The Parliament of the United Province of Canada, no less, was here in Montréal, located right downtown, in what is now Old Montréal—from 1844 to 1849.
It is a huge — monumental — building that welcomed parliamentarians for several years.
As for the historical importance of this site… it was here that the famous law on ministerial responsibility was passed in 1848, which today we call responsible government.
This government, of course, was ruled by the British—essentially English or English-speaking merchants—who were, above all, conservative.
From as far back as 1791, we’d had an extremely authoritarian government and, in 1848, all of a sudden, it all blew up. The elected house of assembly was made up of reformists—an alliance between Lafontaine and Baldwin, or Upper and Lower Canada—and was an elected majority that decided to change things… to switch things up. It was a great step towards democracy.
And that’s when they passed laws that, for example, allowed French to be spoken in the chamber for the first time… they repatriated the budgets, there was economic development, the Ministry of Education was created. Indeed, many laws were passed in a short time.
Except that one of the laws that raised tensions was the act indemnifying the victims of the rebellions… offending the opposition at the time. And when the governor approved the law on April 25, 1849, there was a huge demonstration in Montréal, right nearby on Place d’Armes—drawing some 1,500 people—and things degenerated.
People made their way to the Parliament, and when they got there, they broke windows, ransacked the place, and attacked MPs and councillors who had been meeting. A gas lamp was damaged, causing a fire to break out, burning down the Parliament.
But there was a very strong movement, both in Upper Canada and Lower Canada, throughout the population in general—which was helped by the media, politicians, and the clergy too—that decided to sign several petitions and hold assemblies to renew support for the Governor… support of the government… deciding to maintain ties to Great Britain. Basically, they protected this fragile democracy that had just come into being by assuming their ties with Great Britain.
Archaeological digs have been carried out over the past few years, starting with surveys at first—in 2010, 2011, 2013—and we have confirmed that it is a monumental site. Imagine, it was the most stylish and most beautiful building in Canada at the time, and it measures over 100 metres long by 20 metres wide.
The goal… when we started our research, we asked ourselves the question: Was everything cleaned up after the fire? Because a market was rebuilt at the site… or was everything left there?
It was like the archaeologists had struck gold, of course. Everything was still there!
There was the fire layer and all of the objects that perished in the disaster. They were either found intact, like pairs of eyeglasses… charred, like groups of items that were burnt but not broken… or still in one piece.
To date, we have collected over half a million pieces, all of which represent everything that went on in the building.
So, there was the building’s first era, in which it was a large market… meaning that we find objects relating to its function as a market, but parliamentary life… Imagine what you can expect to find!
Several elements relating to writing, writers, research… There was something absolutely extraordinary in the space: two libraries which held very old documents — 23,000 volumes and incredibly remarkable works, as well as gifts from other countries.
We never thought we’d find traces of books or papers, when you think how easily these can go up in flames, but to date, we have found 34 and we can identify them, we can read their pages… 1830… books from the era that can still be found on the market today. We are in the process of having them restored at the Canadian Centre.
We also found the parliamentarians’ dinnerware, that of the Fathers of Confederation.
All of their personal hygiene items — because, as you know, elected officials worked days and evenings, even staying overnight at times. So, they needed all manner of personal items. We also found items relating to the fact that they smoked, as you know. There were a lot of bottles, as they must have celebrated on occasion.
We seem to be turning up an infinitely diverse number of objects.
The collector sewer is the first collector sewer found in North America.
It was built in 1832, at the same time as the Parliament building. So, that’s why it runs exactly down its centre.
You have to remember that, at the time, the Parliament building was a large marketplace. What could be more practical than having immediate access to a place where you could dump your trash? In 1830, there were many epidemics, there were miasmas, people were sick because the water was polluted. The Little Saint-Pierre River, which flowed here, and picked up all of Montréal’s water that went into the river, of course picked up all of the garbage too, often contaminating the wells.
So, people realized that, for health care reasons, the river absolutely needed to be canalized. This phenomenon was not unique to Montréal — it was done just about everywhere in that era.
So, we canalized the first river… and in Montréal, as the metropolis, the capital—as I always say, “we were richer back then”—we decided to build a sewer like none other!
It was made out of cut stones. These stones are over a metre long, with flat footing but a curved arch—which is, in effect, an exceptional work of engineering but above all, I would say, a work of art.
This sewer was used until 1989. It then became empty. It was already part of the Pointe-à-Callière Museum in Montréal.
And we had a dream… I had a dream… since the beginning, of making this majestic work accessible to the public. The best excuse we had to do it, was our recent showcasing of Fort Ville-Marie, the birthplace of Montréal, the first settlement. And to get to it, you simply had to go through the sewer.
So, we opened up a first section, making it accessible and, of course, we tried to do it in a manner consistent with the heritage, respecting its construction, its origin, its entity, its integrity, so as not to—even though we’ve added sound and lighting within—not to touch the vault at all with the equipment or other technical constraints, conserving it as is.
Yes, it is a heritage work. I challenge you to find one as spectacular as this anywhere in America, on the one hand… or in Paris and London where, in the same era, they were built using bricks. In our case, we allowed ourselves to use cut stones… and, after having undergone structural tests, they exceed all of today’s standards for firetrucks or other vehicles.
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