3 February 1916
It was mid-winter. On the Western Front in France where tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers were entrenched, there was a lull in the fighting; the battle of Verdun was yet three weeks away. Back home in Ottawa, all too was quiet on the parliamentary front. But this was to quickly change. The House of Commons convened in the afternoon of 3 February 1916 with a light agenda. Among the items for discussion was a proposal by Mr. Clarence Jameson, deputy for Digby, Nova Scotia, for an inquiry into the large differential between the retail price of fish and the dock-side price received by fishermen. Shortly before 9.00 pm, Mr. William Loggie, member for Northumberland, New Brunswick, moved that the House refer the issue to the Marine and Fisheries Committee. Further debate was interrupted by a commotion at the far end of the Commons chamber facing the Speaker’s chair. In rushed Mr. R.C. Stewart, the Commons’ Chief Doorkeeper. As tersely reported in Hansard, the parliamentary record, Stewart exclaimed “There is a big fire in the reading room; everybody get out quickly.” Within seconds, the corridor leading to the House of Commons was in flames. With smoke billowing into the chamber, members, officials, and visitors in the gallery fled for their lives. It was a close call. Coughing and gasping for breath, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden had to be helped outside by a fifteen-year old page.
Firefighters from Ottawa’s Fire Department were on the scene within minutes to assist the Dominion Police who were responsible for fire protection on Parliament Hill. They were alerted by a signal sent to a nearby fire station by a newly-installed automatic fire alarm system which responded to the dramatic change of temperature inside Parliament’s centre block. But their quick response was to no avail. The gothic building which housed both the House of Commons and the Senate was quickly engulfed in flames. Constructed fifty years previously, its interior largely consisted of highly inflammable varnished wooden panelling and cabinets, its roof supported by massive pine beams. While furnished with modern fire extinguishers and hoses hooked up to the water system, the building was not equipped with an automatic sprinkler system, nor did it have fire doors which might have retarded the fire’s progress.
Seventy-eight firemen and Hill staff battled the blaze. Through the smoke and flames, the bell in the Victoria Tower tolled the hours until the stroke of midnight when it finally crashed to the ground. When fire fighters finally got the fire under control at 2.00am, the centre block was gutted. The only part spared was the Parliamentary Library to the rear, saved by the quick action of Michael MacCormac, assistant parliamentary librarian, who closed the iron doors which separated it from the main building.
Sadly, seven people lost their lives. Two were guests of Madame Sevigny, the wife of the Commons’ speaker. She had been hosting three friends in the Sevignys’ third floor apartment. When the alarm sounded, Madame Sevigny left the building with her two children and their nursemaids. Unfortunately, Madame Morin and Madame Brey didn’t immediately follow her, stopping first to retrieve valuables. Unfamiliar with the building, they were unable to find an exit in time and were overcome by smoke. Madame Dusseault, the third friend, survived by jumping from a third-floor window into a net held by firemen. Other victims included Mr Bowman Law, deputy for Yarmouth, and Mr J. Laplante, who were trapped in upstairs rooms. A policeman and two civil servants also perished when a wall fell on top of them as they battled the fire. Also lost in the blaze was the historic mace of the House of Commons, symbol of its authority, acquired in 1845 and used by the Province of Canada prior to Confederation.
Many believed that the fire was deliberately set by a German saboteur. This was not as far-fetched as it might sound. A year to the day prior to the fire, a German army reservist was partially successful in blowing up a railway bridge between Vanceboro, Maine and St. Croix, New Brunswick in an effort to disrupt troop movements. Chief Graham of the Ottawa Fire Department was convinced it was sabotage, saying that the “fire was set and well set.” He also clamed hearing five explosions that sounded like artillery shells.
A Royal Commission set up to examine the origins of the fire and its causes, looked closely at the sabotage allegations as well as other more mundane explanations, such as careless smoking or an electrical fault. It established that the blaze began in a lower shelf of one of six large wooden tables in the reading room located between the House of Commons and the Senate chambers at about 8.55pm. The first person to spot the fire was Mr Francis Glass, MP, who was in the reading room at that time. The only other occupant was Madame Verville, the wife of Alphonse Verville, another member of parliament. After Glass called for assistance, a policeman came in with a fire extinguisher but was unable to douse the flames which spread to newspapers hanging from a nearby wooden partition which in turn ignited the highly varnished wooden shelving that lined the room.
