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A century ago, the Centre Block was destroyed by fire, forcing MPs and senators to set up shop in what would become the Museum of Nature – and a new era in Canadian politics was ushered in. (Bytown Museum)
A century ago, the Centre Block was destroyed by fire, forcing MPs and senators to set up shop in what would become the Museum of Nature – and a new era in Canadian politics was ushered in. (Bytown Museum)

In a museum among fossils, the birth of modern Canadian politics Add to ...

They moved out one of the fossil exhibits and turned the space into a temporary home for the Senate.

No joke; true story.

It all happened 100 years ago this passing week. Somehow, a fire began in the reading room of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill – instantly sparking rumours of German sabotage – and, before it was over, the building was destroyed and seven people dead. One was a member of Parliament, Bowman Brown Law of Yarmouth, N.S. Two women visiting with the wife of the Speaker perished when they insisted on collecting their furs from their rooms before running.

By 3 p.m. the very next day, Parliament was again in session – only now sitting several blocks away in the rotunda of what was then called the Victoria Memorial Museum, a Gothic Tudor “palace” that had been completed just five years earlier.

For slightly more than four years, the Parliament of Canada would gather in this building that then housed the Geological Society of Canada.

Paintings owned by the National Gallery would be moved elsewhere. Plants and fossils would be shifted to other quarters. The duck-billed Edmontosaurus, recovered near Drumheller, Alta., and on display since 1913, would cease to be the biggest draw. That honour was now held by prime minister Sir Robert Borden, already harried enough trying to marshal Canada through the worst months of the Great War, and silver-haired Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister who had ordered the museum built and who would lie in state there in 1919, the building swathed in black and 50,000 citizens parading past his casket.

There is nothing but a fading plaque near the entrance to make note of this curiosity in Canadian history; yet, there are some who believe that Canada entered the modern age while operating out of temporary quarters.

Over the four years the Senate and House of Commons were found in the museum, some 485 acts were given Royal Assent. When the politicians returned to Parliament Hill in late February of 1920, they brought with them a different country.

On Thursday evening, the Victoria Memorial Museum, now known as the Canadian Museum of Nature, held a lecture by David Tough, who grew up not far from the museum and currently teaches political science at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.

Dr. Tough’s talk, “The Parliamentary Fire and Modern Politics,” argues that “the origins of modern politics” were found in the museum. Parties organized on a left-right spectrum, universal suffrage gained a foothold and, of course, the first income tax was levied.

In Dr. Tough’s opinion – and contrary to any thought currently going through your mind – income taxation was warmly welcomed and cheered by the citizens of Canada.

“It was a time of intense political upheavals of the First World War,” he says. “And there was definitely big change for Canada.

“There was a shift in the power relationships between the elite – the lawyers and businessmen who were representing the Liberals and Conservatives in Parliament – and the people. Power shifted to women and to workers and to farmers, and through the course of the Depression and the Second World War those changes would come to full fruition. That’s when we established modern politics, the belief that politics is of the common person and that governments should help people.”

The forced move to the museum, he believes, had a psychological effect on politicians. The war was not going well. Parliament had just burned down and, despite an official inquiry that would conclude the fire had been accidentally set, perhaps by a careless smoker, conspiracy theories abounded. One American businessman claimed that he knew Germans were planning an attack on the Canadian capital. The United States was then not yet at war with Germany, but the businessman supposedly alerted American officials, although nothing was done.

“It all contributed to a feeling of anxiety,” Dr. Tough says, “a feeling that they were losing prestige – especially among the senators.” Not only were people laughing at the fossils connection, but they had to jostle with ordinary citizens – including women – if they wished to watch proceedings. One senator even complained that the dinosaurs were giving off lice, only to be informed by scientists that lice were not likely to live on their own for several million years.

“They were frustrated by the way that they saw their prestige being eroded,” Dr. Tough says of the all-male politicians.

Women had gained the vote in Manitoba just the week before Parliament burned. It had taken years, a mock Parliament staged by Nellie McClung and endless resistance from Conservative premier Sir Rodmond Roblin, who proclaimed “most women don’t want the vote.” Besides, he argued, if they gave women the right to vote, the next thing the labour movement would demand is the enfranchisement of servant girls – “on the plea that servant girls have as good a right to vote as any other class of women.”

Manitobans tossed Sir Rodmond out in the next election and women got the vote.

Federally, progress was incremental, the politicians voting in the museum to extend the vote to nurses and women in the armed services, then to women who had husbands or sons serving overseas and, finally, all women over 21 were allowed to vote as of Jan. 1, 1919.

The war empowered more than women. Farmers and labour became more active.

“People who they previously could essentially ignore suddenly had power,” Dr. Tough says. “And the politicians were clearly annoyed.”

According to Dr. Tough, ordinary Canadians had grown furious that their spouses and children were going off to fight while many rich people in the country were profiteering from the war. At one point, munitions workers in Ontario threatened a general strike if the government failed to spread the cost to the well-off. In 1917, the House bowed to public pressure and passed the Income War Tax. They hoped it would prove temporary.

“There’s a real misunderstanding about income taxation and where it came from,” Dr. Tough says. “It was passed during the First World War, but it had almost nothing to do with paying for the war. It had everything to do with buying off part of the public, assuaging part of the public that was upset.”

While the politicians had been resistant to introducing such a tax, they found it a “useful tool” when war was over and there were huge debts to pay. “When the money started rolling in,” says Dr. Tough, “government started to change its tune. People have the wrong perception. Today we think of income tax as a kind of dull burden, as in ‘death and taxes,’ but there was a popular push for it at the time.”

And, of course, it would prove anything but temporary.

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