Canadian Parliament Buildings Fire of 1916

Fire Destroys the Canadian Parliament Buildings

Parliament Buildings Fire in 1916
Parliament Buildings Fire in 1916. Library and Archives Canada / C-010170

While World War I was raging in Europe, the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa caught fire on a freezing February night in 1916. With the exception of the Library of Parliament, the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings was destroyed and seven people died. Rumors were rife that the Parliament Buildings fire was caused by enemy sabotage, but a Royal Commission into the fire concluded that the cause was accidental.

Date of the Parliament Buildings Fire

February 3, 1916

Location of the Parliament Buildings Fire

Ottawa, Ontario

Background of the Canadian Parliament Buildings

The Canadian Parliament Buildings consist of the Centre Block, the Library of Parliament, the West Block and the East Block. The Centre Block and Library of Parliament sit at the highest point on Parliament Hill with a steep escarpment down to the Ottawa River at the back. The West Block and East Block sit down the hill on each side at the front of the Centre Block with a large grassy expanse in the middle.

The original Parliament Buildings were built between 1859 and 1866, just in time to be used as the seat of government for the new Dominion of Canada in 1867.

Cause of the Parliament Buildings Fire

The exact cause of the Parliament Buildings fire was never pinpointed, but the Royal Commission investigating the fire ruled out enemy sabotage. Fire safety was inadequate in the Parliament Buildings and the most likely cause was careless smoking in the House of Commons Reading Room.

Casualties in the Parliament Buildings Fire

Seven people died in the Parliament Buildings fire:

  • Two guests of House Speaker Albert Sévigny and his wife returned to get their fur coats and were found dead in a corridor.
  • A policeman and two government employees were crushed by a fallen wall.
  • Bowman Brown Law, the Liberal member of parliament for Yarmouth, Nova Scotia died near the House of Commons Reading Room.
  • The body of René Laplante, Assistant Clerk of the House of Commons, was found in the building two days after the fire.

Summary of the Parliament Buildings Fire

  • Shortly before 9 p.m. on February 3, 1916, a member of parliament noticed smoke in the House of Commons Reading Room in the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings.
  • The fire quickly raced out of control.
  • The House of Commons was interrupted in the middle of a debate on fish marketing.
  • Prime Minister Robert Borden was in his office when he was alerted to the fire. He escaped down a messenger's stairway through thick smoke and flames. His office was badly damaged, but some papers on his desk were not touched.
  • Major-General Sam Hughes, who was down the street at the Château Laurier hotel when he heard about the fire, called in the local 77th Battalion to provide crowd control and help with the evacuation.
  • At 9:30 p.n. the roof of the House of Commons collapsed.
  • Senators and soldiers rescued some historic paintings from the Senate before the fire spread to it.
  • By 11:00 p.m. the Victoria Clock Tower had caught on fire, and by midnight the clock was silent. At 1:21 a.m. the tower fell.
  • By 3:00 a.m. the fire was mostly under control, although there was another outbreak the next morning.
  • The Centre Block was a smoking shell filled with icy rubble, with the exception of the Library of Parliament.
  • The Library of Parliament had been built with iron safety doors, which were slammed shut against the fire and smoke. A narrow corridor separating the Library from the Centre Block also contributed to the Library's survival.
  • After the fire, the Victoria Memorial Museum (now the Canadian Museum of Nature) cleared its exhibition galleries to make room for parliamentarians to meet and work. On the morning after the fire, the museum's auditorium was converted into a temporary House of Commons Chamber, and that afternoon, members of parliament conducted business there.
  • Rebuilding the Parliament Buildings began quickly even though there was a war on. The first parliament sat in the new building on February 26th, 1920, although the Centre Block wasn't completed until 1922. The Peace Tower was finished by 1927.

See Also:

The Halifax Explosion in 1917

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Your Citation
Munroe, Susan. "Canadian Parliament Buildings Fire of 1916." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Munroe, Susan. (2023, April 5). Canadian Parliament Buildings Fire of 1916. Retrieved from Munroe, Susan. "Canadian Parliament Buildings Fire of 1916." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).