Since September 2020, the Historical Society of Ottawa has presented a virtual speakers series using Zoom. A full recording of those presentations is available on the HSO YouTube channel and shown here as well.
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The University of Ottawa was founded on September 26, 1848, as the College of Bytown by Bishop Joseph Bruno Guigues as a bilingual Roman Catholic institution aiming to bridge the gap between Protestants and Catholics as well as anglophone and francophone populations. The bilingual college originally sat in a wooden building (now the former La Salle academy) beside the Notre Dame Cathedral on Sussex Drive and served the educational needs of Ottawa’s population and the Canadian Diocesan and Catholic clergies. The college was incorporated by the Provincial Parliament in 1849 and was moved twice in 1852 before its final move to its current location in Sandy Hill in 1856 due to increase in need for space. It was Louis-Theodore Besserer, a Quebec businessman, notary and political figure who sold a substantial portion of his estate to the college. The university now sat in a stone building to the south of Séraphin Marion and had classrooms and dormitories to accommodate the students living in residence.
Though Bishop Guigues sought funds from the government and land use authorization, the early years of the college was marked with financial difficulties and questioned the college’s existence. Bishop Guigues managed to receive a government funding of £300 in 1857 (roughly $35,000 today) while Regiopolis College, Kingston (a college that focused on education only in English) was awarded £500 in 1847 and continued to receive funding each following year. This made the Diocese of Ottawa fall into debt and the college was eventually sold to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1856. After the Oblates took over, the college was integrated into the foreign resources of the French order and had eight professors and ninety students which increased to 160 students three years later. The College of Bytown was officially renamed to College of Ottawa in 1861 and was offered university status in August 1866 with the first graduation ceremony taking place in 1890.
Father Guigues’ bilingual mission was continued by Father Joseph-Henri Tabaret who was dedicated to the growth and future university. In 1874, an increasing number of anglophone students and all courses being taught in English only excluding French literature and religion that were taught in French threatened the future of bilingual education in the university. Bilingualism slowly began to be restored in 1894 when the Oblate students pressured Rector Father Henri Constantineau to bring back French education which heightened the Franco-Irish tensions and was resolved when all the Irish Oblate professors, the loudest advocates for English education resigned in 1915.
On the other hand, Father Tabaret pushed towards an expansion that saw over 300 students enrolled by 1886 and made investments into sports by establishing the football team in 1881 and an Athletic Club in 1885. A highly decorated chapel that could seat a 1,000 people was added in 1887. The university also saw the creation of an English Debating Society in 1880, a first of its kind at that time with its French equivalent of Société des débats français followed in 1887. The tremendous growth during Father Tabaret’s period earned the university an ecclesiastic charter issued by the Pope in 1889. Affiliation with other colleges and universities in Canada was made possible through legislation passed in 1891, though it remained unused for the next two decades. At this point the university had just over 400 (all male) students, most in high school level (as the university offered both secondary and tertiary education) and fifty professors.
In the middle of difficulties (Franco-Irish conflicts and the Ontario Schools Question) that shook the university in the early 20th century, on December 2, 1903, a fire destroyed the college’s main building, costing three lives and the lost of several historical records. New York Architect A. O. Von Herbulis was appointed to design the Tabaret Hall in a Greek Neo-classical style which replaced the main building, and it was opened in 1905. The new building was named after Father Tabaret to recognize his contributions to the university over 30 years of his tenure.
Though World Wars did not impact the university significantly, it should be noted that interwar years were important and contributed to the university’s growth given that this was the only Catholic institution offering education in French outside of Quebec in Canada. This paved way for the affiliation of twenty-four colleges and convents (many being francophone) in Ontario and the Western provinces with the university. Women were allowed to register into courses in 1919 and between 1922 and 1936, the university saw further expansions with the establishment of school for teacher training, nursing, and faculty of canon law and arts. With this rapid growth, the university rewrote its civil charter according to the provincial legislations in 1933 and was renamed as the “University of Ottawa”. The pontifical charter was also rewritten to meet the Pius XI’s Apostolic Constitution’s requirements and was approved by Rome in 1934. The economic boom after the end of the Second World War led to the creation of nine faculties and four schools by 1965.
