Tree Protection in the Parliamentary Precinct

The Centre Block on Parliament Hill will be undergoing extensive renovations, which are expected to last at least 10 years. It will be closed for that entire period. We have heard concerns that one or more mature trees near the structure may be removed for ease of access to the building or to otherwise facilitate the renovation process. We are particularly concerned about a mature elm, which stands just to the east of the Centre Block, near the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald (shown just to the right of the Centre block in this recent image from the Hill cam), and more close up in the image further down.

It may be just one tree, but its location, historical significance and symbolism make it a distinctive tree worthy of preservation. Parliament Hill, in addition to its national importance as the location of the seat of government and as an exceptional built heritage and tourism feature, is also a significant greenspace in the heart of the Capital. Every one of its natural features, including individual trees, ought to be given the utmost protection.

This is particularly significant in the face of the loss of mature trees in Ottawa, which is approaching crisis levels in the core area, much of it due to infill and renovations. And doubly significant in the face of the climate change emergency we all face. The federal government could lead by example as a wise steward of greenspace under its care by preserving this distinctive heritage tree.

To signal our concern, we wrote a letter to the Chief Executive Officer of the National Capital Commission, which exercises  planning oversight regarding the Capital Domain. We received an acknowledgement and a referral to the Executive Director, Capital Planning, with whom we will now follow up on means to preserve this tree.

February 4, 2019

We have received a letter  from the NCC confirming that it is reviewing, along with the Federal Heritage Building Review Office, a proposal from Public Services and Procurement Canada regarding tree and monument relocation on Parliament Hill. The NCC has a clear mandate to protect trees and greenspace on Parliament Hill, but we are not convinced that they will be able to withstand the pressure from PSPC to make space for staging areas and access to the Centre Block by removing this centenary elm and other mature trees.

As we are facing a climate emergency, we cannot afford to lose any more mature trees. There are strong parallels between developers/landowners removing trees for renovation or infill in the city core, and the federal government doing the same on Parliament Hill. By saving this tree, the federal government would be setting the example.

To raise public awareness about this risk to mature trees on Parliament Hill, we issued a press release today. In coming days, we will work with partners to ensure that the decision to remove or save this tree is taken in the clear light of day, not behind closed doors.

Photo Gallery

February 10, 2019

As a result of the media coverage following our February 4 press release, Public Services and Procurement Canada has issued a statement saying that they are indeed recommending that the centenary elm be removed as part of the Centre Block Rehabilitation project. In support of their argument, they released information on an arborist’s report from September 2018 that claims that the tree is in poor condition and is unlikely to survive another five years. We seriously question this assessment and have written a letter to the new CEO of the National Capital Commission, Tobi Nussbaum, calling on him to release any additional information they may have on the condition of this tree given that they have been responsible for its maintenance over may decades. We do not believe that the tree is in such poor condition that it should be destroyed. Rather, we call for it to be preserved and protected.

February 11, 2019

Following our learning event yesterday at the base of the centenary elm, we received a number of offers of assistance from very knowledgeable tree experts. As we question PSPC’s assessment that the tree is in poor health, we sent a letter today to Jennifer Garrett, the PSPC Director General responsible for the Centre Block Rehabilitation project, asking her to release the arborist’s report on which this assessment is based, so that it can be subjected to a peer review of sorts. Our view is that any decision to remove this tree must be based on much more solid evidence than what we have seen to date.

February 20, 2019

The University of Guelph, which lists food, agriculture and the bio-economy, and environmental stewardship and biodiversity as signature fields of research, has, for the last 20 years, operated the Elm Recovery Project. This project seeks to identify surviving large elms across Ontario and screen them for resistance to Dutch elm disease. As they find disease-tolerant specimens, they collect genetic material to boost local gene pools with pollen from these elms. The goal is to speed the natural recovery of the elm population as the favourable traits of these trees are passed on to the next generations of genetically diverse elm seedlings.

The Elm recovery Project currently has 800 large elms listed in its database, including some in the Ottawa area. For some reason, it did not include, until now, the centenary elm on Parliament Hill. Upon hearing of this mature survivor of Dutch elm disease, they were keen to add it to their inventory.

Arrangements would now need to be made to have the elm screened through inoculation to determine if it is disease tolerant, which is something we will ask PSPC to undertake before making any final decision about the elm. Should it be found to possess these favourable traits, it should at minimum be preserved until spring so that pollen can be collected when it next flowers.

February 21, 2019

This 1979 video from CBC Archives shows the devastation that Dutch elm disease visited upon the elm population on Parliament Hill and all around Ottawa 40 years ago. We learn from it that of the 100,000+ trees lost to the disease or cut down to prevent its spread, 2,000 were earmarked by the NCC for preservation. These trees were sprayed to kill the type of beetle that carried the fungal disease and then injected with fungicide, a treatment that had to be continued over the years. The centenary elm on Parliament Hill was no doubt one of those that was saved. How many of the 2,000 are still alive today? Is the centenary elm on Parliament Hill one of 3, one of 10 or one of 100 elm trees surviving on federal lands in the national capital? It is of vital public interest that the federal government ascertain how many survivors remain before making a decision to remove this centenary elm.