Ottawa becomes Canada's capital

Looking north at the Parliament buildings

Primary sources are important places to start when connecting with History. The history of Ottawa can be interpreted through such types of primary sources as newspapers, photographs and personal papers of contemporary witnesses, as well through by-laws and minutes books.

One hundred and fifty years ago Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of the United Province of Canada. As one of the oldest and the fourth largest municipality in Canada, the City of Ottawa has a story to tell that encompasses but is also distinct from its role as the national capital. The stories of the many communities that comprise Ottawa have been overshadowed by its identity as the nation’s capital. At the same time, this is very much a national story, relevant to all Canadians.

The Build-up to 1857

Locating the seat of government in Canada was a 17-year process. Canadian politicians asked the queen not once but three times since 1840 to chose the location of the capital.

The pre- existing capitals of Toronto and Quebec had initially moved to Kingston in 1841, to Montreal in 1844, and to Toronto at the start of the perambulating system of Government in 1849. Toronto was the capital in 1849-1851, and1855-1859; Quebec was the capital in 1851-1855, and 1859-1865. Ottawa became the functional legislative capital in 1866, and was officially made the Capital of the Dominion of Canada with Confederation in 1867.

By 1857, the Province of Canada was in political upheaval – the question of where to locate the political capital was paramount. Local regional and sectional divisions lead to a political deadlock. The political machine could not function efficiently with a perambulating system – the choice of a capital was both a political, commercial and sectionalist choice, fraught with tension.

By resolution accepted by the Legislative Assembly on March 24, 1857, the Queen was requested to “exercise the Royal Prerogative by the selection of some one place” to become the seat of Government.

  1. Resolved, That the interests of Canada require that the Seat of Provincial Government should be fixed at some certain place.
  2. Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding the sum of Two hundred and twenty five thousand pounds, be appropriated for the purpose of providing for the necessary Buildings and accommodation for the Government and the Legislature at that certain place {yeas 64, Nays 48;
  3. Resolved, That an 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 [Yeas 61, Nays 50]

On that same day, the Legislative Assembly also accepted that a sum of money should be appropriated for providing buildings for the Government at that place chosen. The initial steps to resolve the question of where to locate a permanent Seat of Government had been taken.