Ottawa Entertains The Empire

22 August 1903

Passersby on Wellington Street must have wondered what was happening up on “the Hill” in the early afternoon of Saturday, 22 August 1903 as a large group of smartly-dressed men and women assembled on the steps in front the Centre Block of Parliament for what was clearly a commemorative group photograph.  Who were they and what were they doing in Ottawa?

The visitors were delegates, some accompanied by their wives, to the Fifth Congress of the Chambers of Commerce of the Empire. The Congress, hosted at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal by the Montreal Board of Trade and the Canadian government, had wrapped up its deliberations the previous day. The Congress had brought together 548 delegates—all men, given the times—from 124 commercial associations from the far-flung reaches of the British Empire. Some delegates had travelled thousands of miles from Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon and South Africa to attend the Montreal event. Travelling such distances in those days was long, arduous and expensive; it was not something done lightly.


Group commemorative photograph of delegates and wives of the 5th Congress of the Chambers of Commerce of the Empire, 22 August 1903, by Ethelbert Slater, Aireborough Historical Society/Historical Society of Ottawa.

The Congress provided a forum for the great industrialists and merchants of the empire to meet, network, and discuss the big political and economic issues of the age. Some called it the “empire’s non-official commercial parliament.” The group, which enjoyed royal patronage, was extraordinarily influential, able to shape policy both in Britain and in the colonies. The 1903 Congress in Montreal was the first time it had met outside of London, the imperial capital. Canadians were feeling proud of their contributions to the imperial cause in the Boer War, and wanted to demonstrate that Canada was not just some distant, frigid appendage of the empire.  The Congress also provided an ideal opportunity for the Dominion government to advertise Canada’s abundant natural resources as well as the country’s growing industrial capacity.

The Congress discussed a host of issues, some political, some economic. For example, there was unanimous support for a common empire-wide naturalization policy, under which a foreigner, naturalized as a “British subject,” in one part of the empire would have the same rights as a native-born person anywhere in the empire. In other words, say, an American, who became a Canadian, would have full rights as an Australian in Australia. There was also unanimous support for Newfoundland to join Canada.


Delegates and wives inside the Senate Chamber, 22 August 1903, by Ethelbert Slater, Aireborough Historical Society/Historical Society of Ottawa. Given the era, it’s quite striking to see women sitting in the Senate. The first woman senator, Cairine Wilson, did not take her seat until 1930.

A motion by Joseph-Xavier Perrault of the Montreal Board of Trade in favour of the empire adopting the metric system received wide support, as did a motion for all parts of the empire to discard pounds, shillings and pence, and adopt a decimal currency like Canada’s. A more contentious issue, particularly among French-Canadian delegates, was that self-governing colonies, such as Canada, should participate in the cost of defending the empire. (Recall that this Congress was being held just a year after the end of the Boer War.) The motion found unanimous support when Montreal-based participants amended it to ensure that it was up to the colonies to determine the nature of that support.

But, by far the biggest issue under discussion was trade, something that would resonate today. The empire was divided into two camps—free traders and protectionists. For more than half a century, Britain had followed a free trade commercial policy as a way of keeping import costs, especially of essential imports of food and raw materials, as low as possible. But by the beginning the twentieth century, protectionists in the United Kingdom, led by Joseph Chamberlain, were increasing in number. They favoured an “imperial preference,” under which tariffs would be imposed on non-empire imports, giving a price advantage to products made in the colonies. This imperial policy had strong political undertones as Chamberlain and his supporters wanted to bind British colonies closer to the motherland in order to strengthen the empire against other rising powers such as the United States and Germany.

Canada, which had tariffs on all imports, including those from the mother country and other members of the empire, favoured protectionism. However, while Canada desired preferential access to the British market as per Chamberlain’s plan, it was loath to lower its tariffs on imports from Britain and other parts of the empire.

After a long debate on the trade issue, a compromise resolution was negotiated that called for the adoption of a commercial policy throughout the empire based upon the principal of mutual benefit under which each member of the empire would receive a substantial trade advantage as a result of its imperial relationship, with due consideration given to the fiscal and industrial needs of each member. A commission was also proposed to study the issue. In other words, the issue was punted forward.

After four days of deliberations, the Congress wound up its events in Montreal. But for many delegates, their Canadian adventures were just beginning. A series of journeys had been planned that would take them across the country, courtesy of the Canadian government and the railways in a huge public relations campaign to impress and woo British investors.


Sparks St looking west, Saturday, 22 August 1903 by Ethelbert Slater, Aireborough Historical Society/Historical Society of Ottawa.

Their first stop was naturally Ottawa. One hundred and eighty delegates and forty wives arrived in the capital at 11:00 am on Saturday, 22 August, on a special train put on by the Canada Atlantic Railway. Reportedly, their train was the heaviest passenger train ever hauled over a Canadian railroad. It consisted of ten coaches, each weighing 50 tons. They were met at the Central Station by a distinguished group of Ottawa citizens, including Richard Scott (later Sir), who was the Secretary of State and the Liberal leader of the Senate, Mayor Cook, Sir Sandford Fleming, the father of Standard Time, who had attended the Montreal Congress, all members of City Council, and members of Ottawa’s Board of Trade.

After a brief stop at the Russell House Hotel, the guests were conducted on a guided tour of the Parliament Buildings, stopping first at the Senate chamber where Richard Scott welcomed the delegates and their wives to Canada. After referring among other things to the debate over imperial preference, he expressed the hope that Canada and Britain would avoid “selfish propensities.” Scott added that the loyalty of Canadians was greater than any other part of the empire.” He concluded by saying that he expected Canada would be recognized as “one of the strongest props of the empire” in fifty years.

