The Great Fire


Ninety-five years ago tonight, Parliament’s Centre Block was destroyed by fire—only the Library of Parliament surviving intact. The blaze left seven dead, including Bowman Brown Law, the MP for Yarmouth. Tom Korski reviews new analysis of what happened that night, including the only known film of the aftermath.

The Reading Room was panelled in tinder-dry white pine gleaming with flammable varnish; scores of accumulated newspapers hung in racks; shelves were piled high with leather-bound volumes. “It was a good place to start a fire,” a firefighter remembered. Within 30 seconds the blaze was so hot an extinguisher proved useless. Within minutes, the room was “like a furnace,” a witness said; “the flames were running on the floor.”

Fire climbed up the walls as woodwork exploded. The whole room, 22 metres long, seemed to ignite with “a roaring noise,” a doorkeeper recalled. Within three hours the building was lost. Among the dead were a policeman and the MP for Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Bowman Law. “Poor fellow,” a friend wrote. “He was going back to get something and Fate asked him to give something — his life.”


The Great Fire

  1. No doubt this tragedy was the direct fault of Stephen Harper/Michael Ignatieff/Jack Layton.

  2. They all knew what caused it AFTER the fire, but nobody thought to do anything about it beforehand.

    Ottawa hasn't changed much.

  3. ZING! You nailed that one.

    Don't you want to comment on your disdain for fighter jets, too?

  4. Why? You already know about ICBMs.

    It's our govt that doesn't.

  5. They aren't actually sure what caused the fire. Most people at the time believed it to be the act of German agents. An accident is more likely, and I don't believe any actual evidence of German involvement has surfaced since then.

  6. LOL always 'terrorists' eh?

  7. One of the unfortunate losses of the fire – obviously not as bad as the lives lost – was the loss of most of Laurier's private papers and correspondence from his office. He was a great man and as much as we still honour him, he would be even more revered today if historians and biographers had access to those papers.

  8. Sabotage, not terrorism. But, as I said, there does not appear to be anything more to that than natural suspicion of the Hun.

  9. Sad as it is to lose anything of historic importance like that, I don't share your enthusiasm for Laurier. On the whole he has to be considered the most over-rated of our PMs. He certainly established the great Liberal tradition of saying one thing while campaigning and doing the opposite while in office.

  10. Like promising not to tax income trusts, or removing 100% of resource revenues from the equalization formula, or enhancing Access to Information laws?

  11. I was thinking more of his betrayal of French Canadians in Manitoba and Ontario.

  12. Ironically, it is Conservatives who like him more now, and more and more as time goes on, than they did then.

    Sir John A and the Conservatives were the pro-big government, pro-central government, central Canada biased, big vision, anti-american Canadians.

    Laurier was the free trading, provincial rights, western farmer supporting, national independence (from both US and UK) Canadians.

    And the Liberals certainly have no patent on saying one thing and doing the opposite while in office. Indeed, Harper has perfected it and made it such a think that one now looks at Conservative election platforms to figure out what Conservatives will not do and, considering the opposite, knowing with certainty what they will do.

    But partisanship aside and with historical records in mind only, I'm not sure that was even much of a hallmark of Laurier. What were you thinking of exactly?

  13. No, if they were German you couldn't possibly call it 'terrorism'. LOL

    How about a lit cigar? And a kerosene lamp?

  14. Yes, that is what I am thinking of. Oddly, school texts often seem to see him as a patriot for "solving" the Manitoba schools question. His solution was simply a surrender to the bigotry of the Orange Lodge – which even Orange members like Sir John A had resisted. The result was the marginalization of Catholics and French Canadians in both Manitoba and Ontario and the increased isolation of Francophone Canada in the province of Quebec – the end result of which has been the threat of separatism fueled by that sense of isolation.

  15. I used to have the impression he reversed himself on that issue as well. Instead, if you read the details of the history, he was always very critical of the Conservatives but equivocal and cagey about what he would do.

    For him, the greater principle lay in provincial rights. In Sir John's Canada, the federal government was pre-eminent, had a right to veto provincial legislation and the provincial governments were akin to municipalities that would fade away over time. For Laurier, local provincial governments while lesser were not a sub of the federal government but part of the crown in their own right and needed to be respected.

    Had he not taken that view, it could just as easily be argued that the end result would have been the threat of separatism fueled by that sense of (English) federal domination.

    He played it well like a politician, but it was rooted in deeply held principles he held.

  16. Yes: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business

    Unfortunately, online, they only have the article. I've been trying to find the graphs that went with the article showing growth and GDP increases in most other developed countries quite a bit ahead of Canada 2 or 3 of the G* countries ahead. The article is from last Friday and my print edition has gone out with recycling, but I'll see if I can't find the graph online when I have some time.

    Careful defending Tory Talking Points, CR, especially when they become anything but spin. While it is true that, because of Liberal economic and fiscal and banking policies, Canada weathered the storm better than any other and suffered far less, we're on the other side now and other countries are bouncing back faster. Which is not to say we're doing poorly at all – thank goodness for the Liberals and strong Canadian banks on that front – but we are no longer leading.

