Charlotte Whitton Becomes Mayor

1 October 1951

On 1 October 1951, there was a seismic shift in Ottawa’s political landscape. That evening, Charlotte Whitton was unanimously chosen mayor by Ottawa’s city council to complete Mayor Grenville W. Goodwin’s term of office. Five weeks earlier, Goodwin had died of a heart attack only seven months after he was elected. Whitton’s appointment was remarkable and unexpected. At that time, there were virtually no female politicians at any level of government. Whitton subsequently went on to win four mayoral elections, dominating Ottawa municipal politics for almost fifteen years. In the process, she shook up what had been a comfortable bastion of male privilege, cleaned up City Hall that had become mired in patronage and nepotism, fought the cozy links between developers and city counsellors, built a new city hall, and presided over a rapidly growing city, all while keeping a firm grip of the municipal purse strings.

However, her years on city council were marred by an inability to work with others, and violent outbursts of temper which went far beyond verbal jousting. On one occasion, the diminutive mayor took several swings at a fellow council member, Paul Tardif.  Fortunately, she didn’t connect. On another, she pulled a toy gun from her desk drawer after a heated debate, prompting Tardif to half-jokingly say “Don’t shoot!” Whitton’s council antics, acerbic wit, strong views on virtually everything, and a penchant for the theatrical, which included a fondness for dressing up in medieval robes of office complete with a tricorne hat, kept her in the press spotlight for years. Already well known as an expert on social and welfare programmes, and a newspaper columnist, Charlotte Whitton, the mayor, became a celebrity, even appearing on the U.S. television show What’s My Line in 1955.

Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, 1954
Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, Douglas Bartlett, 1954, Library and Archives Canada.

Whitton was born in Renfrew, Ontario on 8 March 1896. Her father, an English Methodist, did odd jobs in the area, while her mother, an Irish Catholic, ran a boarding house. As “mixed” marriages were frowned on in the late nineteenth century, her parents eloped, and were married in the Anglican Church. Whitton remained a life-long Anglican though her siblings became Catholic. Rare for women of that era, she received a university education, obtaining an undergraduate arts degree in 1917 from Queen’s University. By virtue of her high academic standing, the university granted her a master’s degree. Later, when she received the first of several honorary doctorates, she became known as Dr Charlotte Whitton.

After university, Whitton joined the Social Service Council of Canada, and became assistant editor of the journal Social Welfare. In 1920, she moved to the Canadian National Council on Child Welfare following its establishment by the federal government, becoming its director in 1925. With its mandate expanding over time to encompass family welfare, the agency later became known as the Canadian Council on Social Development. During her twenty-year career with the Council, Whitton became nationally prominent for her social welfare work, especially her advocacy for improved and standardized child welfare legislation across the country. She also worked on behalf of children and families at the international level, representing Canada on the League of Nations’ child welfare committee in Geneva. In 1934, she was named Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her pioneering child welfare activities.

Whitton was also a passionate advocate for women’s rights. She disapproved of the prevailing moral double standard where mothers were blamed for illegitimate pregnancies but not the fathers. She also believed that women should be paid the same as men for doing the same job. She encouraged women to stand for election at all level of government, though she though they were best suited for municipal government on the grounds that cities dealt with issues closer to the family. In her view, women were better than men in caring for the sick, the elderly, and the young. In reality, she figured that women could outperform men at anything. She famously said “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Fortunately, this is not difficult.”

While “progressive” in some areas, she was anything but a left-wing radical. She supported capital punishment, opposed official bilingualism, abortion, and divorce. While a strong proponent of the traditional family, she never married, but instead devoted her life to her career, modelling herself on Elizabeth I, the powerful “virgin” queen. Whitton lived with her best friend Margaret Grier for more than a quarter century until Grier’s death in 1947. While the two women shared their lives, and had a strong emotional bond, there is no evidence of a physical relationship. When the Great Depression struck, Whitton became well-known for her “tough love” recommendations to deal with high unemployment, including the establishment of remote, quasi-military, work camps for unemployed men. She also opposed income support programmes except for the deserving poor, viewing government aid as dehumanizing, something that would diminish people’s responsibility for their family and neighbours. She unsuccessfully lobbied against the introduction of the “baby bonus,” arguing that it put an economic value on people’s “powers of reproduction rather than production.” Echoing the sentiments of supporters of the eugenics movement widely popular during the first half of the twentieth century, she also feared that the baby bonus would weaken Canadian blood lines by encouraging mental and moral “defectives” to have more children.

Whitton adamantly opposed immigration that might alter the complexion of Canada, both literally and figuratively. While she could do little to affect the French fact in Canada, she didn’t want to dilute Canada’s Englishness. Although she generally tolerated “Anglo-Saxon” immigrants, anybody else, including Jews, Asians and Blacks, were not welcome. Even when it came to British immigrants, Whitton was selective, wanting solid, yeoman stock who could support themselves; the poor, the sick, the huddled masses were not for her. She lobbied strenuously against child immigration from Britain partly due to the conditions that many children experienced on their arrival in Canada, but also due to her concern that they were not the right sort of people, often being the illegitimate offspring of the poorer classes. Again, she seemed to be influenced by the eugenics movement that viewed poverty as a pathological condition.

Most controversially of all, in 1940, Whitton opposed the evacuation to Canada of nine thousand, mostly Jewish, children from war-torn Europe. According to Irving Abella and Harold Troper, in their book None Is Too Many, the Canadian Jewish Congress saw her as “an enemy of Jewish immigration.” But Whitton views on race were mainstream stuff seventy years ago. Reflecting the mood of the population, the Canadian government refused to accept the child refugees, though it subsequently authorized ten thousand British children to take shelter in Canada.

In 1950, prompted by the Ottawa Council of Women, Whitton run for public office, winning one of the city’s four Board of Control positions in that year’s municipal elections. The Board, which formed a sort of municipal “cabinet,” was elected by citizens at large in the same fashion as the mayor; in contrast, aldermen were elected by residents of specific city wards. Whitton topped the slate of prospective controllers on the back of widespread support from Ottawa’s female voters. She was the first woman ever elected to Ottawa’s City Council.

In the same election, Grenville W. Goodwin, the soft-spoken owner of an optical company, was elected mayor, toppling Edouard Bourque, the previous incumbent. Despite opposition because of her sex, Whitton was selected by Council as Deputy Mayor reflecting her top place finish in the Board of Control race. When Goodwin passed away in August 1951, Whitton stepped in as Acting Mayor. However, her appointment as Mayor to fill the unexpired portion of Goodwin’s term was far from assured. The city’s solicitor argued that the “Acting” position was only temporary, and had to be ratified by a vote of Council. Many thought the position should go to a man. A poll of council members gave Whitton only one vote, with most favouring Leonard Coulter who had been Deputy Mayor under Bourque. However, following several weeks of back-room politicking, Coulter pulled out of the race, bidding his time until the next election. With the track now clear, Whitton became mayor. She immediately set out a five-point civic programme which included measures to reduce a shortage of low-cost housing (an issue dear to her heart), and steps to streamline City Hall. It was the start of a tumultuous period in Ottawa’s civic administration as Whitton shook up a complacent municipal bureaucracy.