In 1959, the university acquired expropriation powers to expand the Sandy Hill campus to meet the growing enrollments. This caused the university to fall into deficit every year in the 1960s and it began talks with the provincial government with the province demanding the Oblates to pass over the power to the government.
“The year 1965 marked the end of one era and the beginning of another.”
- Saint Paul University History (n.d.). Retrieved from ustpaul.ca/en/about-spu-history_493_360.htm
After rigorous negotiations with the provincial government, the Oblates handed over control to the province in 1965. The old university came to be called Saint Paul University and the province formed a new university which was named as the University of Ottawa according to the University of Ottawa Act, 1965. They became a federated institution and share the faculties. Roger Guidon who was appointed as the Rector of the old university in 1964 remained Rector of the new university until 1984. During his tenure, he modernized the university, hired substantial numbers of lay faculty, support staff and women. The number of professors had increased from 300 in 1965 to 1000 in 1990. Financial aid from government also helped further the university’s expansion well into 2000. Regarded as the largest bilingual university in North America, today it comprises of four campuses covering 42.5 hectares with more than 40,000 students and 5,000 employees and offers over 450 programs in 10 faculties.
About uOttawa. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.uottawa.ca/about/
Jones, D. (2017, May 12). 8. Académie de-la-salle. Retrieved from https://heritageottawa.org/fr/50years/la-salle-academy
Saint Paul University History. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ustpaul.ca/en/about-spu-history_493_360.htm
Strömbergsson-Denora, A. (2012, February 8). University of Ottawa. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/university-of-ottawa
The University of Ottawa. (2019, July 20). Retrieved from https://www.ash-acs.ca/history/the-university-of-ottawa/
Strömbergsson-Denora, A. (2012, February 8). University of Ottawa. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/university-of-ottawa
The archives turns 50. (2017, February 27). Retrieved from https://www.uottawa.ca/gazette/en/news/archives-turns-50
Story written by Nivethini Jekku Einkaran, an architectural conservation graduate from Carleton University. She has an undergraduate degree in architecture from India and is a registered architect in India where she worked as a junior architect before moving to Canada. Nivethini is a volunteer with The History Society of Ottawa.
The Society’s Board of Directors is delighted to announce that it has approved a pledge of $5,000 towards a project to construct a replica gazebo at Strathcona Park. This project was proposed by HSO member, François Bregha.
At last year’s Annual General Meeting, members agreed to allocate funds to finance community projects over the coming years. Members were asked to suggest potential projects, and a process was established to choose among projects. The selection process was based on a number of criteria, including relevance to the HSO’s mission and objectives, cost, and the availability of people to take the lead on the project.
The construction of a replica pavilion at Strathcona Park has long been the dream of Action Sandy Hill, a local community group. Strathcona Park, which is located on the western bank of the Rideau River, was originally the home of the Dominion Rifle Range. During the early 20th century, the range was turned into a park by the Ottawa Improvement Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission. The park is now maintained by the City of Ottawa.
The park was named in honour of Scottish-Canadian businessman, financier and politician Donald Smith who became 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal in 1900. During the nineteenth century, Smith was president of the Bank of Montreal, and co-founded the Canadian Pacific Railway with his cousin George Stephen, later known as Lord Mount Stephen. Smith also for a time represented Montreal in the House of Commons. Later, he became Canada’s High Commissioner to London. Lord Strathcona was also a great philanthropist, endowing hospitals, including the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. He was also Chancellor of McGill University and the University of Aberdeen.
A feature of Strathcona Park is a large fountain sculpture by Mathurin Moreau which was donated by Lord Strathcona in 1909. The four standing figures supporting a bowl represent Europe, Asia, Africa and America. Another original feature of the park was a Victorian-style gazebo, the site of many band performances and other events. Unfortunately, the aging gazebo was dismantled in 1961 and never replaced. The initiative of Action Sandy Hill to re-build the gazebo will restore a historic structure and provide a new focal point for the Park.
