On Canada Day, an estimated 100,000 people, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, took to the concert stage in front of the Canadian War Museum for a day of musical performances, the occasional speech, and finally, fireworks.
For the second year in a row, the celebration was not held on Parliament Hill. It will not take place there, against the backdrop of the traditional Gothic Revival Parliament Buildings, for many years to come.
The main Center Block, home to the Senate and House of Commons chambers, is in the midst of a 10-plus year construction project that will restore decades of deterioration, dramatically reduce its carbon footprint, and bring it to the current fire and earthquake survival standards. The project will also upgrade the building’s electrical, plumbing, heating and communications systems, some of which have not changed since it opened in 1927.
It has a budget of over C$5 billion, of which about $600 million has been spent. But the project has avoided the political acrimony that has bedeviled another historic Canadian government building: 24 Sussex Drive, the currently derelict official residence of the prime minister. No recent prime minister has pledged to spend the tens of millions of dollars it would take to make the stone house habitable again, fearing a political backlash from appearing to be spending money on themselves.
In 2019, both the House of Commons and the Senate turned off their lights and moved chambers and committee rooms to temporary locations. Rob Wright is the Assistant Deputy Minister in the Department of Public Works and Government Services and Renovation Canada Project Manager. He told me that despite the pandemic, a utility strike and a construction worker strike, he is confident that the work will be finished as planned by 2031 and within budget. Earlier this year, the federal auditor general widely agreed.
Two factors made rehabilitation unusually complex. The first was the decision that all heritage elements of the building, such as the House and Senate chambers, the prime minister’s office and the Hall of Fame, should look exactly as they originally did, only cleaner and without subsequent additions such as cable transmission. The other factor complicating the rehabilitation, mentioned by the Auditor General but not by Mr Wright, was MPs’ hesitancy about what they wanted, thus delaying some key design and engineering decisions.
This week I donned safety glasses, a hard hat, a high-visibility vest, and steel-toed boots to join a tour of the Center Block construction site, led by Mr. Wright. The project is finishing its first phase. This largely involved protecting or removing objects for restoration, including artwork, woodwork, and carvings. Both chambers are now stripped of brick and terracotta tiles, filled with scaffolding to the ceiling and almost unrecognizable. The painted linen ceiling of the Commons House was rolled up and taken away to the fabric and paint restorers. As is typical during renovations to buildings 100 years ago, a lot of asbestos was removed – more than £22.5 million.
While familiar locations within the building should remain visibly unchanged when it reopens, the first view I saw after walking through the tall gray wall around the construction site provided a vivid illustration of how Center Block will nonetheless be a very different place. , especially for visitors . A huge pit is now where the stage for Canada Day performances was placed in years past.
The void left by the 40,000 truckloads of limestone that have been removed is the beginning of a new visitor center that will take tourists under and then into the building and expand security check-in from a single cramped queue to seven or eight-lane operation. Along with other new measures, the center will allow the Library of Parliament, which runs tours of the building, to double its capacity to 700,000 visitors a year.
The new underground section will include some Senate committee rooms, a cafeteria and rooms where members of Parliament will meet with the public, an important feature given that only 50 of the 338 of them will have offices in the Center Block when it reopens. When Australia put some of its lawmakers underground, security concerns led officials to do so enclose some of the lawns of his Parliament. Mr. Wright, however, said Ottawa’s new underground complex was designed so as not to restrict public access to the Great Lawn or reduce its size.
Construction is underway virtually everywhere. The stonemasons now have digital maps of all 365,000 stones in the building. About a third are replaced or repaired, while the rest are cleaned in a process that uses laser light to drop decades of grime without affecting the stones themselves. Sculptors are repairing or replacing sculptures inside and outside the building, a process that often involves historical detective work.
The most intense activity at the moment is something that will be invisible when finished. To minimize earthquake damage, workers are creating a series of temporary concrete posts to support the building and the Peace Tower. They will enable the construction of 500 piles extending 23 meters under the new underground rock complex. Between each of those posts and the building will be two-foot-thick rubber plates that engineers have told us will cushion most of the seismic activity. That part of the project alone is expected to cost C$300 million.
After the tour, Mr. Wright suggested that the project could have been done without the workers’ strikes and disruptions due to the pandemic.
« We’ve had a series of shocks, » he said. « But the team has worked hard to come up with a number of approaches that have been instrumental in keeping things on track. »
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has written about Canada for the New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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