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House of Commons

Our Parliament is Falling Apart

While democracy in Canada has seen better days, Centre Block which holds the House of Commons and the Senate is struggling as well.

The Centre Block of Canada’s three-part Parliament Buildings — which houses the Senate, the House of Commons and prime minister Stephen Harper’s office — is “seriously deteriorating” and will “reach the end of its life cycle” in seven years, according to the man in charge of renovations on Parliament Hill.

It’s a nail biter because work on a temporary home for the House of Commons in the West Block isn’t expected to be finished until 2017 and, in the meantime, tape, wood and netting are holding together parts of the iconic structure.

This past February, water leakage in Centre Block caused one of two transformers providing power to the Hill to explode “because it came to the end of its useful life,” Assistant Deputy Minister Pierre-Marc Mongeau told the Government Operations Committee Thursday.

The neo-gothic stone building — the only one in the world to be so well conserved — was re-built in 1922 after a fire destroyed the original building.

But, despite the ongoing efforts of maintenance staff to “do all they can,” Mongeau told the committee that the building’s aging structural, mechanical and technical systems are at “a critical risk of total failure by 2019.”

Mongeau said if the systems fail, the building could become unsafe for use requiring it “to be shut down.”

In 1994 and 1995, the façade of the building was repaired, but Mongeau said the other three less-visible sides were not.

Ventilation towers are “taped,” with wood pieces around them and pieces of stained glass windows in the House of Commons are beginning to fall out, he said.

“That means that we need to put in a net protection around those windows and visually that doesn’t look so good,” he said.

“Clearly it’s not likely to get better until it’s fixed,” said Liberal MP John McCallum, “but, I think (Mongeau) felt that it was manageable.”

“I’ve been there for 12 years and I’ve never had the feeling that it’s falling apart,” he said. “There are things that need repair, and it’s unfortunate that it’s going to take so many years before it’s done, but I’ve never been sitting in Parliament or walking around Centre Block thinking that I’m in a crumbling building.”

However, he said the building is the “central block of our democracy” and he’d “rather wait a few more years… and have a building of which we can be proud than do it faster and make mistakes.”

Conservative MP Mike Wallace wasn’t surprised to hear about the problems due to the sheer age of the buildings, although he said he hadn’t noticed any obvious signs of the deterioration.

“It is a fair age and, if you look around your own home, the older it gets, the more work it needs,” he said.

Mongeau was not available for comment Friday.

The House of Commons is expected to be re-housed in the modernized “energy efficient” West Block — complete with a three-layer glass ceiling, which will trap heat and supply 10 per cent of the building’s energy needs on sunny days, “even in winter” — before its end-of-life date in 2019.

The Senate will be moved to the East Block.

Painstaking rehabilitation work began on the West Block in earnest in 2007 after workers finished completely overhauling both the exterior and the interior of the 130-year-old Library of Parliament Building in the spring of 2006.

For those of us who call Saskatoon home and watched the almost painfully slow rehabilitation of the Peter McKinnon Building knows how long it takes to bring back a building to life.  Renovations change the way a building works, materials interact differently then expected, and then you have to decide what it is going to have to in the future and make it work in the context of the original architectural vision.  It’s harder than it looks.