Planning for the structure is well advanced. Action Sandy Hill (ASH) will allocate up to $26,000 to this endeavour using money received from a developer earmarked for community benefits. The City of Ottawa has agreed to match the ASH funds. Heritage architect Barry Padolsky is contributing the gazebo design and specifications pro bono. Action Sandy Hill held a community consultation on the gazebo in September 2020 and is looking for estimates for its construction. It is also seeking funds from the broader Ottawa community to complete the financing.
The Historical Society of Ottawa is delighted to support this initiative to rebuild the gazebo and reintroduce a lost historical artifact in a well-used and much-loved park.
At the 2019 Annual General Meeting held in July 2020, members agreed to release a portion of the funds held in the Research and Development Fund and the Col. By Gravesite Maintenance Funds (in total, approximately $30,000) to support community projects over the next few years. In response, and at the request of the membership, your Board of Directors has developed a process and a set of criteria which will be used to select community projects going forward. These criteria include relevance to the HSO’s mandate, cost, and the availability of volunteers to carry the project through to completion. The Society might also consider working with other heritage organizations on a project as a way of leveraging its resources.
Community projects are not new to the Society, and can take many forms. The HSO’s operation of the Bytown Museum from 1917 to 2006 could be considered as an example of a very long-term community project. Similarly, the Society’s funding and installation of a statue of Lieutenant Colonel John By in 1971 in Major’s Hill Park is another example of a community project, albeit a large one! Historical displays, or the support of research into Ottawa’s history, might also qualify as community projects.
The Board eagerly awaits the suggestions and the support of HSO members in this new, and exciting chapter in the life of our Society.
Current Community Projects
The Crawley Plaque
Following the 2017 presentation by George Shirreff on the contribution of Frank “Budge” and Judith Crawley into making Ottawa a centre for producing world-class films during the mid-twentieth century, the Society decided that it would install a bilingual plaque at 19 Fairmont Avenue in Hintonburg, the headquarters of Crawley Films, in honour of the Crawley family. Discussions have been held with the Crawley family, the current occupants of the building, and the City of Ottawa. Delayed in part owing to the COVID-19 emergency, and more recently by second thoughts from the owners of the building, the Society is reconsidering the merits of proceeding with this project at this time.
The Strathcona Pavilion
Action Sandy Hill. A heritage architect has agreed to design the structure pro bono. COVID-19 has delayed this project and the Society is awaiting news on when it will proceed.Following a suggestion by member François Bregha, the Historical Society agreed in January 2021 to provide financial support to the construction of a replica pavilion at Strathcona Park, the original gazebo structure having been torn down during the 1960s. The project is organized by
Considering how many people in Ottawa are new to the city, it seemed reasonable to do a little research and find out who, or what, some of the oldest Ottawa streets are named after. Many persons who contributed to the foundation and growth of our City are not well known, and I understand both City staff and the Historical Society of Ottawa have developed tentative plans to make early Bytowners or Ottawans better known. This is a project deserving support! No article of this size can hope to do much more than scratch the surface of this topic. So only a few streets are covered.
Much has been said and written about the proper use of Lebreton Flats which contained Lebreton Street. These were named after Charles LEBRETON (1779-1848) who was a native of Jersey and one of Nepean Township's earliest settlers. He came to our area from Newfoundland and served with distinction in the War of 1812. With a partner, he purchased Lebreton Flats in 1820 and, in 1826 got into a legal wrangle with Colonel By and the Governor General, Lord Dalhousie over the price he wanted for his land. He spent a good deal of money defending the legality of his land ownership against the government of the day He retained his land, but the Rideau Canal was built elsewhere probably because Dalhousie and By rather disliked him after the court battle. Was sour grapes involved in the location of the canal?
