Next month, the historic Centre Block, built in the Gothic Revival style, will be shut down and emptied out for renovations for a least a decade. It’s home to the House of Commons, the Senate Chamber, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Office of Leader of the Opposition, the statuesque Library of Parliament, MPs’ and Senators’ offices, political staffers, House and Senate procedural clerks, House and Senate staffers, press gallery staff and Hot Room reporters, House leaders’ offices, whips’ leaders’ offices, maintenance workers, restaurants workers, security officers, the House and the Senate Speakers, and many more.
The iconic, six-storey building, which was destroyed by a fire in 1916, except for the library, and rebuilt in 1927, is more than just a building to those who work on the Hill.
The Hill Times talked to some veteran Centre Block denizens about what makes working in the Centre Block special and what they’re going to miss about working in one of the most beautiful and ornate buildings in the country, the centre of our federal democracy.
Maureen Martyn, chief current awareness and strategic analysis: “It’s really the energy. When the Houses are sitting and there’s people, the press and there’s the tourists, it really does kind of lift the atmosphere quite significantly and it energizes you to do your work. I’ll speak very personally, being a librarian and working in this library, there isn’t a better gig in Canada, so I think we feel a personal attachment to the space and are a little bit protective of her. When we have to decommission and turn the lights off for 10 years, it’s going to be hard to say goodbye because this is the second time we’ve had to say goodbye.”
NDP lobby staffer Anthony Salloum: “For me, it is very, very personal. My family immigrated from Lebanon during the civil war in 1980, and we came to Canada when I was 14 years old. I had seen a lot of death and destruction, and our homes were always under attack. I lost a lot of cousins to car bombs and killings and assassinations, so I was pretty traumatized as a 14-year-old. When I came here, the thought that you could engage in the political process and not die, was alien to me. It was hard to get my head around that you could express your political views, join a political party, and you would not be killed for it. It really was hard to explain to Canadians growing up here that that was a big thing for me. But it was a really big thing and I fell in love with Canadian politics.
“I remember the first convention that I watched was the political convention where Joe Clark got 76 per cent and said it wasn’t enough, so he called for a leadership review. I watched that convention, and it got me hooked onto politics. From that day onward, I haven’t looked back from politics. Fast forward to 1992, the year of Canada’s 125th. I was living in Montreal and working. I brought my then 21-year-old brother to Ottawa so we could celebrate Canada’s 125th, and I spent the whole day on the Hill. And I looked at my brother and at the Peace Tower and said, ‘My dream, if it ever someday happens, is to walk through the doors of the Peace Tower as an employee here.’ That was my dream, to work as an employee in Centre Block.
“Just five years later, I got to work for Alexa McDonough, then the leader of the NDP and MP for Halifax, and she flies us up for the national staff meeting and I had my pass and I walked through those doors as an employee to a Member of Parliament, and I have never, ever forgotten that moment. I have never lost that sense of awe. For me, Centre Block is a very personal experience and not atypical of immigrants who come from war-torn countries and who come to Canada where they can engage in the political process and not die. I don’t want to sound like I’m exaggerating, but it’s true. There are parts of this world where you cannot express your political views. The fact that I can engage here and have colleagues from other political parties … I never lose that sense of awe. For me, moving out of Centre Block’s really sentimental because my whole dream was to work here and, over the years, I’ve been moved many times, but now I’ve been here eight years in a row, so I’ve gotten really attached to the building. I’ve worked in the Opposition Lobby, a very privileged workplace, and I don’t take that for granted. I have access to MPs from other political parties, and I’m honoured for that. For me, that is why it will be really, really hard when this place closes.
“The architecture. The stonework, the gargoyles, the worn wood. You can see the doors that people have rubbed against for years. When we were taking pictures yesterday with my friend, we took them from a million different angles because you can walk in this building every single day and you can get a whole new view of something that you’ve missed for all these years. That is what I’m going to miss: the stonework, the carvings. Here’s one thing, have you ever looked at the staircase that the prime minister and the ministers come down? The unevenness of the stairs to the foyer. I am secretly wishing that they do not replace those stairs when they redo this building. To me, that is a loss of the history of this building. It’s well-worn, that’s our history, and in my heart, I am hoping that when I come back and see this place 10 years later, that the staircase is preserved and still there. It might seem odd to some people, but those are the kind of things I am going to miss.”
