Touring the Canadian Parliament

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author: quinn bell | a&c  writer

Democracy sure is pretty / Pixabay

A lasting look in Ottawa

In January, Parliament will close its main doors for major construction. This round of renovations – the first since the fires of 1916 – are scheduled to last for the next ten years. Knowing Ottawa’s love of efficiency, it’s hard to say just how long it will actually be closed. Meanwhile, MPs and Senators will not be working from home: West Block was recently renovated at $863 million so that it could hold a temporary House of Commons, and the Senate will be held just down the street. This week, I was lucky enough to sneak into Parliament for a tour before it closes its doors. As it may be tough to get a tour of the place over the next decade, consider this a quick tour of the Parliament of Canada. 

We met our tour guide on Parliament Hill, in front of the Centennial Peace Flame. It was a rainy night, but the gas-fuelled fire was burning anyway. We huddled together next to the flame to keep warm while we waited, and we watched a man in a Guy Fawkes mask wordlessly hand out brochures to tourists.  

Behind us stood Centre Block, the heart of our Canadian federal democracy. An imposing but beautifully decorated building, Centre Block is a striking example of high gothic revival architecture. Spotlights created long and textured shadows on the building which added still more chill to the already damp evening. It was hard at that point to imagine any of the action that was taking place inside. Outside, it was only us: a couple of visitors, Guy Fawkes, and some RCMP cars. Inside, the House was in session, there was a fancy dinner party, meetings were taking place, and librarians were hard at work. 

Once our guide arrived, we headed inside. After various security checks, we were given visitor name tags that would expire after a few hours (the paper turns pink so that the tag can’t be reused). Our guide made sure we used – or at least looked into – the washrooms by the coat-check. Apparently, they’re pretty much the same as the ones used by the MPs upstairs. They were indeed fancy, and old: I saw a lot of marble. They also had those annoying sinks where there are separate faucets for hot and cold water. 

We then made our way upstairs. The first stop along the way was the rotunda, also known as Confederation Hall. Imagine a circular room, intricately decorated with stone and plaster work, all revolving around an attention-grabbing column that twists from floor to arched ceiling. The floor is designed to remind visitors of water and exploration – and while talk of exploration and confederation can be problematic these days, it is a beautiful space nonetheless (and equally haunting when visited at dusk). We had fun looking around for Saskatchewan’s crest, and guessing who the other ones belonged to. 

Next came the Hall of Honour. More tall limestone arches, and more decorative plaster work. The Hall was more brightly lit than the rotunda, and so felt sleeker and more inviting. A funny fact about the place: the main part of the hall, originally meant to honour “Great Canadians” with large carved statues, is empty. In such a politicized space it was (and remains) impossible to choose those we should honour. It’s not that we do not have heroes to honour – it just seems impossible to please everyone, and so the hall remains empty. Instead, you’ll likely spot a tourist having their picture taken as a statue, pretending to be a Great Canadian. Fun. 

The Hall of Honour has a heavier history as well. It was the scene of the 2014 shooting at Parliament. Our guide showed us where the shooter was taken out: at the end of the hall, in front of the library. We could see the bullet holes still in the wall. 

Beyond the Hall, as mentioned, lies the Library. We were told that the library was saved during the 1916 Parliament fires by some quick-thinking librarians who locked down the space early on. The doors are a strong metal, but they’re painted to look like wood. The only giveaway is that they are cold to the touch. The librarians might also have had some help from the prevailing winds that day, which were blowing away from the library. In any case, we got lucky – it would have been such a loss had the library burned.  

I’m not talking only about the books, although that would have been a disaster. No, I’m also talking about the art, specifically the original wood carvings that line the three-story shelves of the large, circular library. The space boasts over a hundred carved rosettes; each is completely unique, and each is perfect. These, along with the tall ceilings, the brilliant wooden floors, and the big white statue of Queen Victoria make the library the favourite spot of many visitors. I would have to agree. 

In a whisper, our guide pointed out that that statue of Victoria was one of the few representations of women in Parliament. Most of the honoured, it became clear, are men; the only named women found on the walls are the monarchs Victoria and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, our nineteenth prime minister. Aside from them, there is a memorial for the nurses of Canada, who helped shape the country both in and out of war and who were, predominantly, women. Some might also count the portrait of Jean Chrétien, whose portrait is a bright, gaudy yellow – it was his wife’s favourite colour. 

The only other part of our tour was the House of Commons; I don’t really feel I need to describe this. Green carpet, fancy windows, and lots of chairs. Tune into a debate sometime and see for yourself, or wait for January and see the new temporary House. It has been designed with the TV audience in mind and is coming fully equipped with overhead lighting and a fancy glass ceiling – it’s the future! Although a part of Parliament will be closed for the foreseeable future, at least Ottawa will be giving us a good, hi-def view of what’s going on inside. 

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