100 years since Parliament burned
The fire was first noticed in Parliament’s Reading Room – a chamber between the Library and the House of Commons.
Someone called for a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, blasts from the extinguisher caused some ashes to drift upward – onto copies of newspapers hanging like curtains above. They lit up in seconds.
“It was a wood-panelled room. The wood had just been varnished and oiled and the fire spread incredibly quickly. It went up – it was a two-storey room – it went up the skylights and onto the roof of the building and into where the Chamber was,” said Johanna Mizgala, curator of the House of Commons collection.
That fire happened 100 years ago, on Feb. 4, 1916, starting at about 8:37 p.m.
At the time, Members of Parliament were next door in the House of Commons, discussing how to address the high price of fish. The Chief Doorkeeper burst in around 9 p.m., telling the Members to get out – an event recorded in official debate transcripts.
Not everyone made it out alive. Seven people were killed in the fire including:
- Yarmouth MP Bowman Brown Law, who ran to get something important out of his coat – we don’t know what.
- Mabel Morin and Florence Bray, two guests staying in the Speaker of the House’s apartment, who paused to get their fur coats before running out into the cold night.
- René Laplante, an assistant clerk in the House of Commons.
- Randolph Fanning, a post office employee.
- Alphonse Desjardins, a public works employee.
- Another Alphonse Desjardins, a constable in the Dominion Police of Canada.
The fire raged throughout the night, eventually consuming most of Centre Block, including the tall bell tower out front.
But one major part was saved: the Library of Parliament.
“Part of the reason that the Library is still standing has to do with the architecture of the building and the design of this part of the building,” said Mizgala. “Fire doors weren’t necessarily part of your regular construction plan, but the Librarian of Parliament insisted that there be fire doors here.”
After the fire started, a messenger was dispatched to shut the Library doors, helping to save it. Firefighters also poured water on the library all night to ensure that it didn’t burn: a foot and a half of ice coated the floor the next day.
If the Library had burned, it would have been “incredibly tragic”, said Mizgala. At the time, it functioned as a sort of national library, containing copies of books published all across the country.
A painted portrait of Queen Victoria was also saved – cut out of its frame, rolled up, and carried out. It hangs in Parliament today, in a new frame. This was actually the fourth fire that this painting survived.
Just two hours after the building was evacuated, while Parliament still burned, the minister and deputy minister of Public Works were already making recommendations on where the House of Commons should meet.
They decided on the Victoria Memorial Museum – the building that now houses the Museum of Nature – and met the next day at 3 p.m.
“They were functioning the day after the fire at 3 p.m. That’s an incredible part of the story,” said Meg Beckel, president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature.
The Geological Survey of Canada and the National Gallery moved out, the biggest fossils were pushed back against the wall, and the MPs, Senators and their staff moved in.
And after some time to memorialize the departed and the burnt building, government got to work. The First World War was on, and they were busy.
Parliamentarians spent four years in the museum while their new home was being constructed. In that time, they passed the Military Service Act on conscription, enacted the first income taxes and granted women the right to vote in federal elections.
And a new Parliament building rose on the Hill, partially opening in 1920, with the Peace Tower opening in 1927.
“The opportunity that came out of the tragedy of course was to create a building that was really a reflection of a sort of modern idea of Canada,” said Mizgala. “So as we look to the next 100 years, it’s interesting to think that the architect designed spaces in the building that are absent of decorative design, and that was deliberate, so that each successive generation could add to the building.”
And we still don’t really know what caused the fire.
“Was it [German] sabotage? Was it the result of a lit cigar? Was it faulty wiring – because of course the building went up before electricity and then had to be wired later on?” she said.
“In a sense we’ll never know what happened. It goes with some of the mythology of the building.”
Starting at 8:55 p.m. Eastern time Feb. 3, the Library of Parliament Twitter account will be “live-tweeting” the fire, as though it was occurring in real time. Read the tweets below.