After a fire 100 years ago today, our museum became the seat of Canada’s government. Parliament stayed for four years.

The fire started in the Parliamentary Reading Room on February 3, 1916, destroying the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings. Seven people were killed.

The Minister and Deputy Minister of Public Works wasted no time in searching for new accommodations for Parliament. They did a site inspection of the museum shortly after 11 PM, and by midnight they had met with Prime Minister Robert Borden to make their recommendation.

The House of Commons in the museum.
The first session of the 13th Parliament in the museum auditorium in 1918. Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden is sitting at left near the back, and Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier is sitting at right near the back. Four hundred and eighty-five acts were passed while Parliament governed from the museum, including

  • An Act to amend the Canada Temperance Act
  • An Act to authorize the levying of a War Tax on certain incomes
  • War-time Elections Act
  • An Act to provide Compensation where Employees of His Majesty are killed or suffer injuries while performing their duties
  • An Act to confer the Electoral Franchise on Women.

Image: Library and Archives Canada PA-22433 © Public domain

Remarkably, arrangements to accommodate Parliament were made at lightning speed. The list below is just a sample of what was done after staff were informed of the situation at 10 AM on February 4.

Friday, February 4, 1916
By noon:

  • A post office, telephones and two telegraph offices were installed
  • Vertebrate-palaeontology exhibits in the east wing were removed and stored elsewhere
  • A newspaper library for members of Parliament was set up in the tower hall
  • The archaeology and entomology exhibits were cleared from the west hall.

By 3 PM:
The House of Commons resumed its sitting in the converted museum auditorium, completed with throne and press gallery.

By 4 PM:
The west hall exhibit of minerals was packed and removed to make room for the Senate of Canada.

Less than 24 hours after the fire, the museum had become the new seat of government.

Sunday, February 6
By noon:
The zoological hall was cleared to provide space for offices for members of House of Commons.

Monday, February 7
By noon:

  • The west wing, with its geological and mineralogical exhibitions, was cleared and fitted up for the Senate
  • Offices for press gallery staff, Hansard staff and others were ready in the west hall

By midnight:
The east hall’s invertebrate-palaeontology exhibits were packed and removed by midnight.

Tuesday, February 8
The Senate met at 8 PM in their new chamber, the west hall.

The gallery.
Hall of Invertebrate Palaeontology in 1913, just after the building opened to the public. All these specimens (including those stored underneath the display cases) had to be quickly packed and moved out of the hall. Image: Library and Archives Canada C65590 © Public domain

The building was officially turned over for Parliament by the Governor General at 11 AM on Monday, February 7, less than 87 hours after the fire began.

Contrast that to modern times, when preparing for a move in the 1990s, museum staff packed the museum’s collections (albeit a larger collection by then) over the course of at least one year.

A museum building had been in the works for many years. As early as 1894, the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was advocating for more operating and display space. However, the government also considered additional uses for such a building, such as housing the Supreme Court, the Exchequer Court, the National Art Gallery, a fisheries exhibition, the Royal Society of Canada and the Archives Branch of the Department of Agriculture.

In the end, the Geological Survey and its museum prevailed and occupied most of the space; the National Gallery of Canada was given temporary space in the east wing. (Complete historical timeline).

Having just opened to the public a few years prior, it must have felt like a bit of a setback to have to relinquish that hard-fought working space and to close exhibitions to the public.

The Senate of Canada in the museum.
The Senate in the museum. Image: Library and Archives Canada C-22916 © Public domain

Over 70 of 140 GSC staff were moved to buildings on Wellington Street. Approximately 60 remained in the museum.

No doubt both the parliamentarians and the remaining Geological Survey staff had to make some adjustments in their day-to-day work. Charles M. Sternberg, an early fossil collector, recalls an interaction in this audio clip. (C.M. Sternberg interview audio files courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology).

Sternberg tells a brief story in which a member of the parliamentary contingent found a louse in his office and asked if it came from the dinosaurs in Sternberg’s laboratory. Sternberg’s negative answer veiled his condescension only slightly.

More serious difficulties had to be overcome by the GSC and its museum. Specimens and records were lost in the emergency evacuation, and it was many years before the collections returned to their full use; some material was reportedly never recovered. The anthropological division had to temporarily discontinue field work. A small temporary branch library was set up at 221 Wellington Street. Collections continued to be moved some time after the emergency move.

After Parliament left the museum in 1920, not everything was restored as it had been. The GSC was not completely reunited. The mineralogical laboratory and distribution division remained in different buildings. The National Gallery was given one of the survey’s former exhibition halls, that of Vertebrate Palaeontology—leaving the survey short again of display space. The editor of the Canadian Mining Journal wrote in 1920 that this indicated a non-appreciation of the work of the Geological Survey.

There were even longer-term implications resulting from the move. In 1917, the entomology collection was physically moved to another building and administratively transferred to the Department of Agriculture. Unlike most of the other natural-history collections that were transferred to the museum when the GSC and the National Museum of Canada became separate entities in 1927, the Canadian National Collection of Insects has remained the responsibility of Agriculture to this day. The National Museum of Natural Sciences (the former name of the Canadian Museum of Nature) started to build its current entomology collection only in the mid-1980s.

Wilfrid Laurier's funeral cortège.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier died on February 17, 1919. His body lay in state in the museum. Here, we see his funeral procession on February 22, 1919, leaving the museum. Image: Library and Archives Canada C-7213 © Public domain

The next time you are visiting the museum, stop in the rotunda and listen for echoes of long-forgotten parliamentary debates.

Watch our video: Parliament Burns in 1916—Relocates to Museum the Next Day.