Ottawa is a city shrouded in myth, but for me two stand out in particular.
The first is that it is no fun. When I said to some friends and acquaintances in Montreal that I was heading two hours east to Canada’s capital city, they sniggered. ‘Ottawa?’ they said, ‘why would you go to Ottawa?’ It was as if we were ten years old and I had just told them that I do ballet or have a stamp collection. If Ottawa could speak, she might well say ‘my reputation precedes me.’ So why did I go? Because I had never been; and that, believe it or not, is as good a reason as any to go anywhere.
While Toronto and Montreal have agitated to become Canada’s cultural capital, economic capital, sporting capital, musical capital, media capital and, not to forget, actual capital, Ottawa has straddled the two metropolises with humble glee. While Toronto and Montreal argued like two school kids over whose Dad has a bigger car, Ottawa and her citizens got along just fine.
In that respect, the city is quintessentially Canadian, performing in a domestic context the role that Canada has traditionally played internationally. Anglo-Irish journalist and provocateur-in-chief Kevin Myers once wrote of Canada’s role in world affairs as ‘the perpetual wallflower that stands on the edge of the hall, waiting for someone to come and ask her for a dance.’ Ottawa’s role within Canada is much the same; the capital is a slight detour to the north from the main Toronto-Montreal route, just as Canada is a slight detour to the north from the main US-Europe routes. Both easily missed, both blithely dismissed.
Ottawa is fun, as much fun for the political anorak as for fans of hip hop or electro nightclubs. Much of the city’s nightlife is contained within the refreshingly low-rise Byward Market area, situated beside the Rideau Canal. On Tuesday evening, I watched the sun set over Gatineau, Quebec from a bridge connecting Rideau St and Wellington St (possibly soon to be Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard). Below the bridge were the final seven or eight locks of the canal as it prepared to enter the river. I have always considered the construction of canals among the more underrated achievements of humanity, and the merging of sheer natural beauty with human triumph and endevour became a sort of microcosm of Canada itself.
A couple of minutes up the road stands Parliament Hill, and it is on that Hill, where Canada’s federal House of Commons and Senate meet, that the second of the myths mentioned in the opening gambits of this piece resides. As mentioned before on this page, the idea that Queen Victoria herself chose Ottawa as the nation’s capital in 1857 is one that rankles, mainly because it is almost completely untrue. I say ‘almost’ because the monarch did rubber stamp the arrangement, so to speak, but it was Macdonald, Cartier and other fathers of Confederation who decided that the small lumber town would become home to the government of Canada.
Shawni is a tour guide from New Brunswick. Towards the end of our tour, we entered a hall where portraits hang of all monarchs who have reigned from Victoria forth. Shawni mentioned the Victoria-Ottawa myth as historical fact, much to the salient satisfaction of two women from Liverpool who became instantly proud over what they believed to be true. In deference to Shawni, she is likely to know far more about Canadian history than me, but this is one thing that most historians now accept as a sort of quasi-myth. I did not want to spoil the Liverpudlians’ fun or embarrass Shawni, so I bit my bitter Irish tongue. She later told me in private that she is told from above what to say.
My brief trip was rounded off by attending Question Period in the public gallery of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister and his front bench faced the Speaker always while speaking – a strange, quirky tactic – while opposition MPs directed their vexed irritations directly at their intended targets. The main topic of discussion was the continuing Canada Post lockout, with the NDP predictably backing Canada Post workers and the Conservatives the small- and medium-sized businesses they say make Canada’s economy tick. French and English mixed, sometimes in mid-flow, from those comfortable in both official national languages. This, apparently, is what goes on in Canada’s Parliament.
Ottawa, a city that constantly seems to have to justify its own existence, offers much more than what its reputation suggests. If Canada is the country the world forgot, then Ottawa is the city the country forgets. The slight northern detour is well worth it, and the same goes for Canada at large.