House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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6. The Physical and Administrative Setting

The Parliament Buildings and Grounds

Location and Disposition

The Parliament Buildings are situated on a cliff, originally a primeval forest of beech and hemlock whose southern approach consisted of dense cedar swamps and a beaver meadow. The site, [4]  which was formerly the location of a military barracks, overlooks the Ottawa River. It is bounded by Wellington Street to the south (the Wellington Wall, which was built in 1872, stands on the north side of Wellington Street, separating the lawns and buildings of Parliament Hill from the city street), the Rideau Canal to the east, the Ottawa River to the north and Bank Street to the west, and has the legal name of Parliament Hill. [5]  (See Figure 6.1, The Parliamentary Precinct.) The original complex of buildings comprised the Parliament Building — fronted by a tower and backed by the Library of Parliament, a 16-sided polygonal structure — as well as two extant departmental buildings styled East Block and West Block. The Parliament Building, including the tower, was destroyed by fire on February 3, 1916. [6]  Only the library survived intact, thanks to an employee who closed the great iron doors connecting the library to the rest of the building. For the next four years, both Houses of Parliament met several city blocks south of Parliament Hill in the Victoria Memorial Museum, now called the Canadian Museum of Nature. [7]  In 1920, sittings resumed in the new Centre Block, which was built on the same site as the old building. [8]  A new tower, called the Peace Tower in commemoration of Canada’s human and material contributions to the First World War, was also built. [9]

Figure 6.1 – The Parliamentary Precinct
Image depicting a map of the buildings in and area around the Parliamentary Precinct. To the left of the image (at the West side of the Precinct) are the Justice and Confederation Buildings, bordered on the South by Wellington Street and on the North by a hill leading down to the Ottawa River. To the right of these buildings on the image (slightly to the East) are the West Block the Centre Block and East Block. These too are bordered by Wellington Street and the Ottawa River. To the south of Wellington Street, along the bottom of the image, are the Wellington Building, bordered by Bank and Wellington Streets; the Victoria Building, at the corner of O’Connor and Wellington Streets; and La Promenade Building, found at the corner of O’Connor and Sparks Streets.
Source: Public Works and Government Services Canada.

While originally sufficient to house the entire parliamentary and governmental apparatus, the Centre, East and West Blocks ceased to provide adequate accommodation as the size, complexity and functions of Parliament and government multiplied. Today, government departments are housed in office buildings throughout the National Capital Region and elsewhere in the country. The parliamentary precinct — those premises which both Houses of Parliament “occupy from time to time for their corporate purposes” [10]  — has expanded to include several other buildings in the immediate vicinity of Parliament Hill. [11]

The House of Commons and Senate Chambers are located in the Centre Block. Offices for Members of Parliament are located in the Centre Block, East Block and West Block, as well as the Confederation Building, the Justice Building and the Wellington Building. Committee rooms are found in the Centre Block, East and West Blocks, La Promenade Building and Wellington Building. Offices for House staff and parliamentary services are found in these and other locations in the capital.

The grounds around Parliament Hill have undergone several stylistic transformations since Confederation but have always included a wide central walk leading from the gateway at the south end of the grounds to the main entrance at the base of the tower. At the southern end of the walkway is a fountain; in its centre burns the Centennial Flame, which was lit on New Year’s Eve 1966, to mark the first hundred years of Confederation (1867-1967). [12]  The fountain is a 12-sided truncated pyramid, each side holding a bronze shield bearing the coat of arms of a province or territory. Water flows continuously around the shields; the flame, fed by natural gas, burns through the water and gives the impression of the flame dancing over the water. Coins tossed into the fountain are retrieved to fund the Centennial Flame Research Award Fund. [13] 

The grounds of Parliament Hill are the site of 14 bronze portrait statues, erected between 1885 and 1992. [14]  Represented are seven former Prime Ministers (John A. Macdonald, Alexander Mackenzie, Wilfrid Laurier, Robert Borden, William Lyon Mackenzie King, John Diefenbaker and Lester B. Pearson), five Fathers of Confederation (George-Étienne Cartier, a joint memorial to Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, George Brown and Thomas D’Arcy McGee) and two monarchs (Victoria and Elizabeth II). [15] 

