As the focal point of Canada’s federal government, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are appropriately impressive and worth visiting.
Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings
Built in the 1800s, the Parliament Buildings are home to Canada’s House of Commons and Senate which are the legislative branches of the Canadian Government. Modeled after the British Parliament in London, England, the buildings are both beautiful and impressive.
Situated on the aptly named Parliament Hill at 111 Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa, there are three main buildings that command attention: the Centre Block, East Block and West Block.
The Centre Block is the biggest. It’s traditionally where you’ll find the House of Commons, the Senate, the Library of Parliament and the Peace Tower. Both the East and West Blocks contain a number of offices for government officials as well as other administrative sections.
Since the end of 2020 the Centre Block has been undergoing a massive renovation project that is expected to take around a decade to complete. The building (along with the Peace Tower) is thus closed to visitors.
Because of this, the House of Commons has temporarily moved to the West Block while the Senate has moved to the now-named Senate of Canada Building (formerly the Government Conference Centre) a short walk away from Parliament Hill.
The Centre Block
Up until the new renovations the Centre Block had consistently stood as the main and most important structure of Parliament. The most notable building on Parliament Hill, it’s been the home of both the House of Commons and the Senate since Canada’s inception.
The Centre Block opened in 1866 and was greatly expanded over the following decades as Canada added more provinces. Sadly, a massive fire broke out in 1916 and destroyed nearly the entire building. The only part of the building that survived was the Library.
After the Library was nearly destroyed in another fire in 1952 a new national library (now called Library and Archives Canada) was built a kilometre away.
It took four years to rebuild the Centre Block after the 1916 fire. The building reopened in 1920 and was fully completed by 1927. It didn’t undergo any more major renovations from then all the way up to the current project today.
The Peace Tower
With the new Centre Block came the construction of the Peace Tower. Officially unveiled in 1927, the tower and its 53-bell carillon remain an Ottawa landmark to this day. The unveiling ceremony also served as the first live radio broadcast to be played across the entire country.
The carillon plays a mini-concert every weekday. From September to June the bells chime from 12:00 pm to 12:15 pm. During July and August that changes to a full hour from 11:00 am to 12:00 pm.
The Centre Block’s main entrance is right underneath the Peace Tower. The entrance brings you into Confederation Hall which is decorated with sculptures, coats of arms and other artwork.
Directly down the middle of the building is the Library. The east wing is for the Senate and the west wing is for the House of Commons. Both wings have private entrances for the government workers. Of course, as mentioned above, all these areas are currently closed due to the renovations.
Explore the Centre Block
While the Centre Block is not open to the public until the renovations are done, it’s still possible to explore it. This is through Parliament: The Virtual Experience, a collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada.
This online tour of the building is available for free on various platforms, and it’s 360-degree video compatible. The virtual tour takes you through the entire building and allows you to interact a bit with the different chambers as well. To check out the experience go to the Parliament of Canada website.
The West Block
Although perhaps not as grand as the Centre Block, the West Block has existed for just as long. Its first occupants in the 1860s were the Ministry of Public Works, the Crown Lands departments and the Postmaster General.
As the country grew over the course of the next century, Parliament had to grow too. Feeling the need for more office space, the government planned to tear down the West Block in the 1950s and fully replace it. However, opposition from the public led to renovations rather than a full replacing.
While that worked for the time being, by the turn of the last decade it was clear major work needed to be done. From 2011 to 2019 the West Block was completely renovated in the same way that the Centre Block is currently undergoing changes.
Visiting the West Block
While not historically open for tours, that changed when the West Block became the new home of the House of Commons in 2019. When the House is not in session the West Block is open to guided tours around the building (pending COVID-19 restrictions).
The tour is a great way to learn about the history of the building and how it operates. If you have around 40 minutes to spare on your visit to Parliament Hill, the tour is worth it.
As well, when the House is in session members of the public are welcome to attend debates. Those who do so are not allowed to participate at all, but it’s still a very interesting way to see our democracy in action. As well, many committee meetings are also open to the public.
The Senate of Canada Building
The temporary home of the Senate is not on Parliament Hill. It’s about a 5 to 10-minute walk away at 2 Rideau Street. The building originally served as Ottawa’s train station before it was repurposed as a conference centre.
Before the Senate moved its chambers to its new present location due to the Centre Block renovations, the building was not used quite as frequently. Originally, the plan was for the Senate to relocate to a temporary chamber outside the East Block, but the venue at 2 Rideau was seen as a more cost-effective option.
Like with the West Block, the Senate of Canada Building is open for tours (during non-pandemic times). The tour around the building takes around 30 minutes and covers the history of the Senate and how it operates.
Again, like with the West Block, visitors are allowed to sit in on most Senate sessions and committee meetings.
The East Block
While not as high-profile as the other buildings, the East Block is actually one of the only ones on Parliament Hill (along with the Library) that is more or less what it was when it was first built. That alone makes it an interesting place to visit although guided tours are only available to the public during July and August.
The tours are around 50 minutes and show visitors around the building’s heritage rooms. It’s a good way to see what Parliament work looked like back at the time of Confederation.
In addition to serving as a tourist attraction, the East Block serves as a mostly administrative building. It has a lot of offices for government workers. Because of that, this block isn’t as open to the public as the other buildings. Given its age and history it’s definitely cool to check out from the outside though.
Events at Parliament Hill
A number of events happen in front of the Parliament Buildings at different times of the year. The Changing of the Guards occurs daily between late June and the end of August. Fortissimo is a related event that also happens in the summer. On certain days in the summer there is also a Northern Lights Show where illuminations are projected onto the Parliament Buildings.
In addition to numerous protest events and demonstrations, the country’s largest Canada Day celebrations also happen on the lawns in front of the Parliament Buildings.
For more information visit the Parliament of Canada website.
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