Whitton subsequently went on to win the 1952 and 1954 municipal elections. Bowing out of the 1956 elections, she entered federal politics running as a Progressive Conservative candidate in the Liberal stronghold of Ottawa West in the 1958 General Election. While John G. Diefenbaker’s Conservatives swept to power, his coattails were insufficient to elect Whitton who lost by roughly 1,000 votes to the popular Liberal incumbent, George McIlraith. A disappointed Whitton returned to writing and lecturing before re-entering Ottawa municipal politics, winning the 1960 mayoral election. She won again in 1962. But by 1964, Ottawa residents were tired of Whitton’s theatrics and the constant battles at City Hall. That year they elected the gentle giant Donald Reid as mayor. Whitton experienced the indignity of placing third behind Frank Ryan, her own brother-in-law who had the audacity to run against her.  But her council days were not over. She returned to City Hall in 1966 as an alderman for Capital Ward, championing the cause of the elderly. She was successfully re-elected two more times, before retiring in 1972 after suffering a broken hip. She died in Ottawa at the age of seventy-eight in 1975.

During her lifetime, Charlotte Whitton received many honours. In addition to the CBE awarded her in 1934, she became a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1968, and received six honorary doctorates from Canadian and American universities. In 1973, the City Council chamber in the old City Hall was named the Whitton Hall in her honour. At the ceremony, Mayor Pierre Benoit called her “one of the greatest municipal politicians Ottawa has ever had.” She also received laudatory messages from the Queen, Governor General Michener, Prime Minister Trudeau and Ontario Premier Davis.

However, as controversial she was in life, Whitton remained controversial in death. In 2010, when Major Jim Watson proposed naming the city’s new archives building after her, the Canadian Jewish Labour Congress objected on the grounds that Whitton had been anti-Semitic, citing her role in barring Jewish child refugees from Canada in 1940. Dave Mullington, a Whitton biographer, came to her defence, noting that despite what happened in 1940, her relationship with the Jewish community was far more positive than this one incident suggested. Among other things, she had been a staunch supporter of Israel through the Suez Crisis in 1957, had been named “woman of the year” in 1964 by Toronto’s B’nai Brith organization, and was among the first persons to sign Lorry Greenberg’s nomination papers in his election for mayor in 1974. Greenberg subsequently became Ottawa’s first Jewish mayor. However, the controversy caused Mayor Watson to withdraw his suggestion. Instead, the archives building was named after James Bartleman, a former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.


Abella, Irving & Troper, Harold, 1982. None Is too Many, Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948, Lester & Orpen Dennys, Publishers: Toronto.

Brown, Dave, 2010. “Charlotte Whitton’s ‘disappearing’ a disgrace; Former Ottawa mayor’s reputation on line,” The Ottawa Citizen, 22 October.

McCarthy, Stuart, 2010. “Recognize Charlotte Whitton’s Dark Side, The Ottawa Citizen, 16 August.

Mullington, Dave, 2010. Charlotte, The Last Suffragette, Refrew, Ontario: General Store Publishing Company.

———————. 2010. “Whitton Deserves a Fair Shake,” The Ottawa Citizen, 25 August.

Rooke, P.T. & Schnell, R.L., 1987. No Bleeding Heart: Charlotte Whitton, A Feminist on the Right, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

The Evening Citizen, 1951. Dr. Whitton Takes Over As Mayor; Gren Goodwin’s Funeral Thursday,” 28 August.

————————-, 1951. “Coulter Favored In Poll,” 29 August.

————————, 1951. “Charlotte Whitton Urges Public Life Partnership at Inter-Club Council for Women,” 15 September.

————————, 1951. “New Mayor’s Program, Dr. Whitton Outlines 5-Point Civic Schedule,” 2 October.

The Ottawa Citizen, 2010. “Jewish Congress opposes Whitton recognition, Group cites role in barring child refugees fleeing Holocaust in Second World War,”14 August 2010.

Image: Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, by Douglas Bartlett, 1954, Library and Archives Canada, CA19128.

Stony Monday Riot

17 September 1849

We like to think of Canada as a peaceful nation, full of considerate, tolerant folk who respect authority, accept people’s differences, and, generally, rub along pretty well. In reality, we have had, and sadly continue to have, our share of ethnic, religious, and linguistic strife. And, while we have been able to avoid bloody revolution or civil war, it was a close call on a couple of occasions. We had a narrow escape in 1837-38, when rebellions broke out in both Lower and Upper Canada against repressive, corrupt, local oligarchies. A combination of military action by British soldiers and local militias, and subsequent enlightened political measures by leaders like Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin, diffused the situation, paving the way for responsible government, i.e. a government that reflects the will of an elected assembly rather a cabal of unelected, powerful individuals, or, as our American cousins might say, “a government by the people, for the people.”

We had another close call ten years later. In 1849, an elected Reformist government in the Province of Canada passed a bill that financially compensated owners for property destroyed during the 1837-38 Rebellion in Lower Canada. The bill covered everybody except those who had been convicted of treason. Conservatives, called Tories, were outraged that people who had opposed the Crown in the Rebellion would be eligible for compensation. Despite his own misgivings and Tory pressure, the Governor General, Lord Elgin, signed the bill into law in April 1849—an act that underscored the newly established principle of responsible government. An enraged, largely Anglophone, Tory mob in Montreal, then the capital of Canada, pelted Elgin with eggs, and burnt the Canadian Parliament to the ground. With Montreal deemed unsafe, the search began for a new capital.

In 1849, Bytown, as Ottawa was then known, was little more than a village that had grown up around the Ottawa River end of the Rideau Canal. Like the country, it too was politically divided between Reformists and Tories. Loosely speaking, for there were many exceptions, Lower Town residents, mostly working class, Roman Catholic, Francophone and Irish settlers, supported Reform, while the wealthier, largely English, Protestant elite of Upper Town favoured the Tories. Against the backdrop of the troubles in Montreal, Reformist municipal leaders in Bytown called for a town meeting to be held on Monday, 17 September 1849 in the Market Square. On the agenda was the organization of an appropriate reception for Lord Elgin who was expected to visit Bytown as he made his way on a tour of Upper Canada. Leaders also proposed sending a letter to the Governor General to, among other things, express their respect for the Governor General as the Queen’s representative, to place before him the town’s “wants and wishes,” and to underscore the merits of Bytown as a “site for the future Capital of the Province.”

One might think that a vice-regal visit to Bytown would have had the support of Tory Loyalists, especially as they had a lot to gain from the town being selected as the new capital of Canada. However, bearing a grudge against the Governor General for signing the Rebellion Losses Bill into law, they were hotly opposed. According to The Ottawa Advocate, a Tory newspaper, the proposed letter to Lord Elgin was inflammatory. On the Sunday prior to the day of the meeting, Tory supporters, “fully armed and equipped,” began to pour into Bytown from surrounding farming communities, including Nepean, Gloucester, Fitzroy, and North Gower. Their intent was to suppress the meeting. According to The Packet, the main body, roughly 500 men, had arrived by wagon by mid-morning, and were met by Bytown’s Tory leaders, one of whom was the mayor, Robert Hervey. At 1.30pm, they marched to the site of the meeting only to be confronted by an equally large crowd of Reform supporters. Initially, there was no trouble, but as Edward Mallock, the M.P. for the county, and Reformist leaders, Charles Sparrow and Joseph-Balsora Turgeon (both later mayors of Bytown), rose to speak from a platform erected at the south end of the Market Square facing York Street, they were shouted down by the Tory mob. Within minutes, a bloody brawl broke out. Sticks and stones were liberally employed, giving rise to the day’s name “Stony Monday.” When a shot rang out, there was a “general run for Fire-arms,” with up to fifty shots fired. More than two dozen men were wounded. Many fled to the nearby Shouldice Hotel (today, a restaurant at 62 York Street) for safety. Although the newspaper reported that there had been no deaths, a Methodist bystander, David Borthwick, was fatally shot in the chest.

