House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

House of Commons Procedure and Practice - 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 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, Parliament Hill.) 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 Victoria Tower,[6] was destroyed by fire on February 3, 1916.[7] 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.[8]


Image depicting a map of the buildings around the Parliament Hill.

Sittings resumed in 1920 in the new but unfinished Centre Block, which was built on the same site as the old building.[9] The new building was completed in 1922. A new tower, called the Peace Tower in commemoration of Canada’s human and material contributions to World War I, was completed in 1927.

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 for the most part located in the Centre Block, East Block and West Block, as well as the Confederation Building and the Justice Building. Committee rooms are found in the Centre, East and West Blocks, as well as in other buildings located near Parliament Hill. 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 Peace 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 coats of arms of a province or territory.[13] 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.[14]

The grounds of Parliament Hill are the site of 19 bronze statues, erected between 1885 and 2000.[15] 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).[16] There is also a monument dedicated to the “Famous Five” and their victory in the 1929 Persons Case.[17]

There are several other notable features found on the grounds of Parliament Hill. Behind Centre Block and facing the Ottawa River is the Summer Pavilion, a replica of a gazebo originally built for the Speaker of the House of Commons, but demolished in 1956. In 1995, the Summer Pavilion was re-built as a tribute to Canadian police and peace officers killed in the line of duty. Nearby, the Canadian Police and Peace Officers Memorial Honour Roll, which lists the names of each officer killed in the line of duty, is mounted along the fence separating Parliament Hill from the cliffs along the Ottawa River. Next to the Summer Pavilion is a monument displaying the Victoria Tower bell, one of the few artefacts which remains from the original building.

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.[18] 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”.[19] As such, control of the grounds and construction, repair and maintenance of the buildings fell and continues to fall under the general mandate of the government department responsible for federal buildings and property.[20] The National Capital Commission, a federal body whose mandate is the improvement and beautification of the National Capital Region,[21] is charged with the landscaping and upkeep of the grounds of Parliament Hill.

The grounds of Parliament Hill, including the two lawns between the East and West Blocks, are treated as a public park, and are frequently used for recreational purposes by visitors. Organized public gatherings are also permitted on the grounds, although these require prior permission from the Committee on the Use of Parliament Hill. The Committee, which consists of the Sergeant-at-Arms and representatives of the Senate, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the National Capital Commission, the Privy Council Office, and the departments of Canadian Heritage and Public Works and Government Services, ensures that the proposed activity does not obstruct the work of Parliament or have a negative impact on the heritage character of the grounds.

*   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.[22] 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 are the result of the ongoing, intermittent work of over 60 sculptors and carvers since 1916.[23]

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 dedicating the building to 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 separate entrance to the building for its members.




*   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 seven Books of Remembrance naming those Canadians who have given their lives in service to Canada. 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.[24]

The Peace Tower also contains a carillon of 53 bells, inaugurated on July 1, 1927, in honour of the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation.[25] Regular recitals are given by the Dominion Carillonneur.[26] 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 building. 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. From 2002 to 2006, the historic Library of Parliament building was closed while craftspeople worked to conserve, rehabilitate, and upgrade the building. Damages which the building had sustained over the years were repaired and current building standards were met while preserving the Library’s existing features and heritage character. During this period, the Library’s collections were stored in various other buildings occupied by the Parliament of Canada, and its services were not interrupted. The Library of Parliament Building re-opened its doors on May 30, 2006. There are also branch libraries in some of the other buildings used by Parliament.[27]

The Library serves Parliament using state‑of‑the‑art information technologies and has more than 17 linear kilometres of materials in its collection (books, periodicals, government documents, CD-ROMS and videos). Under the direction of the Parliamentary Librarian,[28] the Library provides comprehensive information, research and analysis services 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.[29]

[4] For a description of the original site, see Eggleston, p. 83.

[5] Parliament of Canada Act, R.S. 1985, c. P‑1, s. 80.

[6] The Victoria Tower was the most prominent feature of the original Parliament Building. It stood in approximately the same place as the Peace Tower stands today.

[7] The report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the origin of the fire was presented to the House later that year (Journals, May 16, 1916, p. 388). The commissioners were “of the opinion that there are many circumstances connected with this fire that lead to a strong suspicion of incendiarism,” but as the inquiry was taken no further, the true cause of the fire remains a mystery. The report noted that the fire started in the Reading Room, which was furnished and fitted in “highly inflammable” varnished white pine, and where many newspapers and files were kept. See also Varkaris, J. and Finsten, L., Fire on Parliament Hill!, Erin, Ontario: The Boston Mills Press, 1988.

[8] Arrangements were quickly made and the House began sitting in the Museum’s auditorium the day after the fire (Journals, February 4, 1916, p. 53). The Senate, which was not sitting at the time of the fire, was accommodated in what had been the Geological Department (Debates of the Senate, February 8, 1916, p. 50).

[9] When the session opened on February 26, 1920, the Senate Chamber was not ready. The Senate met in the House of Commons, where the Speech from the Throne was read, and the House met in the Railway Committee Room; thereafter, until the Senate Chamber was ready, the Commons met in its Chamber and the Senate in the Railway Committee Room (Debates of the Senate, February 26, 1920, p. 1; February 27, 1920, p. 2). See also Report of the Minister of Public Works for the Fiscal Year Ended March 31, 1919, tabled on March 10, 1920 (Journals, p. 39), pp. 5‑6.

[10] Maingot, J.P.J., Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, 2nd ed., Montreal: House of Commons and McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997, p. 163.

[11] The principal ones are the Confederation, Justice, Wellington, Victoria and Chambers Buildings.