Title, Management, Care and Control

Given Parliament’s right to administer its own affairs free from interference, including overseeing the areas used in the performance of official parliamentary functions, the Speakers of the two Houses have traditionally held authority and control over accommodation and services within the parliamentary precinct. [16]  At Confederation, Parliament Hill (including the adjacent parcel of land on which the Confederation Building stands) was transferred by the imperial government to Canada as “ordnance property”. [17]  As such, control of the grounds and construction, repair and maintenance of the buildings fell under the general mandate of the government department responsible for federal buildings and property. [18]  The National Capital Commission, a federal body whose mandate is the improvement and beautification of the national capital region, [19]  is charged with the landscaping and upkeep of the grounds of Parliament Hill.

The Centre Block

Built in a modern Gothic revival style, the rectangular Centre Block is some 144 metres long by 75 metres deep, and six stories high. [20]  More than 25 different types of stone and marble were used in the building’s construction; however, much of the exterior is Nepean sandstone, quarried near Ottawa, and its interior walls are sheeted with Tyndall limestone from Manitoba. Inside, the history and traditions of Canada are reflected in many stone carvings which have been the ongoing work of over 60 sculptors and carvers since 1916.

The main entrance to the Centre Block is located at the base of the Peace Tower, where a broad flight of steps leads into a stately Gothic archway. The main doors open onto stairs leading up into the octagonal Confederation Hall (also called the Rotunda) and the Hall of Honour leading to the Library of Parliament (see Figure 6.2, Floor Plan of the Centre Block). In the centre of the Confederation Hall is a massive stone column inscribed in memory of the Canadian soldiers who fought in World War I. On the eastern end of the Centre Block is found the Senate Chamber and on the western end, the House of Commons Chamber. Each House has a distinct entrance to the building for its Members.

Figure 6.2 – Floor Plan of the Centre Block
Image depicting the floor plan of the Centre Block. At the top of image is a circle which represents the Library of Parliament. Directly below the Library are two lines leading down the page which represent the Hall of Honour. This Hall leads in a line down the page (South) to the Rotunda, Peace Tower, Memorial Chamber and Observation Deck. To the right (East) of the Hall of Honour is the Senate, and to the left (West) are the House of Commons and House of Commons Foyer.
Source: Information Service, Library of Parliament.

Peace Tower

The Peace Tower with its four-faced clock is the focal point of the Parliament Buildings. It commemorates Canada’s contributions to World War I and houses on its third floor the Memorial Chamber, which holds the books of remembrance naming those Canadians who gave their lives in each of the wars in which Canada has been involved. An enclosed observation deck below the clock offers a view in all directions of the National Capital Region. The Tower, which is 92.2 metres high, is surmounted by a mast from which the flag is flown. [21] 

The Peace Tower also contains a carillon of 53 bells, inaugurated on July 1, 1927, in honour of the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation. Regular recitals are given by the carillonneur. The bells chime every quarter-hour, controlled by a mechanism connected to the clock.

Library of Parliament

At the north end of the Centre Block’s Hall of Honour, opposite the main entrance, are the doors to the Library of Parliament. Its style of architecture is High Victorian Gothic Revival; its interior is circular in form and richly ornamented with carved white pine panelling. The Library survived the fire of 1916, but in 1952 a fire broke out in the cupola of the Library, causing extensive smoke and water damage. The Library serves Parliament using state-of-the-art information technologies, and housing a collection of well over 1,000,000 items (books, periodicals, brochures and microforms), of which over 400,000 titles are catalogued in the integrated Library system. Comprehensive information, research and analysis services are provided by the Library to parliamentarians, their staff, parliamentary committees, parliamentary associations and delegations and senior officials of both Houses. It also provides information about Parliament to the general public. [22]  Apart from the main Library and the Parliamentary Reading Room, there are branch libraries in some of the other buildings used by Parliament. [23] 

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