Ottawa is Victoria’s capital secret

Ottawa before 1857 when Queen Victoria quietly named it the capital of Canada (present-day Ontario and Quebec until Confederation, 10 years later). Library and Archives Canada 1992-675-2.


In London, on the last day of 1857, Queen Victoria chose a new capital for Canada. Five cities had fought fiercely for the honour and economic benefits. Four—Toronto, Kingston, Montreal and Quebec City—had at one time or another served as a capital in what was then called Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). Only forest-shrouded Ottawa, the newest, smallest and most remote, had never been a capital city.

The decision was undoubtedly less a choice by the Queen than a confirmation of advice from Her Majesty’s advisors.

For John A. Macdonald’s Conservative (then called Liberal-Conservative) government, it was an awkward time for news of a decision that would disappoint voters in four major cities, and raise controversy and criticism. Elections for Canada’s sixth Parliament had started December 16, and voting would continue into early January. Macdonald’s party faced a stiff fight from George Brown’s Reform (i.e., Liberal) Party.

December 31 is a great day for a hot political decision to escape reporting. Not even the great London Times reported Victoria’s decision. And, although there were rumours and speculation, it was four weeks before the decision was disclosed in Canada—well after Macdonald’s government had been re-elected, albeit with somewhat fewer seats.

The choice of Ottawa produced the expected controversy.

In Toronto, George Brown’s Globe never missed a chance to attack Macdonald and the Conservatives. The people of Montreal and Kingston, said the Globe, “have received the late intelligence with the utmost indignation, because either place had a better title to the capital than that which has been selected. The Kingstonese bitterly complain that John A. Macdonald has deceived him—as he has all who ever trusted him—and the Montrealers upbraid the members who… professed… to be the friends of their city.”

The Montreal Argus alleged that the government was “well informed” of Victoria’s secret, but “the elections were coming on, and it did not then answer to let the truth be known” and reveal “how egregiously each location had been ‘tricked’ by false expectations of being made the choice… Now that the elections are over, the necessity for silence no longer exists, and the secret, so well hitherto kept, is revealed.”

The Montreal Herald alleged that friends of the government had advance inside information with which to speculate on the purchase of Ottawa property.

“We have the very best ground for saying that gentlemen now closely connected with the ministry, and we have no personal doubt members of the ministry themselves, were aware so early as the month of October, that Ottawa had been chosen; and we have every reason, arising from concurrent and respectable testimony, to believe that speculations, with a view to this decision, have been entered into.”

There were calls for Parliament to make the final choice of a capital for what would soon be a new, Confederated nation. But construction of expansive parliamentary buildings was soon underway, and what had been termed the “Nomad Parliament,” moving from city to city, had found its lasting home.

Unfamiliar Canadian history stories 043


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