Spending Canada Day on Parliament Hill: A Moment to Go Back in Time, and Be Present

Parliament Hill is one of the most iconic places in Canada, especially if you’re spending Canada Day there. Hans spent the day there with his daughter, and his experience was nothing short of unforgettable.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada
Parliament, at sunset. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

On Canada Day, there is no place I’d rather be than packed like a sardine into the tumultuous, exuberant crowd on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. I love the friendly crush of thousands of people, waving flags, smiling and adorned in red-and-white. 

Wanting my daughter, Tiina, who was just finishing high school, to learn some Canadian history, we squeezed onto the Hill on July 1. What an incredible display of enthusiastic patriotism!

Musicians and dancers performed with the sounds reverberating from the Parliament Buildings. Tiina, sporting two maple-leaf decals on her cheeks, danced along with them. Goose bumps formed as the Snowbirds thundered over the Peace Tower in perfect wing-tip to wing-tip precision.

We cheered along with the crowd as the Governor General arrived in an elegant horse-drawn carriage escorted by a mounted contingent of Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

It felt oh so good to park our normal Canadian reserve and let forth an unabashed outpouring of national pride. If you ever want a dose before Canada Day, by the way, they run their Northern Lights show in the summer months.

Going Back in Time on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill

I wished we had a time machine for, as I explained to Tiina, this place is far more than just a hill and three large sandstone buildings. This is where our nation’s history has been written.

I wanted Tiina to see how these magnificent Gothic spires rose from this barren hilltop to form the parliament of what was then the Colony of Canada.

Back then, Ottawa was little more than a rough-and-tumble frontier settlement, so the glorious structures completed in 1866 with their soaring towers, flying buttresses, vaulted roofs and pointed arches, appeared just a little out of place.

One journalist summed it up perfectly, “Ottawa is a small town with incongruously beautiful buildings crowning its insignificance.”

Ottawa and Canada have come a long way since those days.

The Fathers of Confederation met and argued in the chambers of these buildings. These sturdy stone walls have impassively watched the conducting of the affairs of this nation through war and peace. And they saw the growth of a tiny colony into a multicultural world leader.

I was glad Tiina was here, for the Hill is indeed the heart and soul of Canada.

On July 1, 1867, when the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Upper and Lower Canada joined together to form the Dominion of Canada, the Hill witnessed a celebration as had never before been seen in Ottawa.

The tradition of grand birthday bashes have continued, and today Tiina and I were immersed in it.

Canada Day on Parliament Hill
Canada Day on Parliament Hill. Photo Credit: Christopher Mitchell

Exploring Parliament Hill

We wandered around the Hill, and even my teenage daughter was impressed. The resplendent Gothic architecture is almost overwhelming — these buildings have been described as the “finest pile of stones in Canada.”

The Centre Block, which burned down in 1916 and was completely rebuilt, contains the important chambers of the House of Commons and the Senate. I planned to take Tiina to the visitors’ gallery to watch a raucous question period with the honourable members striving to upstage each other. 

We stood in the shadow of the slender Peace Tower, the crowning glory of Parliament Hill and a splendid memorial to the nation’s role in the First World War. Its tall Gothic lines, which symbolize both victory and peace, drew our eyes skyward. The Tower contains an observation deck, the carillon and the Memorial Chamber, which has been called the “holiest place on Canadian soil.”

We gazed at East Block with its rich sandstone walls, the roof adorned with fancy wrought-iron cresting and the southwest tower with its caricature frowning face. Four rooms have been restored to their Victorian splendour.

Parliament, Canada
The interior of many buildings on Parliament Hill need to be seen to be believed. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

The cabinet room, or Privy Council Chamber, in particular, is a place of powerful history. Every cabinet from Confederation until 1976 sat around its large table making decisions such as giving women the vote, the building of the trans-Canada railway and conscription during the great wars.

In addition, the prime minister’s office, the governor general’s room and Sir John A. Macdonald’s office have been restored and, being open to the public, Tiina and I planned to visit.

Unfortunately, we would not see the vaults in the basement, which at one time held prodigious amounts of gold.

Art on The Hill

The Hill is also a fascinating art gallery. Many of the works are in prominent places like the ten huge paintings in the Senate depicting scenes from the First World War, the stained-glass windows featuring provincial flowers in the House of Commons and the paintings of British kings and queens in the Senate foyer.

Tucked away in obscure nooks and giving a wonderful lightness — almost whimsy — to the otherwise formal surroundings, are hundreds of stone carvings in the form of gargoyles, grotesques, animals, plants, politicians and even of the carvers themselves. Tiina giggled at the sight of them. 

The Library and the Ottawa River

As the sun sank low in the western sky, we strolled behind the Centre Block to see the Library. Supported by magnificent flying buttresses, the circular Library is considered the most graceful building of its period, and the architectural gem of the country. Sir John A. Macdonald, however, disagreed, considering it to belong to the cowbell style of architecture. 

Moving to the cliff’s edge, we saw the frothing waters of the Ottawa River and imagined Champlain, LaVérendrye and other early explorers sweating upstream on their way into the interior.

A Day to Remember

Tiina and I rested on a slab of granite still warm from the sun and gazed up at D’Arcy McGee, one of many bronze statues on the Hill. The rich Irish lilt of his voice carried in the wind, urging his colleagues to vote for a united country. Then we heard the feisty Scottish brogue of Sir John A. Macdonald and then the fiery oratory of John Diefenbaker. The voices of the past blew around us. 

Dusk had fallen and, shivering slightly, we wandered back to join the masses in front of Centre Block. Suddenly, the crowd hushed and spectacular fireworks exploded, lighting up the sky in brilliant bursts of reds, greens and yellows, silhouetting the soaring Gothic spires. What a wonderful ending to a perfect day. I hoped that Tiina had felt the history.

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