Experience the Past Through the Lens of the Present


August 2016

National War Memorial: … Of the Valley of the Shadow of Death

A separate memorial, to Aboriginal veterans and fallen, in Confederation Park.

Canada’s contributions to the Allied war effort during the First World War have often been credited with bringing to life a modern sense of Canadian identity. This is not a perception which has arisen since the war; it was shared by those who lived through it. Famously, Brigadier-General Alexander Ross, who commanded the 28th Battalion at Vimy Ridge, stated of the battle “it was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then… that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”[1] In light of this, it is unsurprising that the idea of a National War Memorial was quite popular in the aftermath of the war. Though numerically Canada’s losses (61,000 dead, 172,000 wounded) were significantly smaller than many of the other nations who participated in the war, as a percentage of the population Canada’s casualties were significant (around 2.8% killed and wounded, with 0.9% killed).[2] Therefore, in 1925 an architectural competition was announced to secure a design for the proposed memorial. Under the circumstances the opposition (King’s Liberals were then in power) raised no objection save for one regarding the cost.[3]

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Parliament Buldings: The Design

The original Centre Block under construction, 1863.

Without a doubt the most recognizable feature of modern Ottawa is the Parliament Buildings. The centre of Canadian governance both symbolically and literally, the Parliament Buildings are a beautiful addition to Ottawa’s skyline and to Parliament Hill. Once Ottawa was chosen as the capital of Canada, the government issued a call for architectural designs for the buildings; the winning designs were chosen in 1859. The firm of Thomas Fuller and Chillion Jones of Toronto won the contract for the Centre Block; another firm, Stent and Laver, won the contract for the East and West Blocks.[1] Construction officially began when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, visited in 1860 and laid the corner stone. As with any major construction project, the initial cost estimates quickly proved to be unrealistic. One major issue was that the proper type of stone was harder to obtain than originally believed; the original plan had been to ferry the stone over the river from Hull but this turned out to be prohibitively expensive and most of the stone was instead brought in from Nepean Township.[2] The initial cost estimate sat around 1 million dollars; by the time the buildings neared completion, three times that much had been spent.

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Parliament Buildings: The Choice

Today, with Ottawa well established as the capital of Canada, it can be difficult to believe that there was ever much debate on the issue. This would seem unlikely to the political giants of a century and a half ago; not only was the choice of capital (for the Province of Canada, not yet the Dominion) one of the most contentious issues of the day, it may well have been the most contentious issue of the decades before Confederation, save for Confederation itself. Ottawa made, at first glance, an unlikely choice; neither large nor historically prominent, cities such as Toronto, Quebec, Montreal, and even Kingston each had better claim to the role. Therefore for the two decades from the creation of the Province of Canada in 1840 to Queen Victoria finally making the choice for Canadians in December 1857, a vicious debate raged across Canada.[1]

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Rideau Hall: A Royal Welcome

The Earl of Athlone

Following the declaration of war in 1939, it was felt that the next Governor General of Canada should have a martial character. To this end, the Earl of Athlone was selected. Athlone, otherwise known as Alexander Cambridge, the Prince of Teck, had actually been nominated for the position once before, in 1914; then, however, he had refused the honour so that he might serve in the First World War.[1] Now that the Second World War had begun and found him too old to serve actively, Athlone accepted the position and arrived in Canada in the spring of 1940, following the tragic death in office of Lord Tweedsmuir, his predecessor. Athlone was not just a soldier, however; he was also a member of the royal family. He had married Princess Alice, who when she died in 1981 was the final surviving granddaughter of Queen Victoria; Athlone’s sister also became Queen Mary, the consort of King George V.[2] In short, few individuals could have been better calculated to promote imperial unity in Canada.

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