ARCHIVED - A conversation with Cartier Square Drill Hall’s amateur historian

This page has been archived on the Web

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.

Image Gallery

Article / November 6, 2014 / Project number: 14-0179

Ottawa, Ontario —Cartier Square Drill Hall, Canada’s oldest continuously operated armoury, has witnessed 135 years of Canadian military history.

Since his days as a young officer in the Governor General’s Foot Guards, Colonel Rob Foster has been fascinated by the origins of the Cartier Square Drill Hall. Currently Director Army Reserve, Canadian Army, he recalls volunteering to write the early history of the regiment.

“Back in the 1990s when the Foot Guards were having their 125th anniversary, we decided to update our regimental history, which had last been published in 1948,” says Col Foster. “The original history was very focused on the Second World War and I volunteered to draft the early history of the Foot Guards, planning to hand it off to a professional writer.” 

A lack of money to hire a writer was the prominent reason that Col Foster became primary author of the project. His keen interest has led him to become very knowledgeable about the ancestral home of the GGFG. It is the most senior militia infantry regiment in Canada, providing trained volunteer soldiers to support the Regular Army in times of both peace and war. Having amassed a vast collection of vintage photographs and documents on the subject, he is always pleased to talk about the evolution of the Drill Hall and its first occupants.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Canada did not have a full-time army but relied on volunteer militia to defend it. Soon armouries and drill halls were urgently needed for training purposes. The then-Department of Militia and Defence first built inexpensive wooden drill sheds, which did not last long. During the 1870s, a plan was developed to construct permanent drill halls from brick and stone. The first of these was Ottawa’s Cartier Square Drill Hall.

The Cartier Square Drill Hall officially described

The Canadian Register of Historic Places describes the Drill Hall building as a “large, brick structure composed of a gable-roofed central hall and a façade on the short side with a large central door and corner towers. The unencumbered drill hall space is spanned by an impressive queen-post truss system, and lit by a clerestory [a strip of windows] which runs along the ridge of the roof.” 

It goes on to say:

“The Drill Hall is one of the best examples of a significant building type that emerged in the 1870's as Canada took over responsibility for its own defence. The building was at the time of construction, and still is, the home of an active voluntary militia within the city. It serves two regiments, the Governor General's Foot Guards and the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa [the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own], both of which are direct successors of the units originally housed there.” 

In Canada’s early days, belonging to the militia was largely a social activity, says Col Foster.  “It was tied to providing defence but inevitably you would go to the mess, do summer training and do weekly drills. ” 

The militia that was in Ottawa around that time was called the Civil Service Rifles.  As the name implies, they were members of the civil service and in addition to working Monday to Friday from 9 to 5 on Parliament Hill, they would put on uniforms and perform their training activities in the evenings and on weekends.

Drilling before the Drill Hall existed

There was no drill hall available in Ottawa at that time, nor was there an armoury, so the militia members would be issued their weapon and would take them home. Although this would be unheard-of today, at the time it was advantageous because if there was a threat, they would arrive at the muster point already armed.

Training took place outdoors on what is now Cartier Square where the Drill Hall and Ottawa City Hall are located today. In bad weather and in winter, they would drill in a rented building, which was typically a lumber barn because a lot of lumbering was going on in Ottawa back then. One of these barns was on Besserer Street and another was on Rideau Street, according to Col Foster.

Weapons practice was not carried out at the Square, since it was in the heart of the town. The militia members would use the rifle range on Range Road, in what is now Strathcona Park in Ottawa’s Sandy Hill neighbourhood. This range was in use until 1905 when shooting was moved outside the city limits.  The militia began using the Rockcliffe Ranges (near the present day Canadian Aviation and Space Museum) in 1896 until 1916 when the Connaught Ranges were put into full use.

 “When they went shooting, it was a family affair on the weekend,” notes Col Foster. “The wife and kids came out and watched the husband shoot. It was a big thing.” 

Creation of the Governor General’s Foot Guards

In the year 1865, the seat of government was moved to Ottawa from Quebec City. Thomas Ross, an influential public servant in the Department of Finance, began campaigning for a regiment of foot guards to support the pomp and pageantry required of the new capital. The regiment was created on June 7th, 1872, patterned after the British Coldstream Guards. The regiment’s duties were largely ceremonial in nature and Ross continued to advocate for a permanent drill hall to house the regiment.

