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Centre Block: A history in photos

By By Kristen Shane
A look back at the iconic people, spaces, and events that made this building, the centre of Canadian democracy, one of the most recognized in the country.

The Centre Block we know today was forged out of the ashes of its predecessor, which mysteriously caught fire and burnt to the ground, save for the library, on the night of Feb. 3, 1916. William James Topley photograph courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

The Centre Block we know today was forged out of the ashes of its predecessor, which mysteriously caught fire and burnt to the ground, save for the library, on the night of Feb. 3, 1916. John Boyd photograph courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

While Parliament sat in the Victoria Memorial Museum (now home to the Canadian Museum of Nature) until 1920, the new Centre Block, a six-storey steel-reinforced stone building, was constructed between 1916 and 1927. It’s pictured May 5, 1917. Photograph courtesy of the House of Commons

The House of Commons Chamber under construction on Jan. 24, 1920. Photograph courtesy of the House of Commons

The Peace Tower, designed as an expression of gratitude for peace after the First World War and pictured on June 8, 1921, was built after the main building, finishing in 1927. Photograph courtesy of the House of Commons

The Prince of Wales lays the Peace Tower’s cornerstone on Sept. 1, 1919. Photograph courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

The 528 men who helped rebuild Centre Block are shown in a photo thought to be taken on or around Dominion Day (Canada Day) on July 1, 1917. It has hung for years in the basement of Irene’s Pub in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood and the original has been gifted by former Irene’s landlord Ron Bujold to parliamentary history buff Debbie Murphy. Harold A. Briggs photograph courtesy of Ron Bujold/Debbie Murphy

MP Margaret Aitken; Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton; Senator Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first female Senator; and MP Ellen Fairclough, who became the first female federal cabinet minister; unveil a commemorative bronze bust of Agnes Macphail, the first woman elected to the House of Commons, near the House Speaker’s chambers on March 8, 1955. Ms. Macphail served in Parliament from 1921 to 1940. Duncan Cameron photograph courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

Amid bitter debate, this committee was struck in the fall of 1964 to decide on the design of the new Canadian flag and ended up voting 14-0 in favour of the red-and-white Maple Leaf. The new flag flew on Parliament Hill for the first time on Feb. 15, 1965. Photograph courtesy of the Estate of Cliff Buckman

British prime minister Winston Churchill gives a stirring speech to Parliamentarians in a joint meeting of MP and Senators in the House Chamber in Dec. 30, 1941, just after the Pearl Harbour attack in the Second World War. The speech was broadcast around the world by shortwave radio. Photograph courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

Months after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela, pictured left with his then-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela on the steps of Centre Block on June 18, 1990, visits then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, pictured right with his wife Mila, to thank him for his international leadership against South African apartheid and address a joint session of Parliament. The Hill Times photograph by Jim Creskey

Prime minister Stephen Harper presents then-Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine with a citation on June 11, 2008, the day Mr. Harper delivered an apology in the House of Commons on the Canadian government’s behalf for the treatment of Indigenous children in federally financed residential schools. The Hill Times file photograph

MPs on Oct. 23, 2014 applaud sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers, who was called a hero for his part in stopping gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau who stormed Centre Block after killing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial the day before. Jason Ransom photograph courtesy of the PMO

A bullet hole left in the carpeting, a remnant of the shoot-out that took place along the Hall of Honour on Oct. 22, 2014, when gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Centre Block after killing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial. The Hill Times file photograph

A shattered pane of glass in Centre Block, remnants of the shoot-out that took place along the Hall of Honour on Oct. 22, 2014, when gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Centre Block after killing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial. The Hill Times file photograph

A Liberal MP from 1993 and 1998, Shaughnessy Cohen collapsed to the floor of the House of Commons on Dec. 9, 1998 at age 50 and later died due to a cerebral hemorrhage. She was one of several MPs who have died in office, prompting moments of reflection among MPs who set aside partisanship to support one another. A political writing prize in Ms. Cohen’s name is awarded yearly at the well-attended Politics and the Pen gala. The Hill Times file photograph