After their tour of the Senate, the delegates and their spouses toured the Library of Parliament, before heading to the Commons chamber to be greeted by Charles Martel, the Liberal MP for Bonaventure in Quebec. Martel noted Canada’s contribution to empire-building by its construction of a second transcontinental railway.

At 12.30 pm, delegates and their wives assembled on the steps of the Centre Block for a commemorative group photograph taken by A.G. Pittaway, a prominent Ottawa photographer. The picture was developed and ready for purchase by delegates in less than three hours.

Amateur photographers also took pictures. The Ottawa Citizen commented that “numerous Kodaks carried by the visitors were kept clicking away.” One of the shutterbugs was Ethelbert Slater, the congressional delegate for Yeadon, a small community outside of Leeds in Yorkshire. Slater was an amateur photographer of some considerable repute in his native Yorkshire. The Citizen commented that Slater had occasionally spoken in public and “on several visits to the continent and Egypt secured some good pictures of scenery, etc. which he has exhibited and explained to public audiences afterwards.”


Delegates assembling outside of the Russell House Hotel, 22 August 1903, by Ethelbert Slater, Aireborough Historical Society/Historical Society of Ottawa.

Slater had brought his Kodak No. 2 camera, one of the first low cost cameras available to the general public, with him on his journey to Canada and documented his trip from his departure from Liverpool for Quebec City on the SS Canada to his return home via New York, providing a wonderful treasury of Canadian views, including of Ottawa, during his trip across the country with other delegates from the Montreal Congress.

After their tour of Parliament Hill, the tourists walked the short distance back to the Russell House Hotel for a 2:00 pm luncheon. It was called a luncheon instead of a banquet to permit the delegates’ wives to attend. Mayor Cook’s address focused on Canada as a worthy destination for investment, something he said would become apparent as delegates crossed the country. The mayor also put in a pitch for Canada to take over the West Indies. At the time, concerns had been expressed about the United States, having brought Cuba into its sphere of influence and annexing Puerto Rico following the Spanish-American War of 1898, had designs on other parts of the West Indies. Some years later, the United States bought the Danish West Indies, now called the US Virgin Islands.


Pile of logs ready for the sawmills of the Chaudière, 22 August 1903 by Ethelbert Slater, Aireborough Historical Society/Historical Society of Ottawa.

After lunch, the delegates got a taste of Ottawa’s industrial might with tours of the Chaudière, the heart of the city’s lumber industry, with stops at the E.B. Eddy and Booth sawmills. At the Booth mill, they were greeted by Jackson Booth, the son of the great Ottawa lumber baron, John Rudolphus Booth.

What the delegates did for supper was not reported. Most likely, they fended for themselves before embarking on an evening trip on Ottawa’s Electric Railway to Rockcliffe Park where delegates and wives enjoyed the natural scenery of the park which was illuminated for the event by thousands of multi-coloured electric lights. The Governor General’s Foot Guards’ Band entertained the guests during their visit to the park.

The tourists returned to their coaches in the wee hours of the following morning for the return trip to Montreal.


Log slide around the Chaudière Falls, 22 August 1903, by Ethelbert Slater, Aireborough Historical Society/Historical Society of Ottawa.

This was not, however, the end of the delegates’ travels in Canada. After a free day in Montreal, many, including Ethelbert Slater, embarked on an all-expenses paid cross-country tour, with a side trip to the United States to view the Horseshoe Falls at Niagara from the American side and to visit Detroit, already a major industrial hub before it became the centre of the North American automobile industry.

The delegates visited most major Canadian cities throughout southern Ontario, including Toronto, Hamilton, London and Windsor, steamed through the Muskoka Lakes, before heading out west, visiting Fort William, Winnipeg, Brandon, Banff, Vancouver, Victoria, and Nanaimo, with stops at the Crofton copper mines and the Chemainus sawmills. More stops were made on the return east, including a visit to the great “Soo” Ship Canal at Sault Ste. Marie. After another short visit in Ottawa, the tourists sailed from the capital on a steamer to Grenville, Quebec where they boarded a train to Montreal for the last leg of their 10,000-mile journey. From Montreal, many delegates, including Ethelbert Slater, took a train to New York for the return voyage to the United Kingdom.

Throughout this once-in-a-lifetime trip, Ethelbert Slater took photographs along the way, recording for posterity views of Canadian life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many were typical tourist shots of important buildings. But others captured life as it was being lived, providing viewers today with fascinating glimpses of a long-lost world.

The negatives returned with Slater to Yeadon. Years later, his descendants gave them, as well as other negatives, photographs and other memorabilia, to the Aireborough Historical Society whose mission is to preserve the history of Yeadon, and other neighbouring communities in Yorkshire. In 2017, Carlo Harrison, the archivist at the AHS, kindly donated the fragile Ottawa negatives to the Historical Society of Ottawa, which in turn gave them to the City of Ottawa Archives for safekeeping. Ethelbert Slater’s  Ottawa pictures had returned home.

For a more extensive coverage of the photographs and their story, please read Bytown Pamphlet No. 105, titled When Ottawa Welcomed the Empire through a Yorkshireman’s Lens, published by The Historical Society of Ottawa.


Ottawa Citizen, 1903. “British Guests,” 11 August.

——————, 1903. “Persian Garden Night,” 21 August.

——————, 1903. “Backbone of Empire,” 22 August.

——————, 1903. “Welcome To Our Guests,” 22 August.

——————, 1903. “Ottawa Entertained British Capitalists,” 24 August.

Ottawa Journal, 1903. “The Congress of Commerce Completes Its Labors,” 21 August.

——————, 1903. “Trade Lords Visit Ottawa,” 22 August.

Powell, James & Cook, Bryan, 2018. When Ottawa Welcomed the Empire Through a Yorkshireman’s Lens, Bytown Pamphlet No. 105, Historical Society of Ottawa.