Cartier Square was where drilling took place. It was advantageous because it was adjacent to the train station which was generally where a guard of honour was formed to meet a visiting dignitary or to send troops off to war, explains Col Foster. In addition, it was a quick march to Parliament Hill for ceremonial events such as Dominion Day – now Canada Day – held each July 1st.

Building – and renovating – the Drill Hall

In 1879, Ross’ perseverance succeeded and the Cartier Square Drill Hall was built to house the newly-created GGFG, and he became the first commanding officer. Its architect was Thomas Seaton Scott, who was chief architect of the Department of Public Works at the time. It is considered an excellent example of late 1800s government-style architecture and was the first permanent drill hall built in Canada.

Although the exterior was put up in 1879, it wasn’t fully completed until 1881 when a wooden floor was built over the original packed dirt, and the water closets (early washrooms) were installed, according to Col Foster.

The first collection of artifacts that would form the basis of the present-day Canadian War Museum’s collection was housed in the Drill Hall from 1880 to 1896.

During the 1890s, a second story was built. Originally, gas lighting was used but it was converted to electricity in the 1930s. The eight wood stoves that heated the interior remained in use until the 1930s, as well.

In 1981, the Drill Hall was upgraded to current fire code, revising the fire escape routes and putting in a sprinkler system.

Improvements and renovations continued up until the most recent upgrade effort from 1993 to 1996. At this time, Col Foster became the Officer in Command (OIC) of the Drill Hall.

“It was a major renovation, costing about $10 million,”  he says.  “The Drill Hall was upgraded and put into pristine condition.”  Col Foster feels fortunate that he was one of the first officers working full-time at the Drill Hall following this renovation,  “I certainly had a very nice building to look after,”  he says.

Upstairs, there are operations rooms for each unit, an office shared between the senior staff and a common orderly room. On the main floor, there is a dedicated classroom and museums for each of the units were built on the Drill Hall floor. A state-of-the-art music room was created expressly for the GGFG, explains Col Foster.

An important part of the 1993-96 renovation was the Officers’ Mess, which was completely refurbished to its original state during its heyday.  “It has always been an officers’ mess. The other rooms in the building have changed and been moved around,”  says Col Foster, “but that room is the only one that has not been modified.” 

It was in this mess hall that Sir Sam Hughes, then-Minister of Militia and Defence, received a message from a Parliamentary runner announcing the start of the First World War in 1914. He allegedly stood on a table to announce the news to a gathering of officers present following a Tuesday night parade.

“Whether he stood on the table or not is a bit of a legend,”  says Col Foster. “But the table itself was a poker table and it and the chairs are all still there. The fireplace is still there, the wood panelling is all the same. They even found lighting fixtures that look very much like the original gas lamps.” 

Important events and interesting occurrences

The Drill Hall has witnessed countless events and many Canadians have been deployed through its doors during its 135 years of existence. Those include:

  • The dispatch of Foot Guards to the North-West Canada Rebellion, 1885
  • The Canadian announcement of the start of the First World War in 1914
  • The lying-in-state of Sir William Lyon Mackenzie-King in 1950
  • The dispatch of  Foot Guards and the Camerons to the Ontario/Quebec Ice Storm in 1998
  • The repatriation of the Unknown Soldier in 2000
  • The location of the early Canadian War Museum
  • Each day in summer, the Ceremonial Guard departs to initiate the Changing of the Guard ceremony on Parliament Hill
  • The start of the Remembrance Day Parade
  • The start of the Canada Day Parade

Cartier Square Drill Hall today

“It’s still very much a working drill hall and armoury,”  says Col Foster. “Beside the two reserve units, both of which parade at least one night a week, there is a cadet unit of 12 to 18-year-olds that is affiliated with the Foot Guards.” 

“We maintain certain traditions at the Drill Hall that continue within the messes, the social events of the past,” says Col Foster. “The longest standing one is the Foot Guards Sergeants’ Mess, held annually around the 2nd of May where they remember the campaign of the Northwest Rebellion. Then there is the Cameron Highlanders’ Junior Ranks celebration of Robbie Burns Day.” 

Major ceremonial events such as the Remembrance Day Parade start at the Drill Hall. The Changing of the Ceremonial Guard begins from there daily during the summer months. The building and grounds are used for a variety of community events where appropriate, such as the Canada Army Run weekend and Winterlude, Ottawa’s annual winter festival held each February.

This article is one of an occasional series on historically interesting armouries across Canada.

By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs

Date modified: