Ottawa Citizen - May 26, 2012
By Maria Cook
Roy Romanow remembers tea and coffee served during the wee hours as Canada's premiers and their advisers worked on a controversial constitutional deal in Suite 418 of the Château Laurier Hotel.
It was November 4, 1981, the so-called Night of the Long Knives, an gruelling session at which an agreement was reached to patriate the Constitution without the consent of Quebec's separatist premier, René Lévesque.
"I can tell you one thing - there was no drinking from the mini-bar," says Romanow, then Saskatchewan's attorney-general and later its premier. "This was serious stuff. We knew if we failed we would be facing a national referendum and a huge international crisis that could have affected our economy and our dollar."
The conference was taking place across the street at the old train station - the Government Conference Centre - connected to the Château by tunnel. The hub of late-night negotiations was Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney's suite, furnished with couches and easy chairs.
"We would sit around with our officials and drafters and the other premiers coming in and out," recalls Romanow.
The Château Laurier is often called Canada's "Third Parliament" because so many momentous political decisions have been made there - from leadership conventions in the ballroom to backroom deals in the restaurants, bars and guest rooms.
In 1948, Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced his retirement in the ballroom. In 1966, the hotel hosted the tumultuous Progressive Conservative party convention that saw the overthrow of party leader John Diefenbaker. In 1980, Pierre Trudeau delivered his famous "Welcome to the 1980s" speech at the hotel after defeating Joe Clark's Conservatives in a federal election.
"You almost feel like the ghosts of these giants are still around," says Romanow. "It's just a great historic place."
Located just across the Rideau Canal from Parliament Hill, the Château cemented its relationship with political power from the start. It was named after Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister who persuaded his government to authorize the sale of the prestigious site in Major's Hill Park to the Grand Truck Railway. Suitably, Laurier was the first to sign the hotel's guest register when it opened in 1912.
In 1916, during the First World War, when the Parliament buildings caught fire, the government held a midnight cabinet meeting in the justice minister's suite at the Château and set up temporary office quarters at the hotel.
R. B. Bennett, prime minister during the depths of the Depression from 1930 to 1935, lived in a luxurious 5,000-square-foot suite at the Château. The large rooms featured high ceilings, elaborate mouldings and oak-panelled walls.
"He was a multimillionaire who didn't care to have all of the problems and issues that people have when they live in a house," says John Boyko, author of Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation. "He liked the idea of simply being waited on. His meals were prepared, his rooms were cleaned."
At the hotel, Bennett met with cabinet ministers, prepared his radio addresses and dealt with correspondence before walking to the office on the Hill.
"It was also at a time when press and others just respected there was a divide between a personal life and private life," says Boyko. "What happened at the Laurier stayed at the Laurier. It's like Vegas today."
After the war, about 40 to 50 senators lived at the Château and about the same number of MPs, writes Joan E. Rankin in her 1990 book, Meet Me at the Château.
The July 1948 issue of Canadian National magazine quoted a "prominent government official" as saying the Château Laurier was "the third chamber of Parliament. The Commons and the Senate merely approve the bills which have been agreed upon in the Château."
The base of backroom politics was the Canadian Grill, a lower-level restaurant open between 1929 and 1991. It had deep alcoves, leather banquette seats and dim lighting.
"The Canadian Grill was absolutely the place to go," says Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, 68. "It was designed so you could have a quiet conversation. The waiters were smart enough, they knew when to come in and say, 'Is everything all right?' and when to stay clear because you were close to getting a deal."
He recalls as a political staffer in the 1960s and 1970s watching politicians "working on deals for the next day in Parliament with different parties talking with each other."
Among those who held court at the Grill was Liberal political organizer Senator Keith Davey, who told Rankin: "I often took people to the Grill to persuade them to run for office - such as Joe Green, Larry Pennell, Eugene Whelan, John Munro, Peter Newman, Walter Gordon, Andre Ouellett."
Trudeau lived at the Château between 1965 and 1968, before he became prime minister and moved up the way to 24 Sussex Drive. The famous photo of him sliding down a banister took place at the hotel during the '68 Liberal leadership convention.
After the 1979 election, when Trudeau arrived at the Château to concede defeat to Joe Clark, "there was a great cat-and-mouse game with the press stalking and hanging out at the door on Mackenzie Street." recalls Kenny.
"Our objective was to get him to the stage. We knew it was a very emotional night. We brought him in a door on the other side of the building."
Prime minister Louis St. Laurent went to the Château barber shop every Saturday between 1948 and 1957 around 10 a.m. and waited his turn.
In a 2003 article, Maclean's magazine described Liberal cabinet minister Paul Martin Sr. would gather young Liberals in the hotel pool at the end of day during the 1950s.
"Martin Sr. would sit at pool's edge, dangling his legs and the braces he'd worn since a childhood bout of polio, the youth before him, explaining the day's events," the article said.
In the late 1950s, Conservative cabinet minister George Hees carried on his infamous fling with alleged Soviet spy Gerda Munsinger at the hotel.
Concierge Catherine Fetherstonhaugh recalls the 1990 Meech Lake Accord talks that took place across the street at the Government Conference Centre.
"When it was being negotiated, a lot of premiers stayed at the hotel (on the Fairmont Gold floor which offers a private lounge.) "Some met at the swimming pool for clandestine negotiations. There were little sidebar gatherings that took place in the lounge."
Ottawa-Vanier MP Mauril Belanger says that since renovations shut down Room 200 in the West Block, many Hill receptions have shifted to the Château, including diplomatic National Day events.
"There are still Members of Parliament of both houses who call it their home away from home," says Belanger, who met his wife in 1982 on a convention floor at the Château.
"If you go there at breakfast during the week, between 7 a.m. and 8.30 a.m. you'll see a plethora of parliamentarians, high-level public servants and diplomats. It's still very much a place where there is a lot of activity."
Though "it's not exactly the normal after-work hangout of the NDP," says Winnipeg MP Pat Martin, it's ideal for hosting delegations or constituency visitors and for "high-level confidential" meetings over meals and drinks.
"People from the diplomatic corps use that as a place to invite a politician that's neutral territory, that's close enough and still confidential, and of the right-fitting demeanour and atmosphere," says Martin, chair of the government operations and estimates committee.
"I've always considered it almost an extension of Parliament Hill. It's part of our day-to-day routine."