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Senate’s conjunction with Union Station is a perfect fit
March 30, 2017

There’s something poetic about the Senate of Canada’s coming together with a piece of railroad history. No two ideas were as instrumental in securing the Confederation of Canada in 1867 as the Senate and the railroads. Now, a twist of fate is putting them together.

The rehabilitation of Parliament’s Centre Block, beginning in 2018, means the Senate needs a temporary home. So the Red Chamber will move into Ottawa’s historic Union Station, the stately building across the street from the Chateau Laurier hotel. 

 

Senator Serge Joyal said there is “great historical symbolism” to the Senate moving into a former train station.

When the Fathers of Confederation negotiated the terms for Canada’s creation, two promises helped seal the deal. They created the Senate to ensure Canada’s regions were represented in Parliament. And the promise of linking what had been British colonies together by rail offered the security the provinces needed.

“Without the railway uniting the various parts of Canada, bringing all Canadians to share the commitment to build the country, there would not have been a country that we would be celebrating this year,” Senator Joyal said.

The enormous general waiting room was modelled on the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

There has been a long connection between the Senate and Canada’s railway history. The first Senate bill of each parliamentary session is S-1, An Act respecting railways.

“It shows, essentially, the symbolism that, without railways, there would not have been any Canada,” Senator Joyal said. “The importance of the country is rooted in its railway.”

The traditional naming of Bill S-1 “is to remind us that we have the challenge to maintain communications and equality of development among the various parts of Canada,” Senator Joyal explained.

Union Station was constructed in 1912 by the Grand Trunk Railway, a Montreal-based company that built railroads from Quebec to British Columbia and throughout the western United States. It got scooped up by Canadian National Railway (CN) in 1923 as two companies came to dominate the country’s rail business – CN and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).

The CPR completed the dream of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, to have a railway from sea to sea. As it happens, it was also Macdonald who coined the phrase “chamber of sober second thought” to describe the Senate’s role in Parliament.

In 1912, the Grand Trunk Railway built its station on Rideau St., beside the Rideau Canal. Across the street, it built the iconic Chateau Laurier hotel, named for then-prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Arriving passengers disembarked from their train and walked into what architects called the “procession,” an impressive passageway that had Corinthian columns, vaulted coffered ceilings and marble-patterned ceiling arches.

Travellers passed into the concourse, the arrivals area now being converted to the Senate chamber. A skylight set in a 15-metre ceiling threw a lattice of light and shadow across an area teeming with people.

Upper-crust travellers took a tunnel from the waiting room to the Chateau Laurier. Most, however, climbed the palatial staircase, headed north through a corridor and emerged at street level with the hotel facing them.

Union Station was in service for 54 years, until 1966, when Ottawa’s train station moved to its present location in the city’s east end.


This article is part of a series about the Senate of Canada’s move to the Government Conference Centre. In 2018, the Senate will relocate to the conference centre, a former train station built in 1912 while Parliament’s Centre Block – the Senate’s permanent home – is rehabilitated.

With preparations to convert the historic train station into the temporary Senate on budget, the savings to taxpayers will be approximately $200 million compared to the original proposal to find an alternative location on Parliament Hill.

The Senate is expected to occupy its temporary location for 10 years.

Ottawa’s Grand Trunk Central Station, later renamed Union Station, shortly after it was built in 1912. In the foreground is the single rail line that continued north along the Rideau Canal, eventually crossing the Ottawa River over the Alexandra Bridge to Quebec.

Passenger rail lines used to run into downtown Ottawa along the Rideau Canal. Passengers disembarked at Union Station, now the Government Conference Centre, under the steel-and-glass train sheds in the centre of the photo. An adjacent freight railyard occupied what is now the Rideau Centre shopping mall.

The concourse was the last chance for passengers to buy a magazine or make a phone call before boarding their train. The high-ceilinged hall will become the interim Senate chamber in 2018.

A long low-ceilinged corridor funneled passengers from Union Station’s entrance on Rideau Street to a flight of stairs that led down into the general waiting room.

The rail lines along the Rideau Canal were excavated in the 1960s and replaced with a scenic parkway, today’s Colonel By Drive.