Creating a Capital

Bytown was officially incorporated as a town on January 1, 1850. It was renamed Ottawa (derived from “Odawa,” a common word to many First Nations tribes, meaning “traders”) when it obtained city status in 1855. As the population grew, so too did employment opportunities and a diverse array of public and religious institutions. As a result, Ottawa finally achieved some measure of social stability after decades of ethnic, religious, and political unrest. Its flourishing lumber industry, scenic hilltop setting on the Ottawa River, and geographical location put Ottawa back in the running for the seat of national government, which still needed a permanent home. Governor General Sir Edmund Head wrote to Queen Victoria outlining Ottawa’s virtues, and the queen had a letter sent on her behalf proclaiming Ottawa the national capital on the last day of 1857. Ottawa was selected as the capital of Canada in part because of its location: it was in the interior of the province and far enough from American threats, while simultaneously being connected to major waterways, thanks in large part to the Rideau Canal. The city’s location also brought together the very different cultures of Upper and Lower Canada, and the city of Ottawa already had a well-established mix of religions and ethnicities.

Points of Interest

Drawing of a bird’s-eye view of the city of OttawaEnlarge

[Source: Chas. Shober & Co., “Bird’s eye view of the city of Ottawa, Province, Ontario, Canada”, 1876, Library and Archives Canada, 440 Ottawa 1876 H2]

Bird’s-Eye View of the City of Ottawa

Originally nothing more than a cedar swamp, Lower Town was not a desirable place to live in the early days of Bytown. When the area was drained for the canal’s construction, labourers who lacked other options settled into the government housing project established there. As the population grew, Lower Town expanded eastwards, and eventually became the bustling commercial centre of Bytown. This image shows how over the years Lower Town had not only expanded east, but had also become increasingly prosperous as a residential and commercial hub.

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Drawing of Lower Town from Barracks HillEnlarge

[Source: Ottawa, the Proposed New Seat of the Canadian Government (bottom). Henderson, active 1857, Library and Archives Canada, accession number: MIKAN 2841086, C-014343]

Ottawa Becomes National Capital

For many years the seat of government in Canada was in a constant state of flux, taking on temporary residence in cities such as Montreal, Kingston, and York (Toronto). In 1857, Queen Victoria christened Ottawa the capital of Canada, establishing a permanent place of government on today’s Parliament Hill.

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Photograph of a lumber arch, Union Square, OttawaEnlarge

[Source: Lumber Arch – Union Square, Ottawa, 1860. Unknown Photographer, Photographs of miscellaneous events and activities throughout Canada collection, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1964-144 NPC, C-000012]

Welcome Arch Constructed for the Royal Tour

The ample supply of timber made wood the natural choice of building material for this Welcome Arch constructed for the Prince of Wales’ visit to Ottawa in 1860. By this time the Rideau Canal had been functional for nearly 30 years, the city of Ottawa had been named the capital of Canada, and the construction of the Parliament Buildings was well underway.

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Photograph of the Parliament Buildings under constructionEnlarge

[Source: Centre Block, Parliament Buildings under construction. Samuel McLaughlin, Photographs of miscellaneous events and activities throughout Canada collection, Samuel McLaughlin / Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1964-144 NPC, C-003039]

Centre Block of Parliament (Under Construction)

The Centre Block of the Parliament of Canada was constructed between 1859 and 1876. The original structure was completely destroyed by fire in 1916, prompting a rebuild which was completed in 1928.

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Conflict and Struggle«