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Traces found of books lost in pre-Confederation parliament blaze

Charred remains of books discovered by archaeologists in Montreal on August 26, 2013.

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Archaeologists have uncovered a reminder of the heritage items lost by the destruction of Canada's pre-Confederation parliament in Montreal.

The charred remains of seven books have been recovered from a dig at the Old Montreal site since last week, officials involved in the dig said Monday.

They are hardly recognizable as books and appear, in colour and consistency, like a cross between charcoal and bitumen.

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About 24,000 books and documents — some of them dating back to the original colony of New France — were destroyed in an 1849 fire.

A mob of English-speakers burned down the parliament in a fit of fury against plans by the government of the day to compensate francophone landowners for losses during the 1837-38 rebellions.

Parliament only sat at that Montreal site for a few years but it was enough to produce key moments in Canadian history there — including the establishment of a modern democracy.

The supervisor of the archeological dig, Louise Pothier, said she was thrilled to find the artifacts.

She said the Pointe-a-Calliere museum had been digging at the site for two years without finding books so the discovery was a pleasant surprise.

"This is an extraordinary symbolic discovery in the history of the building that we didn't dare hope for (anymore)," Pothier said.

"We hoped to find what might be the remains of a library — and it's starting to look that way, so we're very happy."

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The content of the books is difficult to decipher. However, an initial inspection leads the archeological team to believe that one of them was written in French and may have been about wildlife.

They will be sent to the Centre de conservation du Quebec, which will analyze the remains in the hope of performing restoration work.

Diggers had found other items over the last few years, including a pair of glasses and a tea set.

The dig, which is set to wrap up in a few weeks, is part of a project to create an archeological attraction in Old Montreal in time for the city's 375th birthday and the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

Pothier said there was an "extremely precious library" in that parliament, with books dating back to the original colony established by France centuries earlier.

Much of the history in that building, however, came on the floor of the parliament itself.

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With the establishment of responsible government in the Province of Canada, a cabinet was formed from the majority party in the legislature whose members were accountable to voters.

Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine became the first Canadian prime minister of the colony, which united parts of modern-day Quebec and Ontario.

The parliament moved on to Quebec City and Toronto and, eventually, to Ottawa but many of the conditions of Canadian governance and English-French shared institutions were laid in Montreal.

The site had been a market in the 19th century and was most recently a parking lot, along the western edge of the old city.

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