Robert Hervey, 1820-1903, Mayor of Bytown during the Stony Monday Riot
Robert Hervey, 1820-1903, Mayor of Bytown during the Stony Monday Riot

Within twenty minutes of the start of the riot, the Canadian Rifles were mobilized under the direction of Mayor Hervey.  After marching through Lower Town arresting Reformists, the soldiers took control of the Market Square. There, Tory supporters passed their own resolution to write a letter to the Governor General expressing their “unqualified disapprobation of the unprecedented course pursued by Your Excellency’s present advisers, whose whole system of policy in the Administration of public affairs in this Colony, from the day of their assumption of power to the present time, [they] must unhesitatingly and emphatically condemn.” The draft letter was read out loud by Hervey.

According to The Packet, a Reform organ, the Tory letter to Lord Elgin was “steeped in the blood of … fellow-citizens, and adopted at a moment when their hired bullies were butchering the peaceable Inhabitants (Reformers).”  After a series of “violent speeches,” Mayor Hervey swore in special constables who, at the head of the mob, paraded through the streets. The mayor urged fellow Tories to reassemble two days hence, on the Wednesday, and to come “fully equipped for war.” The purpose of this assembly is unclear.

The next day, Tuesday, was fairly quiet, with both sides preparing for battle. Early on Wednesday, Reformers from near and far poured into Lower Town, while Tory farmers from neighbouring farming communities returned to reinforce their Upper Town allies. The Packet described both sides as being “completely armed as if the Country were in a state of civil war.” Tory supporters mustered on the brow of what is now Parliament Hill overlooking the canal. After being addressed by their leaders, including Mayor Hervey, the mob moved eastward down Wellington Street. Meanwhile, the Reformists, who had formed up in the Market Square, moved to intercept the Tories. The two groups, of roughly equal size, totalled at least 1,000 men. At 2pm, armed with rifles and bayonets, and apparently cannon, they came face to face on Sappers’ Bridge, the only crossing over the Rideau Canal linking Upper and Lower Towns. Fortunately, a small contingent of brave soldiers, this time acting in an impartial fashion, interposed themselves on the bridge between the two hostile parties. The situation grew tense. A Tory “proposition” to charge the troops went unanswered. Already taut nerves were rattled when Reformists fired a volley of shots into the air, reportedly to empty their guns as a prelude to leaving. After a face-off lasting two strained hours, Tory supporters, under a “Party Flag,” marched away to a tune played on a fife and drum. A parting volley of shots was fired into the air. With the Reformists also standing down, the troops returned to their barracks.

The Packet opined that if it wasn’t for a number of fortunate occurrences, most importantly the timely intercession of the troops, “one of the bloodiest tragedies on record would for ever hereafter have blacken the character of this fair Town, and made it unfit as a residence for any man but him unfit for civilized society.”  The newspaper marvelled in despair saying that a “stranger may well ask, —Can it be true? …Can such a scene have occurred in the middle of the 19th century in enlightened Canada?” The answer was a disturbing yes.

The drama was not quite over. Men arrested by the troops the previous Monday appeared in court on Thursday. With a large crowd outside, their cases were adjourned. Meanwhile, troops seized a private arsenal of arms, including cannon, from a property owned by Ruggles Wright, Senior, on the Hull side of the Union Suspension Bridge. The soldiers arrested Wright, along with Joshua Wright, Ruggles Wright, Junior, and Andrew Leamy. After being detained at the guard-house, the men were released on bail. The soldiers also temporarily detained reformers, John Scott, Bytown’s first mayor, and Henry Friel, editor of The Packet; Friel later became mayor of Bytown and Ottawa.

In the end, most of those charged in the affray were acquitted due to lack of evidence. Nobody was ever charged with the death of poor David Borthwick. In 1853, Lord Elgin was courteously and enthusiastically welcomed to Bytown, which Queen Victoria selected as the new capital of Canada in 1857. Robert Hervey, the mayor who had led the Tory assault on the Reformers, left Canada in 1852 for Chicago where he became a prominent lawyer.


Byward Market, 2013, History,

Groundspeak, 2015, Stoney Monday Riot – Bytown (Now Ottawa), Ontario –Infamous Crime Scenes on,

The Globe, 1849, “The Bytown Riots: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” 27 September.

Mullington, 2005. David, Chain of Office: Biographical Sketches of the Early Mayors of Ottawa (1847-1948), General Store Publishing House: Renfrew.

The Packet, 1849, “State of Bytown During The Past Week,” 22 September.

————-, 1849, “The Late Riots,” 29 September.

Image: Robert Hervey, 1820-1903, Library and Archives Canada, C-002049,

Strike! En Grève!

14 September 1891

For the majority of people in Canada during the nineteenth century, life was hard. If you managed to avoid the myriad of killer diseases that prematurely snuffed out the lives of many, you could look forward to long hours of backbreaking work, regardless of whether you lived on a farm, or in one of Canada’s growing urban centres, such as Ottawa. In the sawmills and lumber yards of the Chaudière, the typical work day started at 6am and finished at 6pm, with an hour off for dinner; often people were forced to work much longer. Sunday was the only day of rest. Wages were low. According to an 1886 Royal Commission, domestic servants earned $6-8 per month, with room and board. Adult male workers at John R. Booth or Erskine Bronson’s sawmills brought home $1.00-1.50 per day, while women doing piece work in Ezra B. Eddy’s match factory in Hull could look forward to the munificent income of $0.35-0.75 per day. Boys and girls earned a pittance. Fortunately, prices were much lower than today. Very roughly, a weekly wage of $7.00-$9.00 might be equivalent to $150-200 per week today. But work was often seasonal; the sawmills and lumberyards of the Chaudière closed during the winter.

Working conditions were also poor. Accidents on the job maimed or killed many each year at a time when there was no workmen’s compensation. If you couldn’t work, you weren’t paid. Match workers, usually women or girls called allumettières, faced the horrible prospect of contracting phossy jaw, the colloquial term for phosphorus necrosis, through their exposure to white phosphorus used to make match heads. Phossy jaw caused terrible jaw abscesses, organ failure, brain damage, and, ultimately, death. Respiratory disease was rampant among lumber workers who laboured in poorly-ventilated, dusty sawmills. Sawdust, dumped into the Ottawa River, polluted the water on which residents relied. In the cramped, unhygienic, wooden shanties constructed on LeBreton Flats and in Hull close to the Chaudière mills and lumberyards, typhoid and other waterborne diseases flourished.

Emblem of the Knights of Labor
Emblem of the Knights of Labor

In the late nineteenth century, mutual aid societies, co-operatives, and unions emerged with the objective of improving the lives of working people, a development encouraged by the passage of the Trade Unions Act of 1872 by the government of John A. Macdonald; hitherto, union activity had been viewed as illegal conspiracy. Early unions active in Ottawa included the Canadian Labour Protective Association (1872) and the Canadian Labour Union (1873). Also prominent were the Knights of Labor, an American union and political movement that had begun in 1869 as a secret society. Although the movement had its dark side in the United States, where it was involved in anti-Chinese riots in the west, it was progressive in other respects, supporting gender equality, and equal pay for equal work. It also welcomed black members, though it condoned segregation in the U.S. south. By the 1880s, it had hundreds of thousands of members, and had opened branch assemblies in Canada, including in Ottawa and Hull, despite opposition from the Catholic Church.

