07/17/2011 03:16 EDT | Updated 09/16/2011 05:12 EDT

Historic Parliament Building Hidden Under Old Montreal Parking Lot


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- MONTREAL - Hidden underneath a narrow, shrub-lined parking lot in Old Montreal is an important piece of Canada's political past, and archeologists are working to uncover it.

Digging has begun in the hopes of finding the remains of what was supposed to have been the first permanent parliament of what was then the United Province of Canada.

Despite the building's pivotal place in Canadian history, the supervisor of the dig says most people probably don't even know Montreal was home to the parliament, let alone its specific location.

"It's a place of national significance but, curiously, there is no plaque or anything to mark it," said Louise Pothier, director of exhibitions at Montreal's Pointe-a-Calliere archeological and history museum.

The team is keeping expectations low about what it hopes to find preserved in the ground, given that the Montreal parliament had a short lifespan and met a particularly fiery end.

An earlier parliament sat in Kingston, Ont., and was subsequently moved to the original St. Anne's Market in Montreal, a two-storey columned neo-classical building, imposing in its time, located between St-Pierre and McGill streets.

The first session was held in the converted public market on Nov. 28, 1844.

Key pieces of Canada's early legislation were adopted in the building, including the act establishing "responsible government" in 1848 -- a vital step in the emergence of a sovereign democratic state.

The Montreal building would continue to house the parliament and government offices until April 25, 1849, when it was burned to the ground during a violent protest by angry Anglos.

It was a particularly tragic episode in Canadian political history.

The turmoil revolved around the Rebellion Losses Bill, legislation that sought to compensate people who sustained property damage during the 1837-38 rebellions against the Crown.

The debate had gotten so intense that, at one point, a young opposition MP named John A. Macdonald -- later Canada's first prime minister -- challenged a rival to a duel.

When the legislation received royal assent, a furious crowd pelted eggs at the carriage of the governor general, Lord Elgin, who had signed the bill.

The unruly mob then overtook the building.

"Tory supporters were completely against compensating Quebecers and Catholics who had participated in the rebellion ... they entered by force into the council chamber where Parliament was sitting," Pothier said.

"The members were forced out of the building and it was ransacked before a fire was lit inside."

The telling moment was captured on several paintings of the era, including one by Joseph Legare that is on display at Montreal's McCord Museum.

"The burning of the Parliament Building in Montreal in 1849 can be seen as a turning point in the history of Canada, one that led to Confederation," notes the museum's website.

The following day, parliament was relocated to Bonsecours Market for a few weeks before leaving Montreal altogether. Its sittings were split between Quebec City and Toronto before Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the permanent capital in 1857.

The parliament building was considered a total loss and, about two years after its destruction, a new St. Anne's Market was rebuilt on the site.

In 1901, that market was razed and turned into a public space named Parliament Square -- the last time the spot bore any reference to its previous incarnation.

In the 1920s, with the rise of the automobile, the area was paved into a parking lot and that's how it remained until the summer of 2010 -- a long, narrow lot surrounded by elegant colonial-era buildings.

Archeologists conducted surveys for about 20 years while trying to decide whether and where to dig.

"What we know is at that time, when a building burned to the ground, you left the debris there and constructed on top of it," Pothier said.

Pothier suspects other items may have survived and are in people's private collections, unbeknownst to them.

Only a few existing items are confirmed to have been traced back to the 1849 blaze -- among them a portrait of Queen Victoria and a few books from the library.

A spokesman for the current Senate said that portrait, depicting a young Queen Victoria from early in her reign, currently hangs outside the chamber in Ottawa's Centre Block of Parliament.

He said the portrait has actually survived four fires -- including the one that destroyed Ottawa's original Centre Block in 1916.

As for other relics, Pothier said they hope to find more this summer.

"Sometimes we have some very interesting surprises when we do archeological excavations," Pothier said. "It will depend on what the fire destroyed and how the objects were conserved underground during all this time, but we are optimistic."

The site is located in historic Place D'Youville, an area of Montreal steeped in history, and coincidentally located across the street from the current Montreal history centre.

About a dozen archeologists are digging up about 30 per cent of the site in the south part of the parking lot, leaving the rest for future archeologists.

They will continue until October at which point the city plans to convert the site yet again, this time into a green space.

They have also uncovered a 400-metre-long tunnel, used as a sewage collector in the 1800s, that links up to the museum.

Pothier said they hope to turn it into a tunnel that will be accessible from the museum by 2017 -- just in time for Montreal's 375th birthday.