Photo of the Centre Block taken from the office of the Governor-General's secretary the morning after the fire

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On tours of the Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament buildings the guides explain that the previous building was destroyed by a fire on the night of Feb 3, 1916.

When asked what caused the fire, they may tell you that a careless lit cigar in the Reading Room caused the fire. They may also mention in passing that there was suspicion the fire was set by German agents or sympathizers.

This suspicion is the starting point of my novel, Fire on the Hill. What if German agents were involved? After all, Canada was at war with Germany. While Canada’s reputation as a feared fighting force would be several years into the future, Canada was still essential for the Allied war effort, providing the muscles of war such as iron ore for the arms factories and wheat from the prairie breadbasket to feet the millions of Allied soldiers in Europe.

These suspicions are not as far-fetched as they sound. One of the driving forces behind these suspicions was the Fenian Raids into Canada in the 1860’s, which were still vivid in Canadian memory. Many leading figures had actually fought in the raids. For example, both Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier served during the Fenian raids.

The fear of raids by German reservists was so great that Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden authorized $100,000 in funding to the Dominion Police’s Secret Service for counter-intelligence work. Everyone on the home front was looking for German spies under their bed.

The actual cause of the fire was never discovered. The Royal Commission appointed to investigate the origin of the fire concluded:

The fire started in a pile of papers on a shelf on one of the reading tables near the House of Commons. The first person to see the fire was Francis Glass, ESQ., M.P., who stated that the fire originated while he was in the reading-room: that he had been in the reading-room a short time when he felt a wave of heat passing up alongside of him from a hot-air register, and he turned around and almost immediately smelled the burning of paper; stooped down and saw smoke coming out.

As to the question of whether the fire was deliberately set, the report made the following conclusions:

Your commissioners are of the opinion that there are many circumstances connected with this fire that lead to a strong suspicion of incendiarism, especially in view of the fact that the evidence is clear that no one was smoking in the reading-room for some time previous to the outbreak of fire, and also to the fact that the fire could not have occurred from defective electric wiring. But while your commissioners are of such opinion, there is nothing in the evidence to justify your commissioners in finding the fire was maliciously set.

Your commissioners feel very strongly that it might be possible at a later date to obtain evidence (which they cannot reach at the present time) which might establish beyond question whether this fire was incendiary or accidental, and with the approval of Your Royal Highness, your commissioners would humbly suggest that this report be treated not as a final report but as an interim report, and that the commission be left open, and in the event of your commissioners be able to get further evidence at a later date that they be permitted to do so.