Parliament Hill history behind scaffolding: Inside the Centre Block renovation

OTTAWA —
For nearly a century, the House of Commons was the most recognizable place in Canada. But now the iconic green chamber is hidden under layers of scaffolding and caution tape as Centre Block is being taken back to its bones.

The same can be said for its sister space, the Senate, where the room for sober second though has been similarly transformed into a construction site.

With what’s set to be around a decade-long renovation now well underway, on any given day there are roughly 400 people on site, working to remove, preserve, restore and eventually reinstall the many delicate aspects of the century-old space from the foyer to the rotunda.

“The focus is on restoring those, so that they look as it did when people left the Centre Block,” said Rob Wright, an assistant deputy minister with Public Services and Procurement Canada, who has been working on the Parliament Hill renovations since 2005.

This includes the bullet holes from the 2014 gunfight between Islamic State group sympathizer Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and security and RCMP officers who happened to be in the Hall of Honour when Zehalf-Bibeau stormed Parliament Hill after fatally shooting Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in front of the National War Memorial down the street.

While parliamentarians—who officially moved out of Centre Block in late 2018—were divided in the aftermath over whether to keep the bullet holes, the decision was ultimately made to keep them. 

Getting this all right will take time, from plans to make the building carbon neutral and turning the courtyard into indoor common space, to creating a universal accessible design with now even more important up-to-date technological features, and enough room to fit more than 100 new MPs in the decades to come.

All of this is being decided on in partnership with parliamentarians.

“At the end of the day this is their building. This serves Parliament, and so we need to make sure that it meets the needs of a Parliament of today, of tomorrow and for a century from now,” Wright said.

While estimates suggested the project could take 10 years or more to finish, officials said Wednesday that right now the work is ahead of schedule. However, the final budget and timeline isn’t expected to be completed until the first quarter of 2021.

So far, $655 million has been budgeted, with $119.6 million already spent. Approximately $3 billion was spent preparing for Centre Block’s closure, including the renovations to create the temporary House of Commons and Senate in nearby buildings.

A lot of time over the last year has been dedicated to getting behind the walls to see what potential challenges, and extra costs, they’d uncover.

Since construction started, more than 5.5 million pounds (2.4 million kilograms) of asbestos material has been removed, but historically-interesting items reflective of Parliament’s past have also been uncovered, such as old newspapers and cigarette packs.

The next big challenge will be the masonry restoration on the Centre Block’s outer walls, which is projected to take between five and six years to complete.

There are contractors from across the country working on various aspects of the project. In March, COVID-19 protocols were established such as temperature readings, mask-wearing for workers, directional markers and separate lunch rooms. So far, there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases connected to the construction site.

The major construction and modernization project is the first full renovation since the building was completed in 1927.

The government plans to launch public consultations next year to hear from Canadians about their experiences when they come to Parliament Hill.

With files from The Canadian Press  

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