February 3, 2016, marks the one hundredth anniversary of the fire on Parliament Hill. At first, witnesses thought Parliament was under attack; tensions were high due to the First World War and people were quick to assume the worst amid the growing chaos. No one today knows how the fire started, only that the smoke was first noticed in the House of Commons Reading Room shortly before 9 p.m. on February 3, 1916. It didn’t take long for the fire to race out of control; minutes after the fire was discovered, the House of Commons was interrupted in the middle of a debate (about fish marketing) to be evacuated. Masses of people were rushed out of the building and onto the lawn, where they watched in horror as the roof of the House of Commons collapsed.
The fire raged on through the night and into the next morning. After the last embers had cooled, the true human toll of the tragedy was revealed: the fire had claimed seven lives, including guests of the House Speaker Albert Sévigny and his wife, a policeman, and two government employees — Bowman Brown Law, the Liberal member of parliament for Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and René Laplante, Assistant Clerk of the House of Commons — a devastating moment in the history of Canada.
In the wake of the fire, parliamentarians worked out of the Victoria Memorial Museum (now the Canadian Museum of Nature).
The Centre Block was rebuilt quickly, even with resources being diverted to the front lines in Europe. Parliamentarians were back in the new building February 26, 1920, but the Centre Block wasn’t completed until 1922.
Today, you can still see the remnants of the original building. While most of the Centre Block ruins were removed, the Library of Parliament, located in the rear of the building, was unharmed by the fire. The Library was built with iron safety doors and a narrow corridor separating it from the Centre Block, which helped ensure the Library’s survival. Thankfully, an employee during the fire managed to shut the iron doors. Otherwise, thousands of irreplaceable books might have been lost. Today, the Library’s Victorian Gothic Revival style of architecture offers an interesting contrast to the Centre Block’s interwar period Neo-Gothic style.
The year 2016 also marks the 150th anniversary of the building of the original Parliament Buildings. The buildings were completed in 1866, just in time for the government of the new Dominion of Canada in 1867.
You can teach your children or students about this event in Canadian history with “Fire on the Hill!”, a graphic history from Kayak: Canada’s History Magazine for Kids.