Mon­treal’s big dig


Vancouver Sun - - NEWS - SIDHARTHA BAN­ER­JEE in Mon­treal

Archeologi­sts at the site of a pre-Con­fed­er­a­tion par­lia­ment in Mon­treal are about to reach the level they hope will yield a trea­sure trove of ar­ti­facts.

Dig­ging be­gan in late July — the third such en­deav­our since 2010 — in an ef­fort to find out more about the two­s­torey columned neo-clas­si­cal build­ing that once stood at Place d’You­ville, in Old Mon­treal.

By the end of this week, searchers will reach the layer where the par­lia­ment re­mains have been en­cased since the build­ing burned to the ground in 1849.

Prior to the dis­cov­ery of the par­lia­ment sev­eral years ago, the pub­lic knew lit­tle about the build­ing’s piv­otal place in Cana­dian his­tory or about Mon­treal’s sta­tus as the cap­i­tal of what was then the United Prov­ince of Canada.

Louise Poth­ier, di­rec­tor of ex­hi­bi­tions at Mon­treal’s Pointe-à-Cal­lière arche­o­log­i­cal and his­tory mu­seum, calls it a unique site in Canada.

“Nowhere else do we have such in­tact re­mains of a place of power, so it makes it very dis­tinct, very spe­cial,” Poth­ier said. “Maybe if we’re lucky enough, (we’ll find) some of­fi­cial ob­jects — some ob­jects re­lated to the busi­ness of pol­i­tics.”

The first per­ma­nent par­lia­ment of the United Prov­ince of Canada was housed in the for­mer St-Ann’s Mar­ket and held its first ses­sion Nov. 28, 1844.

Key pieces of Canada’s early leg­is­la­tion were adopted in the build­ing, in­clud­ing the act es­tab­lish­ing “re­spon­si­ble gov­ern­ment” in 1848 — a vi­tal step in the emer­gence of a sov­er­eign, English-French demo­cratic state.

The tur­moil sur­round­ing the Re­bel­lion Losses Bill, leg­is­la­tion that sought to com­pen­sate peo­ple who sus­tained prop­erty dam­age dur­ing the 1837-38 re­bel­lions against the Crown, would lead to the sack­ing and burn­ing of the build­ing to the ground on April 25, 1849.

When the leg­is­la­tion re­ceived royal as­sent, an­gry An­g­los stormed the build­ing. Tory sup­port­ers were op­posed to com­pen­sat­ing Que­be­cers and Catholics who’d taken part in the re­bel­lion.

Only a few items sur­vived the blaze, in­clud­ing a por­trait and a few books.

The por­trait, de­pict­ing a young Queen Vic­to­ria from early in her reign, cur­rently hangs out­side the Sen­ate cham­ber in Par­lia­ment’s Cen­tre Block in Ot­tawa.

In 2011, Robert Ka­plan gave the mu­seum a royal coat of arms that hung above the Speaker’s chair in the par­lia­ment. The late Lib­eral MP and for­mer solic­i­tor gen­eral found it in a flea mar­ket in New York about 30 years ear­lier.

Dur­ing the ini­tial digs, ex­pec­ta­tions were tem­pered about what might be found. But searchers did un­earth a pair of glasses and a tea set in ad­di­tion to other items from the mar­ket’s past: butch­ers’ hooks, a butcher knife, bones, mar­bles, coins, and weights used for a scale.

The chances of find­ing any trace of gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments or vol­umes from the 20,000-plus vol­ume par­lia­men­tary li­brary had been deemed un­likely.

But in 2013, searchers found the charred re­mains of about a dozen books in a layer dat­ing to the pe­riod of the par­lia­ment fire, in­clud­ing at least one French book.

“We were very sur­prised to find that kind of ar­ti­fact, that kind of ob­ject,” Poth­ier said. “We thought that ev­ery­thing burned in the flames and dis­ap­peared com­pletely.”

The mar­ket, which would be re­built be­fore be­ing razed in 1901, was re­cently used as a park­ing lot.

As it turns out, that last vo­ca­tion would be a boon for archeologi­sts be­cause ev­ery­thing un­der­neath the pave­ment was pre­served. The new build­ing was re­built on top of the re­mains of the orig­i­nal mar­ket, mak­ing it like a time cap­sule.

Poth­ier said pre­vi­ous ex­ca­va­tions made it pos­si­ble to iden­tify places be­lieved more sen­si­tive and rich in terms of pos­si­ble ar­ti­facts.

What they find will help them map out the build­ing: where the assem­bly cham­ber and leg­isla­tive coun­cil rooms were lo­cated as well as per­sonal rooms where par­lia­men­tar­i­ans would have shaved, cleaned and re­freshed them­selves or grabbed a bite to eat.

In all, about 50 per cent of the for­mer build­ing will be ex­ca­vated.

Hen­drik Van Gi­jseghem, the mu­seum’s project man­ager, said once they reach that sen­si­tive area, heavy ma­chin­ery will give way to 22 archeologi­sts, who will look at two-me­tre-by-two-me­tre sec­tions, dig­ging in in­cre­ments of 10 cen­time­tres.

The City of Mon­treal has kicked in $6 mil­lion and the site is open to mem­bers of the pub­lic, who can ob­serve the work from a plat­form above.

“In the end, we’re go­ing to know fairly pre­cisely where such-and-such ar­ti­facts are com­ing from,” Van Gi­jseghem said. “And with the hope of be­ing able to re­con­struct the in­ter­nal or­ga­ni­za­tion and ver­ti­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion of the par­lia­ment.”

Work is ex­pected to wrap up by Novem­ber.



Louise Poth­ier, di­rec­tor of ex­hi­bi­tions at Mon­treal’s Pointe-à-Cal­lière his­tory mu­seum, and Hen­drik Van Gi­jseghem, the mu­seum’s project man­ager, mon­i­tor the dig site of Mon­treal’s pre-Con­fed­er­a­tion par­lia­ment.

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