Nicholas SPARKS (1792-1862) for whom Sparks Street is named is much better known,. but the extent of his good works in Ottawa is less known Sparks came to Canada in 1816, from Ireland, to avoid religious strife. He married the widow of Philemon Wright Jr. in 1826. He owned a sawmill and vast timber rights in the area. In 1821, for the equivalent of $500 he purchased land that extended from what is now Wellington St. to Laurier Avenue West and from Waller Street to Bronson Avenue. He sold part of his land to construct the Rideau Canal, but, because of the price he asked, another 96 acres were expropriated much to his chagrin!
Perhaps wishing to avoid religious strife in Canada, he donated land for churches to both the Anglicans and the Presbyterians. Sparks went on to serve for many years in local government. Sparks named a street on his land after a friend, Daniel O' CONNOR, who became Treasurer of the Dalhousie District (later Ottawa-Carleton) and another after his son-in-law, James SLATER Slater Street was first named Waugh Street, after a local merchant Caldwell Waugh., James Slater came to Canada about 1830, married Sparks' daughter in 1847 and went on to be, successively, Provincial Land surveyor, Superintendent of the Rideau Canal and Chairman of the Ottawa School Board.
Robert BELL (1821-1873) was a promoter of railway construction, a land surveyor and eventually, a journalist. He bought the Bytown Packet in 1849 and two years later changed the name to the Citizen, He sold the paper in 1865 to I. B. Taylor. One of the people from whom he bought the paper, Henry J. FRIEL (1823-1869) served as Mayor of Bytown in 1854 and Mayor of Ottawa in 1857, 1863, 1868 and finally, 1869 Pictures of both Bell and Friel are available at the City Archives.
In Lower Town, Bruyere Street is named after Mother Elizabeth BRUYERE (1818-1876) the founder of the Grey nuns and the Ottawa Hospital (1845) She also established an orphanage, a hospice and an asylum for destitute women. GUIGUES Street is named after Monsignor Joseph-Eugene—Bruno Guigues (1805-1874), Ottawa's first Roman Catholic Bishop. He founded what became the University of Ottawa on land donated by Louis BESSERER.
Further west, BRONSON Avenue was named after Erskine Henry Bronson, a prominent businessman, whose father Henry Bronson had founded a local lumbering firm. Speaking of lumbering, who else could BOOTH Street be named after other than J. R. Booth “the Ottawa Valley Lumber King”.
These are only a few of the origins of Ottawa street names. The City of Ottawa Archives is working on identifying many more.
Cliff Scott, an Ottawa resident since 1954 and a former history lecturer at the University of Ottawa (UOttawa), he also served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Public Service of Canada.
Since 1992, he has been active in the volunteer sector and has held executive positions with The Historical Society of Ottawa, the Friends of the Farm and the Council of Heritage Organizations in Ottawa. He also inaugurated the Historica Heritage Fair in Ottawa and still serves on its organizing committee.
It was Sunday, 1 January 1956. Like most New Year’s Days, revellers from the previous night’s festivities were nursing sore heads. With Monday being a holiday, many Ottawa residents were happy to laze about the house and enjoy their long weekend. The virtuous and hardy braved sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures to go to church, or attend the annual Governor General’s New Year Levee. Held on Parliament Hill, more than 1,000 Ottawa residents filed into the crimson and gold Senate chamber late that morning to be greeted by Governor General Vincent Massey, before receiving a glass of punch and a light lunch in the nearby Railway Committee Room. As was customary at the time, it was a very masculine affair. Other than Charlotte Whitton, Ottawa’s formidable mayor, and some female members of the armed forces, there were very few women present. The city’s diplomatic corps was well represented, however. Among the foreign dignitaries at the reception to shake Massey’s hand were three uniformed representatives of the Soviet Embassy. Little did they realize they were about to have a very bad day.
