Bill Waiser

Walter Scott Monument Sask

Driving force behind Legislative Building missed opening

At the May 2016 unveiling of the restored dome atop the Saskatchewan Legislative Building, Premier Brad Wall paid tribute to the province’s first premier, Walter Scott.

It was at Scott’s insistence, Wall observed, “that Saskatchewan should have a legislature that represented the character and ambitions of its people.” And the dome was a physical expression of the “optimism, hope and high expectations that animated Saskatchewan in the early days.”

These heady words could easily be dismissed as political hyperbole. But Premier Scott spoke about the Legislative Building in similarly glowing terms. Nor was Wall exaggerating when he suggested that Scott was the driving force behind the structure.

From his first days as premier in 1905, Scott wanted a Legislative Building that matched the needs of the not-too-distant future when Saskatchewan’s population was expected to top several million.

In June 1906, cabinet approved the purchase of a 168-acre parcel of land, known as the Old Sinton property, south of the Wascana Creek reservoir. It was also decided, on the advice of a landscape architect, that the structure would face north and the surrounding grounds be developed into a public park.

The building design was determined by an architectural competition — won by Edward and W.S. Maxwell of Montreal in December 1907. But the proposed structure still reflected Scott’s vision and influence.

The specifications called for a 125-seat legislative chamber — at a time when there were only 25 members — and provision for enlargement by the adding of two wings if necessary in the future. There was also to be a central dome, so that the building would serve as a kind of landmark, capable of being seen for miles in any direction.

The projected price tag was $1.75 million, twice the original estimate.

In July 1908, P. Lyall and Sons of Montreal began driving the first of more than 3,000 piles for the massive edifice; almost 1,800 would be needed to support the central dome. By the following spring, crews had completed the skeletal framework and were ready to start on the red brick exterior.

But on Premier Scott’s intervention, it was decided to switch to Tyndall stone — a design change that resulted in additional cost and delay, but one that ultimately enhanced the graceful appearance of the structure.

A further slowdown was experienced in the late summer of 1909, when the local men working on the project left for harvest. Construction had reached the point, however, where Scott could confidently proceed with the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone on Monday, Oct. 4, 1909.

That event attracted an estimated 6,000 people who watched as Gov. Gen. Earl Grey took an engraved silver trowel with a special buffalo horn handle and smoothed the mortar before the block was carefully lowered into place.  Not even a sudden, brief downpour, sweeping across the lake, could dampen Premier Scott’s enthusiasm. “Saskatchewan demands a building of no mean dimensions,” he triumphantly declared to the thunderous roar of the crowd.

Almost exactly four years later, on Oct. 12, 1912, another governor general, Prince Arthur (the Duke of Connaught), the third and favourite son of Queen Victoria, officially opened the building.

The ceremony was held in the early evening so that the majestic dome, awash in brilliant light, stood out as a beacon against the night sky.

Premier Scott, though, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, it fell to acting premier Jim Calder to formally welcome the royal party and host the evening’s festivities.

So, where was the man responsible for the grand structure rising from the prairie south of Wascana Creek?

The premier was touring Europe, trying to find a cure for the depression that would haunt him to his final days. The onset of the illness may have started during the winter of 1906-07, when he suffered a bout of pneumonia and thereafter began to flee the province every fall in search of rest in a warmer setting. It might also have been aggravated by the dark secret that he carried with him — that he had been born out of wedlock.

Whatever the cause, Scott was not a well man and was away from the province for at least half his tenure as premier.

That he somehow managed to oversee the completion of the Legislative Building was a testimony to the strength of his faith in Saskatchewan’s destiny.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The Walter Scott statue on the Saskatchewan Legislative Building grounds.
Photo Source: Bill Waiser
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Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.