From modest beginnings

By Forrest Pass

For an institution that conserves so many treaties, charters and proclamations, Library and Archives Canada’s own founding document is a modest one. On June 20, 1872—150 years ago—the federal cabinet appointed Douglas Brymner as “senior second-class clerk” responsible for a newly approved “Public Archives Service” within the Department of Agriculture. The handwritten order-in-council might look unassuming, but it marked the beginning of a century and a half of collecting and caring for Canadian documentary heritage.

The decision to establish a national archive was the result of a petition circulated in 1871 by the Quebec Literary and Historical Society. The petitioners lamented the “very disadvantageous position” of Canadian historians when it came to accessing historical documents and proposed a national repository. The government agreed in principle, but it could not offer any immediate funding. The project would have to wait until the next fiscal year.

A handwritten page that reads: “On a Memorandum dated 18th June 1872, from the Hon: the Minister of Agriculture, recommending that Mr Douglas Brymner, aged 42 years be added to the Staff of the Department of Agriculture as a Senior Record Class Clerk at a Salary of $1200.00 per annum – and he further recommends that during the present year the Salary of Mr Brymner be paid partly from the vote of Parliament for the collecting of Public Archives to the amount of $600 – as he proposes to employ Mr Brymner on the …”

A certified copy of Order-in-Council 1872-0712, dated June 20, 1872, approving Douglas Brymner’s appointment as a senior second-class clerk, responsible for both the Public Archives and “getting of information on Agriculture” (e011408984-001)

Douglas Brymner, a Montréal journalist, was not an obvious choice to be the country’s first archivist. He had an interest in history but was not active in historical circles. However, Brymner was not hired solely as an archivist; at first, he was to split his time between archival projects and “a preliminary enquiry for the getting of information on Agriculture.” Investigating the state of Canadian crops and livestock was as pressing a task as organizing a national archive, and Brymner, a former farmer as well as a journalist, seemed qualified to do both.

A man with a beard wearing a white shirt and a black jacket.

Douglas Brymner, the first Dominion Archivist, in an oil portrait by his son, artist William Brymner, 1886 (e008299814-v6)

Whatever the intention, Brymner soon found that building the archives was a full-time commitment. As he later recalled, “the work had to be begun ab ovo, not a single document of any description being in the room set apart for the custody of the Archives.” Within weeks, he was on the road, rummaging through courthouse attics, legislature basements and the dusty papers of prominent settler families.

This collection strategy reflected both the new archives’ limited mandate and the new archivist’s own concept of Canadian history. Before 1903, the archives did not collect recent government records. Instead, Brymner looked for documents of the pre-Confederation past, focusing on settler history, especially its political and military aspects. Although his reports indicated a passing interest in “Indian affairs” as an aspect of colonial policy, Brymner’s archives recorded Indigenous experiences or voices only incidentally, if at all.

His colonial focus led the archivist to prioritize the transcription of Canadian historical records in British and French archives, continuing the work that the Quebec Literary and Historical Society had quietly pursued for decades. Brymner travelled to London to investigate relevant collections there, while the Quebec historian Hospice-Anthelme Verreau did the same in Paris.

These were ambitious projects for the archives’ limited resources. In its first year, the new archives’ budget was a meagre $4,000 (about $94,000 in 2022 dollars). For office and storage space, Brymner’s chief, the deputy minister of Agriculture, had to haggle with the Post Office Department for the use of three rooms in the basement of the West Block on Parliament Hill.

A large stone building with towers, behind a dirt road and a wrought-iron and stone fence.

The West Block on Parliament Hill from Wellington Street, as it appeared when the Dominion Archives took up residence in the basement. The northwest wing of the building, including its imposing tower, was not completed until 1879. William Topley Studio photograph, about 1872 (a012386-v6)

Underfunding led to embarrassment. In 1880, Gilbert-Anselme Girouard, a New Brunswick Member of Parliament, suggested that Brymner hire the Acadian historian Pascal Poirier to transcribe Acadian parish records. However, on receiving Brymner’s reply, Girouard regretted that he could not possibly recommend Poirier or any other competent copyist for the paltry amount that the archives were prepared to pay.

