I was all of 24 years of age when, in 1971, I was offered a summer internship working as a research assistant in the Privy Council Office in Ottawa. This prestigious department of government was at the time located in the historic East Block of the Parliament Buildings in the federal capital. Inside the PCO, all those years ago, I was assigned to work within the Office of the Status of Women.
Although provisional in nature, this posting gave me ample opportunity, 45 years ago this summer, to observe for myself how badly this celebrated structure was even then in need of urgent repairs. (“Senators Get Sniffy Over ‘A Little Bit of Dust’”, Gazette, June 16, 2016, NP-1)
Below, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on Parliament Hill on July 22, 1971, with East Block building in the background
There is no underrating the importance the East Block of Parliament in the years gone by. The Cabinet met there. The Governors-General kept their office within its confines, along with 14 of Canada’s first 15 prime ministers. In fact, it was only in the mid-1970’s that Pierre Trudeau moved the Prime Minister’s Office across the street to the newly-renovated Langevin Building, where the country’s leaders have been ensconced ever since.
However, it is still the East Block that is the basically oldest and most unaltered structure on Parliament Hill, known at one time as Barrack Hill. As such, the illustrious edifice mirrors well the tastes in design and style that existed at the time of the birth of Confederation, nearly a century and a half ago.
In late 1859, the contract for the erection of the East and West Blocks of the Parliament Buildings was awarded to the nineteenth century construction firm of Jones, Haycock & Clark. Given the shortness of the bidding period and the vagueness of the rough sketches that the architects quickly prepared, it is rather surprising that the contract was ultimately signed at the remarkable precise figure of $278,810. In this regard, it is generally felt that the East Block, and its neighbouring structures, are among the most hurriedly and injudiciously erected public buildings found in the country.
Nevertheless, work on the East Block began in April of 1860 and was completed only by the end of 1866 – four years behind schedule, and considerably over budget. Needless to say, the entire project was engulfed in scandal and corruption. In itself, it was not an easy undertaking for the struggling self-governing colony.
Below, the edifice in question under construction circa. 1864
My own association with the East Block was not limited to that one particular summer, however. The following year, I returned to Montreal and quickly began a career in education at a local high school in the city’s east end where I taught Canadian History to every now and then enthusiastic teenage scholars.
Virtually every year a colleague and I would organize a day trip to the Nation’s Capital where the requisite visit to the Parliament Buildings was usually judged to be in order. That stopover inevitably included a guided tour of the East Block, and its eminent Room 201 located at the southwest corner of what was originally an L – shaped structure.
From its earliest pre-Confederation days, Room 201 was occupied by none other than John A. Macdonald, who served as Attorney General of Canada West, as Ontario was known at the time. After 1867, the chamber acted as Macdonald’s Prime Minister’s Office, with the ‘Old Chieftain’ holding that position for most of the first quarter century of Confederation, until his death in June of 1891.
It is widely believed that many of the artefacts found in that notable space date from the days of Sir John A. himself, including the large double walnut desk, with panels to the floor. As well, the blue-grey, Arnprior marble fireplace, with its steely grate and brass coal scuttle, has also endured to this day.
Simply put, my students were dumbfounded to have found themselves in the same breathing space as that once occupied by Canada’s principal Father of Confederation. In fact, as I later explained to them, Macdonald even resided in the room in May of 1870 for the entire month, unable to move as a result of a gallstone attack.
On one occasion, that I still remember well, a particularly-keen pupil, after marvelling at the memorable authenticity of the vintage chamber, asked me if I thought the room would survive for another 100 years. I hesitated, before responding in the affirmative. I knew full well, however, that ageless buildings constantly require a little TLC, and that this critical care would cause transient inconvenience to some.
Canadian Senators should give a little thought to all of this instead of delaying much-needed East Block renovations.
Below, the author, in one of his more severe moods, in 1971