Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Ottawa's Parliament Hill – Who Owned It?

View of Barrack Hill and the Ottawa River at Bytown (Ottawa)
View of Barrack Hill and the Ottawa River at Bytown (Ottawa)

Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours going through some old genealogy file folders I created about 30 years ago. (I was young when I started genealogy ☺) I looked over each folder, filled with mostly general topics. I kept what I wanted, re-filed some material under more appropriate headings, and put the rest in a discard/recycle pile.

One file that got my interest was the one about the city of Ottawa. Back when I started being interested in my family’s history and genealogy, my grandfather Fred used to tell me the story about how his paternal ancestors once owned the land on which the federal parliament buildings are now located in Canada's capital.

The story went something like this: my grandfather’s father Pierre Belair (1851-1941) or his grandfather Paul Belair (1822-1902) owned property in what was later downtown Ottawa. His ancestor sold his land for a pair of oxen. In time, Canada’s federal government was built here and this area called Barrack Hill became known as Parliament Hill.

When I first heard this story, I thought it was pretty fantastic. But, I also thought that my grandfather’s tale might be too fantastic and wondered if he was pulling my leg.

About a decade later, I visited my sister and her young family in Ottawa. While there, I went to the land registry office to see if I could find any evidence that my Belair ancestors owned land in Ottawa. I told the clerk what I knew and asked if there were any documents that showed early 1800s Ottawa land owners. She couldn’t go that far back, she said. I then asked if there were any documents showing who owned the land before it became Crown property. She showed me some early documents or maps. I forget how old they were, but they weren’t helpful, and I couldn’t find my Belair ancestors on them.

After thanking the clerk, I visited the City of Ottawa Archives. I found a government publication that gave me some information, but not what I was hoping for. I read in a book that the Parliament Hill land “originally formed part of a 600-acre lot granted by the Crown, in 1802, to Jacob Carman, the son of a United Empire Loyalist” and that later, the current owner Hugh Fraser sold the land to Governor Dalhousie in 1823.1

So, it turned that someone did own the land that later became Parliament Hill, but it wasn’t my ancestor. I don’t really think my Pépère Fred deliberately told me a tall tale. I believe there might be a grain a truth in the story, but that I just haven’t found it. Maybe one day I will.

1. Parliament Hill / La Colline parlementaire, by Dr. Lucien Brault (Ottawa: National Capital Commission), ‘Introduction’.

Image credit:
“View of Barrack Hill and the Ottawa River at Bytown (Ottawa)”, by Edmund Willoughby Sewell (1800-1890). Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1991-120-3.

Copyright © 2013, Yvonne Demoskoff.


  1. Wow, will your expert knowledge in getting to the finish line, I just know you will discover, sometime, just what connection was there, as I'm sure like you, there is something to his story indeed. Now, to uncover it!

  2. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Karen! I certainly hope that one day I'll uncover the facts in my grandfather's story!