Residences of Fathers of Confederation to be...
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Jan 02, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

Residences of Fathers of Confederation to be marked for sesquicentennial

As the new nation was born, life in the raw, noisy, smelly capital was something less than a stroll along Easy Street

OurWindsor.Ca

Of all its many losses on Oct. 19, the former Harper government, which adored anniversaries of events from Canada’s past, will no longer preside over the country’s 150th birthday celebrations in 2017.

Given the fuss made over the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the centennial of the start of the First World War and the 50th anniversary of Canada’s flag, this will likely cause much Conservative regret.

About $16 million had been earmarked to celebrate the sesquicentennial of Confederation with nods to Canada’s history and heritage.

Among projects administered by the Canadian Heritage Department’s Canada 150 program is a plan to place commemorative plaques at locations in Ottawa that the Fathers of Confederation called home during their time in the new country’s capital.

Seventeen lived in the city after 1867. Only six of the residences remain. Two of those came to be owned by foreign governments to house their diplomats.

The Canadian Press reported recently that the project would cost about $200,000, a modest price tag, historians say, to offer visitors to Ottawa an outline of Canada’s past. Even if one such property is apparently now home to such a contemporary national icon as Tim Horton.

Doubtless, there will be harrumphs at how the plaque project pays little heed, once again, to the mothers of Confederation.

But fans of the Fathers of Confederation think it right to recognize a group frequently written off as a collection of “hayseed colonials” who, among other things, cursed future generations with the Senate.

The men did, at least, get the Canada project off the drawing board. And it’s not as if life in the capital back then — a boozy, largely unpoliced place of whining sawmills, constant smoke, abiding stench from the city’s open sewage drains, swarming flies and marauding rats — was a five-star gig.

As Edmund Meredith, one of 350 civil servants obliged to move from Quebec City, put it in his diaries: “Possibly the place will be fit for habitation in 50 years time, but certainly not before.”

Father of Confederation James Seton Cockburn wrote home to his parents that, years after the country was born, “Sparks St., the principal mud path, looks like a canal of pea soup.”

In 1867, the brawling old logging town had a population of about 17,000 people — about what attended the Ottawa Senators hockey game on Tuesday night.

Finding lodging wasn’t easy. The British Lion was called “the best dollar a day” hostelry in Canada. Rooms went for $3 to $5 weekly at places called the Widow Potter’s on Sparks St., Mrs. Buchanan’s on Rideau or Mrs. Brown’s on Albert St.

If housing markets were stretched with the jump in population from the forced move of civil servants to the new capital, outdoor amenities weren’t winning much praise either.

It wasn’t until 1895 that Ottawa had many paved streets. Most sidewalks were wood plank.

Letters to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen groused about sidewalk knotholes that swallowed their canes, about the ranks of beggars that hindered their passage, about the speeding horse-drawn hack-sleighs that threatened the lives of wayfarers near the train station.

For the 33 men who hashed out the terms of Confederation (two of them, oddly, named John Hamilton Gray), finding a place to hang their hat and put head to pillow was a challenge.

Cockburn wrote home to the U.K. that his room “belongs to the ancient style of architecture known as the Five Dollar Boarding House Rectangular,” with a stovepipe emanating from the wall and an antique sofa that had been “too forcibly sat on.”

Nation building was plainly not for the faint of heart or those with too great a need for creature comforts.

So perhaps a few plaques for visionaries willing to reside in such a fly-ridden, frostbitten hardship post is the least a grateful nation could do.

Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley lived next door on Daly at Patterson Place. That block of Daly burned down in an 1873 fire.

Sir Alexander Campbell, who was John A’s law partner and occasional minder during his years as PM, moved in down the street at 108 Daly.

Sir Charles Tupper, a Nova Scotia doctor who was known for his womanizing and was later briefly prime minister, also lived on Daly St.

William McDougall, a cranky and demanding taskmaster, was among many politicians of the day who lived at the Russell House, at the southeast corner of Sparks St. and Elgin and regarded as Ottawa’s premier hotel until construction of the Chateau Laurier. It closed in 1925, burned in a fire in 1928 and its remnants were demolished.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee lived, until his assassination in 1868, at the Toronto House, also known as the Widow Trotter’s Boarding House, on Sparks St., not far from Parliament Hill.

Toronto Star

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