Following the levee, which ended in the early afternoon, the three Russian officers undoubtedly hurried back to the Soviet embassy for their own New Year’s celebrations, hosted by Ambassador Dimitri Chuvahin. Located at 285 Charlotte Street in Sandy Hill, the embassy building had once been the mansion of the Booth family, Ottawa’s lumber barons. Requisitioned by the Canadian government in 1942 for use by the Royal Canadian Women’s Naval Services, the house was instead turned over to the Russians to house the growing Soviet legation. As guests left the Soviet reception at about 4.15pm, Miss Diane Destonis, a neighbour living in the apartment building across the street, spotted smoke drifting from a window on the third floor of the embassy building. Another neighbour, Mr W. Dore, also saw the smoke. Believing it was a kitchen fire, he tried to alert the Soviet embassy by telephone; he received no reply.
The fire was caused by an electrical short circuit in the embassy’s communications room located on the upper floor of the three-storey building. Instead of immediately calling the Ottawa Fire Department for assistance, Soviet diplomats tried to put out the blaze themselves using hand extinguishers and a small fire hose installed in the building. Thirty minutes passed before the alarm was raised. Although firefighters were on the scene within ten minutes of receiving the call, flames had already engulfed the third floor. Entering by the front door of the embassy, Ottawa’s firemen, led by Chief John Foote, were stopped by embassy staff claiming diplomatic immunity. A Soviet official actually struck Chief Foote; the incident was later played down. Denied access to source of the fire, the firemen were obliged to tackle the blaze from the outside. The Soviet diplomats also impeded the firemen’s efforts by refusing to vacate the premises. Instead, they repeatedly went in and out of the embassy to retrieve filing cabinets, boxes, and files of documents. The last item to be saved from the flames was “a heavy piece of wireless equipment.” Two embassy cars, stuffed with documents, reportedly “careened” out of the embassy driveway onto Charlotte Street, running over deployed fire hoses, almost bursting them.
Incensed by the lack of Soviet co-operation, Chief Foote contacted Mayor Whitton who hurried to the scene. Shortly afterwards, R. M. Macdonnell, the deputy undersecretary of External Affairs arrived, as did Paul Martin, Sr, Minister for National Health and Welfare, substituting for Lester Pearson, Minister for External Affairs who was out of town. The mayor authorized Chief Foote to exercise all necessary emergencies powers at his disposal as Fire Marshall. At 6.30pm, he declared a state of emergency, calling in extra firemen and police support.
The fire was finally brought under control two hours later, but was not extinguished until close to midnight. One hundred firemen fought the blaze in biting cold weather, using equipment from four stations, including three pumper trucks and four ladder trucks. Although smoke and hot cinders filled the sky, a north-easterly breeze blew burning embers towards parkland and the Rideau River, sparing the embassy’s neighbours. More than three thousand spectators watched the night’s drama despite the cold. Hundreds of cars lined Riverside Drive. Meanwhile, streetcar service along Laurier Avenue East was blocked.
Thankfully, no lives were lost in the fire. But the embassy building was a write-off. Estimated losses amounted to $250,000 (equivalent to more than $2 million today). Ambassador Chuvahin and his wife, along with two other Soviet diplomats living in the building, lost their homes and their belongings. The Soviets set up a temporary embassy a short walk away at 24 Blackburn Avenue, the office of the Soviet commercial counsellor.
The next day, with the embassy building sheathed in ice, the blame game commenced. The Soviets claimed that the Ottawa Fire Department had been slow to respond, and that there had been insufficient water pressure. Mayor Whitton hotly denied the allegations, saying that the Russians had only themselves to blame by not calling in the firemen immediately, and then obstructing their access to the building. She also argued that the six-foot, spiked, iron fence installed around the perimeter of the property the previous year had made it difficult for fire equipment to be brought close to the embassy building. Additionally, extreme cold temperatures meant that water being directed onto the blaze vapourized before contact. At the city’s official New Year Reception held that afternoon, a hoarse and weary Mayor Whitton commented, “I’ve been fighting the Russians.”
