Moving Day

25 September 1865

The day had finally arrived. After decades of dithering, political wrangling and construction snafus, the seat of Canada’s capital was finally moving. On 25 September 1865, the first boxes of government effects were loaded onto trains and barges for their one-way journey from Quebec, dubbed “the ancient capital,” to Ottawa. For almost a quarter century since the merger of Upper and Lower Canada to form the Province of Canada in 1841, the colony’s peripatetic capital had moved from Kingston to Montreal, before alternating between Toronto and Quebec. Imagine the cost of picking up sticks every few years as well as the physical and emotional toll on public servants and their families.

In 1857, Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as the permanent seat of Canada’s capital after partisan provincial legislators were unable to select a city. Even then, it took two more years for Canadian politicians to ratify her choice and for construction on the new legislature and department buildings to commence. Cost overruns due in part to contracts being awarded on the basis of patronage rather than price, led to further delays. When the money ran out, construction came to a temporary halt before building was resumed under new leadership. But by the beginning of 1865, work had progressed to the point that the government, then resident in Quebec, was encouraged enough to issue an Order-in-Council to set in motion the removal of the government to Ottawa for the following May.

West Block Government Building nearing completion, c. 1865, Library and Archives Canada, ID 3246837.

This date was also missed. However, with 500 workmen on site, the departmental buildings were nearing completion, though the legislature building was not quite as advanced, and the Parliamentary Library to the rear of the legislature building scarcely begun. Press reports suggested that the government was determined to move government employees to Ottawa by the fall. The Bytown Consumer Gas Company, which had won the contract for suppling the government buildings with illuminating gas, was told that it had to lay it pipes and make all arrangements necessary to supply lighting by mid October.

In late July 1865, Thomas D’Arcy McGee visited Ottawa to assess the progress and report back to Cabinet on the possibility of the civil service staff moving to their new quarters by the fall. The Ottawa Citizen reported that he spent virtually all of his time in the city examining and exploring the governmental buildings. He was favourably impressed.

A month later, Jean-Charles Chapais, the Commissioner of Public Works, told the Clerk of the House to have everybody ready for removal to Ottawa immediately after the close of the session expected in a month’s time. Based on Chapais’ announcement, many government employees instructed their agents in Ottawa to immediately secure housing. There were reports, however, that some public servants, fearful of not finding adequate accommodations, had in fact rented houses for a year or more in anticipation of the move.

At the end of August, three senior civil servants, Mr. T. Trudeau, Deputy Commissioner of Public Works, Mr. Himsworth from the Executive Council Office, and Mr. William White, Secretary of the Post Office Department, came down from Quebec to make their own assessment of the state of the buildings.

Ottawa was abuzz with excitement. The big day when the city was to finally become the seat of government was at hand.

On 7 September, Robert Bell, the owner of the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, and MP for Russell County in the Provincial legislature, sent a private dispatch to the newspaper informing it that Public Works Department had began to advertise for tenders for moving government effects from Quebec to Ottawa with the move to be completed no later than mid November. Ottawa MP J. M. Currier also reported to Ottawa’s Mayor Dickenson that there was “not the slightest doubt…that the Government will be removed to Ottawa this fall.”

The small announcement that the government’s move to Ottawa was finally underway, Ottawa Citizen, 25 September 1865.

Fourteen bids were received by the government for the removals contract, ranging from $12,000 to $39,000. The winner was the firm of Craig & Vallière, Quebec cabinetmakers.

The first departments to be packed were Crown Lands and the Post Office, with the first load of government effects leaving Quebec bound for Ottawa on 25 September, 1865.  Papers were loaded securely in bound wooden boxes, closely watched by Mr. Trudeau of Public Works who kept a wary eye out for careless packing.

Written papers and departmental books were transported by the Grand Trunk Railway. Office furniture and the Parliamentary Library, part of which had been in storage in Laval University, went by barges towed by steamers to Ottawa. Most of the books were to be held in storage until the new Parliamentary Library was completed a decade later. The government allowed the barges to pass through the Lachine Canal free of tolls on their way down the St. Lawrence River before being pulled down the Ottawa River to the new capital. On 15 October 1865, the Post Office and the Crown Lands Department opened for business in Ottawa. The Globe newspaper reported that “Quebec may be said to be decapitalized.” The last government effects left Quebec for Ottawa on 24 October.

As departments were given orders to pack their belongings in Quebec, the government buildings in Ottawa were being buffed and polished. Disused workshops were dismantled while rubbish was carted away from around the government building in preparation for their new occupants.

Journalists were given a three-hour tour of the buildings, escorted by Mr. Page, the public servant in charge of the Parliament buildings, and Mr. Thomas Fuller, one of the architects of the central legislative building. The reporters were very impressed. They enthused about the large, airy departmental offices, each supplied with water and gas. The reporters’ room, located on the northwest corner of the centre building had a fine view of the Chaudière Falls. The governor general’s office was described as an elegant apartment with windows of stained glass. The universal opinion of the Press Association was that despite some bungling and some chiselling, the buildings were spectacular and that generations of Canadians as yet unborn will be proud of them.

Journalists also remarked that downtown face of Ottawa had been transformed beyond the Parliament buildings. On the principal streets, first class stone buildings had recently been erected. Most of these buildings had been built of blue limestone and were deemed to be both substantial and elegant, with high French windows and projecting sills that gave them an air of “grace and strength.” Ottawa was clearly destined for a great future.

What about the poor civil servants who had to move from the delights of old Quebec to rough hewn, little Ottawa? The Ottawa Citizen opined that “removal to Ottawa [was] not quite synonymous with banishment to a penal colony.”

