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Meet history-makers during free tours of B.C.'s iconic legislature building

An exterior view of the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria on August 26, 2011.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
May 23, 2017 - 7:00 AM

VICTORIA - Mary Ellen Smith appears unannounced at the chamber gates and recounts the historic moment in 1918 when she rose to speak in the legislature as British Columbia's first elected female provincial politician.

"My heart was beating so loudly in my ears I could hardly hear myself think," says actor Madeleine Humeny, wearing a period costume featuring a long, dark dress and bonnet during a free guided tour of the iconic political building that dominates the landscape of Victoria's Inner Harbour.

"We were just the right women at just the right time and in just the right place," says Humeny, who remains in character to explain Mary Ellen Smith's pivotal role in leading the struggle for women's rights in B.C., and ultimately the right to vote in 1917.

Smith, who became Canada's first female cabinet minister, introduced legislation guaranteeing minimum wages for women and advocated for the rights of single women and children.

Actors playing five prominent personalities from B.C.'s past are brought back to life to highlight the historical characters and events that helped shape and define the province. The actors are dressed in turn-of-the-century costumes and interact with visitors on the legislature grounds while delivering historically accurate monologues.

Other characters are Her Majesty Queen Victoria; Francis Mawson Rattenbury, the legislature's architect; Thomas Uphill, the longest serving MLA in B.C.'s history; and Amor De Cosmos, B.C.'s second premier.

Rattenbury was 25 when he won an architectural contest in 1892 to design B.C. Parliament Buildings. It was his first commission and the buildings described as free classical opened in February 1898. The cost of construction was just over $2 million.

Rattenbury designed the buildings to feature the raw materials of the province.

Grey andesite volcanic material on the building's facade is from Haddington Island. The granite used in the foundation and front stairs is from Nelson Island and the many hardwoods panelling interior rooms are from B.C. forests. The roof was originally tiled with slate from Jervis Inlet.

Tour guide Hanna Kim makes stops at the building's main interior rooms, halls and chambers, including the reception hall, the legislative chamber and the memorial rotunda and lower rotunda.

She stands before a large, brightly coloured aluminum cast of B.C.'s coat of arms, adopted in 1897, and explains the significance of the design, which reflects the province's colonial past and natural splendour.

The crowned lion represents the Queen's royal crest, while an elk signifies the former colony of Vancouver Island and a bighorn sheep represents the former mainland colony of British Columbia.

The Latin motto, Splendor Sine Occasu, means "beauty without diminishment," and ringing the bottom of the coat of arms is a dogwood garland, B.C.'s flower since 1956.

Kim stops at the second-floor memorial rotunda and asks visitors to look up to the tiny, winding staircase that leads to the octagonal renaissance-style dome that distinguishes B.C.'s legislature building from the many circular neo-classical domes of other North American parliament buildings.

She jokes that climbing the staircase is not part of the tour but mentions the dome is 30.5 metres high. The top of the dome includes one of the building's most recognized features, the two-metre-tall gold-plated statue of Capt. George Vancouver.

Mary Terhaar of Spokane, Wash., took the tour with her son Greg.

"It was exactly what we need, a little bit of history with all the symbolism," she said.

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If You Go...

The guided tours are about 45 minutes and run between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. Public tours are also available on weekends and holidays.

Visitors must go through a security check before the tours start.

There is a Parliamentary Gift Shop for visitors who may want to purchase a souvenir.

To take a tour, contact the Parliamentary Tour Office at 250-387-3046 or tours@leg.bc.ca.

tours@leg.bc.ca

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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