice faltered and entirely broke."
The Speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Scheer follows Deputy Sereant at Arms Pat McDonell as he carries the temporary mace through the Hall of Honour Feb. 3, 2015 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The wooden and metal mace was used as a temporary mace until March 28, 1917 after the original mace was destroyed in the Centre Block fire on Feb. 3, 1916. The temporary mace is used when the House sits on February 3 to commemorate the fire. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)The Commons had been sitting that night, when fire broke out in the nearby, wood-lined reading room chocked with newspapers. The flames rose up quickly, spreading with the help of the old ventilation system. The Speaker of the House, Albert Sevigny, rushed to get his children and wife out of the building as the flames spread into his quarters. A guest jumped into a fire department net from a floor above, while two other women visitors perished from smoke inhalation. "I realized that our poor friends were dead and I practically collapsed myself — I was taken out by two of my men there," Sevigny told a special inquiry later that month. Martin Burrell, the minister of Agriculture, suffered burns to his hands and face in the fire. Prime Minister Robert Borden ran coatless and hatless into the night. Foolhardy reporters like Grattan O'Leary climbed through a window into their main floor workroom to grab precious typewriters.
"By this time a great crowd had gathered," O'Leary wrote in his memoirs. "It was a bitterly cold night, and people caught in the building were coming down ladders or leaping into the snow beneath the windows." Inside the current building, which opened for sittings only four years later in 1920, there are a few reminders of the old. The recently scrubbed-up West Block, including the orangey-pink Potsdam stone, is a reminder of what the old Centre Block would have looked like in its prime. The large painting of young Queen Victoria in the Senate foyer was cut right out of the frame the night of the fire by quick-thinking staff. More importantly, there is the Library of Parliament — the old pine carving and wood panelling a throwback to what some of the old Centre Block would have been like. The blue iron work with gilded tips along the library's exterior also went around the original building.
"I realized that our poor friends were dead and I practically collapsed myself."
People make their way towards the centre block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)A steel fire door, and plenty of firefighters, helped save the structure and the books inside. "The whole thing was a work of art, and from that standpoint of view it was a priceless loss," said Lucile Finsten, co-author of the 1988 book "Fire on Parliament Hill!" House of Commons curator Johanna Mizgala points out that the small alcove outside the library is also from the original Centre Block, something few visitors and even MPs might realize. (Parliament Hill shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was brought down in that very spot two years ago.) "We only think of the library as a separate entity because the original building isn't there anymore. The way it was designed, it wasn't a library and a Parliament building, it was one entity," said Mizgala. "You can see the shift in the two kinds of stone. You get a sense of what the walls and the physicality of the old building must have been."
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