The public was baffled by the Soviet effort to obstruct Ottawa’s firemen. A Citizen editorial called it “an incomprehensible act,” which put its neighbours at risk. Claims of “diplomatic immunity” in such circumstances were deemed “fantastic.” Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet cypher clerk who had defected from the Soviet Embassy nine years earlier, explained that the only reason for embassy officials to impede and delay Ottawa’s firemen was to ensure that it’s most secret documents, for example, lists of names of agents in the west and instructions from Moscow, were kept secret.
Mayor Whitton called upon the federal government to review its regulations governing diplomatic immunity in order to give firemen free access to buildings in the event of future fires. The government demurred, arguing that international rules governing diplomatic immunity had been finely crafted over many centuries, and that Canadian officials abroad were accorded the same privileges as foreign representatives were in Canada. When contacted, other diplomatic missions in Canada were also wary of any change to the law, though several commented that they would have allowed the firemen onto their premises had their embassies caught fire.
With the old Booth mansion a write-off, a new Soviet Embassy, built in the Socialist Classical style, was constructed on the same site. With the Cold War in full swing, RCMP counter-espionage agents, assisted by British MI5 agents, apparently concealed microphones in the windows of the new building while it was under construction. Called Operation Dew Worm, Igor Gouzenko provided advice to the Canadian and British spooks on the best locations to place the bugs.
It seems, however, that western spy agencies gained little by this piece of high-tech skullduggery. Two books published in the 1980s, Their Trade is Treachery (1981) by journalist H. Chapman Pincher and Spycatcher (1987) by former MI5 agent Peter Wright, claim that the Russians were tipped off to the location of the bugs, and established a secure room elsewhere in the building. Allegedly, the source of the tip-off was a senior member of the British intelligence service, possibly Sir Roger Hollis, director-general of MI5 from 1956 to 1965, whom the authors claim was a Russian mole. The British government officially denied the allegations. But Wright’s memoir gained world-wide notoriety when the British government tried to keep it from being published. The case against Hollis, now dead (as are Pincher and Wright), remains unproven. The Soviet Embassy building now houses the Embassy of the Russian Federation.
As a postscript to this story, history repeated itself in January 1987. When a small, electrical fire broke out in the basement of the Soviet consulate on Avenue de Musée in Montreal, Soviet diplomats choose to fight the blaze themselves using garden hoses and snow. When neighbours called in the alarm to the fire department, Soviet officials delayed the firefighters’ entry into the building for fifteen minutes to protect documents. As a consequence, what had been a minor fire became a major five-alarm fire.
City of Ottawa, 2014. “Soviet embassy fire,”
Gouzenko, Igor, 1956. “Secret Work of Russian Embassy Vastly Expanded Since Spy Trials,” The Ottawa Citizen, 4 January.
Lewiston Daily Sun, 1956. “Soviet Ottawa Embassy Destroyed By Fire; Aides Stay To Move Documents,” 2 January.
Los Angeles Times, 1987. “Soviets Keep Firemen Out, Montreal Consulate Burns,” 17 January.
The Globe and Mail, 1956. “Report Chief Struck—Embassy in Ottawa Burned As Russians Impede Firemen,” 2 January.
————————, 1956. “1000 Call on Massey at Levee,” 3 January 1956.
————————, 1981, “The Spy Scandal: Did Canada bug rebuilt Soviet Embassy?,” 27 March.
Toronto Star, 1987. “Fire at Soviet embassy revives 31-year puzzle,” 18 January.
The Ottawa Citizen, 1956. “Mayor Asks Way To Pry Open Embassies During Emergencies,” 3 January.
———————-, 1956. “Weary, Semi-Ill Mayor Entertains At Reception,” 3 January.
———————, 1956. “No ‘Immunity’ From Fire,” 3 January.
———————, 1956. “Flames Ruin Embassy, Red Tape Slows Fight,” 3 January.
———————, 1956. “Refused to Leave, Carried from Burning Building,” 3 January.
———————, 1956. “Senator Feared For Safety of Next-Door Residence,” 3 January.
———————, 1956. “Ottawa’s Diplomats Decidedly Cool Toward Any Curtailment of Privilege,” 4 January.
