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Take a walk on the Hill side

By D'Arcy McDonell      

Need to brush up on your history of the Parliament Buildings? Parliamentary procedure? The role of Senate? Guided tours of Centre Block provide alternative to high school civics class.

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PARLIAMENT HILL—For tourists and locals alike, there is a certain excitement about entering the Gothic Revival style Parliament Buildings. The site of federal decision-making and Question Period drama, ripe with historical significance and architectural beauty, the hallways of Centre Block can sometimes seem like an almost mythical place where newsmakers of the country convene to fight over laws, debate taxes, filibuster back-to-work legislation, and, well, you get the idea.

For most Canadians though, one of the rare opportunities to walk these same corridors comes in the form of a free-of-charge tour of Centre Block, led by a Parliamentary guide. The Hill Times recently tagged along on one of the tours. There are also guided tours of the East Block.

After some slight confusion pertaining to a journalist’s spectatorship of the guided tours (I was initially refused access to the tour on my first try because I hadn’t given the apparently necessary forewarning of my presence), I return the following day to a much more warm welcoming.

Greeted by a communications adviser from the Library of Parliament’s tours, Nancy Durning, and accompanied by the Library of Parliament’s tours person, Erin Walsh, who for the duration of the tour appears to be somewhat of a supervisor or fact-checker (for what I can only presume to have been to ensure both myself and the tour guide are on our best behaviour), we soon set off on our tour, led by guide Ethain Arseneault. It begins on the ground floor under the Peace Tower. We come up stairs to the right of the House Commons Chamber and look at portraits of past Prime Ministers adorning the walls, their faces looking back at the hoards of curious onlookers who make their guided ways through the hallways each day.

Centre Block’s tours are subject to sudden changes depending on whether or not the House of Commons or Senate is in session. It’s summer and neither is up and running, so our access is fairly comprehensive. Adding to that, our guide happily informed us that while two rooms are usually closed off to public access, the grand old Reading Room, or 237-C Centre Block, on the House side, and later to the Senate’s distinctive meeting room, La Salon de la Francophonie, are both be open for our viewing. The Francophonie Room, once known as the “smoking room,” was named Le Salon de la Francophonie in 1993 after the Department of External Affairs and the Canadian branch of L’Assemblée internationale des parlementaires de langue française asked Parliament to formally commemorate Canada’s ties to La Francophonie, according to Parliament’s website.

Our next stop is to the venerable House of Commons Chamber. The faded green upholstery and lightly coloured wooden furniture don’t exactly pop quite as much in person as they do on TV, but it still feels important.

It is here, our guide tells us, that most legislation begins. He outlines the back-and-forth, checks-and-balances procedure that a bill must follow. There is the first and second reading before the bill moves into the committee stage for close inspection and possible amendments. Then it must go through a third and final reading before being sent off to Senate.

From the House of Commons Chamber and House Foyer, we’re ushered along, through corridors and around corners, for a brief, silent viewing of the gorgeous Library of Parliament. A truly breathtaking, circular room adorned with decorative wood carvings, ladders and books abound, it is the only part of the original buildings that remains following the infamous 1916 fire that destroyed the Parliament Buildings.

Our tour then weaves its way back through the historic Confederation Hall and the Hall of Honour, to the Senate foyer, where the carved faces of past monarchs are sculpted into stone arches and pillars. As a personal touch, two of the carved faces belong to the sculptors themselves.

We make our way inside the Senate, the Red Chamber. The usual run down is given, explaining the role of the monarchy and the seating arrangements.

Someone asks, “do Senators get reappointed often?” The answer is abrupt for, it seems, an obvious conclusion. “No, it’s very rare. Very rare,” responds the tour guide, although newly-appointed Conservative Senators Fabian Manning and Larry Smith, the two unsuccessful Tory candidates who were recently reappointed to the Senate, do spring to mind.

The tour wraps up shortly after, and another group of 50 slightly more informed visitors walks out of the main doors of Parliament. All in all, the tour provides a unique opportunity to learn more about Parliament and government, and about the history of the Parliament Buildings themselves.

Tours run everyday, several times a day, and are available in both official languages. Translations for other languages are also available on request. Tours are free, but tickets are required as the maximum capacity of each is 50 spectators.

The East Block free guided tours run daily from 10 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Once considered the nerve centre of Canada’s government for its first 100 years, according to Parliament’s website, the East Block was intended to house the political executive and housed the office for key historical figures. The East Block has restored the original offices of the Governor General, Sir John A. Macdonald, and the Privy Council Chamber.

dmcdonell@hilltimes.com

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