The wooden boards creak and shift as Peter Theriault walks across them, moving deeper into the steeple-like attic of Nova Scotia’s provincial legislature.
On his left is a sparsely-decorated space with a single solitary wooden chair in the middle. To his right is a long hallway, flanked by small, almost closet-sized rooms. Even further down is a nearly identical empty space.
It’s a mild mid-January day in Halifax and the attic is well-lit, with the harsh yellow glow of the overhead lights being diffused by the natural sunlight filtering through the attic’s semi-circle windows.
“Make sure you don’t step on a ‘Red X,’” Theriault calls, pointing out examples of the spray-painted letter scattered across the floor.
They’re the only visual clue that the flooring could give away.
A worker found out the hard way a few years ago, when the wood panelling gave away, dropping the man roughly a metre down. Theriault says the worker was lucky that his nether regions didn’t land on a pole.
The boards are suspended a couple metres above the ceiling of the legislature’s ceremonial chambers. In between the ceiling and the attic’s floor is a rat’s nest of cables and wires that activate lights and feed data from the cameras, microphones and transceivers that power Nova Scotia Legislature TV.
WATCH: We take you behind the scenes as Nova Scotia’s Province House, Canada’s oldest and smallest legislature, marks its 200th birthday. Alexander Quon brings you that story.
Typically, the attic is off limits to the public and staff members rarely come up here, but Theriault knows the space well. He’s been the coordinator of operations at the legislature for 31 years.
He knows almost every nook and cranny in the building, and if he doesn’t, he can find someone who does.
On the far side of the attic,Theriault removes the wooden cover of a ventilation duct.
Looking down the vent and through the decorative features of the plaster roofing, it’s the space below that draws the eye.
It’s there, inside the province’s legislative chamber, that Nova Scotian politicians have debated and disagreed, governors-general have been sworn in and Royal Family members have been hosted when they visited Canada.
The province’s legislature has stood the test of time, opening a little less than 49 years before Canada became a nation.
Nova Scotia’s legislative assembly has met every year for the last 200 years in Province House — making it the oldest legislative building in Canada.
The House on the hill
Located in the heart of downtown Halifax, the legislature sits halfway up the steep hill that leads from the city’s waterfront to the top of Citadel Hill.
A short, squat three-storey building, its regal exterior stands in contrast to the buildings of reflective glass and burnished steel that now tower over it.
Enclosed by a large iron fence and built in the Palladian architectural style — a system that emphasizes symmetry — the building’s perfect proportions of 43 metres long and 21.5 metres deep make the legislature a remnant of a different time.
Its size makes it the smallest legislature in Canada and its unique architecture and place in Candian history have earned it the distinction being named a National Historic Site.
But it wasn’t always that way.
The first representative government in Nova Scotia had no permanent home when it first met at the court house at the corner of Argyle and Buckingham Streets in October of 1758.
Their meeting place would move a number of times over the next two decades before they eventually landed on the Cochran’s Building — currently the site of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Multiple motions passed in 1797, 1799 and 1800 called for the creation of a new “Public Building” that would house a “General assembly, Court of Chancery, Supreme Court, and Court of Admiralty, and Public Offices” for the province, but it did nothing to make a legislature a reality.
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It wasn’t until 1809, when members of the assembly recognized their then-current home was in a “ruinous and decayed state,” that efforts to make a new home began in earnest.
Finally, in 1811, Governor George Prevost’s Speech from the Throne recognized that Cochran’s Building was no longer suitable for the Legislature.
“The prosperous state of this Province, requires that the different Branches of the Legislature, – the Courts of Justice, and the Public Offices, should be better accommodated than they are at present – I therefore recommend that object to your consideration,” he said.
The cornerstone of the building was laid on August 12, 1811.
But due to shortages in skilled labourers, labour disputes and the War of 1812, it would take eight more years and £52,000 before Nova Scotia’s legislature would be ready for the public.
Portions of the building were still unfinished the day that the legislative assembly met for the first time in Province House. But that didn’t stop guests from pouring through the gates to hear the Earl of Dalhousie read his Speech from the Throne on Feb. 11, 1819.
“The circumstance of meeting you for the first time in this place, leads me to congratulate you on now occupying this splendid building,” he said.
“It stands, and will stand, I hope, to the latest posterity, a proud record of the Public spirit as this period of our History.”
Joseph Howe and Responsible Government
It did not take long for Nova Scotia and Province House to leave its mark on the future country of Canada.
As well as serving as Nova Scotia’s legislature, Province House was home to the Nova Scotia Legislative Council — an executive body that was abolished in 1928 — and the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.
What now functions as the Legislative Library was once the Supreme Court’s home.
The room has been modified since the Supreme Court moved out of the space in 1860.
Henry F. Busch was the architect of the 1862 transformation which saw racks, cast iron and intricate woodwork being added to the chamber.
But the most regal feature is the mirrored stairs that lead up to the libraries upper balcony.
“I remember a time when the tours that would come through would say that the dual staircases reminded them of Titanic,” Theriault said.
“Now they all say it looks like Harry Potter.”
If you look close enough, a homage or two to the room’s previous purpose can be found.
In the library, there is a simple set of scales hanging above a doorway, a symbol used by Lady Justice to measure the strength of a legal case’s support and opposition.
It’s also here on March 2, 1835, that one of most famous legal cases in Nova Scotian history was fought.
Joseph Howe was the editor of the Novascotian, a weekly newspaper, when he was charged with seditious libel after a letter he wrote accused local magistrates and the police of stealing £30,000 over a 30 year period.
Howe represented himself at the trial, putting forth a lengthy and eloquent defence to the jury for a little more than six hours.
“Your verdict will be the most important in its consequences ever delivered before this tribunal,” he argued.