After he was diagnosed with incurable amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2015, longtime Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger had to pull out of the race for House Speaker, but in recognition of his desire for the job he was allowed to sit in the speaker’s chair for a day in 2016. Using a walker, he shuffled alongside a ceremonial guard for the speaker’s daily parade in the Centre Block halls as Parliamentarians watched and applauded. He died later that year, at age 61. The Hill Times file photograph

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould became the first federal cabinet minister to give birth while in office, in March 2018. She’s pictured with baby Oliver in the Centre Block foyer on June 7 of that year. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

MPs of the 42nd Parliament, alongside pages and clerks, pose for a final photo in the House Chamber on Dec. 12 before Centre Block is closed for at least a decade at the end of January. Bernard Thibodeau photograph courtesy of the House of Commons

Tucked away in Centre Block’s sub-basement, which is used for storage and back-of-house services, is this functioning glass-bottle coke machine (provided it’s stocked and you have a loonie handy), bought in the 1960s and replaced in the 1980s. The sub-basement will continue to be used for storage during Centre Block’s renovation. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Judson Simpson, pictured in 1999, has been executive chef of Parliament’s food services branch, creating meals for Parliamentarians in the sixth-floor parliamentary dining room since 1991. He’ll be set up in a dining room in West Block while renovations take place. The Hill Times file photograph

Journalist and author Michel Vastel, pictured in the Hot Room office space for Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters in 350-N, was the Ottawa bureau chief for several Quebec newspapers in the 1980s and ‘90s. His daughter, Marie Vastel, has now taken up the mantle, reporting on Parliament for Le Devoir. The Hill Times file photograph

Jay Hill was his party’s whip four times throughout his 17-year career as an MP. That meant ensuring the minority Conservative government had the votes to keep afloat between 2006 and 2008. As chief government whip, he kept an actual horse whip framed in his office as a symbol of authority, which he posed with here in 2006. The Hill Times file photograph

During prohibition years, Centre Block’s press gallery Hot Room housed a bootleg liquor operation. A lot has changed in the decades since, including the presence of more female Parliamentarians and staff, leading to more family-friendly activities, such as this annual Hilloween party Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer used to host when he was House Speaker. Here’s his son Henry pictured in 2011 with his staffer Kenzie Potter. The Hill Times file photograph

The House foyer is always a hive of activity on budget day, with bright lights and TV anchor desks temporarily set up to do live hits with the finance minister, the floor a mess of cords, and reporters scrumming MPs. Here, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May speaks to reporters, left, amid the hubbub in 2016. The Hill Times file photograph

Conservative MPs Michelle Rempel, Mark Strahl, and Blake Richards (with blanket) take a breather amid a long night of votes in 2011 when the NDP orchestrated a 58-hour filibuster to hold up the passage of back-to-work legislation during a postal workers’ strike. This was one of several famous filibusters (one of which included an MP reading the instructions on the back of light-bulb packaging) to delay legislation related to everything from the launch of the GST and Canada’s new national flag to a treaty with B.C.’s Nisga’a First Nation. The Hill Times file photograph

Senate page-turned-protester Brigette DePape is kicked out of the Red Chamber by sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers after holding up a homemade Stop Harper sign during the governor general’s reading of the throne speech on June 3, 2011, as prime minister Stephen Harper listened. The Hill Times file photograph

Hill life isn’t all serious. Comedian Scott Thompson, of The Kids in the Hall fame, dressed as the Queen to confront politicians including Stockwell Day on May 16, 2005 for CTV. The Hill Times file photograph

Hill life isn’t all serious. This Hour Has 22 Minutes comedian Mary Walsh, dressed as ‘Marg, Princess Warrior,’ grabs former prime minister Stephen Harper’s tie outside the Charles Lynch press room, 130-S. The Hill Times file photograph

Images of phoenixes were sculpted into several parts of the Centre Block, to symbolize its rising from the ashes of its predecessor, including this one above the door to the Prime Minister's Office on the third floor. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Most of the building’s materials were made in Canada, though a notable exception is the stone in the Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower, which architect John Pearson sourced from Belgium, France, and Great Britain to allow visitors to walk, so to speak, on the same soil as First World War battlefields. Though the chamber’s altar was dedicated in 1927, its books of remembrance didn’t start appearing there until 1942, as it took 15 years to handwrite the names of the more than 66,000 Canadians who died in the First World War in the first book. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Gordon Slater, the dominion carillonneur from 1977 to 2008, poses early on in his job with the bells he played inside the Peace Tower. Cast in England and installed between 1926 and 1927, the 53 bells in the carillon will continue to be played during renovations at least until 2021, according to the CBC. McNeill, Crombie photograph courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

