OTTAWA — The sunlit glass and aluminum ceiling soaring above the temporary home of the House of Commons inside a restored building on Parliament Hill has been getting a lot of attention.
It is the more traditional, reconstructed copper roof lining the interior facade around it, however, that gives a better idea of what a visit to this $863-million project has in store.
The strips of copper were taken from different sections of the original roof outside, meaning they oxidized at different rates, depending on location and exposure to rain or sun.
The various shades of green create a mosaic effect much like the rest of this space where MPs will debate and vote for at least a decade — a bit from here and there, both new and familiar.
More than 150,000 visitors have passed through West Block since it opened its doors to the public at the beginning of the year, when the House of Commons officially moved out of Centre Block while it undergoes its own rehabilitation project.
Earlier this month, Katie Holden, 26, and Andrew Nakaska, 27, a couple visiting from Calgary, joined one of the many guided tours of the new space that is provided, in English or French, on most days when the House of Commons is not sitting.
“It was very unique being able to see the new space,” said Holden after the tour was over. “I almost think it made it a little bit more special, because it’s a limited amount of time that you can see it in that way.”
The new visitor welcome centre, tucked like a hobbit house beneath a walkway on Parliament Hill, is where the tour begins, after having booked a ticket — at no cost — online through the Parliament of Canada website.
The new welcome centre was the first new building on Parliament Hill in more than a century.
Despite being mostly underground, it was designed in such a way that it feels airy, with much more room to accommodate visitors, and a gift shop, than was found in the dark and crowded old entranceway beneath the Peace Tower at Centre Block.
It is also fully accessible, as is the rest of the tour.
After leading the group down a curved hallway and up an elevator, the tour guide gets right to the point and brings the group into the new House of Commons, an impressive blend of old and new created out of what was once an outdoor courtyard in the centre of the building.
Sunlight streams through the roof made of triple-glazed glass and aluminum, supported by steel columns that look like trees with branches reaching to the sky.
The iconic green chairs that MPs sit in were brought over from Centre Block.
The original facades of the Gothic Revival building, built between 1859 and 1909, remain intact, with slight changes to architectural details over time.
The space is beautiful, and rightfully the main attraction, but there are other things to see.
The tour guide spends a decent amount of time with the portraits of prime ministers displayed in a way that catches the eye more easily than they did when lining a hallway of Centre Block.
The visitor welcome centre also houses the Room of Remembrance, where books listing names of all those who served and died for Canada, have their pages turned daily at 11 a.m.
The room, which is lit through small holes cut into the ceiling that look like stars, is simpler than the Memorial Chamber where the books were housed in Centre Block, but the effect of reading the names of those who died is no less powerful.
At the same time, it must be said the 40-minute tour pales in comparison to the most popular features of Centre Block, where visitors often gasped as they entered the circular library, with its wood carvings and multi-levelled galleries looking like they came straight out of a fairy tale.
Gone, too, is the elevator ride past the ringing carillons of the Peace Tower, where visitors were given a fantastic view of the city, the Ottawa River and the Gatineau Hills.
There is also, naturally, a lot less to say about a committee room that looks like it belongs in any contemporary convention centre, without any historic paintings on the walls.
Still, a tour of the West Block is worth the short amount of time it takes, especially for any visitor wishing to learn more about how Canadian government works.
There may be less talk about gargoyles, but there is more about civic literacy.
How a bill becomes law, the parliamentary calendar, the non-partisan role of the Speaker and how to watch a committee meeting were all part of the tour.
Nakaska said he appreciated the immersive lessons.
“Having grown up in Western Canada, you’re not so familiar with how the country is actually run. You don’t necessarily see the business end of the government,” he said.
“You hear about it and you read about it, but you don’t ever stand in it.”
If you go…
— Reserve your ticket for your free tour (in English or French) of the House of Commons in West Block online at https://rts.parl.ca. Expect the tour to last about 40 minutes.
— Tours are available seven days a week, except when the House of Commons is sitting. There are also no tours Dec. 25, Jan. 1 and July 1.
— Arrive at the visitor welcome centre on Parliament Hill, located between Centre Block and West Block, at least 20 minutes before your tour begins to make sure you have time to go through security. Each visitor is allowed to bring only one small bag.
— Tours of the temporary Senate of Canada and East Block are also available. Check the Parliament of Canada website for more information.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2019.
Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press