The Knights of Labor were prominent in the great Chaudière strike that began on 14 September 1891. For the next month, lumbermen and sawmill workers staged an impromptu and illegal labour walk-out over a pay cut unilaterally imposed by the lumber barons. The strikers also wanted a reduction in their long working hours. While strikes were legal back in those days, six months’ notice had to be provided to management. Napoléon Pagé, a journalist who had started the Hull assembly of the Knights known as the Canadienne, was a prominent strike leader, though the Knights of Labor never endorsed the strike given the legal requirements to call a walk-out; they officially favoured arbitration. Nonetheless, Pagé’s newspaper, Le Spectateur, became the voice of the striking workers. Also prominent among the leadership of the mill and lumber workers was J. W. Patterson, head of the Ottawa Trades and Labour Council, and Napoléon Fateux (or Fauteux). Fateux, a mill worker, was a particularly effective leader, counselling restraint and peaceful assembly. He warned against mixing strike activity with alcohol, and urged older workers to curb young hotheads.

1891 was a bad year for the Canadian lumber industry. Important markets in Britain and South America were weak owing to a global economic recession; the previous year, an international financial crisis had erupted when Baring Brothers, an important British banking house with a global reach, almost collapsed owing to huge losses on its investments in Argentina. The company was famously rescued by the Bank of England.  In response to weak demand and low lumber prices, the Chaudière lumber barons cut the weekly wages of sawmill workers by 50 cents. They also failed to live up to an earlier promise to reduce the work week to ten hours. When George Pattee refused a demand from workers at the Pearly & Pattee Lumber Company to restore the 1890 wage rate, on the grounds that he was only following the policy set by the lumber industry, his workers struck. Quickly, workers at other sawmills and lumberyards downed tools. At its greatest extent, some 4,000 workers had walked off the job—a huge proportion of Ottawa-Hull’s population, which perhaps totalled 50,000 at that time. Large public meetings were held in both Hull and Ottawa, attracting many thousands of people.

The strike was marred by violence and intimidation on both sides. On 15 September, more than two thousand workers marched from the wharf opposite the Booth mill in Ottawa across the Union Bridge to the Eddy match factory. There, the strikers confronted Ezra Eddy himself and other managers. A man, identified by the sobriquet “Red Moustache” violently kicked Eddy in the stomach before the mob dispersed. Later that same day, C.B. Wright, a sawmill owner, told a delegation of strikers that he was prepared to defend his mills “at the rifle muzzle if necessary.” Subsequently, Mr. Ruggles Wright fired blank rifle shots at workers in an attempt to intimidate them. In the ensuing affray, C.B. Wright was injured. There was more violence at the Mason family mill, where the father was roughed up, and his two sons, William and George, were cut by thrown stones.

Ezra Butler Eddy, 1827-1906, Owner of E.B. Eddy Company and sometime Mayor of Hull, Quebec
Ezra Butler Eddy, 1827-1906, Owner of E.B. Eddy Company and sometime Mayor of Hull, Quebec, Library and Archives Canada, PA25792

Ezra Eddy, who was also the mayor of Hull, persuaded two justices of the peace to call out the militia. Two companies of the Governor General’s Foot Guards and two companies of the 43rd Battalion were called up to report to the Drill Hall at 5am on 16 September. The part-time troops, who were mostly civil servants, were armed with bayonets and live ammunition, though their commander, Lt-Col. Anderson, warned them not to take offensive measures without the command of their officers. The soldiers marched from the Drill Hall to Eddy’s in Hull, where two companies were deployed to avert trouble; the remaining two companies were stationed at the Hurdman sawmill. Fortunately, nothing happened. The strikers remained peaceful, and the soldiers were quickly demobilized after a workers’ delegation, which included Napoléon Fateux and J. W. Patterson, convinced Ezra Eddy that the troublemakers were not mill men, but outsiders. The workers’ delegation also promised to assign men to protect private property.

This was not the end of the violence, however. At the end of the month, there was a serious clash at the Perely & Pattee Company when strikers attempted to stop lumber shipments leaving the mill. Chief McVeity of the Ottawa police force and his men responded with batons “in a lively style,” according to The Ottawa Evening Journal. Striking workmen responded by throwing stones and sticks. Serious injuries were averted by the timely arrival of Napoléon Fateux who succeeded in restoring peace. The ferocity of the police response led public opinion, which already broadly supported the strikers, to swing even more in their favour.

Church, civic groups, small merchants, and individuals contributed money and goods to help families of the strikers. At the peak, more than 200 families were being helped daily. Special shops for strikers were established in Place du Portage in Hull and in LeBreton Flats. Strike relief funds were also provided by other unions, both in the Ottawa area and outside, though the amounts raised were small.

By early October, cracks in the owners’ façade were beginning to show, especially after an attempt to use scab labour brought in from Pointe Gatineau failed when striking workers persuaded strike breakers to desist. As one brought-in worker explained, it was “better to stop work and live a little longer.” On 3 October, work resumed at the Hurdman mill in Hull. While the owners had not budged on pay, they instituted a ten-hour work day.

But the workers were also at the end of their tether. On 12 October, more than 1,100 men returned to work on the old terms; that is to say, no raise and no ten-hour day. More followed. As the Journal put it, “men were, with scarcely an exception, heartily weary of hanging around doing nothing, with empty pockets, on the threshold of winter.” Although most mill owners had provided no concessions, rumours of change were rife. The following day, Perely & Pattee reversed the 50 cent reduction on the face-saving grounds that the men had returned to work of their own free will. The other lumber companies quickly followed suit.

By the time the strike ended, at least 1,000 experienced millworkers and lumbermen, short of money, had left Ottawa-Hull. Some 600 went to the Saginaw region in Michigan, which had its own lumber industry. Consequently, the Chaudière lumber companies had difficulty in quickly restoring full operations. With the balance of power shifting towards the workers, the ten-hour work week was finally implemented in 1895.


Kealy, Gregory S. 1995. Workers and Canadian History, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Martin, Michael, 2006. Working Class Culture and the Development of Hull, Quebec, 1800-1929,

Morton, Desmond, 1998. Working People: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Labour Movement, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1891. “Violence,” 15 September.

————————, 1891. “Strikers’ Meeting,” 15 September.

————————, 1891. “The Strike,” 16 September.

————————, 1891. “Nothing Done,” 17 September.

————————, 1891. “Hard Knock,” 30 September.

————————, 1891. “Work Stopped,” 1 October.

————————, 1891. “Buzzing Again,” 12 October.

————————, 1891. “”Back to Work,” 13 October.

————————, 1891. “50 Cents More,” 13 October.

National Capital Commission, 2013. “Donalda Charron and the E.B. Eddy Match Company: Working Conditions,”,

Images: Knights of Labor,

B. Eddy, Library and Archives Canada, PA25792,

A Walk Down Sparks Street

20 May 1960

By the end of the 1950s, Sparks Street, Ottawa’s premier shopping district, home to major department stores, such as Murphy-Gamble, Morgan’s, and Woolworth’s, as well as jewellery boutiques, restaurants, and banks, was in decline. Shop fronts were starting to look shabby and dated. Competition from newfangled suburban shopping centres with lots of free parking was taking its toll. But the removal of the last street cars in May 1959 offered the street’s merchants the opportunity to buck the trend. Forming the Sparks Street Development Association, their solution was a pedestrian mall, an idea first suggested years earlier by Jacques Greber, the hyperactive French urban design consultant to the federal government charged with beautifying the city. Business owners hoped that a mall would boost customer traffic and commerce.

