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The Ottawa area was originally the home of the Odawa people, a name that supposedly means “traders”. The first Europeans to settle in the area were a group of families who started farming the banks of the Ottawa River near Chaudiere Falls in 1800. After the Rideau Canal was completed in 1832 by Colonel John By, the population grew steadily. A town that formed was called Bytown. It became a city in 1855 and was renamed Ottawa after the original inhabitants.

At the time, Ottawa was a city in the Province of Canada, covering Labrador, the western part of Quebec, and the southern part of Ontario along the Great Lakes. The province was a British colony from 1841 to 1867 and had been formed through amalgamation of mainly French speaking Lower Canada (Labrador and Quebec) and mainly English speaking Upper Canada (Ontario).

During that period, the province had six changes in capital city. Kingston in present day eastern Ontario was chosen as the new province’s capital in 1841. However, it was considered too small, and vulnerable to American attack so close to the border, and the capital was shifted to Montreal in Quebec in 1844. Five years later, Tories burned the parliament building to the ground in protest against the Rebellion Losses Bill which was to compensate Lower Canadians for property losses in the Rebellions of 1837.

This prompted a shift in the capital to Toronto in 1849 but it only remained the capital until 1852 when Quebec City became capital. It had been a capital city for well over 200 years, having been the capital of New France, a huge area covering roughly the eastern half of today’s Canada and the US. Later it was capital of Quebec province and Lower Canada. By 1856, the capital moved back to Toronto, before it once again shifted to Quebec City in 1859.

Concerned about the constant need to shift the capital city of the Province of Canada due to riots and buildings being burnt in several of the capitals, the advisers to Queen Victoria recommended to her in 1857 to name Ottawa as the capital city. Their reasons were several:

– It was the only sizeable settlement along the old Upper and Lower Canada border, thus being seen as a compromise between the English and French populations.

– The Crown owned Ottawa’s Barrack Hill, the site of an old military base. It was a prominent location and suitable as a site for parliament buildings.

– Ottawa is halfway between Quebec City and Toronto, each being about 300 miles away.

– It would be less likely to be attacked, being in the middle of a dense forest and further from the border than the larger cities, which showed their vulnerability to American attacks in the War of 1812.

– If need be, troops could be easily moved along the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal in case of impending attack.

– Finally, the city’s small size meant it was less likely to be attacked by mobs with political motivations.

Queen Victoria officially chose Ottawa as the province’s permanent capital in 1857 and work on the new parliament buildings began in 1859 on Barrack Hill. It was North America’s largest construction project to that date. There were delays and cost overruns leading to a commission of inquiry. Construction was still in progress when Queen Victoria’s birthday was celebrated at the site in 1865. This further cemented Ottawa’s position as the future capital and the renamed Parliament Hill as the political centre of the province.

Meanwhile, the move for a confederated Canada was gaining momentum. Following the Charlottetown Conference in September 1864 and the Quebec Conference in the following month, 16 delegates from Canada province and the colonies of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia attended the London Conference of 1866-1867. They drafted the British North America Act and named the new country the Dominion of Canada. The Act was passed on 29 March 1867, effective from 1 July of that year. The Province of Canada was redivided into the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, while New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were the other two provinces. More provinces were added over the years.

Ottawa, with its grand parliament buildings still unfinished and with a population of 18,000, automatically became the permanent capital city of the new country on 1 July 1867. The parliament buildings were finally finished in 1876. Ottawa now has a population of about 900,000 people and continues as the country’s capital.

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