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THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: Under the dome

MLA Ron Cantelon used to get lost in the maze of tunnels under the legislature. - NEIL HORNER PHOTO
MLA Ron Cantelon used to get lost in the maze of tunnels under the legislature.
— image credit: NEIL HORNER PHOTO

Scott Fraser sees dead people.

Or at least, he sees one of them, but the Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA walks past him pretty much every day when he's working at the B.C. legislature.

The dead person in question is David Williams Higgins, who served as speaker of the legislature from 1890 to 1898.

A journalist, politician and author, Higgins was publisher of the Daily Colonist and Victoria Chronicle before he began his political career.

Fraser said the lore of the legislature has it that when he died, he had not had his official portrait mounted along with all the other former speakers in the hallway of the legislature. To avoid an awkward gap in the gallery, the tale goes that his body was propped up in a chair, his eyes were opened and the required photograph taken.

"I have no authoritative proof, but that's the scuttlebutt," Fraser said. "It's part of the legend of the place. Some people say there's a ghost in the building. In the basement there's an old jail and at least one MLA was put in there because he refused to obey the speaker to follow the rules of the house."

The photographer did a good job, but one can only do so much. Upon being challenged to identify which of the portraits was the corpse in question, both people on the tour immediately picked it out.

"That one."

Fraser said there are also tales of secret passageways under the legislature, besides the extensive network of tunnels that are open to the people who work there.

"There are rumours of tunnels under the building that actually let you leave the building and go across the street," he said. "I've heard that forever. My pass gets me in everything, but there are doors down there where when I hit the buttons, I can't get in."

Parksville-Qualicum MLA Ron Cantelon hasn't heard the tale about Higgins, but he has his own tales of underground lore to share.

During a tour of the accessible tunnels underneath the building, Cantelon points out the tiny, barred room that at one time served as the jail.

"We are in the dungeon, about to go to the jail," he quipped. "This is where they put bad MLAs. The speaker hasn't had to use it for a while. Up here however it's a little more gruesome."

The gruesomeness is just a few feet away, at a stairway with long metal bars reaching from floor to ceiling, the roof lined with heavy metal pipes.

"This is where a hanging took place," he said. "They just threw a rope over the pipe and away you go."

In the whitewashed tunnels are a number of locked doors leading to who knows where, although Cantelon surmised they are merely storage areas.

The building, designed by noted architect Francis Rattenbury, has an emphasis on the grand and picturesque.

"The building was designed so that every window has a view," Cantelon said.

One area the general public doesn't see is Cantelon's favourite room in the spectacular building. The legislative library is a truly beautiful piece of architecture, with soaring, decorated ceilings — a real work of art.

"This is the room I will miss the most," he said. "This is the best library in the world and they are very gentle with you about getting the books back."

Although the underground halls have much that is old or even antique, the room where staff produce  Hansard — the official transcript of all the business done in the legislature — is anything but out of date. The room has banks of desks and high-tech recording devices that would not look out of place on a Federation starship.

Back in the main hall, Cantelon points to the walls, which have mounted photographs and other memorabilia.

The walls, he said, used to bear large murals of life in early British Columbia, complete with inapproriately bare-breasted First Nations women.

"That may have been how people dressed in Hawaii, but that wasn't the case here," Cantelon said. "They were going to take them out, but I said, look, let's not destroy our history. Let's just put something up over them."

His suggestion was adopted and, while there is no outward sign that the murals are there, they will be available for viewing, should the decision about their suitability ever be reversed.

Cantelon also points to a newly-completed handicap access to the legislature, which allows people in wheelchairs easy and comfortable access to the building — a big improvement from what was there before.

A mixture of old and new, a tour of the B.C. legislature — particularly under the guidance of a sitting MLA — is an eye-opener and well worth the drive over the Malahat.

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