The Fire In The Parliament Buildings

In some respects, it is very difficult for us to appreciate the attitudes of Canadians immersed in the midst of an interminable war.  The reaction to a ‘freak’ fire in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa underlined the extent to which people were fearful of the ‘other’ and were willing to take stern measures to prevent sabotage from within.

Fire-in-ParliamentOn the night of February 3, 1916, a major fire broke out in the House of Commons reading room. By morning, the Centre Block was a shell of its former self.   Immediately, speculation arose that the blaze had been set deliberately in an act of sabotage. However, an investigation ultimately determined that the fire was an accident.

At the time of the fire at the House of Parliament, there was widespread suspicion that this was an act of sabotage. Many believed that the fire was the work of enemy operatives.  By way of example, The Brantford Expositor gave extensive coverage to a speech delivered by W.F. Cockshutt. The paper approved of Cockshutt’s message “That we have emissaries of the enemy in our midst in Canada plotting the most dastardly of plots against our country, and that these emissaries must be hunted down and exterminated like plague itself…”[1] A Capt. Steward, who took the podium after Cockshutt, maintained that “Every Turk and Bulgar should be interned.  Men were needed for home guards and for overseas service; all must come forward to fight for Canada to keep the foe from the door.  If we were beaten in France, God help us.”[2]            

W.F. CockshuttSubsequently, Cockshutt was reported as saying:

The loss was too terrible to contemplate.  But it was now the cause of the fire in which we were chiefly interested …. it had been deliberate incendiarism.  The time was chosen in advance, when a busy night was expected, and only chance altered this.  It was, without the shadow of doubt, the work of an enemy.  On Saturday morning there had been a fire in a munitions plant; a factory in Hespeler had been blown up the same afternoon.  The Toronto Globe had conclusive proof that the Washington department of justice had been warned three weeks ago that an attempt would be made against the Ottawa Parliament Buildings.  There were enemies on the other side of the line and on this side and they must be ferreted out.  The war would not be won by gentle means.  All munitions plants should be well guarded; a few fires like these would rouse the people to the need of immediate action.  All must get busy and enlist.  No gentle means would win; not even prayer, unless there were men to fight as well.[3] 


[1] “Internment of All Aliens in Canada Was Demand of Recruiting Smoker Speakers – W.F. Cockshutt M.P. and Capt. Steward of 84th Battalion of Belief that Fire at Ottawa Was Work of Enemy Incendiaries – “Vipers in Our Midst Must be Exterminated” Said Mr. Cockshutt,” The Brantford Expositor, February 7, 1916.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.