More startling was the archives’ willingness to contemplate using what today would be considered child labour to cut costs. In 1878, F.J. Dore, Canadian Agent-General in London, sought permission from the British Museum, on Brymner’s behalf, to transcribe the papers of Sir Frederick Haldimand, the Governor of Quebec during the American Revolutionary War. Dore regretfully informed Brymner that the museum prohibited anyone under the age of 21 from working in its building. “Otherwise,” Dore wrote, “a number of Juvenile copyists might have been got to do the work at a much cheaper rate than the one quoted.” At the time, teenaged copying clerks were common in England and Canada alike. Nevertheless, the idea of using young, inexperienced copyists to save money underlines the early archives’ budgetary woes.

Yet for all these challenges, Brymner accomplished much in his first decade as archivist. Transcriptions from England began to arrive in the early 1880s. By 1884, the archives’ catalogued holdings filled some 1,300 volumes, with thousands of pages awaiting indexing and binding. Transcription projects in European archives would continue well into the 20th century.

A typed and handwritten form, signed by William Blackwood. There is a stamp in the right-hand corner, and writing in red over the left side of the page.

A shipping receipt for “one case of Archives,” likely one of the first batches of Haldimand transcriptions, 1881 (e011408984-001)

Among original documents, Brymner’s “first major archival acquisition” was a large accession of records from the Halifax Citadel. Primarily military in focus, the records touched on many aspects of early colonial history. Brymner acquired these in 1873, after negotiations with the British War Office.

Even before the Halifax records arrived, however, a small donation anticipated the institution’s eventual role as a library as well as an archive. In the summer of 1872, Brymner had visited the Séminaire de Québec, a 200-year-old religious community and college. The Séminaire was not interested in transferring its own rich archives to Ottawa, but Brymner did come away with a small consolation prize: a set of the Séminaire’s student newspaper, L’Abeille (“The Bee”), which occasionally featured transcribed historical documents.

Bound in red leather and buckram, this set of L’Abeille remains in the collection at Library and Archives Canada to this day. Several issues bear the embossed stamp of the “Dominion Archives – Library,” undoubtedly from Brymner’s day. A volume of a revived edition of L’Abeille, published between 1877 and 1881, is inscribed to the “Archives of Canada” by a director of the Séminaire, evidence of Brymner’s ongoing relationship with the donor.

Five books bound in red leather, with white paper flags sticking out of the top. The books are in a wooden book cart.

The Dominion Archives’ set of L’Abeille (“The Bee”). Brymner received the three slim volumes on the left in 1872, his first documented acquisition. The volume on the far right was donated to the archives in 1885 (OCLC 300305563) Photo Credit: Forrest Pass

A typed page of L’Abeille, Vol. 1, Petit Séminaire de Quebec, December 11, 1849, No. 12.

The front page of an 1848 issue of L’Abeille (“The Bee”), featuring a transcribed letter from François de Laval, the first Bishop of Quebec, dated 1690 (OCLC 300305563) Photo Credit: Forrest Pass

Douglas Brymner could only have imagined how the collection he started would grow over the following century and a half. Under his successor, Sir Arthur Doughty, the “Dominion Archives” evolved into the Public Archives of Canada, with a broad mandate to collect government records and private manuscripts, as well as maps, artwork and photographs. Before the creation of a national history museum, the Public Archives also collected artifacts and maintained a museum. The National Library of Canada, founded in 1953, complemented the work of the archives by collecting and preserving published documentary heritage. In 2004, the two institutions merged to form Library and Archives Canada. Today, collections at Library and Archives Canada include over 20 million books, 250 linear kilometres of archival records, over 30 million photographs and nearly half a million works of art.

The Library and Archives Canada of today is a far cry from a part-time archivist working in a cramped basement on Parliament Hill, making the most of his modest resources and as busy as, well, a bee!


Forrest Pass is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.

Newly digitized images of the construction of 395 Wellington

By Andrew Elliott

Located on a site overlooking the Ottawa River, the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) building (known more fondly as 395 Wellington or, even more archaically, as PANL—Public Archives National Library) is an iconic structure that is highly visible from many vantage points on both sides of the Ottawa River. The building embodies the preservation of the national collective documentary memory, which Library and Archives Canada gathers and disseminates.

The history of the design and construction of this Classified Federal Heritage Building is an interesting one. While the original proposal targeted a site near the intersection of Bank and Wellington streets, in November 1952, the National Planning Committee of the Federal District Commission (now the National Capital Commission) approved the 395 Wellington Street address as the most appropriate location for the new National Library and Archives building. At the suggestion of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, Cabinet agreed to retain the services of the prestigious firm Mathers & Haldenby to design the new building.