Overcoming the initial reluctance of City Hall, and opposition from Ottawa’s fire chief who was concerned about access in the event of fire, a temporary pedestrian mall, designed by Walter Balharrie, was officially opened by Mayor George Nelms on Friday, 20 May 1960. To add a note of glamour, the first Miss Dominion of Canada, “pretty Eileen Butter” of Ancaster, Ontario shared the podium with city and mall dignitaries. The street had actually been closed to vehicular traffic the previous Saturday evening so that workmen could paint patterns on the repaved roadway; install fifty potted trees, put in yellow, moulded, fibreglass benches, erect canopies, and install temporary flower beds. The National Gallery of Canada also loaned the mall a statue by prominent sculptor, Louis Archambeault, titled “Iron Bird.” Another Mall attraction was the introduction of outdoor cafés.

Sparks Street Mall, postcard, circa 1960

The Mall was well received by the general public. Immediately prior to its opening, the Ottawa Citizen enthused that “the public is becoming as proud of Sparks Street as a housewife is of her newly-washed sparkling windows” and that the “promenade will finish the job,” making the street a “place to dream in as well as to shop.”  A New York expert lauded the Mall saying that it was the best planned and most well conceived of the several malls he had studied. He also opined that it would be a “great stimulant” to the local economy and would revitalize the city.

Sparks Street was reopened to traffic in early September 1960. But with the mall experiment deemed a success, a fact confirmed by a survey which indicated that supporters vastly outnumbered opponents, the temporary mall returned the following six summers. It became a permanent feature of the Ottawa cityscape in 1967, Canada’s centennial year. That year, the Sparks Street Mall, the first permanent pedestrian mall in North America, was made resplendent with fountains, sculptures, trees, plants, kiosks and canopies at a cost of $636,000.  With the Canadian Guards Band striking up “God Save the Queen,” the new permanent Mall was officially opened on 28 June by Mayor Don Reid. Unfortunately, technical glitches meant that only one of the three fountains on the Mall was operational, and there was no sign of the planned rock garden. Proposed infra-red heating elements to be located under the canopies to keep pedestrians warm in winter were also not installed owning to cost considerations.

Although the establishment of the Mall may have slowed the decline of Sparks Street as a commercial and shopping district, urban blight continued. One by one, the major department stores closed their doors. The opening in 1983 of the downtown Rideau Centre, a major indoor shopping centre with ample parking, provided a major blow to Mall fortunes. Sparks Street retail sales plunged, as tourists and residents alike took their business to the Centre’s modern shopping facilities located in close proximity to the Byward Market’s many restaurants and nightclubs. Stalwarts, such as Birks Jewellers, also decamped to the Rideau Centre, leaving the Mall’s shopping façade snaggle-toothed.

In an effort to rejuvenate the Mall, governments and area merchants spent $5.5 million in 1986 to perk up things. Granite sidewalks, traditional lamp standards, and pavilions housing pay phones and mall directories were installed. The remodelling was not well received. The pavilions were bulky and obstructed the view of the Mall’s distinctive architecture. One heritage expert called them “gimmicky.”  The improvements also did not address the Mall’s comparative disadvantages, including inadequate parking facilities and the lack of major anchor stores. It continued to be eclipsed by the Rideau Centre where people could shop in comfort during Ottawa’s cold winter months, and by suburban shopping centres which were conveniently located to where people lived. Street merchants also complained that their landlord—the federal government—which had expropriated many of the buildings on Spark Street owing to their proximity to Parliament Hill and their historic nature, was unresponsive to their needs and slow to act.

The decline of Sparks Street continued through the 1990s and 2000s. Shops continued to close. Much of an entire block of shops on the south side of the street between Bank Street and O’Connor Street was bulldozed in 2003 to make way for the CBC Ottawa Broadcast Centre. While care was taken to ensure that the Spark Street side of the new Centre was consistent with its low-rise neighbours, the new building did little to enhance Mall shopping. Moreover, with its principal entrance on Queen Street, pedestrian traffic declined. Extensive renovations by the federal government to the former Metropolitan Life building (now the Wellington building), as well as to the historic Beaux Arts former Bank of Montreal building has kept much of Sparks Street a building site for years. Now that the Bank of Canada headquarters at the western end of Sparks Street is under renovation, it will remain that way until at least 2017. As a final insult, in 2013, Zellers and Smithbooks, street features for decades, closed, leaving much of the Mall a shopping wasteland.

Today, the Mall is a shadow of its former self. Although its outdoor cafés, including a new microbrewery and restaurant at 240 Sparks, provide some life during the summer months, as do special events, such as the annual Buskers’ Festival or Ribs’ Fest, there is little shopping to attract people, residents or tourists, the rest of the year. Hopes for an urban renewal now centre on the possible construction of a boutique hotel and condominiums on the Mall.


Rubenstein, H. 1992. Pedestrian Malls, Streetscapes and Urban Spaces, John Wiley & Sons Inc.

The Globe and Mail, 1960. “Mall and Tulips Open Ottawa Tourist Season,” 20 May.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1960. “Prospects for Spring,” 7 May.

—————–, 1960. “The Sparks Street Mall,” 9 May.

—————–, 1960. “Official Opening of the Sparks Street Mall, 20 May.

—————–, 1961. “The Sparks Street Mall,” 1 February.

—————–, 1961. “Providing for Fire Safety on the Sparks Street Mall,” 13 March.

—————–, 1961. “The Sparks Street Mall,” 1 September.

—————–, 1967. “Pedestrians take Over Mall,” 25 June.

—————-, 1969. “Sparks Street Mall, Chronology of Events,” 2 June.

—————-, 1986. “$5.5 million Facelift for Sparks St Approved,” 29 October.

—————-, 1987. “The Mall Needs More than a New Suit,” 13 January.

Urbsite, 2010. Sparks Street Mall Turns Fifty.

Hull and Ottawa in Flames

26 April, 1900

It was a balmy spring morning. The temperature was on its way to a high of 17 degrees Celsius, with a strong wind out of the north, gusting to about 60 kph. At about 10.00am, the chimney of a small wooden shack located close to the intersection of St. Rédempteur and Vaudreuil Streets in Hull (approximately the current home of the St. Rédempteur community health centre) overheated, setting the shack’s shingle roof afire. Passersby didn’t take much notice. Fire was perennial hazard among the wooden homes of Hull, and there was nothing to distinguish this blaze from the many others successfully attended to by the Hull Fire Department. But this was not any fire. Fanned by the strong winds, the blaze quickly got out of control. By noon, a fire storm had engulfed downtown Hull, forcing thousands to flee for their lives. The speed of the advancing fire was so fast that many left their homes with few possessions beyond the clothes on their backs. Firefighters were helpless in the face of the advancing flames. Within two hours, virtually everything within a several block area was destroyed, including the Court House, Post Office, the Imperial Hotel, an Anglican Church, newspaper offices, as well as numerous shops and residences. The only major building left standing was the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Capriciously, the fire also spared the city jail which was at rear of the gutted Court House.