Experts testified how incendiary devices or fire accelerants might have been responsible, but no evidence of their use was found. Several people reported seeing strangers in the vicinity, including a “shifty” and “nervous” man with a “rather striking” grey moustache close to the House of Commons lobby shortly before 9.00pm. But nothing came of these allegations. Most damning was a statement from Mr John Rathom, editor of the Journal, a Rhode Island newspaper, who claimed that three weeks prior to the fire he had received information from employees at the German Embassy in the United States (then a neutral country) that Canada’s Parliament would shortly catch fire. While he had passed on this intelligence to a U.S. District Attorney, it was not sent to Canadian authorities. However, Mr Rathom declined to come to Ottawa for examination, and refused to reveal the names of his informants at the German Embassy.
Colonel Sherwood, head of the Dominion Police, was not convinced by the sabotage explanation. Given the times, he argued that fires were frequently but erroneously attributed to German sabotage, pointing to an incident in Brooklyn, New York where the explosion of two British munitions ships was initially thought to have been the handiwork of German saboteurs but was in fact due to faulty wiring. Although the general public had access to Parliament, including the reading room, the police had added staff at the start of the war and had taken additional security precautions following the Vanceboro incident. Any intruder would have been spotted by the constable on duty immediately outside the reading room.
With others testifying that the “No Smoking” signs in the reading room were routinely disregarded, a wayward cigar or cigarette seemed a plausible explanation for the fire, especially as burn marks marred the reading room’s furniture. But there was no evidence of anybody smoking immediately prior to the fire’s discovery. Alternatively, a fault in the building’s primitive electrical wiring system might have been responsible. However, experts ruled out the possibility of an electrical fire, testifying that the wires running to the lights on the tables in the reading room were safely housed in metal conduits.
One thing that became apparent at the Commission hearings was the considerable discord between the Dominion Police and the Ottawa Fire Department. Colonel Sherwood had refused to allow Chief Graham to station city firemen permanently on Parliament Hill. In his view, divided responsibility was “usually fatal and would always be vexatious and productive of friction.” He also maintained that all of his men were qualified to use fire equipment, and were trained to be more observant and alert than Ottawa’s firemen—a view disputed by Chief Graham. This dispute may have coloured the two men’s opposing views on the cause of the fire. A finding by the Commission that the fire had been the result of sabotage might have also reflected badly on the Dominion Police. On the other hand, Chief Graham seemed to see saboteurs behind every large Ottawa fire.
The Royal Commission concluded that “there are many circumstances connected with this fire that lead to a strong suspicion of incendiarism…But, while your commissioners are of such opinion, there is nothing in the evidence to justify your commissioners in finding that the fire was maliciously set.” They hoped that more evidence could be found in the future, and recommended that their report be treated as “interim” rather than “final.” While details of German espionage and sabotage activities in North American became known after the war, no additional evidence ever surfaced linking such activities to the Parliament fire. Nevertheless, the Commission’s suspicions provided grist to conspiracy theorists’ mills for decades to come.
Grams, Grant, 2005. “Karl Respa and German Espionage in Canada During World War One,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Fall 2005, Vol. 8, Issue 1.
Royal Commission, 1916. Re: Parliament Hill Fire at Ottawa, February 3, 1916, Report of Commissioners and Evidence, Sessional Paper No. 72a, J. de la Tache, Ottawa.
The Maple Leaf, 1946. “Old clock tolled the hours until midnight when it crashed to the ground on the last stroke of 12,” 8 February 1946.
The Montreal Gazette, 1978. “Parliament on Fire,” 17 June.
The Ottawa Citizen, 1916. “Thousands View the Pathetic Spectacle on Parliament Hill,” 5 February.
———————–, 1946. “Mystery Still Shrouds the Burning of Parliament Buildings in 1916,” 1 February.
———————–, 1949. “Was Big Fire on “Hill” of Incendiary Origin?” 15 February.
———————–, 1949. “How One Mysterious New Resident Vanished,” 22 February.
———————-,1984. “He Helped save PM from 1916 Parliament,” 3 March.
———————-, 1985. “Parliament Can’t Function Without 17 1/2lb Symbol of Authority, 4 March.
Toronto Daily Star, 1945. “Saved Parliament’s Library in ’16, Dies,” 13 March.
Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.