The firm of Mathers and Haldenby (1921–1991) was established by Alvan Sherlock Mathers ([1895–1965] born in Aberfoyle, Ontario) and Eric Wilson Haldenby ([1893–1971] born in Toronto).

Construction, however, was delayed for almost a decade. The primary reason: No. 1 Temporary Building, which sat on the site, had not yet been demolished. In 1958 the project was further delayed following a major gas explosion on Slater Street, which destroyed a government building and saw the relocation of hundreds of civil servants to the remaining offices at No. 1 Temporary Building.

In 1960 Ellis-Don was awarded the contract to construct the building and in the fall of 1963 construction finally began in earnest. The entire construction project, which lasted until 1967, was recorded by Ottawa’s Van Photography Studio.

Recently, a remarkable series of photos showing the progress of the building was digitized by LAC. These images can be found in the Department of Public Works Accession. Included are the following photos:

A black–and-white photograph showing a large construction site with various types of construction equipment, and trees and other buildings in the distance

Excavation of the building site, September 4, 1963 (MIKAN 3600820)

A black-and-white photograph showing the unfinished facade of a 10-storey building. There is construction board on the ground floor. There are cars (including a VW bug!) and pedestrians going about their business.

A view of the partially constructed building looking north, July 15, 1965 (MIKAN 3600860)

A black-and-white photograph showing a building completely surrounded by scaffolding.

View of the building looking southeast, August 16, 1965 (MIKAN 3600863)

A black-and-white photograph showing a construction site with a partially finished building.

A view looking northeast taken on November 26, 1965 (MIKAN 3600869)

A black-and-white photograph a low-ceilinged room with rows upon rows of shelving in various states of completion.

An interior view of partially finished stack shelving, November 21, 1966 (MIKAN 3600895)

A black-and-white photograph of a large room with scaffolding and construction materials scattered about.

Partially finished Reading Room showing the coffered-light ceilings, February 24, 1967 (MIKAN 3600901)

A black-and-white photograph showing a partially completed interior covered in deeply-veined, white Carrera marble.

Main floor showing the beautiful marbles in the entrance of the building, June 27, 1966 (MIKAN 3600882)

On May 10, 1965, Governor General Georges Vanier laid the official cornerstone. Inside the cornerstone he placed an elaborate copper casket containing pictures and descriptions of the building as well as copies of the latest publications of both the National Library and the National Archives. On June 20, 1967, in time for the celebration of Canada’s centennial, Canada’s new, purpose-built National Library and Archives building was officially opened. You can listen to the opening ceremonies here:

395 Wellington is an interesting combination of functional and aesthetic design. As the Federal Heritage Building Review Office Report 04-027 (FHBRO) states, “[it] is a high quality achievement . . . . Aesthetically, it is a hybrid of two tendencies, balancing remnants of federal classical modernism with Modernism’s new trends, both of which it handles with sophistication and refinement, resulting in a modern, functionalist, rational appearance . . . . Functionally, the complex range of the building’s uses is well served and the arrangement of public areas and that of services and stacks is reflected in the composition of the building.” (For further reading see: http://historicplaces.ca/media/18730/2004-027(e)publicarchivesandnationallibrarybuilding.pdf)

As one can see, neither time nor expense was spared with regard to the building’s design. Today, the building continues to have an iconic presence near the heart of downtown Ottawa.


Andrew Elliott is an archivist with the Science, Governance and Political Division of Library and Archives Canada.

 

Ottawa’s Uppertown: A lost neighbourhood uncovered

By Andrew Elliott

A black-and-white photograph showing a streetscape at a crossroads.

Wellington and Bank, ca. 1900 (MIKAN 3325940)

On February 27, 1912, following what appears to have been at least a few years of behind the scenes deliberations, the federal government expropriated all properties located in Uppertown, an area bounded by Bank, Wellington, and Bay streets and the cliff along the Ottawa River. On March 9, 1912, a notice of expropriation was filed at the Ottawa City Registry Office (the area can be seen on these fire insurance plans: east view and west view (MIKAN 3816030).

The area was expropriated to make way for a new supreme court and other federal buildings. In 1913, the government launched a design competition, in response to which many of the major architects of the day submitted designs for the building complex. The designs can be found in the following LAC collection, which comprises 11 designs for the location of proposed departmental buildings. With the outbreak of the First World War, the fire and subsequent reconstruction of the Parliament Buildings, and changes in government, no concrete action was taken with respect to these plans until the early 1930s.

