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Tannas: Restoring an Ottawa jewel — on time and on budget


On time, on budget. It’s a phrase that seems to rouse the cynic in everyone, particularly when used to describe government projects.

The truth, however, is that the restoration of the Government Conference Centre downtown — an architectural marvel set in the heart of the capital — is indeed on time and on budget.

The conference centre will be my new workplace in 2018, when the Senate is forced to move from Centre Block to accommodate desperately needed renovations on Parliament Hill. In our commitment to be as efficient as possible with respect to how we spend tax dollars, senators had the idea to use the conference centre as our temporary home as a cost-saving measure that will also open up this historic building to everyone in Canada.

The alternative to relocating to the conference centre would have been to move the Senate into Parliament’s East Block for the duration of the Centre Block restoration. This would not only have been significantly more expensive — by about $200 million — it would also have left the conference centre crumbling and neglected.

The centre was built between 1909 and 1912, and served as Ottawa’s central train station. Travellers to Ottawa steamed along the Rideau Canal and walked through the vaulted splendour of what was called Union Station before going about their business in the city.

The building itself was modelled on the now-demolished Penn Station in New York; the centre narrowly escaped a similar fate in the 1960s during a push to relieve traffic congestion. The last train left the station in 1966.

Since then, it has served as a conference centre and a silent witness to history.

Constitutional talks in November 1981 led directly to the repatriation of the Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms the next year. The “Open Skies” conference in February 1990 contributed to German reunification. And journalists know it well as the home of the annual federal budget lock-up, where they have until the last few years, been briefed in advance of the budget’s release.

Restoring old buildings is not without surprises. This building’s interior and structure turned out to be in worse condition than anticipated, which led to increased costs.

But smart planning and some pleasant surprises — the exterior masonry, for instance, proved to be in excellent shape — has kept the project to within its $219-million budget.

The relocation project will restore an Ottawa landmark to its former glory and all Canadians will once more be able to experience its beauty, even if trains no longer hug the gentle curves of the canal on their way into town. Like Parliament, the centre will be open to the public. And Canadians who cannot make the trip will also be able to see the building’s magnificence.

Senate committees will meet in the conference centre — as usual, those committee hearings will be televised and webcast. The Red Chamber itself is also being outfitted with cameras so Canadians can see more history being made in that venerable building. Anyone tuning in will see parliamentarians debating important issues with civility and reason, rather than rhetoric and rancour. The public paid close attention to the principled Senate debate over the government’s assisted dying legislation. Canadians watching us will see that this is how we conduct all of our business.

Efficiency and respect for the taxpayer were uppermost in our minds when we decided on a course of action for our temporary home. Ensuring the restoration project is finished on time and on budget is my top priority. The result – a refurbished piece of Ottawa’s history and significant cost savings – will speak for itself.

I have a feeling that even the most hardened cynic will be impressed.


Scott Tannas is the chair of the Subcommittee on the Long Term Vision and Plan, which is supervising the Senate’s move to the Government Conference Centre. Published on: October 31, 2016

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