Sonia Wayand, executive assistant to Conservative MP Scott Reid, 15 years in Centre Block: “What I will miss the most is the privilege to come every morning to work here at the centre of Canada’s federal politics. We come here and can forget that this is the home of our politics and that people come to visit, but they don’t realize how much goes on in this building. I will miss things like running into prime ministers in the corridor—because I have been through three prime ministers, from Martin to Trudeau—or bumping into all the other ministers and leaders, and all the fuss that goes on around here.”
Constable Janet Asselin, Parliamentary Protective Service, since 1995: “I look at working here in a different way and take pride since my family’s history [in politics] goes back to Wilfrid Laurier … from my great-grandfather Edmund William Tobin [in] 1900 to 1938, as a Member of Parliament, then a Senator, to my father, Patrick Tobin Asselin, [in] 1963-1968, and my uncle Edmund Tobin Asselin [in] 1962-1965. Standing here at the same place my father and uncle stood just after they voted on our Canadian flag in 1965 for me, is extremely sentimental, and I am proud to be part of this family’s legacy. What I will miss and cherish are all the memories, as well as the history and the stories this place has: from growing up as a child visiting my father, to all the different major visits and people I had the privilege to meet during my time working here since 1995. I am so grateful and will always have a special place in my heart for this institution. … [I’m] somewhat sad that I will retire before the Centre Block reopens.”
Theresa Kavanagh, NDP Whip’s Office worked in Centre Block for 21 years and was recently elected to Ottawa City Council. She told The Hill Times before her job change: “There is not a day that goes by that I am not awestruck: ‘Wow, do I really work here?’ I can’t help it. People come from all across the country to look at this place and I can’t believe that I actually work here. It’s amazing, it never goes away. Every single day, I can’t believe it—they let me in the building? Yeah, it’s special, it’s a privilege, and I’ve always treated it that way. I just understand that it’s a privilege that I could have taken away, but right now, I’ve been enjoying it for over 20 years.”
Ian McDonald, principal clerk, House of Commons: “The fact that I started my work at the House of Commons in the Chamber, and that I’ve had an opportunity to work here inside the Chamber for many, many years, means this is probably the part of the building that I’m going to miss the most, since I spend a fair amount of time here. Obviously, walking up to the building is still moving every time, since it’s such a grand building. But at the same time, in terms of a very specific part of the building, what I’m going to miss the most is the Chamber.”
Gilles Gervais, assistant deputy sergeant-at-arms: “I’m going to miss the Memorial Chamber. It was the first room I was introduced to when I started working here as a rookie constable, because the security staff are responsible for turning the pages on a daily basis. I remember back in 1985 when I started here within two weeks of being on the staff, I had to perform that ceremony, and I had a Korean War vet who was working with me, so I was quite honoured when after we were done he said, ‘You did good kid. My comrades would be proud of you.’ Since that moment, I’ve always had a real passion for this room and what it represents; it’s inspired me and I’m really going miss it. We are going to relocate the books, but it’s not the same.”
Judson Simpson, executive chef at the Parliamentary Restaurant, has been working on the Hill for 27 years: “What I’ll miss most about this building is the grandeur of this dinning room. This space is wonderful. It’s huge, as you can see. But it’s still very warm and it’s magic when it’s full. I mean it’s really something special. I think for me, too, and I hope it can translate to the West Block, but in this space it’s not political; it’s about the food, and we’re really proud of that.”
Lorraine Henderson, television director, House of Commons multimedia services, has been on the Hill since 1992 and has worked on Centre Block since 1994: “I’m going to miss the diversity in art and architecture in the Chamber. As a television director, we have a wide variety of background images we can use. From stained glass to sculptures to complex woodwork and all of the chandeliers have been great backgrounds when we’re on a vote call, and I particularly appreciate the richness of that.”
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