[12] The design and the construction of the fountain were the work of the then Department of Public Works. The flame was originally conceived as a project for the centennial year and the intention was to extinguish it at the end of 1967. However, in response to popular demand, the government decided to continue the flame in perpetuity (Debates, December 11, 1967, p. 5260; December 12, 1967, pp. 5358‑9).

[13] Nunavut, which was created on April 1, 1999 as a result of the Nunavut Act, S.C. 1993, c. 28, and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act, S.C. 1993, c. 29, is not represented on the Centennial Flame.

[14] Centennial Flame Research Award Act, S.C. 1991, c. 17. The Act originated as a private Member’s bill introduced by Patrick Boyer (Etobicoke–Lakeshore); it established the Fund which is administered by the parliamentary committee whose mandate includes matters relating to the status of persons with disabilities. The Fund provides awards to disabled persons to conduct research and prepare reports on the contributions of persons with disabilities to the public life of Canada. Reports prepared by award recipients are presented to the House by the Chair of the committee. See, for example, Journals, June 14, 1993, p. 3204; June 10, 1999, p. 2090; November 28, 2005, p. 1349; April 30, 2007, p. 1294.

[15] Originally planned for Parliament Hill, the statue of Louis St‑Laurent (Prime Minister from 1948 to 1957) was erected in 1975 in front of the Supreme Court of Canada building and looks toward Parliament Hill, which is nearby. This location was considered to be in keeping with his distinguished legal career and service as Minister of Justice and Attorney General prior to becoming Prime Minister.

[16] The monument to Elizabeth II is the only monument on Parliament Hill not erected posthumously. It was unveiled in 1992, the year of the 40th anniversary of her accession to the Throne.

[17] The “Famous Five” were five women (Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung and Irene Parlby) who asked the Supreme Court in 1927 to consider whether the word “person” in section 24 of the British North America Act included female persons (Emily Murphy had been denied an appointment to the Senate of Canada because she was not a “qualified person”). The Court found that the Act did not include women. In 1929, they appealed the decision to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom, which was the highest court of appeal available at the time. The Judicial Committee ruled that women were persons under the British North America Act and thus eligible for appointment to the Senate.

[18] For further information on Parliament Hill and the precincts of the Houses of Parliament, see Maingot, 2nd ed., pp. 163‑78.

[19] Constitution Act, 1867, R.S. 1985, Appendix II, No. 5, s. 108, and The Third Schedule, item 9. See also Maingot, 2nd ed., pp. 168‑9.

[20] Public Works and Government Services Canada.

[21] National Capital Act, R.S. 1985, c. N‑4, s. 10.

[22] Beauchesne, A., Canada’s Parliament Building: The Senate and House of Commons, Ottawa, Ottawa: 1948, p. 24. Figures converted from imperial to metric.

[23] The teams of sculptors who have worked on the stone carvings in the Centre Block have been led by a chief sculptor, who is responsible for overseeing the carving. Since the creation of the position in 1936, there have been five chief sculptors: Cléophas Soucy (1936-50), William Oosterhoff (1949-62), Eleanor Milne (1962-93), Maurice Joanisse (1993-2006) and Phil White (2006-present).

[24] On occasion, flags other than the Canadian flag have been flown from the Peace Tower. When the Sovereign or the Governor General is present on Parliament Hill for a state or public function, the Canadian flag is replaced by Her Majesty’s Personal Canadian Flag or by the Governor General’s Flag, as the case may be. For further information, see the Department of Canadian Heritage Web site at On January 19, 1943, the Dutch flag flew atop the Peace Tower to commemorate the birth of Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. Princess Margriet was born in the Ottawa Civic Hospital, which had been temporarily declared Dutch territory so that the Princess would have exclusive Dutch citizenship, and thus remain in the line of succession to the Dutch throne.

The flag atop the Peace Tower may be flown at half-mast as a symbol of mourning. This has occurred to mark the deaths of sitting or former parliamentarians, sovereigns, and their relatives or representatives, as well as to mark national or international tragedies. On May 10, 2006, Speaker Milliken advised the House that the decision to fly the flag at half-mast fell under the jurisdiction of the executive, not of the Speaker of the House (Debates, pp. 1188-9).

[25] See Speaker Milliken’s remarks on the 80th anniversary of the inauguration of the carillon (Debates, June 20, 2007, p. 10919).

[26] There have been five Dominion Carillonneurs since the inauguration of the carillon: Percival Price (1927-39), Robert Donnell (1940-75), Émilien Allard (1975-76), Gordon Slater (1977‑2008) and Andrea McCrady (2008‑present). From time to time, guest carillonneurs have also given recitals using the Peace Tower carillon.

[27] For further information on the history of the Library of Parliament, see Dubé, A. and Graham, M., Chronology of a Building: The Library of Parliament, Ottawa: House of Commons and Library of Parliament, 1995 and Binks, K., Library of Parliament, Canada, Ottawa: KCB Publications, 1979.

[28] The Parliamentary Librarian is responsible for the administration and management of the Library. Pursuant to Standing Order 111.1, the Parliamentary Librarian is appointed by Order in Council, following consideration of the proposed appointment in committee and ratification by the Senate and the House. See, for example, the appointment of William Robert Young (Journals, November 17, 2005, p. 1283; November 22, 2005, p. 1309, Order Paper and Notice Paper, p. III; Journals, November 23, 2005, pp. 1314-6; Journals of the Senate, November 24, 2005, p. 1320). There have been seven Parliamentary Librarians: Alpheus Todd (1870‑84), Martin Griffin (1885‑1920), Martin Burrell (1920‑38), Francis Hardy (1944‑59), Erik Spicer (1960‑94), Richard Paré (1994‑2005) and William Young (2005‑present).

[29] In addition, the Library of Parliament is responsible for the Parliamentary Tours Program, which provides guided tours of the Centre Block for guests of parliamentarians, student groups, and the general public.

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