  17. I am forever grateful to the person who shut the Library's doors.

  18. " thank goodness for the Liberals"

    Tell that to all the Albertan's that lived through the 80's.

  19. You mean the Albertan's who had leveraged their companies up to 99% of its value, whose Premier negotiated and agreed to the NEP pricing (go look, his signture is right there), and who suffered because of the drop in oil prices just as much as oil regions like Texas? Those Albertans? Or did Trudeau's NEP cause the same wreckage to the Texas and general US economy?

    Ralph Klein was no friend of Trudeau's, but listen to what he had to say about the Alberta economy and what hurt it in the 1980s:

    [youtube Op6XLJCXagk&feature=player_embedded http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Op6XLJCXagk&feature=player_embedded youtube]

  20. There's also a great graph in that clip that shows the drop in the economy occurred prior to the NEP.

    Just as it did in Texas.

  21. A little-remembered part of this story is that the Chief of the Dominion Police at the time (Arthur Percy Sherwood) and his men were credited with the saving of the Library. As a result AP Sherwood was called to England by George V and knighted (Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George), becoming Sir A P Sherwood. The Dominion Police (fed. police for E Canada) subsequently (1919?) became part of the RCMP to form a national police force.

  22. Ted, I look forward to seeing those graphs, but I don't think you'll find them because they don't exist. Last week, economist Stephen Gordon refuted some partisan claims that Canada wasn't leading the G8 in terms of economic recovery. (Some Liberals had been trying to downplay Canada's success by misleadingly and selectively pointing to GDP increases for a given quarter, while obscuring the larger picture.)

    Dr. Gordon pointed to a graph that told a simple, clear story: Canada has lead the group in terms of GDP growth when you use pre-recession GDP as a starting point.

    By the way, did you see the awesome job growth numbers for January? Canada has now recovered more jobs than we lost in the recession, and we're the only country to do so.

  23. Only a true Harper-ite would rejoice that our unemployment rate has gone up over the last month and to ignore how many fewer of those "jobs" are full-time, family sustaining jobs! Well done, CR. It being Friday, I'll have some of what you are drinking, thank you!

    As for the graphs, thanks for calling me a liar. What a great way to end the week. Go to your library and grab the last Friday's Globe, front section, page 4 where the linked article was located. Look at the bottom of that page. You'll see a graph/chart. It shows all developed countries with most to the left of where Canada is (i.e. faster recovery) and 2 or 3 of that majority are G8 countries (UK and Germany I believe and possibly one other).

    We did lead. We are no longer leading. Part of that is naturally attributable to getting ahead earlier, but as the not great job numbers indicate we have kind of flattened in our recovery right now.

    Have a great weekend. Keep drinking that brightly coloured drink you have there in your glass.

  24. Only a true Harper-ite would rejoice that our unemployment rate has gone up over the last month

    Say what? The only reason the unemployment rate went up is because people who had given up looking for work have re-entered the labour force thanks to a good economy.

  25. OK. I take it back. Time to lay off of that brightly coloured drink. You've clearly had too much already.

  26. "Despite the gains, the unemployment rate rose to 7.8 per cent in January from 7.6 per cent a month earlier as more people searched for work, Statistics Canada said Friday."

    What part of "more people searching for work" do you not understand?

    Also, I certainly wasn't calling you a liar, so I'm sorry if you misread what I wrote. My point was that it's misleading to look at rate of recovery in isolation, because the harder countries fall, the faster they bounce. (To use a rubber ball analogy). You need to look at the big picture.

    Anyway, have a good weekend, and do try to ease up on the "Harper-ite"/kool-aid jibes–they're not dignified.

  27. Didn't mean for that to sound so heavy – the "liar" accusation was tongue in cheek. Obviously there was a graph.

    Anyway the point is that we were leading. We aren't anymore. Others have recouped and surpassed their pre-recession economic state more than us. Some of those are in the G8. It's pretty clear and simple, though there are lots of different kinds of financial indicators and it is more than possible to pick one that shows we're doing better. You really do have to look at the big picture – especially when it comes to unemployment numbers.

    It's back to that whole culture of deceit thing for me with these bozos. They can't help themselves.

    BTW, what makes you think my references to "brightly coloured drinks" was kool-aid???? ;-)

  28. I think we've identified a specific point of disagreement that should be fairly easy to verify.

    You're saying that if we look at the current GDP numbers for all G8 economies, and we compare them to the pre-recession GDP numbers, some other G8 economies have performed better than Canada.

    Let's both make an effort to verify this claim by finding the actual numbers. I haven't looked for this information, but it must be on the internet somewhere.

  29. Ted, check out these two graphs from Stephen Gordon's January 10 article. The whole article is well worth reading.

    Maybe the graphs will look different if Q4 2010 data is included. I'll email Stephen Gordon to ask him if he has updated his data.

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