How Did Ottawa Become Canada’s Capital?

History Hit

2 mins

31 May 2019

In 1857 the Province of Canada was in need of a permanent seat of Government, a capital. For fifteen years, the government had moved from one place to another: Kingston in 1841; Montreal in 1844; Toronto in 1849; Quebec in 1855.

For it to function properly, one place had to be selected.

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The search for a capital

Queen Victoria

On March 24th 1875, Queen Victoria was officially requested to select where the capital should be.

To the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty
May it please Your Majesty,

We, You Majesty’s dutiful and loyal Subjects, the Commons of Canada, in Parliament assembled, humbly approach Your Majesty for the purpose of representing:-
That the interests of Canada require that the Seat of the Provincial Government should be fixed at some certain place.

That we have resolved to appropriate the sums requisite for providing the necessary Buildings and accommodation for the Government and the Legislature at such place as Your Majesty may see fit to select.

And we therefore humbly pray Your Majesty to be graciously pleased to exercise the Royal prerogative by the selection of some one place as the permanent Seat-of-government in Canada.

Ottawa

Ottawa in its early days as a logging camp

At the time, Ottawa (known as Bytown until 1855) was a small settlement of about 7,700 people , who were mostly employed in logging.

It was much smaller than the other contenders: Toronto, Montreal and Quebec. Yet it had experienced some development since the arrival of the Bytown and Prescott railway in April 1855.

Ottawa’s isolated location actually helped its chances of selection. At the time, the province of Canada consisted of two colonies: the predominantly French Quebec, and the English Ontario.

Ottawa was located on the border between the two, making it a good choice. It was located a safe distance away from the border with the United States, and surrounded by dense forest, rendering it safe from attack.

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Queen Victoria announced her choice, selected by the British government, on New Years Eve, 1875. Quebec and Toronto objected to the choice and continued to hold parliaments themselves for the next four years.

Construction began on the new parliament buildings in Ottawa in 1859. Designed in the Gothic Revival Style, the buildings constituted the largest ever construction project in North America at that time.

The new capital began expanding at an impressive rate and by 1863 the population had doubled to 14,000.

Title image: Construction of the parliament buildings in Ottawa © Library and Archives Canada

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