OTTAWA—It has been home to Canada’s democracy, the scene of momentous debates and landmark decisions that shaped the nation. And now it’s heard its last political debate, at least for a decade.
Centre Block, the heart of Parliament Hill, is closing its doors for a massive — and costly — renovation.
Parliament has recessed for the holidays. When MPs return on Jan. 28, it will be to a new home in West Block, itself transformed with a $863-million renovation to build a Commons chamber in what used to be a courtyard.
Senators are moving as well. Ottawa’s former train station, transformed once into a conference centre and the scene of past political drama itself, has been repurposed again at a cost of $219 million into a temporary Red Chamber and Senate offices.
For many employees and politicians, the Centre Block closing is bittersweet. By the time it reopens in a decade or more, their time on the Hill will be over.
“Every day when you come into this building, you pinch yourself and say, ‘How the heck did I get here?’ It is hard to believe,” House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan said.
“There is so much history here and so many decisions, so many famous debates … So many things that make up what we consider as fundamental parts of our country today that were decided upon here,” he said in an interview.
There’s no price tag yet for the renovation. There’s not even a full outline of the work to be done.
Public Works officials say they can’t estimate the cost until they have a plan for the renovation and get a handle on the building’s current condition. For example, Centre Block was one of the first steel-frame structures ever in Canada and there are worries whether water infiltration has rusted the steel.
“We’ve already started invasive openings to get a better understanding of what’s behind the walls and floors and ceilings,” said Rob Wright, assistant deputy minister, parliamentary precinct branch, with Public Works and Government Services.
The refurbishment is meant to overhaul the mechanics of the century-old building, such as the electrical and heating systems, and install air conditioning, new IT systems and seismic protections.
But any work beyond that, such as a rethink of the interior spaces, the committee rooms and offices, remains a question mark.
At a recent Commons committee meeting, MPs made clear they want a say in how Centre Block is redeveloped. And NDP MP David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre) said Canadians deserve a voice as well.
“As everybody else has given their professional input, how about one step back, put the whole thing out there to the nation and say, ‘OK, Canadians, what do you think?” Christopherson said.
At a recent committee meeting, Liberal MP David Graham (Laurentides-Labelle) wondered if the renovation could extend to a dramatic reimagining of the Commons itself.
“Is it important that we keep the chamber in the same physical shape as it is today or is it the opportunity to rethink how chamber itself is structured?” he asked.
It’s a question others are asking too. Writing in Policy Options, editor-in-chief Jennifer Ditchburn lamented the lack of discussion about the future of Centre Block or the possibilities for a new Commons seating arrangement to replace the current adversarial design that has politicians facing off across an aisle.
Regan said that decision will rest with MPs.
“If members decide they want a different shape chamber, the House could decide that. I don’t expect that. I think it would be very difficult to change it,” he said. “But we have to leave that to the future.”
Following the example of those jurisdictions, it would operate in concert with the Commons, allowing more time for debate on private member’s business and committee reports.
As people making nostalgic last visits crowded Centre Block hallways on one recent day, Regan stressed that the House of Commons isn’t a physical space. Rather, it’s the idea of representatives, elected by Canadians, to run government, he said.
“That’s a very important idea in democracy and it’s one that continues, whatever building you’re in,” he said. “However, this is a beautiful building and we’re going to miss it.”
Centre Block and the Peace Tower were built between 1916 and 1927, replacing the ruins of the previous building that had been gutted by fire on Feb. 3, 1916. It was conceived by Toronto architect John Pearson at a time when a younger Canada was coping with war, its aftermath and emerging nationhood.
“I think it’s really stood the test of time and I think those kind of ideals about what we are and what we want to say still resonate today,” said Johanna Mizgala, curator of the House of Commons.
There is history at every turn here.
The Commons chamber has seen speeches by British prime minister Winston Churchill, Nobel Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai, U.S. presidents Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy; Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India; and South African president Nelson Mandela.
The Speaker’s wood-panelled office is where photographer Yousuf Karsh plucked a cigar from Churchill’s mouth and captured the now-famous image of a scowling prime minister.
In the second-floor cabinet room, successive prime ministers have met with their ministers. The cabinet table is surprisingly scratched and worn by the politicians who have sat around it debating and deciding the momentous decisions of the day.
Throughout the building, intricate stone carvings tell stories of Canadian people and places. Spaces were left blank so that future generations could carve the tales of their time.
“The history of our country and of this place is carved into its very walls. But I think the intent of the architects was to remind members of Parliament of the people of Canada … to remind us who we work for,” Regan said.
During the renovation, some of the memorable experiences will be lost to visitors — going up the Peace Tower, taking in the majestic surroundings of the Library of Parliament, seeing the Senate chamber and its eight large paintings that depict scenes from the First World War.
Officials hope to keep other parliamentary symbols accessible as the work unfolds. The Peace Tower bells will ring until at least 2022. It’s hoped the flag atop the tower will continue to flap in the breeze, apart from one brief interruption when the flagpole is replaced.
Workers began cleaning out the House of Commons Friday, getting ready to move MPs desks to the new chamber.
“I will miss this building. I will miss everything that it signifies,” Mizgala said as she walked the building’s Hall of Honour.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier