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.
Quebec City was by far the oldest and among the largest cities in the new Province, and as a result claimed pride of place; however, it was considered to be too far east for the initial selection and Toronto, for some time the capital of Upper Canada, too far west. Something in between was needed, and Kingston was the initial choice. This satisfied Upper Canadians (for the most part), but did nothing to quiet Lower Canadians. As a result, Montreal became the new capital in 1844, an arrangement which lasted for five years. in 1849, however, a vicious riot (over the Rebellion Losses Bill) saw the Parliament Buildings in Montreal burned to the ground and Lord Elgin, then the Governor, attacked in the street. This eliminated Montreal from the running for the future, and the capital relocated to Toronto. For much of the next five years, the capital moved back and forth between Quebec and Toronto, but it was clear to all that this system, which was above all expensive, could not last. Quebec was then permanently selected in 1855, but Upper Canadians threw such a fit over this selection that, in desperation, Queen Victoria was called upon to settle the dispute once and for all.
When the Queen began to consider the factors involved, Ottawa’s relative isolation and historical lack of prominence suddenly became an advantage. Not only was the city as close to the border between Upper and Lower Canada as possible, not only did it have a relatively evenly distributed French and English-speaking population, but none of the prominent cities could complain about favouritism being shown to one of the others. These arguments were the work of Sir Edmund Head, then the Governor of the Province, who wrote to the Queen; the private secretary of the Queen, Colonel Grey, also added his voice to the chorus. Stories abound with more dramatic explanations, including an entirely random choice (pointing at a map with her eyes closed) and the reception of a beautiful sketch of the cliffs overlooking the Ottawa River; whether these had any part in the decision or whether it was merely the advice offered by her counselors, the Queen chose Ottawa in December 1857.
The argument did not end immediately; for much of the next ten years, even as vast sums were spent on the construction of the new Parliament Buildings, the opponents of Ottawa endeavoured to reverse the decision. George Brown was one particularly dedicated opponent, and using his Globe as a mouthpiece managed to gain a significant portion of public opinion and even, briefly, the Premiership in 1858; however, he failed to achieve his ultimate aim. When Confederation came at last, the issue was briefly raised once again, but there was little appetite for the construction of new Parliament Buildings. Sir Richard William Scott, then an MP from Ottawa and the former mayor of the city, also embarked on a vigorous lobbying campaign in Parliament that succeeded in rallying opinion and saving the status of the city. Through such petty squabbles, today’s Ottawa has come into being. There is little doubt that had any of the attempts to dethrone Ottawa succeeded it would be a profoundly different city today; fortunately for all involved, none did.
Now you know how Ottawa was selected as the capital of Canada- but how did it become the capital it is today? Find out in Part 2 of this series.
1 Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Queens Choice. Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, F.R.S.C. Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1961. 98.
2 Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Queens Choice. Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, F.R.S.C. Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1961. 100.
3 “(From a Montreal Correspondent).” Bytown Packet. May 6, 1849.
4 Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Queens Choice. Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, F.R.S.C. Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1961. 101.
5 Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Queens Choice. Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, F.R.S.C. Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1961. 102-3, 107.
6 Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Queens Choice. Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, F.R.S.C. Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1961. 108.
7 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Sir Edmund Walker Head.” Last modified April 2015.
8 Dictionary of Canadian Biography. “Scott, Sir Richard William.” Last modified 2016.
Header Image: Courtesy of myself.
Image of Head courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Scott: W.L. Scott, W.L. Scott Collection. Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1937-446, C-000066. (http://data4.collectionscanada.ca/netacgi/nph-brs?s1=Richard+William+Scott&s6=y+and+gif&l=20&Sect1=IMAGE&Sect2=THESOFF&Sect4=THESOFF&Sect5=FOTOPEN&Sect6=HITOFF&d=FOTO&p=1&u=http://www.collectionscanada.ca/archivianet/02011502_e.html&r=1&f=G)