The area expropriated was both commercial and residential in nature. We have come to think of the stretch of Wellington between Bank and Bay streets as a boulevard flanked by grand, iconic government structures and large green spaces, but this is a relatively recent development. The towers of the Confederation and Justice buildings were built in the 1930s, followed by the Supreme Court building and, finally, the National Library building (now Library and Archives Canada), which was erected for the 1967 centennial. Continue reading

Library and Archives Canada releases its latest podcast episode, “Rising from the Ashes”

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, “Rising from the Ashes.”

On February 3, 1916 at 8:37 p.m., the alarm was raised on Parliament Hill that a fire had broken out in the Centre Block. By the next morning, the building had been reduced to a smoking ruin, encrusted in ice. The exact cause of the fire was never determined.

With Canada fully immersed in the First World War and the 50th anniversary of Confederation rapidly approaching, it was imperative that parliament be rebuilt immediately to engender a sense of enduring strength and continuity in the hearts and minds of Canadians. In this episode Johanna Mizgala, curator for the House of Commons, takes us back to that chilling night in Canada’s history. She also discusses the bold vision of the architects charged with the task of rebuilding parliament.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS or iTunes, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

Centre Block: Rising from the Ashes

On February 3, 1916 at 8:37 p.m., the alarm was raised on Parliament Hill that a fire had broken out in the Centre Block. By the next morning, the building had been reduced to a smoking ruin, encrusted in ice. The exact cause of the fire was never determined.

The Parliament Hill Precinct

The Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are some of the most recognizable structures in Canada. Although the Peace Tower may be the most iconic part of the exterior of the buildings, it’s the newest addition to the precinct. Originally built between 1859 and 1866 in the Victorian High Gothic Revival style, Centre Block officially opened on June 6, 1866 as Parliament for the Provinces of Canada. The location was chosen by Queen Victoria in 1857 and was the biggest construction project of its time in North America, running way over budget, in part due to the cost of blasting out the bedrock to build the foundation. On July 1, 1867, Centre Block was chosen to be the official Parliament for the Dominion of Canada. Its location was considered ideal for many reasons, namely its distance from the American border, as well as its visibility to those who lived in the area.

A black-and-white photograph of the original Centre Block on Parliament Hill.

Parliament Buildings, Centre Block, by Captain Jacobs, c. 1886 (MIKAN 3319558)

Centre Block stood on Parliament Hill for 50 years until the evening of February 3, 1916 when a fire broke out in the House of Commons’ reading room. The flames spread quickly and seven lives were lost that night. While many of the stone walls remained standing, the only part of the building to truly survive was the library, which was built in 1876 with iron doors (which were closed by a clerk before leaving that evening). Although rumours claimed arson was the cause, the fire was a result of a discarded cigar.

A black-and-white photograph showing a very elaborate round building with pinnacles and flying buttresses in a wintry setting next to a building partly encased in ice. Firemen are putting out a fire.

View of the Library of Parliament and Centre Block on the day after the Centre Block fire, taken by William Topley in 1916 (MIKAN 3194673)

Despite Canada being heavily involved in the First World War at the time, it was clear that the buildings had to be rebuilt. With the country expanding, it was decided that the Parliament Buildings would follow suit. The plan was to keep the same Gothic Revival style as the original buildings without creating carbon copies of them. Construction started later that year and was completed in 1922. The Peace Tower, named in commemoration of Canada’s commitment to peace, was completed in 1927.

A black-and-white photograph showing the first three stories of a building with the rotunda of the Library of Parliament in the background. Cranes and construction materials surround the area.

Rebuilding of the Centre Block, Parliament Buildings, c. 1917-1918. Photo taken by Samuel J. Jarvis (MIKAN 3319865)

A black-and-white photograph showing the main Parliament building from the front with crowds of people filling Parliament Hill.

Jubilee celebrations on Parliament Hill in 1927 (MIKAN 3549627)

Today, Centre Block is bordered by the East and West Blocks and by a large public open space that serves many purposes—it’s a celebration area on Canada Day, a place for demonstrations and protests, a spot for noontime yoga in the summer, etc. Tours of Centre Block are given throughout the year and it’s become one of Ottawa’s most popular attractions.

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