1916: Parliament On Fire
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1916: Parliament On Fire

November 29, 2019


In the winter of 1916, Canada was
in the middle of a long and brutal war. Battles raged in the trenches of Europe
while those at home waited anxiously for news. But on the night of February 3rd,
disaster struck where none had expected: at Parliament.
The very centre of Canadian democracy. Centre Block was bustling on the night
of February 3rd. On the floor of the House of Commons, MPs were busy debating.
The building was full of staff, guests and journalists. Towards 9pm an MP named
Francis Glass headed to the Reading Room, a quiet space in the middle of Centre
Block, full of newspapers and journals. As he read, Glass felt a sudden rush of hot air.
He turned and saw that a small pile of newspapers had caught fire on
the desk behind him. Glass called out to the police constable on duty who ran to
put it out with catastrophic results. scraps of burning paper were blown
upwards, towards the walls of varnished wood. Within minutes, the whole room was on
fire. The fire very quickly grew out of control. It burst through the doors and
ceilings of the reading room, moving fast toward the House of Commons. Smoke choked the hallways as people scrambled to evacuate. Though firefighters arrived on the scene within minutes, nothing could be done to stop the spread
of the smoke and the flames. The fire continued to burn until 2am. By then, it had claimed seven lives and
destroyed Centre Block. In spite of widespread shock and grief, no time was
lost in securing a new home for Parliament. Prime Minister Robert Borden
held an emergency meeting with his advisors that night, and the next day the
House of Commons convened at the Victoria Memorial Museum, which is now
the Canadian Museum of Nature. The Senate and House immediately resumed business
and continued to meet at the museum for the next four years. Many historical laws
were passed within its walls including, acts that gave women the right to vote
and created the Department of Health Meanwhile, on Parliament Hill work began
on a new Centre Block. Larger, more modern and safer than the original. Its finishing touch was the famous Peace Tower tower completed in 1927. Questions continued to surround the fire
of 1916. How could this have happened? and Why? Eye witnesses denied that anyone had
been smoking and there was no evidence of faulty wiring. At the height of the
First World War, many Canadians suspected sabotage. A Royal Commission was called
to investigate but it found no evidence of arson, nor any other explanation. The cause of the fire remains a mystery
to this day.

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