Exploring Canada's Legislative Buildings

By Susan Huebert   Trail Canada

Where is a good place to learn about the formation of a province or territory, or about the people who live there, or about what gives the area its unique flavour? Many people would probably think of a museum or community centre, but legislative buildings can be just as informative. A visit to a provincial or territorial legislature can be not only a good way to learn about how governments work, but also a chance to see the grand architecture and ornate furnishings that make legislatures good tourism material. A visit to any of Canada’s capital cities should include a tour of one of these impressive structures.

Ever since Canada became a country through the British North America Act of 1867 (renamed the Constitution Act and detached from British governance in 1982), a challenging task for the country’s leaders has been to govern a vast country stretching the width of a continent and extending far north into the Arctic. Delegating power has been an obvious solution, and even before Confederation, the area was divided into regions. Upper and Lower Canada became Canada West and East, and other regions of British North America developed; it was natural to divide power between the national government and the provinces and territories. The federal government now has specified areas of authority, while legislative assemblies are in charge of such areas as education, immigration, pensions, and natural resources. In the legislatures, visitors can see first-hand how politicians govern the country. Debates are open to the people, who can watch from the public gallery and see legislators in action. Even for those visitors who do not wish to watch a debate, however, the legislative buildings offer many interesting sights.

The legislative buildings in the provinces and territories are different in many ways, but the similarities are also striking. In the legislative chambers, precision in the arrangement of the furnishings is obvious. The current government and the opposition face each other, with the length of two swords between them as a reminder of when duels were common. One of two exceptions is the legislature of the Northwest Territories; the round chamber room allows for no party divisions, reflecting the territory’s consensus style of government. Just seeing the chambers of each legislature can be a cultural experience.

The buildings where government business takes place are built on a large scale. The Manitoba Legislative building, for instance, covers an area of 23,225 square metres in its three floors, and the dome reaches to a height of 72 metres. On top of the dome stands the golden boy, a gold-plated statue with one upraised hand carrying a torch and the other arm holding a sheaf of grain. Inside, two massive stone bison give a hint of the building’s grandeur. In Victoria, the Legislative Assembly Building includes a memorial rotunda where marble-lined walls and spiral staircase are only some of the sights to be seen. The Legislature of Ontario features many impressive sights as well, including a legislative chamber lined with mahogany and sycamore woodwork carved into gargoyles and inspirational sayings in Latin. A caricature of Queen Victoria is even reputedly part of the woodwork. The story of each province and territory is told in the lines and details of the buildings.

Learning a legislature’s story is important for understanding the connection between laws and the people, and visitors can learn this story as they visit the legislative buildings. Tours are available at various times during the day, and most tour guides are very knowledgeable about all kinds of historical and architectural trivia. Security is always an issue in these buildings, and visitors should expect to leave backpacks and bags at the security desk and to allow the tour guides to lead them. Tours tend to be quite comprehensive, however, and few visitors will need to explore further.

Canada’s legislatures have varied histories. Ontario’s legislature, constructed between 1886 and 1892, stood for years as a repository of laws and knowledge. In 1909, however, a massive fire destroyed the west wing of the building and burned approximately 100,000 books and documents in the legislative library. A restoration project in 1999 included repainting the chamber green, Parliament’s traditional colour. Manitoba’s government building, though started in 1913, was not opened until 1920 because of the shortage of materials and labour during the First World War. When the Manitoba government announced a contest in 1911 to choose an architectural design for the legislature, no one could have known how long delayed the final product would be. Some legislative buildings are recent additions to the group. Construction on the Northwest Territories’ legislative building began only in 1990, making the massive structure with its zinc-tinted windows one of the country’s newest government buildings. Old or new, original or restored, the legislative buildings are imposing monuments to Canadian life and culture.

The provincial and territorial legislative buildings in Canada combine outward magnificence, intricate interior designs, and expressions of each area’s characters and symbols. They may not be first on every traveller’s list of sights to see, but they are well worth a visit.

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