Ottawa — Random Notes Toward A Portrait

It perhaps goes without needing to be said that persons born and raised here find it to be an exemplary place. The “native Ottawan” boasts of the beauty, quiet, decency, and niceness of the place. And it is true that Ottawa is nice, in the manner that your East Side Mario’s waiter is nice — that is, in a formal and superficial sense. But you understand his niceness is not connected to his being your friend, and you know also that it is part of an effort to extract from you the largest payment possible. In much the same way, Ottawa is a place where form, process, procedure, and placement have become all-encompassing cultural imperatives. Here one finds politics in its largest sense fully domesticated, so that the business of politics itself is the business of the family and of the society, with the attendant result that the attitudes and outlook of the bureaucrat come uppermost in all that takes place.

Ottawa is perhaps the only place in Canada in which you will observe the individual who truly and deeply believes in the concept of “public service” (Ottawa may be they only place in Canada where the public service is a concept, and not the inevitable occasion of a joke or slander), and who labours in earnestness on behalf of that notion. Elsewhere in the country, as anyone knows, one abundantly finds the prejudice that bureaucrats are lazy and over-fed, and are at bottom cynical parasites who do no work and reap enormous material benefits at the expense of everyone else. This is not true, and yet Ottawa is correctly associated with the bureaucratic outlook. Here, it is believed by many employees that Government is engaged in important, meaningful, and even noble work. But note that in Ottawa when one speaks of Government in this fashion, it is the public service, or bureaucracy, which is meant.

Here is a rough and quickly made list of word associations which came off the top of my head, but which I think define Ottawa: bilingualism, French, Government, tourism, the National Capital Commission, museums, politics, national symbols, conservative, Toronto (against), NGOs, protest industry.

The list, which I did not edit and which therefore came out as above, is telling. For instance, so much of Ottawa is determined by two things, government and tourism. It may not be apparent at first, but when one considers the role of the federal government in language and language politics, buildings, uses of property, the cycle of public events, the economy, as well as of the presence of professional lobbyists and “protestors,” there is very little that remains untouched. If it weren’t for the cash-cow tourism, Ottawa would be a whiter Brampton — a land of shopping malls, minivans, and the living dead of the middle and upper middle classes. So little that is done here is done for the people of Ottawa. It is instead the sure payoff, in foreign currencies, which drives every effort at lending to the landscape a touch of grace. Also in the list above you will find Toronto, the official dislike of which is very much an Ottawa character trait, and which doubtless has at its root an inferiority complex. As for the term conservative (meaning cautious, boring, parochial, dull, somnambulant, and unimaginative), Ottawa is universally regarded as such, so that it is difficult to get through the day without hearing someone make note of the fact. Even those who argue on its behalf tend to concede the point in advance.

A cluster of sleepy bedroom communities, that is the feel of the place. It became this in the 1950s-1960s and has settled into it without much thought or resistance. Orleans, Gloucester, Kanata, Nepean, Barrhaven, Aylmer, Hull: this and not the downtown, or city proper, are best understood by the term Ottawa. It is a hodge-podge with a transit system that tries to cope but that is not quite up to the modern city standard. It is not uncommon to see the buses go by utterly cloyed with humanity in the mornings. An Ottawa bus is the closest I’ve ever come to a living resemblance of a Daumier print, specifically the desperate, slightly irritated state of being you see in the faces of the passengers in Daumier’s satires. For years we heard about plans to “modernize” this sorry state of affairs, and a good deal of money was thrown at the idea, but with no results. This too seems typical of the place.

Another thing which is remarkable about Ottawa, but is also perfectly natural and understandable, is the presence of bilingual and bicultural Canadians. Ottawa and Cape Breton are perhaps the only places where the vision of official bilingualism has been realized, excepting of course that it hasn’t been a policy which has been “realized” so much as a mere geographical fact. Nowhere else in Canada will you find people who are unable to say whether English of French is their first language. In the National Capital Region the two, French and English, fully bleed one into another. That is, if one has grown up here. Otherwise, one is always and unavoidably defined in their relation to this tedious division.

