Parliamentary bells will play on despite renos to Ottawa’s most famous landmark

Parliament Hill

In less than three months, the centrepiece on Parliament Hill will go dark for at least a decade.

But thanks in part to the lobbying efforts of the official national bell ringer you probably didn't know we had, the famous carillon that rings out from the Peace Tower will not be silenced when Centre Block renovations start up after Christmas. At least not right away and not for long.

Andrea McCrady, Canada's Dominion Carillonneur, says she's been promised that she will continue to play the carillon at least until 2021. It will go silent for a while after that, because like Centre Block itself, the carillon needs a bit of a face lift. But at the absolute latest, she says the carillon will be back in action in time for O Canada to ring out when the Peace Tower marks its 100th anniversary on July 1, 2027.

So, while construction goes on around her, every week day at noon for the next few years McCrady will continue to take an elevator about two-thirds of the way up the Peace Tower to a tiny cell of a room with no windows. It is almost entirely filled by a giant wooden keyboard, with what look like the ends of broom handles as keys that are attached to metal strings.

Each of those strings runs up or down to a clapper inside a bronze bell. When the key is hit – and when you're playing a bell that weighs more than a elephant this is no delicate task – the clapper strikes the bronze and all around Parliament Hill the bell tolls.

The carillon is one of the biggest instruments in the world and one of the least well known. There are only 11 of them in Canada, just more than 600 worldwide. Europe and North America have the most but there are some in Asia, a few in Africa and another handful in Australia and New Zealand.

Questions still remain about how federal officials will manage the appearance of Centre Block’s exterior when renovations begin.

In a mayoral debate earlier this month, incumbent Jim Watson said he’s met with federal officials to urge them to drape Centre Block with a fabric “trompe-l'oeuil” featuring a rendering of the iconic building.  

“It’s the most photographed building in our city, and it can’t just be a grey tarp that’s thrown up there,” he said.

– With files from OBJ staff