Fast facts about Public Services and Procurement Canada

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) was instrumental in building much of Canada’s early infrastructure. The department constructed highways, railroads, bridges, canals, dams, dry docks, the Parliament Buildings and other “public works” throughout Canada. Have a look at these interesting facts about the history and development of Canadian infrastructure.

A pedestrian-only street with people sitting on benches while others are walking alongside the shops.

Sparks Street, looking east between Metcalfe and Elgin streets in April 1968. Sparks Street now has permanent installations. The street surface has been replaced by concrete slabs.

Roads, streets and highways

The Alaska Highway was constructed in 1943 to ensure land access to Alaska from the lower 48 states during the Second World War. Today, PSPC is responsible for a section of the Alaska Highway extending from kilometre 133, north of Fort St. John, British Columbia, to kilometre 968, at the B.C./Yukon border.

For many years after the introduction of the automobile, highways would close down for the winter. By 1918, inexpensive methods of removing snow from the streets had been developed in cities where economic activities were too important to be interrupted by snow. In the 1920s, the Department of Public Works cleared snow from the roadways on Parliament Hill and on parts of Wellington Street. It was also responsible for clearing 402.3 kilometres (250 miles) of city sidewalks using horse-drawn, walkway ploughs.

Ever wonder how Sparks Street evolved as a pedestrian-only street? The suggestion to close the street to vehicles was made shortly after the streetcar service was discontinued in the late 1950s. In 1960, a small section of Sparks Street was closed to traffic as an experiment: the city’s first pedestrian-only mall. Soon, tree and shrub plantings, street furniture, artwork, flower boxes, shelters and benches became permanent fixtures. Today, the buildings on the north side of the mall are owned and operated by Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Railways

The Department of Public Works was created with a mandate that included transportation infrastructure for canals and railways, allowing Canadians to travel even in winter weather.

As such, the department played an important role in the construction of Canada’s railway system, which it built and managed up until 1879, when the responsibility was transferred to the Department of Railways and Canals.

Map showing the Intercolonial Railway route between Quebec and the Maritimes.

The Department of Public Works built the Intercolonial Railway between 1867 and 1870, linking communities across the Maritimes and Quebec. Did you know the route of the Intercolonial reflected the tension that had grown between Canada and the United States during the American Civil War and the subsequent Fenian Raids on Canada? In fact, instead of traversing southern New Brunswick, which was densely populated, the Intercolonial crossed the lightly populated north shore. It did so to maximize its distance from the United States and make the Intercolonial more defensible in time of war.

There were three major railway construction eras in Canada: the 1850s, 1870 to 1890, and 1895 to 1917. Beginning in 1850, a total of 3,218.6 kilometres of track would be laid in the next 10 years.

In 1918, Canadian National Railways (CNR) was used to describe all of the government-owned and -operated railways. The federal government created the CNR company as a means to simplify the funding and operation of the various railway companies that existed at the time. By 1923, the Intercolonial, Canadian Northern, National Transcontinental, Grand Trunk Pacific and Grand Trunk Railway had become part of the CNR. The system was referred to as the Canadian National Railways between 1918 and 1960, and as Canadian National (CN) from 1960 to the present. The CN is the largest rail network in Canada and the only transcontinental rail network in North America. It transports hundreds of billions of dollars in goods, and in 2013 earned over 10 billion dollars in revenue.

Buildings

In response to the urgent demand for more federal buildings following Confederation, the Department of Public Works established a chief engineer position, responsible for all public buildings and public works. With the addition of a chief architect position in 1872, the architectural branch was capable of preparing designs for a full range of public buildings and of overseeing much of their construction by local builders. The department developed a useful model for public-service buildings in Canada through its self-sufficiency in design, construction and maintenance of federal buildings. But, with the arrival of the First World War and later the Depression, the chief architect was forced to turn to the private sector for assistance. Today, design by private firms has become the norm and public architects act instead as client representatives, explaining government requirements to private architects.

Post offices reflected most strongly the presence of the federal government in 19th-century Canada as they were one of the Department of Public Works’ major clients. These buildings were often substantial structures, regarded as important public landmarks in their communities.

Public Services and Procurement Canada is responsible for preserving the Parliament Buildings, as well as the heritage treasures that lie within them. Did you know that the Centre Block’s interior displays approximately 1,400 stone sculptures? The sculptures are in keeping with the Victorian High Gothic style of the adjacent West and East blocks and display a recurring theme of Canadian flora and fauna.

Waterways, bridges and dams

The Burlington Canal Lift Bridge, located on the western shore of Lake Ontario, was opened in 1962 and spans the Burlington Canal. The canal was among a series of waterway projects begun 200 years ago to provide navigation from Lake Erie to the Atlantic Ocean. Since its installation, the bridge has been operated in excess of 166,380 times, allowing the passage of over 250,000 vessels. Today, Public Services and Procurement Canada is working to improve the bridge’s performance by replacing its outdated control systems, main drive motors and overhead cables.

In 1905, the town of Latchford, Ontario, was named in honour of the provincial commissioner of Public Works, Francis Robert Latchford. Built in 1913, the Latchford Dam sits on the Montreal River and controls the water level of Bay Lake. Check out this photo of the original contract signed by Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1909, authorizing the construction of the original Latchford Dam. Today, the dam’s legacy endures through the newly constructed Latchford Dam, built adjacent to the original structure.

During the 1960 to 70s, testing bridges proved to be a challenging task for public works engineers, who began to search for better ways to understand how suspension bridges react against the harsh Canadian climate. While designing the A. Murray MacKay Bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia, engineers feared its lightweight steel orthotropic deck would create a potential for aerodynamic instability during construction. Leading the way in wind engineering and wind tunnel testing, public works engineers created a new turbulent flow testing of complete models. This model differed significantly from sectional testing in smooth flow, which could misrepresent performance and lead to incorrect or faulty design decisions.

2 pages showing a typewritten contract with signatures.

A glimpse at the contract signed by Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1909 authorizing the construction of the original Latchford Dam. You can also see the list of bidders!

A black and white photo of a model of a bridge.

The turbulent testing of full models was regarded as one of Canada’s best engineering and public works projects. Blown-up photos of one of the wind tunnel models, tested at the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory, were exhibited in Montréal at Expo ’67. This model was crucial in the design of the A. Murray MacKay Bridge.

Other

Spanning Parliament Hill’s western escarpment is a historical stairway called the West Slope stair. Initially made of wood, the stairs were first built between 1868 and 1870 during the construction of Lover’s Walk, a recreational pathway that ran about half a mile in length, halfway up the western escarpment. By 1914, the Department of Public Works deemed it necessary to remove and replace the stairs leading from Parliament Hill to the Lover’s Walk by a stairway made of concrete. In 1939, Lover’s Walk was closed due to safety concerns and by 1947, the National Capital Commission began building a public shoreline promenade along the edge of the Ottawa River. The concrete stairs that had been constructed to serve Lover’s Walk were later extended using wood to provide access to the Ottawa River Pathway in 1986. Today, Public Services and Procurement Canada recently completed the reconstruction of the West Slope stair, replacing the old concrete and wood structure with steel platforms, wooden decks and steps with aluminum handrails.

Interesting fact

The newly reconstructed West Slope stair is comprised of:

  • 9 switchbacks: a zigzag path for climbing a steep grade
  • 26 landings: level platforms between 1 flight of stairs and another
  • 34 sets of stringers: long horizontal beams used for structural purposes
  • 287 steps: the equivalent of a 12-storey building
High angle view of a steep outdoor staircase.

View of the newly reconstructed West Slope stair.

More information

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