How Ottawa Became The Capital

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Ottawa is the capital of Canada and every school child and Canadian knows that. It has been our capital since before Canada was even a country, but how did it become the capital? It was once a small village known for its lumber camps until it was chosen as the new capital of the Province of Canada. It could be seen as an odd choice for the time considering much larger communities of Toronto, Kitchener, Montreal and Quebec City but it was chosen for some very specific reasons.

I am going to look at how Ottawa became our capital today, but before we get to that we need to look at how Ottawa, or as it was once known, Bytown, came to be.

The Indigenous people had used the area for centuries, traveling up and down the Ottawa River. When explorers and traders arrived, the word Ottawa began to appear on maps, coming from the Algonquin word adawe, which means “to trade” because of the importance of the area for trading among the Indigenous.

There was no permanent European settlement until Philemon Wright came along and settled in the area on March 7, 1800, located across the river from present-day Ottawa. Wright, along with five families and 25 labourers set about creating a new community called Wrightsville. Wright would also pioneer the lumber trade of the area, which would soon become its most important economic activity.

On Sept. 26, 1826, the community of Bytown was founded, named after John By, a Colonel with the British Royal Engineers who was instrumental in the construction of the Rideau Canal. The community popped up as land speculators came to the area after it was announced the British would be building the north end of Rideau Canal at the location.

In 1828, Joseph Bouchette described the community as such.

“The streets are laid out with much regularity, and of a liberal width that will hereafter contribute to the convenience, salubrity and elegance of the place. The number of houses now built is about 150, most of which are constructed of wood, frequently in a style of neatness and taste that reflects great credit upon the inhabitants. On the elevated banks of the Bay, the Hospital, an extensive stone building, and three Barracks stand conspicuous, nearly on a level with them and on the eastern side of the Bay, is the residence of Colonel By, Command Royal Engineer of that station.”

Colonel By would lay out the streets of Bytown and many of those streets, including Wellington Street, Rideau Street, Sussex Street and Sparks Street still exist from that time.

In 1855, Bytown would be incorporated as a city and would be renamed Ottawa.

Two years later, everything would change for the city.

First, we need to look at the Province of Canada.

In a previous episode, I looked at the Province of Canada and the difficult period that was for those people who lived in what would one day be Canada. It was a time of corruption, unrest and anger towards the British government. It was also a time that would see the capital move continuously it seemed.

The Province of Canada was formed in 1841 and Kingston was the capital, remaining so until 1844 when it was moved to Montreal. It would remain as the capital until 1849 when rioters protested the Rebellion Losses Bill and burned down Montreal’s parliament buildings. At this point, with the parliament buildings destroyed, the capital was moved to Toronto and remained there until 1852, when the capital was moved to Quebec City from 1852 to 1856, and then back to Toronto for one year in 1858, followed by a return to Quebec City in 1859. That city would remain the capital until 1866.

At the same time, Queen Victoria had been asked to choose a permanent capital for the Province of Canada and in 1857, she would choose Ottawa.

The process to choose a capital was not a quick process and since 1841, Queen Victoria had been asked no less than three times to choose a capital.

Ottawa by 1857 was beginning to grow in size thanks to the completion of the Bytown and Prescott railway being completed in 1855. In 1857, it was a city of a population of 7,700 with lumber being the biggest income maker for the city. Sir Richard Scott, a lawyer in Ottawa, soon began to see the potential for Ottawa’s growth if it were made the capital. At the time, he had served as a member of the municipal council in 1851, and as mayor of Bytown in 1852. At the time, Ottawa’s lumber industry was not doing well and property values were low.

Scott would write, “the location of the seat of government at the central point would tend to develop equally the growth of the two Canadas in the very region where a stimulus is required.”

The location of Ottawa, seen as a frontier town, was perfect in the mind of Scott because it was midway between Toronto and Kingston, the two former capitals in Canada West, and Montreal and Quebec City, the two former capitals in Canada East.

In 1856, politicians came together to consider the claims of five cities to be the new capital. These  cities were Quebec City, Toronto, Kingston, Montreal and Ottawa.

There was no general consensus on a capital and 48 votes were held that year to no resolution. No city won or maintained the support of a majority in any of the votes.

The only solution was to have Queen Victoria choose the capital.

On March 24, 1857, the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada passed the following resolution.

  1. That the interests of Canada require that the seat of the provincial government should be fixed at some certain place.
  2. That a sum, not exceeding $225,000 Pounds be appropriated for the purpose of providing for the necessary buildings and accommodation for the government and the legislature at the certain place.
  3. That a humble address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that she may be graciously pleased to exercise the Royal Prerogative by the selection of some one place as the permanent seat of government in Canada.

The vote passed with 61 in favour and 50 against.

Sir Richard Scott had powerful support to make Ottawa the capital, including Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, who wrote a memorandum that favoured Ottawa. In addition, Prince Albert’s personal secretary, Colonel Grey, supported Ottawa as the choice.

Sir Edmund Head, the Governor General of the Province of Canada toured each potential capital site as well and his recommendation that Ottawa was the best choice. The reasons for his choice came down to the position of Ottawa on the continent. It was between the other choices geographically, it was defensible thanks to its position and it was far from the American border. It is important to remember that it had only been 45 years before that the Americans invaded Canada, sparking the War of 1812.

Other reasons for Ottawa included:

  • The Rideau Canal and Railroads made it easily accessible from all parts of Canada.
  • A large population could grow in the heart of the country.
  • It would increase the revenue of Rideau Canal and the railroads.
  • Montreal would benefit from the commercial influence of Ottawa.

In the fall of 1857, Queen Victoria came to her decision, Ottawa would be the capital but it was not announced until Dec. 31.

On Dec. 18, 1857, Prince Albert sent a letter to Henry Labourchere, the Colonial Secretary. It stated, “I return the enclosed papers with very best thanks. Ottawa must indeed be a beautiful situation and all the detached descriptions must tend to confirm the impressions that the choice is the right one. We must now trust that the province will look upon it in the same light, when it becomes known.”

Once it was announced, it was hoped that the Queen’s decision would put an end to the question of where the capital would be but it did not. Many politicians rejected the Queen’s choice for capital.

The Queen’s Royal Prerogative was set aside and both, as I mentioned, Quebec and Toronto served as the capital over the next few years.

Ottawa may have been chosen as the new capital but it would be nine years before it actually held a session of parliament.

A public debate began over the issue of the Queen’s choice was an award or recommendation and there was the concern that the decision had not been her’s, but the Colonial Secretary.

Nonetheless, even with the issues over whether or not to actually choose Ottawa, a resolution by the Legislative Assembly was passed that provided $225,000 Pounds for the erection of permanent Government buildings. On May 7, 1859, architects submitted their designs and in 1860, construction began. After delays, cost overruns and more, Parliament Hill would be completed and ready, somewhat, for the Confederation of Canada in 1867. The Parliament buildings would not be completed until 1876.

As for Ottawa, the effect of becoming the seat of government would change it forever. It would move away from being a lumber town to a more sophisticated community as more and more people moved into the community.

In 1857, the community had about 8,000 people. Within 15 years, it would see its population grow to 21,000. By 1901, 101,000 were living in Ottawa and today, it has one million people and is the fourth largest city in Canada. Ottawa today is the most educated city in Canada, and the home to several post-secondary, research and cultural institutions including the National Arts Centre, the National Gallery and many museums.

From a trading spot for the Indigenous people, to a lumber town, to the centre of Canada’s government, Ottawa has come a long way.

Information comes from Wikipedia,, Canadian Encyclopedia,

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