Hull In flames
Hull in Flames, 26 April 1900

The fire then spread to the many timber yards and mills lining the Ottawa River, including those of the E.B. Eddy match and paper factories, and the Hull Lumber Company.  Millions of dollars worth of lumber was lost to the flames. Mr. Eddy described the fire as “a snow storm of particles of fire.” Leapfrogging from island to island, the fire traversed the Ottawa River. The wooden interprovincial bridge across the Chaudière rapids was also set ablaze severing the only land link between Hull and Ottawa. Of the many industrial building located on Victoria and neighbouring islands, only two survived. The metal sheathing on the Bronson and Weston Carbide Works saved that building from the flames, while staff at the J.R. Booth Sawmills, managed to douse flying embers that menaced the plant using a water system installed four years previously after an earlier mill fire.

By 1.00pm, flying red-hot embers and flaming shingles ignited Bronson’s wharf on the Ottawa side. Shortly afterwards, the nearby lumber yards that lined the shoreline went up in flames. Heading south, the conflagration consumed factory after factory, including the Baldwin Iron Works, the Victoria Foundry, the Ottawa Saw Works, the Martin and Warnock Flour Mills, and the flour mill and grain elevators of McKay Mills Company. Also destroyed were the Erskine Presbyterian Church, the House of Mercy and the Canadian Pacific Railway Station located at LeBreton Flats, along with its adjoining goods sheds and coal yards. Electrical power to Ottawa failed when the power houses of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company and the Electric Lighting Company went up in flames. The lack of lighting added to the misery of the Capital’s citizens. Parliament adjourned when their lights failed though many parliamentarians had already left their desks to monitor the advancing flames.

Through the afternoon and evening the fire worked its way south, devastating the LeBreton Flats area, destroying the shops and homes of mainly poor, working class citizens. However, the wealthy were not spared either. The $100,000 home (more than $2 million in current dollars) of J.R. Booth also went up in flames. The district looked like a war zone consisting of burnt-out columns of smouldering debris.  Only two buildings were spared, the No. 1 Fire Station and the Couillard Hotel located next door to each other on Duke Street.

The fire burnt its way through Rochesterville located to the south of LeBreton flats all the way to Dow’s Lake, roughly at the intersection of today’s Carling Avenue and Preston Street. There, staff of the Dominion Experimental Farm was able to save a number of farm buildings on the south side of the avenue. Meanwhile, a bucket brigade of men from the “Guards” and the 43rd Battalion was able to partially contain the fire to the east by wetting down buildings on the eastern side of Division Street (Booth Street). Fortunately, the central part of Ottawa was protected from the fire by Nanny Goat Hill that rises along Albert and Slater Streets behind Christ Church Cathedral. As well, in the afternoon, the wind which had been blowing from the north, northeast, swung around to the southeast. With little new combustible material to fuel the fire, the blaze began to exhaust itself.

By midnight, the fire had been largely contained by the heroic efforts of the firefighters of Ottawa and Hull and the Militia. Firemen and equipment as far afield as Toronto were called in to help, with a Montreal detachment of eight men and five horses arriving within two hours of being called. Another team made it by 7.00pm.

LeBreton Flats after the Fire, 1900
LeBreton Flats after the Fire, 1900

In the end, the inferno spread over five square miles of territory, consuming more than 3,200 buildings—factories, mills, shops and homes. Seven persons lost their lives, mostly in Hull, including John Dare, a fireman. More than 14,000 people, were left homeless and largely destitute as their places of employment were also destroyed. Estimated losses range from $10 million to $15 million ($300 million to $450 million in current dollars).  Much of this was uninsured.

Temporary shelter for the homeless was provided at the Drill Hall at Cartier Square, the Exhibition Grounds, the Amateur Athletic Club, and the Salvation Army Barracks in Ottawa, and the Roman Catholic Presbytery in Hull.  A Committee of ladies, chaired by the Governor-General’s wife, the Countess of Minto, with Lady Laurier, the wife of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, serving as president, organized distributions of food and clothing.

With the Boer War underway, there were rumours that the fire had been started by pro-Boer sympathizers. This was later denied; it was a simple accident. Moved by the disaster, aid from across Canada, the Empire, and beyond poured in.  In an editorial, The Times of London proclaimed that “Great Britain must help Canada who is lavishing her blood in South Africa.” In total, the Ottawa and Hull Fire Relief Fund, chaired by Mr. George Perley, raised close to $1 million (about $20 million today), much of it from individuals across Canada, Great Britain and the colonies, though funds also came from the United States; $4.86 was contributed from Chile. These funds helped Hull and Ottawa to recover quickly. By the end of the year, 750 replacement houses had been built, and operations at E.B. Eddy’s match and paper factories as well as the CPR rail yards were restored.


Jenkins, Phil, 2008, An Acre Of Time, Chelsea Books.

Shorter, G. W., 1962, Ottawa-Hull Fire of 1900, National Research Council, Division of Building Research, June.

The Evening Citizen, “Hull and Ottawa’s Greatest Calamity,” 27 April 1900.

 —————-,“Ottawa Scene of Big Fires in Years Past,” 14 August 1926.

—————-, “Hull will not Forget Great Fire of 1900,” 20 August 1949.

The Colonist, “A Disastrous Fire,” 30 April 1900.

 The New York Times, “Ottawa and Hull Swept by Flames,” 27 April 1900.

Image: Hull in Flames, 26 April 1900, unknown,

Image: LeBreton Flats after the Fire,  unknown, Library and Archives Canada, PA-121784,

Everybody Out!

18 April 1962

It came without warning; a notice addressed to residents of LeBreton Flats reading “This letter will advise you that on April 18, 1962, the National Capital Commission [NCC] filed a notice of expropriation covering the property at [your address.]” With that, 2,800 residents, along with hundreds of businesses, were obliged to move. They were given two years to relocate. The decision to raze the neighbourhood was taken without public consultations, presumably to avoid land speculation. Even Ottawa’s mayor, Charlotte Whitton, was kept in the dark.

In total, 53 acres of land was forcibly acquired from 240 landlords. The government paid fair market value for the land at a cost of about $17 million. The expropriation was part of a project to redevelop the entire LeBreton Flats area of roughly 154 acres. The federal government already owned 60 acres of railway yards and tracks purchased from the Canadian Pacific Railway in an initiative to remove trains from downtown Ottawa. Another 29 acres were to be reclaimed from Nepean Bay, with streets accounting for the remaining 12 acres. The last building to fall to the wrecking ball was the Duke House, the former Couillard Hotel, in October 1965. More than 250 people had crowded into the tavern the previous St Patrick’s Day, its last day in operation, to celebrate its passing. With the Duke House’s demolition, LeBreton Flats, a historic neighbourhood that dated back to the mid 19th century, was nothing but a memory. Its final days were memorialized in oil paintings by local artist Ralph Burton which now hang in the Ottawa City Hall.

LeBreton Flats, circa 1960
LeBreton Flats, circa 1960

The rationale for the expropriation was to eliminate “a real eye sore” of deteriorating housing stock and dirty industry within walking distance of Parliament Hill. The NCC planned to transform the area into something worthy of a national capital, with the construction of up to ten government buildings, along with monuments, parks and parkways. Notwithstanding Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s ambition to complete the project in time for Canada’s centennial on 1 July 1967, Lebreton Flats remained a barren wasteland of weeds, rubble, car parks, and snow dumps for more than 40 years.

