Lessons from Ottawa…

Posted on July 11th, 2016 by Amy Fedeski

… What the restoration of Canada’s Parliament Hill tells us about building democracy

The Crick Centre has launched a major research and public engagement project exploring the planned restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster: Designing for Democracy. In the third of our Designing for Democracy blog series Amy Fedeski shares her research on what Westminster can learn from the rebuilding of the Canadian Parliament.

The Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme has been established to ensure the preservation and modernisation of the home of the UK Parliament. It faces a significant challenge: maintaining the heritage of a building which is at the heart of British democracy, while also providing the facilities necessary for a twenty first century parliament.

But the UK is not the only country to have encountered this issue. You only have to look across the Atlantic to see a familiar picture. Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, like the Palace of Westminster, was constructed in the 19th century. Its architects, inspired by the UK’s example, created buildings in the Gothic Revival style, complete with an imposing clock tower. The Canadian parliament, like its British cousin, stands as an important symbol of its country’s values and history.

Image courtesy of Gilles Y. Hamel via Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, Canada’s impressive parliament buildings have struggled with the ravages of time and the ever increasing needs of parliamentarians. The buildings’ mechanical, electrical and safety systems are ageing, their nineteenth century design put under pressure from twenty first century security and technology requirements.

Given the challenges of modernising such iconic buildings, it might make sense to relocate to a new Parliament building. Indeed, as Public Works assistant deputy minister Nancy Chahwan noted, this would be the most cost effective option. Yet, despite a compelling economic argument, this option was not taken up- why? Parliament Hill is simply too symbolic of Canada’s history and democracy to be replaced.

Instead, starting in 2001, Public Works and Government Services Canada initiated the Long Term Vision and Plan, a 25 year plan to completely refurbish and modernise parliament. Renovation will take place in five year phases, each individually approved and funded. Work started on the West Block in 2011, and is scheduled to finish in 2017. At this point, the exterior of the East Block will be renovated, as well as the Centre Block- home of the legislature. Centre Block renovations are expected to last 10 years. Finally, the interior of the East Block will be modernised.

East_Block,_Parliament_Hill_-_Ottawa_(14766573465) (1)

Image courtesy of Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons

While Centre Block is under construction, MPs will vacate the building and the House of Commons will decant to a purpose built temporary chamber in the West Block. Upon completion of the new chamber, this temporary structure will be converted into committee rooms. The Senate, meanwhile, will move to the nearby Government Conference Centre. The decision to temporarily vacate the building was made in response to an architectural consultancy report, which found that work in an occupied building would increase costs by 50-100% and the duration of the works by 40%.

Public Works and Government Services Canada has so far kept the project on time and on budget. Nevertheless, it has not been without its critics- including one opposition MP, who stated “It’s easy to be on time and on budget when you’ve projected a 20-year time frame at a cost 10 times of what it should really cost.” The department was also rebuked by the Auditor General and others for weak accountability and fragmented decision making- leading it to establish clear targets for time and costs.  

Centre_Block,_Canadian_Parliament_(15916298891) (1)

Image courtesy of Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons

Given the expected duration of the works, it is not surprising that the budget and expected end date are highly uncertain. As part of the update to the plan in 2007, Public Works hired an independent cost consultant which estimated the total cost at around $5 billion over 25 years- but noted that many of the costs were only preliminary estimates, as it was simply impossible to put a price tag on works which would not happen for decades to come.

Canada’s experience of renovating and modernising its iconic 19th century parliament buildings provides a number of insights for the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme. The Long Term Vision and Plan shows that the UK will need to build flexibility into its restoration plans, establish clear governance and ensure that decision making is accountable. Ultimately, Ottawa’s Parliament Hill is a good example of what is needed to ensure the preservation of a country’s democratic heritage, alongside the establishment of a parliament fit for the twenty first century.  



Amy Fedeski is an undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield who will begin the final year of her BA History and Politics this September. Over the summer, she is undertaking a SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) project supervised by Prof. Matt Flinders. Amy’s research focuses on the politics of parliamentary renewal and reconstruction in former Eastern bloc countries following the end of the Cold War.


  • This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Crick Centre; the Designing for Democracy project; or the Understanding Politics blog series.
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