———————, 1956. “Traditional Colorful Scenes At Governor-General’s Levee,” 3 January.
Wright, Peter, 1987, Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd: Toronto.
Images: Soviet Embassy after the Fire, 1956, City of Ottawa, 2014. “Soviet embassy fire,”
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.
The Historical Society of Ottawa’s October 9, 2020 meeting was our first evening gathering at the main branch of the Ottawa library. We had many first-time attendees. Maybe the new time and location are the attraction. Or it may have been our guest speaker, who is well known in Ottawa for his passion for history.
Sandy Hill is more than just a passing interest for François Bregha. He has lived in Sandy Hill for 34 years. In this time, François has undertaken research on ten prime ministers who have lived in his community, in over a dozen different homes. Many of these homes are still standing, and have become regular stops on François’ community walking tours.
Some of Sandy Hill’s prime ministerial homes are well known, like Stadacona, the Strathcona Apartments and Glensmere. The last of these three was the home of Canada’s eight prime minister, Sir Robert Borden. Built in 1894 for Indian Affairs superintendent Hayter Reed, Borden moved into the home in 1907, giving it the name Glensmere.
After prime minister Borden’s third son, Henry Clifford Borden, moved out in 1941, the home served for 27 years as the Chinese legation, back when the Canadian government considered Taiwan to be “China”. When the much bigger China came to be recognized as the proper “China” in 1972, they established an embassy at the former Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd convent and Glensmere, suddenly empty, was demolished.
Sad, but everyone in attendance for François’ talk at least got a good laugh at the photo he showed of the towering monstrosity that replaced Borden’s elegant abode. Fortunately, Stadacona (Sir John A. Macdonald’s third Sandy Hill home) and the Strathcona Apartments continue to provide architectural dignity on Laurier Avenue East.
Probably the best-known home is Laurier House, built in 1878. Canada’s seventh and tenth prime ministers lived here, although it’s probably less well known that the museum that now honours Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King was originally named Kininvie by the home’s first owner, jeweler John Leslie. Leslie named his Sandy Hill home after Kininvie Manor in Banffshire.
This Scottish castle has been in the possession of the Leslie clan since 1521. King renamed the home Laurier House in honour of his mentor, in 1923.
François did some considerable research to dig up information on the many less well-known homes in Sandy Hill. The 13th prime minister, John Diefenbaker not only lived in the Strathcona Apartments, he later rented a small apartment in a house on Wilbrod Street. Our 15th prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, rented an apartment on Besserer Street in the early 1950s, in a home built in 1896 for broker A.M. Sutherland. The home had just been converted to apartments when Trudeau moved in.
Trudeau’s predecessor, Lester Pearson, seems to have had a particular penchant for Sandy Hill. He lived in three homes in the neighbourhood. Sadly the last of these – the apartment he was living in when he won the Nobel Peace Prize – is slated for demolition. The Ugandan High Commission, which has occupied the building since 1985 has allowed the historic landmark to fall into disrepair.
During the Q&A session with François, special attention was drawn to Canada’s sixth prime minister Sir Charles Tupper who, while on his morning walk to the office at Parliament Hill took a daily diversion to meet up with a lady-friend on Chapel Street. François had hoped to exercise some discretion concerning the affair but was cajoled by the audience to offer some details.
Tupper is unique in having lived in two homes that had also been the home of other prime ministers.
Tupper’s 1872 home at 274 Daly Avenue was converted into apartments in 1982.
Paul Martin (our 21st prime minister) lived in one of these units from 1994 until 2003, when he was able to move into 24 Sussex Drive.
As for Sir Charles, he later moved to a home named Cliffside, just west of the Parliament Buildings.
This same residence had earlier been the home of Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie. Cliffside was demolished in 1929.
If you’re interested to learn more about Sandy Hill’s many magnificent historic homes, visit the Sandy Hill History website. Here François has more stories, not just of prime ministers, but of business people, war heroes, architects and artists who called Sandy Hill home.
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