Power Shift

As Bytown developed and more people came to call it home, the Rideau Canal Act and the denial of Lower Town residents the right to purchase government property came under increased scrutiny. Not surprisingly, many Lower Town residents were resentful of this arrangement, and rejected the application of British law on Canadian soil. In the face of mounting anger and frustration, the British Treasury transferred the Rideau Canal and property rights to the Ordnance Department in 1843, with the agreement that the Canadian government would eventually take on ownership and all further maintenance costs associated with the canal. This landmark decision permitted the sale of property to tenants in Lower Town, allowing the new owners to build more permanent stone housing and to secure their hard-earned right to vote.

Points of Interest

Map of Bytown showing Barracks Hill, the first eight locks, and Lower TownEnlarge

[Source: ‘Unknown Artist,’‘Bytown (now Ottawa), sketch map showing land lots purchased by the government”, Ordnance Department, The National Archives of the UK, MR1-1925 (2)]

Bytown’s Incorporation as a Town

By 1847, Bytown’s population was over 7,000, and the settlement was large enough to be incorporated as a town. Incorporation carried with it many benefits, including the ability to establish an official municipal authority and regulations; however, it also required that the British government relinquish control over some of the land it held. With the canal completed and no recognizable military threat on the horizon, the British government finally agreed to the terms of incorporation, and Bytown was officially incorporated as a town on January 1, 1850. Shown in the centre of this map is a large area of land originally owned by Nicolas Sparks, but which had been expropriated during the building of the canal; at the bottom are those areas of land that were purchased and owned by the British government.

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Photo booklet of old Bytown Town HallEnlarge

[Source: Photo Booklet of Old Bytown (City Hall), n.d., photo album, Bytown Museum, P3016.]

West Ward Market Building

This image is of the West Ward Market Building that eventually served as Bytown’s temporary town hall from 1849 to 1877. The main room on the upper level was used for council meetings and public assemblies, as well as theatrical performances. In order to participate in the first electoral process held in Bytown, and to vie for a seat in the Legislative Assembly of United Canada, candidates and voters alike were required to be permanent, mortgage-free landowners. Since the majority of Lower Town residents were permitted only to rent and not to own government property, many citizens felt intentionally excluded from participating, leading them to distrust the system of governance overall. In one election, held on March 8, 1841, only 85 of the 3,122 residents were eligible to vote. This widespread disenfranchisement based solely on property ownership – and, by extension, proof of wealth – highlights the unbalanced electoral system of early Bytown.

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Photograph of the Parliament Buildings under constructionEnlarge

[Source: Parliament Buildings – construction. Centre Block showing north-west section and the buttresses of the Library. Samuel McLaughlin, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1964-144 NPC, C-010005]

Barrack Hill Becomes Parliament Hill

In 1857, Mayor J. B. Lewis and City Clerk William P. Lett wrote to Queen Victoria describing Ottawa’s attributes and suitability as a permanent capital of Canada. The Queen approved the nomination seven months later, and a competition for the design of the Parliament Buildings was launched. The neo-Gothic designs by Fuller & Jones and Stent & Laver were selected out of 24 submissions by various architectural firms. When construction began in 1859, the remaining military stations that had for so many years dominated Barrack Hill were replaced by government buildings and the area was renamed Parliament Hill.

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Property Disputes«