A small town in Ontario

For all its situation at the nexus of political power in Canada, Ottawa is a small town. This is no Rome or Paris or London. Helsinki might be nearer the mark, though without the history. The grand look that political edifices and their surroundings bestow on their capitals peters out in short order here. In Ottawa, pomp and grandeur cover not much more than a few city blocks (the plans for a ceremonial mall down Elgin Street never did come to anything) and it all bleeds quickly into a clutter of dull offices and charmless malls and shops. The best view of the place is from across the river in Hull, from the terraces of Douglas Cardinal’s great Museum of Civilization, recently renamed the Museum of History (we Canadians always know how to grab people with language).

I’ve never been able to escape the sense of being parachuted in from somewhere else when I go to Ottawa—one more know-it-all outsider come to advise the locals on how it should be done. It sets in on the taxi ride into town from the airport, along the parkway that was supposed to impress the visiting international elite, past the elegant old stone houses set in trees and greenery along the banks of the canal. I am always beset by a sense of unreality: is this where all that governing gets done? It looks and feels like a political toy-town.

Those eager young guys with their man-purses hurrying into Darcy McGee’s noisy bar, those harried middle-aged men striding down Sparks Street in their dark suits with their out-of-date lapel poppies and their arm-loads of folders, those women at the bus-stops in their parkas and their fur-edged ankle boots, those twenty-somethings at the coffee counters and the chip vans with their ID badges of privileged admission hanging round their necks or clipped to their waists … are they really the machinery that shapes the policy that guides us?

Well, yes they are and it is.

Part of the toy-town feel is the cleanliness and decorum of it all. The uneventful boringness. Of course, Ottawa has its little scandals, we even fire senators and rescind honours if the offence has been egregious enough, but there’s no sense of seamy underbelly, things you’d really rather not know about, the way there is in London or Washington. There’s no real power here.

Over the years, I became perhaps more familiar with Ottawa than I ever thought I needed to be. In the two decades that I was a regular, I must have stayed in every hotel in the city (the Canada Council and Canadian Commission for UNESCO accommodation fixers were very democratic in their hotel assignments) and I knew exactly how far I had to walk from wherever I was staying to the best Indian restaurant, the best deli, the nearest liquor store (if it was the one in the Byward Market I knew I had a good chance of bumping into someone from the Council).

Often, in my advisory panel years, I would be in the city over the weekend, which meant that Sunday was free. Friends were always welcoming, but there’s a limit to how much hospitality you can legitimately extort, even when you arrive bearing gifts. I became so familiar with the galleries and bookshops and craft stores (and, in the summer, the parks and markets) that I could have acted as an unpaid guide for the Ottawa tourist bureau. On sunny afternoons (these were the years before the security upgrades) I amused myself giving visitors directions around the Parliament buildings.

At least the Council and UNESCO connections opened the doors to some of the more interesting places in the city, places most of us would never get to visit. Rideau Hall, for instance: counting GG award ceremonies, state dinners and my own Order of Canada ceremony, I was fortunate to be on parade in the grand mansion, resplendent in my three-day Hong Kong tux, with three different Governors-General. I loved the place, its light and creamy elegance, its just-right ceremonials, the saluting officers opening your taxi door (or, on one occasion, guiding the bus in through the back gate to avoid a front-gate blockade that was being staged by the staff of the National Gallery of Canada, whose director was on the bus). You were expected to be on your best behaviour, of course, but security was impeccably invisible, access to the mighty was not just easy but encouraged and you could wander more or less where you fancied as long as you stayed downstairs: in Adrienne Clarkson’s day you could even check out her husband’s study, and she laid on a jazz band for into-the-night dancing after the formalities.

The Rideau Club, with its dark, panelled walls, grand paintings, buttoned-leather chairs and memorabilia in glass cabinets, was one of the preferred spots for dinner meetings of the Council or for awards ceremonies like the Killam prizes, and on occasion I was treated to lunch by an MP at the Parliamentary restaurant on the sixth floor of the Centre Block. The trick there is to maintain eye contact with your lunch partner—not easy when you’re both compulsively checking out who’s there, who’s arriving, who’s leaving—and to keep your mind on what is being said … at your table, that is, not at the tables nearby, where the conversation usually seems a whole lot more interesting than your own.

Teatime with the Speaker was also fun. This was your reward for sitting through Question Period in the company of the GG award laureates the day after their big Rideau Hall party. You’d listen to the shouting and the insults for a while, then you’d be shepherded down a flight of stairs to the Speaker’s chambers. In his years in the chair  Gilbert Parent was a particularly genial host. He took an obvious delight in sharing stories—the tale for instance of how photographer Karsh inveigled Churchill into that  famous bulldog pose in the portrait that has a place of honour, along many other honourables, in the Speaker’s warm and cosy den. The unassuming engagement and good humour with which he welcomed his guests seemed to me to be the essence of what was best about Ottawa, and about Canada: you were welcome, and there was no expectation, no threat. And that sense of warmth and cosiness and welcome is perhaps what stays with me most about Ottawa—not just the Parliament buildings (though certainly those) but Ottawa life in general.

Warmth and cosiness is certainly what you gravitate to when winter comes. Ottawa winters are so ridiculous that the houses are built (like those in Toronto and Montreal and many other parts of the freeze-belt) with their front entrances elevated above the ground, so the doors are still accessible when the snow piles up.

And it does pile up. Pierre Trudeau’s famous walk in the snow is a romantic notion, but the romance dies in a hurry when the temperature is shrinking the mercury out of the bottom of the thermometer and exposed flesh freezes if you breathe on it. I walked once from the Museum of Civilization over the bridge to the National Arts Centre on a midwinter night—bolstered in my foolhardiness by the liquor that had fuelled the reception, I was the only moving figure in a frozen-solid landscape, the river beneath me dark and shining—and I thought my extremities were going to fall off.

People who live in Ottawa year-round say the only way you can survive is by meeting the challenge head-on, which is why there are so many winter-sports enthusiasts in the place. Once the canal is frozen it becomes the road to work for thousands of skating commuters; watching their ceaseless, rocking flow in the thin winter sun, the big old buildings on Parliament Hill in the background, only serves to reinforce the sense of unreality.

Summer, on the other hand: summer in Ottawa can be sultry, seductive, caressing. Everyone comes out to play. For a decade or more one of my more pleasant tasks was to deliver the pre-performance talks in the salon of the National Arts Centre at the Canada Dance Festival each June. The festival presented companies and dancers from across the country, and show-times began around noon and ran into the evenings. Often I gave several talks a day. The festival put me up in an apartment hotel for the duration, and some of my happiest memories of Ottawa are of sauntering along the canal to the NAC to do my talks, holding hands with Susan under the leafy trees in the summer sunshine.

Even though it’s hard to take the place seriously, there’s a beguiling undercurrent of well-intentionedness about the people who work there. In bigger capitals, you can smell the cynicism and despair in the corridors of power. In Ottawa, at least in the years I knew it best, I came to respect the willingness of its people to do their best by the country. It seemed to match the air of potential that hung about Canada itself, as if they wanted to coax the country into the beginnings of maturity on the world stage. You were more or less obliged to do your bit, and you didn’t mind.


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