You might expect politics to be a highly visible affair in Ottawa, but such is not generally the case. Having moved here I found it astonishing how quickly Parliament becomes simply a part of the background, something one takes for granted. There it is: Canada’s capital building, the epicentre of political life. And yet in a matter of weeks I hardly noticed it any more. It may as well have been a hardware store, or a dental therapy clinic. As a piece of architecture it is interesting, but it has none of the status that I imagine it holds for the tourist.

Likewise, Ottawa is not overly a civic city. Politics is somehow everyone’s profession here; either you are one of them (a politician) or you are trying to influence, or oppose, or placate, or replace one of them. In any event, it is probably your job to have some sort of relation to the political affairs of the city, and even the country. Probably nothing is so harmful to civic life as getting paid to mind politics. It changes everything. For one thing, if you have been politically active elsewhere it makes you think differently about what you did before. Here you are, in Ottawa, surrounded by the symbols of wealth and power and the state. I remember seeing a sign affixed by some optimistic rabble-rouser to a pole on Elgin street, several hundred yards from Parliament Hill. Perhaps in Kingston a clever sign could seem subversive, but here it is only silly. Here everyone is too busy making decisions and busying themselves with their affairs to notice what posters are where. Even the activists are up in the office towers.

As for the ideological character of the place, there are too many people here depending on government for a job to allow reactionary sentiments a foothold. Government is an unalterable fact of this city. You may as well take it as a feature of your environment, the way one takes earthquakes in California or demon possession in the New Testament. People here are neither for nor against in any active way, because neither position would seem to make any difference. Interestingly, this is more true of Federal than of local politics, the latter often evoking great acrimony. Mostly this has been due to the recent perceptions of corruption and a high-profile trial of Mayor Larry O’Brien.

Some other stray observations:

Good service is hard to find in the Ottawa restaurants. It is expensive to live here, and the prices have shot up very sharply in only a few years. Partly this is a result of Ottawa’s success. But the place has gentrified now to such a degree it makes one wonder how anyone can afford to live in the city.

While many efforts have been made to make the waterfront useful, even Kingston offers better access for the person wanting to picnic, or just sit, by the water. There are parks west of the downtown, but you will need a car to get to them. The waterfront in the core is mostly occupied by government buildings. There are no beaches. Waterfront access consists mostly of paved avenues where people rollerblade or cycle. A very nice idea, but of little use if you intend to be immobile. Ottawa is a city for people on the move. Only the commercial spaces allow you to park yourself, and very few of these will be found on water.

The bike paths are very good and the transit system, despite its drawbacks, functions well enough, especially outside of rush hour. For all the talk about community, however, there is really no such thing in Ottawa which I have been able to discern. Ottawa is neither like Kingston, a small town with a small town feel, or Toronto, a large city made up of many distinct neighbourhoods. While you may say that the Glebe is a “neighbourhood community,” or that Westboro is a “neighbourhood community” (and so on), in reality they are simply distinct socio-economic groupings. Ottawa in the past decade has undertaken a sort of ruthless shakedown operation in which entire neighbourhoods have been emptied of the working classes and stores up-scaled to suit the tastes of the affluent. A collection of pigeon holes, not communities, and sooner rather than later your place will be sorted out and you will be duly stuffed where your resources determine. In other words, that warm neighbourly feeling you are supposed to get in the Glebe is the graceful charm, not of neighbourliness, but of money.

All of this occurred to me one day as I was walking to work. I found it odd that, even though I walk to work at roughly the same time each morning, I recognise almost no one. You would suppose everyone else is following a routine also. That would mean you would see the same people each day, week after week and month after month. And yet I cannot recognise a familiar face, excepting some of the panhandlers. It is as if every morning an alien spaceship beamed down a new city-full of strangers, having swept away yesterday’s strangers.

2 thoughts on “Ottawa — Random Notes Toward A Portrait”

  1. I also agree, except that the bike paths are “very good.” What bike paths? The only ones that stick out in my mind are the ones along the canal, which are a pedestrian vs. cyclist disaster.


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    impatient to looked over additional of your current content pieces, goodbye 🙂


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