Ottawa Tourism officials on board with old train station’s new look

Newly named Senate of Canada Building open to the public for the first time in a generation starting in February
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The new Senate of Canada Building, set to open for the first time in a generation next month. Photo provided.

It’s opened its doors to the King of Rock and Roll, the Queen Mother and Winston Churchill over the past century, but practically no ordinary Canadian has been inside Ottawa’s former train station across from the Château Laurier in more than a generation.

That’s about to change. The iconic Beaux-Arts structure that spent the past 50 years hosting high-level Canadian government meetings and landmark international conferences is set to become the home of the Senate for the next decade or so while Parliament Hill’s Centre Block undergoes a multibillion-dollar refurbishment.

After six years of work and almost $220 million in renovations, the newly christened Senate of Canada Building will begin welcoming the public for tours on Feb. 1. Ottawa Tourism’s Jantine Van Kregten is pumped that visitors to Canada’s capital will finally get the chance to check out the building’s majestic five-storey-high coffered ceiling and arched Diocletian windows from the inside.

“Once they know that they can get in that building, I think there will be a lot of people who want to see it,” the local tourism agency’s chief spokesperson says.

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The ceiling of the Senate of Canada Building. Photo by Mark Holleron.

Opened in 1912 as Union Station, Ottawa’s latest downtown tourist attraction nearly met the wrecker’s ball when trains were rerouted to a new suburban station in 1966. It was saved, renamed the Government Conference Centre and hosted a multitude of momentous closed-door discussions – including talks that set the stage for the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982 – over the next several decades.

Now it’s back, with upgrades that include a new six-storey facade on the east wall featuring Indiana limestone pillars and walnut panels in the Senate chamber with carved shields of Canada’s provinces and territories gilded in gold leaf.

“It’s a beautiful space, and I think that it helps Canadians reflect on their heritage and history and the meaning of these buildings to our landscape and to our heritage, our history and our future,” says Rob Wright, assistant deputy minister for the parliamentary precinct for Public Services and Procurement Canada. 

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Interior lobby of the Senate of Canada Building. Photo by Mark Holleron.

Whether Canadians will flock to see it is still an open question, but local tourism officials are optimistic the novelty factor will come into play. In addition to the new home of the Red Chamber, curious onlookers will also have the chance to roam the halls of the refurbished West Block, where the House of Commons will meet for the next decade or so, and tour a brand-new visitors centre nearby. 

“No one’s ever had a tour of the Government Conference Centre,” says Ottawa Tourism CEO Michael Crockatt. “I think it’s going to be pretty exciting for people to see that. Same for West Block. It sounds like it’s unbelievable. So it’s not like this is a second-rate basement sort of temporary space that we’re shoving our parliamentarians into. It’s some pretty astounding space, and people are going to really enjoy those new opportunities.”

Industry insiders are also breathing a sigh of relief that downtown Ottawa’s marquee photo op – Parliament Hill – will still be available until after this summer, giving tourists one more chance to get their selfies in before Centre Block becomes a full-scale construction zone.

Other popular Hill attractions such as Canada Day celebrations, the Changing of the Guard, the Dominion Carillon and the sound and light show will also continue as planned in the summer of 2019, government officials confirm.

'Transition year'

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Chairs in the Senate of Canada Building. Photo by Mark Holleron.

That’s music to Crockatt’s ears, but the city’s tourism boss is already looking ahead to 2020 and beyond. Ottawa Tourism is lobbying the feds hard for a decorative trompe l’oeil to cover Centre Block and the Peace Tower and give visitors a photo-worthy replacement.  

A spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada, which is responsible for the renovation project, says a decision on whether such a shroud will be used will be made closer to the installation date. 

Crockatt says the feds are well aware of the Hill’s importance as a tourist draw, and he’s confident they’ll make the right call.

“Are people still going to be able to come and take that iconic shot of the most photographed, the most Instagrammed, building in our city?” he says. 

Van Kregten says the local tourism industry should be in for a healthy 2019, with noteworthy events such as the 25th anniversary of Bluesfest helping drive traffic to the capital. 

“You’re still getting the grandeur of Parliament Hill (this summer),” she says. “It’ll be a nice transition year.”