Burnt Books Beget Burning Curiosity

Mes amis, I am about to share with you some very exciting news. But first, I’m going to tell you a story.

Once upon a time, shortly after Upper and Lower Canada merged into one country, the city of Montréal was chosen to be Canada’s capital (sorry Kingston). Instead of building a new parliament building, a building called the St. Anne’s Market was chosen to be the political hub. The Market was centrally located, standing where the Place d’Youville now is, at the corner of Place Royal and McGill Street.

Things were alright for a while. The Tories won the 1844 election and began doing their thing. But, as always seems to happen under Tory governments, the economy quickly started to suck and by 1847 there were so many bankruptcies that Canadian citizens were getting antsy.

In response to the economic meltdown, the Draper-Viger Government popped up and started a commission that investigated the bankruptcy claims of those living in Lower Canada. This angered the Tories, as Tories do not like having any of their power taken away. To add insult to injury, the 1848 election saw the opposition party gain more seats in the House of Assembly. This led to debates, disagreements, and disorder in parliament.

I’ll skip some of the nitty-gritty and get right down to the good stuff. A group of Tories eventually got so frustrated that they decided to throw their torches at the St. Anne’s Market, and thereby set fire to the parliament building. Gas lines burst, and the fire spread quickly. Nearby buildings also caught fire although the Tories, being the nice people they were, didn’t stand in the way of firefighters trying to put out these flames. They did, however, stand in the way of firefighters trying to put out the flames of the burning parliament building. Not like they were trying very hard; the fire marshal actually helped start the fire. I kind of picture the guy standing to the side, smugly singing the chorus of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” under his breath.

In the end, St. Anne’s Market was completely destroyed and only a couple of small things (like a portrait of Queen Victoria) were saved from the rubble. The parliamentary library, now thought to be the largest library in North America at the time, went up in smoke and most of the archives, books, and documents it held went with it.

After the fire the site remained relatively undisturbed for over 100 years. In 2010-2011, though, archaeologists took to the area and began a dig sponsored by the Point-a-Calliere museum. It turns out that some small items, like pairs of eyeglasses and a tea set, actually survived the fire and have sat in the rubble for all these years. Seriously? A tea set? That must have been one sturdy tea set.

Anyway, now comes the exciting news that I promised you at the beginning of this post.

Last week, the archaeologists stumbled across the charred remains of some of the books once held in the great parliamentary library. They don’t look like much, mind you, but they’re books that could hold some important information regarding Canada’s parliamentary history and the development of modern democracy. One of the books seems like it might even be about wildlife. Maybe it will tell tales of talking moose or flying beavers. Really, the possibilities are endless. You never know what those crazy Québécois will come up with.

So there you have it: book history in action. More information should be made available as book conservators work their magic to recover and restore these treasures. For now, though, nous attendons.

You can learn more about this find at the CBC and Global websites.