Montréal Capital City: The Remarkable History of the Archaeological Site of St. Anne’s Market and the Parliament of the Province of Canada
edited by Louise Pothier
Éditions de l’Homme
238 pages, $46.95
Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” And, long ago, Canadians paved Parliament and put up a parking lot. They’d already burned down the building. Now, 173 years later, this remarkable book recreates what was lost.
It happened in Montreal, and the fire was no accident. One dark night in 1849, a violent anglophone mob stormed the stately parliament building and put it to the torch. The attack resembled the insurrection at the United States Capitol last year, only worse — far worse.
Gone was the cradle of Canada’s infant democracy. Gone was the twentytwo- thousand-volume parliamentary library with its irreplaceable books, archives, and art. And gone was Montreal’s role as capital city. Henceforth Parliament would migrate between Toronto and Quebec City, until Queen Victoria made Ottawa the permanent capital.
For a century and a half, the remains of the first Parliament of Canada lay buried and forgotten beneath what is now Place d’Youville, only a stone’s throw from Montreal’s bustling harbour. In 1920 the site became a parking lot. Seventy years later a planned underground parking garage threatened to make the loss permanent. Happily, Montreal commissioned studies that revealed the site’s unexpectedly rich historical significance, and cars had to park elsewhere.
In 2010 the Pointe-à-Callière Montréal Archaeology and History Complex began a huge excavation to preserve and to document the architectural remains as well as many thousands of artifacts. Under the direction of chief curator and archaeologist Louise Pothier, Pointe-à-Callière has published its findings in a superbly designed volume. Montréal Capital City, the English translation, contains all the full-colour maps, artworks, photos, and interpretive articles from the original French edition.
The story it tells is extraordinary. The building opened in 1834 as St. Anne’s Market, Montreal’s secondlargest structure, its neo-classical design inspired by Boston’s Quincy Market. But St. Anne’s had a strikingly original feature — it was built directly over the Little River, which emptied into the St. Lawrence nearby. The Little River was channelled into a vaulted underground canal to cool the market’s produce cellar and drain its waste water, an engineering feat that was unique at the time.
The canalized river performed a similar function when St. Anne’s was ingeniously repurposed in 1844 for the Parliament of the Province of Canada, which comprised much of today’s Quebec and Ontario. Butchers’ stalls became public servants’ offices. The upstairs halls where concerts and meetings had been held, and where the abolition of slavery in the British Empire was celebrated, were converted to chambers where parliamentarians debated..