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Up On The Hill

Parliament Hill, that is, home to Canada’s House of Commons and Senate. No trip to the nation’s capital would be complete without taking time to drop by and check up on your elected Member of Parliament. ( mine did not appear to be present – his seat was empty)

Visiting Canada’s Parliament Buildings is surprisingly easy, considering that this is the centre of the country’s government. You just hike up the long curving driveway (private vehicles are no longer allowed to drive right up to the door), present yourself to the incredibly polite doorkeeper and say you want to take a tour. She tells you what time the next tour begins, and you’re set!

Well, not quite. This was my first time taking the official tour – the last time I was inside was for a private tour (long story) in 1993. Things have changed a bit, the most obvious one being the level of security. Now, upon entrance, you go through a security check very similar to, yet slightly more thorough than, what you’d encounter at an airport. There’s an x-ray machine for your belongings – we were required to power up our cameras and Kindles to demonstrate their legitimacy – and a metal detector to pass through. We were allowed to keep everything with us but our ice skates, which they tagged and sent off somewhere for us to retrieve later.

And then you’re in! With 45 minutes until the next tour, we were encouraged to view the Peace Tower on our own, as well as the public gallery of the House of Commons. I was very excited about this gallery sitting- husband frequently watches Question Period on TV, and I figured it would be slightly more exciting in person.

Lots of stairs - at least the MPs are getting their exercise!

To sit in the gallery, you go through yet another level of security- xray, metal detector – and then they keep everything. Everything -coats, cameras, phones, bags. They even made me take off my scarf. (perhaps they thought I might fashion it into a lasso and hogtie an MP?) In the gallery, each seat is equipped with an earphone that allows you to clearly hear what is being said below, in French or English. The security guard posted at the entrance will hand you a map of the House, so that you can see who sits where.

Except on a Friday afternoon, there’s no need for a map – there’s no one there! Only five or six MPs were present; it was explained that after morning Question Period on Fridays, most MPs clear out for the weekend, heading home to their ridings. (or perhaps they were heading out to Winterlude) There was an MP reading something, and another responding, but they appeared to be as bored as the spectators. We were tickled to see that one of the Conservative backbenchers present appeared to be preparing the mailer that goes to her constituents. Poor thing has to do her own folding and stapling!

We didn’t stay long in the gallery, and retrieved our camera and coats before heading up the Peace Tower.

Peace Tower Clock

View from the Peace Tower

The view is certainly glorious – and it’s a fun diversion to play count the Canadian flags from each of the four windows. If you can twist and angle your body just right, you’ll see you’re just under the clock. You also catch a glimpse of the bells as you ride the elevator up or down – if you’re lucky, you even get to hear them ring.

Immediately below is the Memorial Chamber, housing Canada’s Books of Remembrance.  It’s a sobering reminder of the sacrifices made by thousands of Canadians in time of war.

Then it’s time for the tour – you wait for your guide in a hall containing lists of the members of each Parliament. The guide then arrives, and gets things started. A frequent mention throughout the tour is the Fire – coincidentally, we were visiting on the 96th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Centre Block in 1916.

The Senate

Portrait of Queen Victoria. Notice the crown to the right. There's a story about that.

On this day, we were not allowed to take pictures in the Library, which is a shame; the place is so beautiful, I could have stayed there all day. Then it’s on to see the Senate Chamber. Just outside the Chamber are the portraits of Canada’s monarchs through the ages. The portrait of Queen Victoria has a neat story attached to it, which our guide did not share. However, Alex has taken the tour 4 times in the last two years, so she told me. Ask your guide while you’re there. Inside the Chamber, the murals depicting scenes from the First World War are breathtaking.

Two of the Famous Five - and me!

After your tour has concluded, you can wander the grounds outside and see the statues and monuments. The one I make sure never to miss is the one depicting the Famous Five. I’m not an art or statue kind of girl, but there’s something about this one that just speaks to me.

Like all good attractions, the Parliament Buildings do have a gift shop, which you can visit before going outside. It’s very small, and the merchandise is limited -I’m not sure who would be in the market for golf club covers that say Parliament Hill, Ottawa on them. There are some nice artistic prints available, and some interesting books about Canada’s government and history. Oddly enough, there are also action figures of past Prime Ministers, but only two – Sir John A MacDonald and Sir Wilfred Laurier. Each figure is dressed in the common style of their time, and has a small side table as an accessory. MacDonald does not come with a miniature bottle of whiskey, which I think would increase sales.

Oh, and by the way, admission is free. If you arrive outside of a tour time, or after the buildings have closed to the public for the day, you can still tour the grounds yourself. I did just that in 1993 – and bumped into my local MP in the rear parking lot!