There are a myriad of explanations for what went wrong. Changing priorities, cost, recessions, ineptitude, and the discovery of toxins in the soil all played a part in slowing the Flats’ renaissance. The fact that the area was owned for much of the time by three different levels of government (the NCC, the regional government, and the City of Ottawa) didn’t help either.

Many have questioned the original decision by the NCC to bulldoze the Flats, viewing it as a crime committed against the poor. Some look back with nostalgia to a neighbourhood, while  hardscrabbled, had a sense of community. But others argue that LeBreton Flats was a gritty, dirty slum. Many of its buildings had been hastily constructed after the 1900 fire which had gutted the area. Only two structures had survived the flames, one ironically being the Couillard Hotel, the last building to demolished in 1965. By the early 1960s, the area was unquestionably rundown, an unhealthy mix of dilapidated houses, scrap yards, metal working plants, mill suppliers, and rail yards. Odours from a paint factory and a brewery poisoned the air.

Regardless of the merits of levelling LeBreton Flats, the fact that the NCC left the brown-field site fallow for more than a generation beggars belief. A succession of proposals was announced for the site with great fanfare only to submerge without a trace. In the late 1960s, the area was to become the home of a new headquarters for National Defence. But the three-tower, $40 million project never got off the ground; cost considerations were the likely reason. Instead, National Defence moved to its current location on Colonel By Drive. Subsequent plans for the Flats included a highway interchange with a half-clover leaf, low-cost housing, a convention centre, a national aquarium, a railway terminal for a proposed high-speed train between Windsor and Montreal, and a theme park. While waiting for the NCC to decide, the Flats have been used for special events, including an open-air mass by Pope Jean Paul II in 1984, and performances by the Cirque du Soleil. The land has also been used as a site for hot-air ballooning and as a camping ground.

In the late 1980s, plans for the area focused on five competing concepts with beguiling but obscure names: “Consolidating the Capital,” “Symbolic Bridge,” “A Multi-use Node,” Creating an Urbane Capital,” and “An Agora for the Capital.” Each was assessed on their biophysical, social-cultural, and other characteristics. Under the winning “Agora” concept, the Flats would be populated with museums, offices, roughly 2,500 residential units, of which 1/3 would be social housing, and commercial buildings. There would also be ample green space, including a park (the agora), located in the centre of LeBreton Flats. The Ottawa River Parkway (now Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway) would be relocated to become an urban boulevard through the Flats.

This plan too stalled, in large part on a 1991 environmental study that detailed the various toxins found in the soil and groundwater of LeBreton Flats, a legacy from its industrial past. Before redevelopment could take place, measures would have to be taken to deal with high levels of benzene and other contaminants that had leaked into the soil from the paint factory, underground oil tanks, and waste disposal sites. Snow dumps had also led to high levels of lead from vehicle emissions, and chloride in the groundwater. Dangerously high levels of methane from rotting household and municipal wastes used as infill were also found in the land reclaimed from Nepean Bay. The cost of remediation and clean-up, which included scrapping off and replacing the topsoil, had risen to more than $70 million by 2012.

LeBreton Flats, circa 2010
LeBreton Flats, circa 2010

After more than 40 years of delay, the redevelopment of the LeBreton Flats finally got underway in 2003 with the construction of a new Canadian War Museum. Located close to the Ottawa River, the facility, which cost more than $135 million, opened its doors to the public in 2005. Its environmentally-friendly “green” roof is planted with self-sowing grasses found along the Ottawa River. The fields to the south and east of the Museum are currently used for summer festivals, such as Bluesfest.

In 2004, the NCC contacted developers regarding the construction of residential units on a large 11 acre (4.4 hectares) parcel of land. Only three developers, Minto, Alliance Prevel and Claridge, submitted expressions of interest. Controversially, when decision time came, Claridge, judged third on experience and design, was the only contender left standing. The other two had pulled out of the competition owing to changes demanded by the NCC which in their view had made the project nonviable. Since then, Claridge has built two 13-storey condominium towers on LeBreton Flats which some critics panned as “pedestrian.” A third phase consisting of “boutique-style stacked townhomes” is underway.

The LeBreton Flats odyssey is far from over. More residential units are planned though their timing will depend on market demand. The decision to build a light rail transit (LRT) system in Ottawa has also affected development on the Flats. On the positive side, LeBreton Flats will have its own stop, better linking the area to the rest of the city, and increasing its attractiveness to potential residents. On the negative side, the LRT project has prompted the NCC to reassess its approach to the Flats. In September 2014, the Crown Corporation abandoned its twenty-year old plans for mixed-use development for the area saying that they were out-dated and inconsistent with contemporary approaches to development and city needs. It now wants a “signature” attraction of regional, national, or even international significance. Ideas including a downtown hockey arena, or a new site for the Museum of Science and Technology.  While the federal government supports this change in direction, it has also indicated  that it has no money to finance development. The NCC has invited the private sector to submit proposals for 9.3 hectares of land south of the Parkway and west of Boothe Street. An additional 12.1 hectares might also be made available. The hope is that something could be approved by the NCC Board and the federal government by early 2016.


Jenkins, Phil, 2008, An Acre Of Time, Chelsea Books.

McClelland, David, 2009, “The Ottawa Project,

National Capital Commission Planning Branch, Environmental Assessment Section, 1991, LeBreton Flats/Bayview Concept Plans: Initial Environmental Evaluation, Final Report, May.

NCC Watch, The LeBreton Flats,

Ottawa Business Journal, 2012, “Construction crews returning to LeBreton Flats in December,” 29 August,

Ottawagraphy, LeBreton Flats,

Ottawa Sun, 2012, “Cost of Cleaning up Contaminated Soil at Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats would top $71 million, National Capital Commission says,” 22 December,

Rappaport, Michael, LeBreton Flats: Ottawa’s Field of Dreams,

The Ottawa Citizen, 1962, “Huge Expropriation, 10 Gov’t Buildings Planned to”Beautify” Central Area,” 19 April.

———————, 2013, NCC to rethink plans for LeBreton Flats,” 31 August,

——————–, 2014. “Everything you need to know about the NCC’s vision for LeBreton Flats,” 30 September,

The Globe and Mail, 1970, “Paid $1,771,966 for unused HQ Plan,” 20 January.

Trailpeak, 2013, LeBreton Flats, 1950s,

Urbsite, 2010, Ralph Burton on Lebreton Flats,

—————, 2012, Revisiting the Flats after 50 years (and 100, 150, 200 years),

Wikipedia, LeBreton Flats,


LeBreton Flats, circa 1960,

LeBreton Flats, circa 2010,

Queen Victoria Chooses Ottawa

31 December 1857

Almost everybody knows that Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as Canada’s capital. But few are aware that the city’s selection was anything but a gentile affair. In fact, the Queen was only asked to help after years of sterile political wrangling between contending factions in Parliament. There were more than 200 votes on the issue. Even after the Queen had made her choice, it didn’t go down well with some and was challenged in Parliament. At the end of the day, Canadian legislators only narrowly ratified the Queen’s decision; a change of three votes from yea to nay would have nixed it.

It all began with the merger of Upper and Lower Canada to create the united Province of Canada in 1841 consisting of Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec), each equally represented in Parliament, under the joint leadership of a premier from each of the two Canadas. The Governor-General, Lord Sydenham, convened the first opening session of the united parliament at Kingston on 14 June 1841. While Kingston residents were delighted to be living in the de facto capital of Canada, others were less enamoured with Lord Sydenham’s choice. Canada East representatives had hoped that either Quebec or Montreal would have been chosen as both were far larger in population and had more to offer in the way of amenities for debate-weary members of parliament. However, Canada West was insistent on hosting the new capital. As Kingston satisfied Canada West’s requirement, Canada East representatives reluctantly acquiesced on the grounds that at least it wasn’t Toronto.