The government softened the blow by providing allowances to its civil servants. Each employee was given two months salary plus $40 for each adult in the family, with children of twelve years of age considered adults, and $20 for each child and servant. This scale of payment was the same as that given to civil servants when they moved to Toronto in 1855 and to Quebec in 1859. However, the allowances were reduced by 10 per cent to account for the shorter travel distance.

The biggest fear of government employees was finding adequate housing in Ottawa. Not only was it much smaller than Quebec, having a population of only 16,000 compared with more than 60,000 for the ancient capital, but it seems that relatively little new housing had been constructed in anticipation of a flood of new arrivals. Reportedly, this was due to the uncertain timing of when the government would actually move the seat of government to Ottawa.

According to John A. Macdonald, who stopped in Ottawa to see how things were going in late September 1865 while his way to Quebec, upwards of 2,000 people would be moving to Ottawa. He told Ottawa officials that in addition to heads of departments, there were “numerous labourers, workers and employees with small income, who have to look at a shilling twice before they spend it.”

It is not clear, however, who Macdonald was counting in this total. Twenty years later, total federal head office staff (inside service) accounted for fewer than 750 positions. It’s possible Macdonald was counting family members as well. Alternatively, he was counting non-government ancillary jobs that were also moving to Ottawa. For example, George Desbarats, the Queen’s printer, moved his printing business from Quebec to Ottawa. Regardless, for tiny Ottawa, this was a large number of people.

Macdonald expressed his conviction that the people of Ottawa would do all in their power to smooth the path for the new arrivals. He also claimed that according to his inquiries, Ottawa landlords were not taking advantage of the tight housing conditions, and rents remained reasonable. He attributed this to Ottawa landlords taking the long view.

Others were not so sure, especially Quebec-based papers, though perhaps they were biased, keen to point out the worst in the move to Ottawa. The Quebec Chronicle reported (and reproduced in the Ottawa Citizen) that not only were houses few and far between in Ottawa but private boarding was “scarcely to be had” and what rooms that were available costed from eight to ten dollars per week. “What are the single men with small salaries to do at these rates? Or, for that matter, the married ones?” the newspaper worried.

Another report said that a departmental officer paid £45 ($220), inclusive of tax, per year in Quebec but was forced to pay £90 ($440), exclusive of tax, in Ottawa. Ottawa’s taxes were also higher than Quebec’s. Another report in October 1865 claimed that most of the employees who had gone to Ottawa could not obtain “anything approaching a moderately comfortable dwelling without paying exorbitant rates. The shabbiest hovels costed £25 to £85 (roughly $120-$400). (The salary of a male, third-class clerk, which was a middle-rank position, ranged from $600-$1,000 per annum in 1886. Guards made only $500 per annum.)

The Ottawa Citizen rubbished these reports, claiming that rents of eight to ten dollars per week were ridiculous. The newspaper said that a single man could find “good quarters” for $6 per week. Moreover, it contended that private boarding houses were not scarce and that accommodations could be easily found. However, it added the qualifier, as long as people were “not overly fastidious.”

In early 1866, a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen from somebody with the nom de plume “Government Clerk,” said that there had been too much whining by civil servants. He asserted that the inconvenience of moving was less than what it had been after the moves to Toronto in 1855 and to Quebec in 1859. While one could hardly expect that comfortable accommodations at reasonable rates could be immediately found given the large number of persons arriving at once in Ottawa, its landowners demanded less than Toronto and Quebec landowners had in similar circumstances. Ottawa was not a “den of thieves.”

Public servants also had to hope that their personal effects made the journey from Quebec to Ottawa intact. The Globe reported that there had been a series of mysterious robberies leading to a very large quantity of belongings of government employees apparently stolen.

While government employees moved in late in 1885, members of Parliament and the Legislative Council moved later. Like the civil servants, they too had difficulties finding accommodation. Some, like George Brown, the fiery Liberal leader, stayed at the Russell House Hotel when the Legislature was in session. Others found lodgings in rooming houses. Thomas D’Arcy McGee took rooms in the Toronto Hotel, otherwise known as Mrs. Trotter’s Boarding House. He was to die on its front steps, felled by an assassin’s bullet, less than a year after Confederation.

The first session of the Provincial Legislature opened in its new home in Ottawa on Friday, 8 June 1866, when Governor General, the Viscount Monck delivered the speech from the Throne in the Legislative Council. The first two bills introduced by John A. Macdonald and Georges-Étienne Cartier dealt with the apprehension and punishment of Fenian raiders.


Department of the Secretary of State, 1886. Civil Service List of Canada, Ottawa, March.

Evening Telegraph & Commercial Advertiser, 1865. “Removal To Ottawa,” 27 January.

Globe, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 26 September.

——-, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 29 September.

——-, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 16 October.

——-, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 21 October.

Ottawa Citizen, 1865. “No title,” 23 May.

——————-, 1865. “Editorial,” 22 July.

——————, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 18 August.

——————, 1865. “Latest From Quebec,” 29 August.

——————, 1865. “Editorial,” 30 August

——————, 1865. “From Toronto,” 6 September

——————, 1865. “From Quebec,” 8 September.

——————, 1865, “The Late Press Excursion,” 18 September.

——————, 1865. “The Late Press Excursion,” 20 September.

——————, 1865. “Editorial,” 21 September.

——————, 1865. “The Removal to Ottawa,” 23 September.

——————, 1865. “The Removal,” 25 September.

——————, 1865. “No title,” 26 September.

——————, 1865. “No title,” 28 September.

——————, 1865. “The Hon. J.A. Macdonald In Ottawa,” 29 September.

——————, 1865. “Removal,” 18 October.

——————, 1866. “Correspondence,” 22 January.

——————, 1866. “Editorial,” 5 October.


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