“Judge me by the principles of English law, and to leave an unshackled press as a legacy to your children.”
It took only 10 minutes of deliberation for him to be acquited.
Scholars can and have disputed whether the case really changed anything in the legal world. But to the Nova Scotia Legislature, Howe is a source of pride, while to journalists he’s viewed as one of the fathers of freedom of the press in Canada.
In the first issue of the Novascotian after the trial, Howe wrote that “the press of Nova-Scotia is Free.”
It’s a remark that is echoed at the entrance of the library by a plaque dating to 1961 that bears the following inscription:
“In this room on March 2, 1836, Joseph Howe, publisher of the weekly newspaper The Nova Scotian, defended himself in an action for criminal Libel. His masterly defence, not only won him a triumphant acquittal, but established, forever, the freedom of the press in this country.”
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Howe would continue to leave his mark on the province, eventually joining politics and leading a campaign for responsible government — a system of accountability where the government is responsible to the parliament, rather than the monarch.
“ Uniacke was the premier under responsible government, but it was Howe’s fight,” Theriault said.
Implemented in the colony in 1848, Nova Scotia was the first British Colony to be governed by a responsible government.
Howe would later serve as the colony’s third premier and continues to be honoured in its legislative chamber.
A history in photographs
Two paintings flank the Speaker’s chair inside the chamber.
An 1875 portrait of Howe rests on the right-hand side, while a canvas portrait of former premier James William Johnston is on the left.
Both were painted by Henry Sandham and decorated with a gold-coloured frame, which makes them stand out from the wooden furniture and chairs covered in green fabric.
A series of more demure photos line the white walls of the chamber.
A portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip hangs to the left of the entrance, while a painting of John Sparrow David Thompson is a little farther down.
Although he’s not a household name, Theriault says Thompson earned his position in the chamber by being the fifth premier of Nova Scotia and fourth Prime Minister of Canda.
He was one of the three prime ministers to be from Nova Scotia and has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the two Canadian prime ministers to die in office, the first being Sir John A. Macdonald.
Thompson, while at Windsor Castle, died from a massive heart attack after he was sworn in as a member of the Imperial Privy Council.
Portraits of Gladys Porter, the first woman to be elected to the House of Assembly in 1961, and Wayne Adams, the first Black member to be elected in 1993, are featured as well.
A portrait of William Stevens Fielding, premier of Nova Scotia between 1884 and 1896, hangs behinds the government benches of premier Stephen Mcneil and the Nova Scotia Liberal Party.
A portrait of Charles Tupper, who was premier of Nova Scotia from 1864 to 1867, led the province into Confederation and was the sixth prime minister of Canda, hangs behind the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party.
The most recent addition to the chamber is a portrait of Darrell Dexter, who served as the first NDP premier in the province’s history from 2009 to 2013.
“Three of the portraits in the room move,” Theriault says.
As new governments take power in Nova Scotia, the images of Fielding, Tupper and now Dexter will shift to hang behind their party’s seats.
Lost to time
Many things have changed since the Earl of Dalhousie opened the legislature 200 years ago. Rooms within the building have been modified and ceilings have been lowered, but the attic has stayed mostly the same.
“It is probably one of the oldest things in the building. It’s changed but not majorly,” Theriault says as he gives a tour of the attic, one of the few rooms that remains relatively empty — despite the building’s limited space remaining at a premium.
“We do what we can with what we have.”
But even up here, the past has found a way to stick around. The wooden beams that support the roof have marks and names carved into them — a date here, a pair of names there.
The oldest one dates back to 1903.
“Some of the older names we are assuming were trades people that were working in the building,” said Theriault.
“I can’t guarantee that for sure, but it’s kind of neat to think someone who worked in the building way back when they worked here.”
Others are more recent, like a former MLA and a recent page who worked for the assembly.
Leaning in one corner of the roof and covered in dust is a pair of large wooden crowns.
Theriault says his staff’s best guess is that the pair of crowns date back to when King George and Queen Elizabeth visited Halifax at the end of their 1939 Royal Tour of Canada.
But they’re not sure, and it’s doubtful that they’ll ever truly know.
That’s the nature of a building that has existed longer than the country it resides in.
Events are forgotten and artifacts become lost as those who knew about them grow old and retire, only for them to be unearthed again at an unexpected moment.
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Theriault unearths one of his own while providing the tour of the attic.
As he points out another set of names carved into the wooden walls of the attic, he notices a dark piece of slate hammered into one of the columns.
“I think that’s one of the old roofing tiles,” he said.
A notice from the Office of Board of Works in the Royal Gazette, later provided by Theriault, indicates that he was at least on the right path.
“Taking off old shingles and lead on the roof over the main building… and covering the same with new Welch Dutchess Slates,” the notice, dated to 1854, reads.
To show just how unreliable some of the documentation is, even historians aren’t sure who the designer of Province House is.
The most likely candidate appears to be John Merrick, who was a painter and glazier.
The province’s Journals and Statues state that Merrick created the design, while an article from 1826 in the Acadian Magazine attributes it to Richard Scott, a master builder and the supervising architect for the project.
But the uncertainty gives the building character, and it gives Theriault an interesting story to tell as he educates the pages and the tour guides that pass on the knowledge to the public at large.
It’s the little things that he is happiest to share: the intricate details of the plaster above a fireplace in the ceremonial red chamber, or the handkerchief that was once owned by Queen Victoria displayed in the hallway of Province House.
The little things — the symbols of what have come before — were echoed by Speaker Kevin Murphy, when he offered up these thoughts on the legislature’s 200th anniversary.
“Province House is the symbolic home for all Nova Scotians and the centre of our democratic process,” Murphy said.
“The 200th anniversary of Province House allows Nova Scotians to reflect on our shared values and achievements as aprovince, both past and present.”
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