But Toronto-area MPs weren’t satisfied either. They submitted a bill calling for Parliament to meet alternatively in the old capitals of Toronto and Quebec City. This bill passed though the outcome satisfied few. MPs agreed in 1842 to examine three resolutions each favouring a different city as the permanent capital—Montreal, Toronto, or Bytown, as Ottawa was then called. All motions were defeated, with Bytown receiving the fewest votes, only 6 for against 57 opposed.

In 1843, Canada’s Attorney General moved that Montreal be chosen as the capital. This motion passed on a vote of 55 to 22. Toronto and Quebec City were rejected as being too far from the geographic centre of the newly united Province of Canada. Bytown too failed despite its favourable geographic attributes—it bordered both provinces, was pretty much equidistant between Toronto and Quebec, and was located at the mouth of the militarily important Rideau Canal, safely distant from the United States. But politicians and bureaucrats looked in horror at the idea of decamping to an isolated “Arctic lumber village,” with a population of perhaps 5,000. Its tumbledown wooden buildings offered few creature comforts, especially in the midst of a harsh Canadian winter. Cosmopolitan Montreal was a far better choice. There, public servants could enjoy the social and commercial attractions of a well-established city that boasted a population ten times that of Bytown. It was also located on the St. Lawrence, Canada’s vital trade route to the Atlantic.

In November 1844, Parliament moved from Kingston to Montreal on news that Queen Victoria had graciously approved the selection of that city as Canada’s capital. Montreal had seemingly won the day. However, less than five years later, Montreal blotted its copy book when a mob protesting the passage of the Rebellion Losses Act that compensated “rebels” as well as “loyalists” for property destroyed in the 1838 Rebellion burnt down Canada’s Parliament buildings. Reconvening in Toronto, politicians decided against returning to unstable Montreal and instead agreed once again that Parliament would alternate between Toronto and Quebec City. This was a patently nutty decision given the difficulty and cost of moving Parliament and its supporting bureaucrats and files every few years—the Grand Trunk Railway linking Toronto to Quebec had yet to be built.

In 1854, Sir Richard Scott, the mayor of Bytown and later member of the Legislative Assembly for Ottawa, renewed the campaign to make Bytown the capital. In 1856, Canada’s Attorney General moved for a definitive selection of a permanent capital. MPs were given a choice between Toronto, Hamilton, Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, and newly re-named Ottawa. In a veritable blizzard of motions for and against each city, Quebec City emerged the victor by a vote of 64 to 56. The lower house also voted in favour of providing £50,000 ($250,000) to fund the construction of new legislature buildings. Unfortunately, the Legislative Council (equivalent to today’s Senate) refused to support the funding. No funding meant no capital for Quebec City.

The political impasse continued into 1857. In a series of motions, Ottawa garnered only 11 supporters out of a 130-member house though no other city could attract a majority. To break the impasse, a resolution asking Queen Victoria to make the choice passed the Legislative Assembly, though only over stiff opposition by members who considered royal mediation as undermining the Canadian government’s newly-gained responsibility for domestic affairs. The mayors of Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston and Quebec City subsequently received letters from the Governor-General, Sir Edmund Head, asking them to prepare papers setting out their respective cities’ merits.

Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1855

This set in motion feverous activity in candidate cities. In Ottawa, the City Council set up a special meeting of leading citizens, including Sir Richard Scott and Mr. R. J. Friel, to draft a memorial to the Queen setting out Ottawa’s many advantages.  Other cities did likewise. Kingston, Montreal and Quebec also sent delegations to London to lobby for support. In the end, Ottawa won the day, a choice favoured by the Governor General. Some say that Ottawa also received unofficial support from Lady Head, the G-G’s wife, who apparently was a good friend of the Queen. The story goes that the Heads had been invited to a picnic lunch in Ottawa held at what would later become Major’s Hill Park. Enchanted with the area and its wonderful river views, Lady Head, an amateur watercolourist, made a number of sketches that she shared with the Queen. Ottawa apparently had other high placed supporters, including Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Consort.

The Queen received all the documents by October 1857. After reviewing the material sent to her and consulting with her advisers, she selected Ottawa. Her decision was officially relayed to Canada’s Governor General by Henry Labouchere, the Colonial Secretary, in a letter dated 31 December 1857.

This did not end the debate, however. A motion asking the Queen to reconsider her decision was  introduced in July 1858 by the opposition led by The Globe newspaper’s radical editor George Brown. The opposition motion passed the House by a vote of 64 to 50. Then things got really weird. The defeated Conservative-led government of John A. Macdonald and George Étienne Cartier, his Canada East confederate, resigned, howling that the opposition motion was an affront to the Crown. With George Brown and his Canada East ally, Antoine-Aimé Dorion, assuming power, it looked like Ottawa’s hopes to be the capital were to be dashed. But the Brown-Dorion government fell after only four days.

J. A. MAcdonald
J. A. Macdonald, 1858

Under the legislative rules of the day, newly appointed Cabinet ministers were obliged to resign their parliamentary seats and seek re-election before assuming their positions. Brown’s newly minted ministers duly resigned following their appointments. In a snap vote of no confidence, Macdonald and Cartier defeated the new Brown-Dorion administration shorn of its Cabinet ministers. When the Governor General refused to call a general election, Brown resigned, and Macdonald and Cartier were asked back to form a government.

Everybody thought that Macdonald and his new ministers would also resign their seats and seek re-election, leaving the new Conservative government at Brown’s mercy. But, taking advantage of another Parliamentary rule that allowed ministers to change portfolios within a 30-day period without having to seek re-election, Macdonald simply appointed the ministers in his old government to different Cabinet posts before reshuffling them back to their original positions. Macdonald, temporarily Postmaster General, ended up as Deputy Premier rather than Premier in the new government. It seems that the Governor General was worried about the optics of Macdonald regaining the premiership and insisted that Cartier become Premier, at least officially. This sneaky, or brilliant (depending on your point of view), political manoeuvre became known as “The Double Shuffle.” With Brown-Dorion out and MacDonald-Cartier back in, Ottawa’s prospects were restored.

There was one more vote to ratify Queen Victoria’s decision. Held in early 1859, the vote in favour of Ottawa squeaked through with a majority of only 5 votes.


City of Ottawa, 2014. A Virtual Exhibit: Ottawa Becomes the Capital,

Joseph Edmund Collins, 1883. Life and Times of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, Rose Publishing Company, Toronto.

Gwyn, Richard, 2007. The Man Who Made Us: The Life and Times of Sir John A. Macdonald. vol 1: 1815-1867. Random House Canada.

Hamnett P. Hill, K.C., 1935. “The Genesis of our Capital,” Bytown Pamphlet Series #3, Ottawa Historical Society.

The Ottawa Evening Citizen 1925. “How Ottawa Was Chosen The Capital of The Dominion,” 25 June.

——————, 1930. “When Queen Victoria Made Ottawa Capital,” 22 May.

Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2013. “Parliament Hill, Pre-construction, 1826-58,”

Image: J. A. Macdonald, 1858, unknown,

Image: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1855, Roger Fenton,