The rotunda, or Confederation Hall, sits at the heart of Centre Block. It’s the building’s formal entrance and links the Senate and House of Commons sections. The central column is inscribed in memory of Canadians who fought in the First World War, and it leads out to sculpted gables, each representing a different province and territory, which are meant to symbolize Canada’s union through Confederation. The Hill Times file photograph

A shell fossil is seen in the Tyndall Stone of the southern stairwell outside the Commonwealth Room in Centre Block. The Manitoba quarry from which the highly fossilized limestone used throughout the building was extracted is still open, which could prove useful during the upcoming renovations. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan shows his hide-a-bed inside the Speaker’s Apartment in Centre Block, 202-N. The Speaker is the only person authorized to sleep in the building, but Mr. Regan says he doesn’t use it much. The apartment wasn’t part of the original building’s plans. Some of the seven who died in the 1916 fire were the speaker’s guests, so the new building’s designers were concerned about loss of life. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Every new session’s throne speech in the Senate Chamber is packed with MPs Senators, Supreme Court justices, the governor general, and prime minister. This will now happen in the newly named Senate of Canada Building. The Hill Times file photograph

Liberal MP Greg Fergus reads in the Library of Parliament, the only part of the original Centre Block still standing due to its metal doors being shut before the fire reached them. Made of old-growth pine, it gives a sense of what the fire-burnt building would have looked like. It was Canada’s first national library. The Hill Times file photograph

A slight warp to the stone stairs leading from the Senate chamber can be seen, worn down over the decades by Centre Block’s many occupants. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The 338-seat House of Commons chamber, pictured in November, has had its chairs emptied as the West Block prepares to take over the job. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Restoration of the old Ottawa central train station, formerly the Government Conference Centre, to become the Senate of Canada Building, began in late 2014. It’s pictured in October 2016. The Hill Times photograph by Laura Ryckewaert

Restoration of the West Block, pictured in 2013, began in 2011. Parliamentary occupants moved into other Precinct buildings, while a small army of stone masons and carvers, architects, engineers, woodcarvers, and sculptors moved in. The Hill Times photograph by Daniel Leon Rodriguez

Workers in 2017 help to install the new glass roof on the West Block, above the interim House Chamber, which took over the building’s former interior courtyard. Photograph courtesy of Public Services and Procurement Canada

A view of the work to build a new $130-million underground visitors’ welcome centre between the West and Centre Blocks in 2016, the year construction began. The Hill Times file photograph

By Jan. 10, the Senate Chamber had been emptied of desks and chairs, ready to undergo at least a decade of renovations. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Staffer Anthony Salloum is seen amid boxes in the NDP whip’s Centre Block office on Jan. 10 preparing to move. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Room 237-C, the former Reading Room, is packed with crates on Jan. 10 ahead of the Centre Block move, hiding from view the room’s wood panelling, ornate fireplace, and mural series. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

A lonely portrait of Joe Clark sits in the hall that used to house portraits of all former prime ministers, amid the January move. The PMs’ images are to be displayed during construction in the West Block on the outer edges of the House Chamber. The Hill Times photograph by Laura Ryckewaert

The Senate of Canada Building’s ceiling was restored to its original Beaux Arts splendour, including its original clock, among the various seismic, mechanical, and architectural upgrades made to the former train station and Government Conference Centre. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

A view of the interim Senate Chamber from the translation and technician booth in the Senate of Canada Building, including the new thrones, centre which the Queen gave to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, which will be used for the first time while those in Centre Block are restored. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

House Speaker Geoff Regan tests out his new seat in the interim House Chamber in the West Block during a media tour on Nov. 8. His original chair in Centre Block, a Gothic replica of the original Speaker’s chair in the British House of Commons, was too big to move to West Block. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

House staff stand in for MPs and members of the public during a fake Speaker’s Parade in a dry run of House proceedings to help fine-tune the acoustics in the interim House Chamber in the West Block. Photograph courtesy of the House of Commons

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