We wheeled the car out of Cooper Street and south along the Driveway, beside the Rideau Canal, past the carefully tended flower gardens of the National Capital Commission, past the even-more-carefully tended bureaucrats, marching memo-laden back to work after the lunch break, past couples disporting themselves on the greenward, and young mothers rolling their kids out for sunshine and compliments, past, in a word, the mixed panorama of central Ottawa on a summer’s day. My wife said: “Let’s not go.” A foolish fancy, but alluring. We were leaving Ottawa after 12 years, and heading for Washington. We had lived here for eight years, and spent a week out of every month here for four years, and not it was over, and I said: “Ah, hell.”
I was surprised at myself. Canada’s capital has always been a national joke. Transport Minister Jean Marchand’s line that “The nicest thing about Ottawa is the train to Montreal” has become an unofficial city motto, and bitching about the place – its lack of class, good restaurants, sense of history and all the neat things you find in Washington and London and Paris – has become a pastime not only for its citizens but for Canadians everywhere.
Well, nuts to them. Ottawa is not only a superior city, it may even be a model from which other cities can learn. It makes the best of a modest setting – as opposed to, say, Vancouver, which makes the worst of a magnificent setting, or Sudbury, which squats in its glum background like a whore in a hovel – and it has all the amenities most people require.
On Saturdays, my kids used to walk to the National Museum for free movies, and get lured into culture despite themselves; or they went to the National Art Gallery, or the National Arts Centre. Hell, in Ottawa, you can get improved just bumming around looking for something to do. You can skate on the canal in winter and canoe in summer, you can ride a bike on protected pathways, or walk, or visit the sight-seeing haunts in the wake of the tourists (to watch the changing of the guard on Parliament Hill is a very chinty thing to do; it is also enormously satisfying).Or you can sit at home and revel in the thought that you are not likely to be robbed, raped, mugged or murdered here, as in those other swell places, Washington and London and Paris.
The city owes some advantage to its role as national capital. It has a lot of money. In those annual statistical surveys, Ottawa never has Canada’s highest per capita income, but often tops family incomes because the civil service provides work for sisters, cousins, aunts. It has a special position to maintain, and that means funds from federal coffers for buildings and bridges and monuments not available to less fortunate folk.
It has, almost despite itself, some sense of history. In the swamp that was Bytown, Mother McGinty sold whiskey by the pint glass, and oversaw battles between the French and Irish; D’Arcy McGee was murdered here; a nation was built here, after its first raw framing in Charlottetown and Quebec and London, and all our national figures have used this city as a stage, from crazy Louis Riel to canny Pierre Trudeau, from John Macdonald to John Diefenbaker, from R.B. Bennett of the iron heel and beetling brow to Mackenzie King of the high voice and low cunning. History leaves a mark; you can’t escape it, and behind stony facades and demure plaques Ottawa is constantly whispering her story into the ear of anyone with a will to listen.
Those are the perks of a capital, a living museum. But Ottawa has its own advantages, too, chief among them the fact that it is the ideal size for living. With a city population of 400,000 and an area population of 660,000, Ottawa is large enough to support a variety of diversions, from body-rub parlors to excellent libraries, from a colourful market to some classy (I am informed by usually reliable sources) cat houses. The city is also small enough to live and walk and move and breath in, and smart enough to try to keep it that way.
The city cares enough about itself to plan; most of our cities don’t. Montreal, about which so much soppy prose is written, seems lovely mainly to visitors and people lucky enough to live in Hampstead or Westmount or Outremont; for the people at its core, it is an ugly, crawling, fetid, plan-less mess, likely to get worse.
Toronto talks a good plan, but the cry of developers complaining that they have been balked from building is barely audible above the crunch of their machines, battering down the old city, slamming up concrete-and-glass silos. Halifax, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg are all struggling, usually in vain, to come to grips with urban sprawl. Ottawa, so far at least, has done it. Its building, roads and suburbs do not spring unbidden from the ground; they are planned and groomed and controlled.
Ottawa bureaucrats, so easy to knock (and so richly deserving, so often, of being knocked), make good neighbours. They are polite, private and, once you get to know them, shameless gossips about their departments and their political bosses. They can be casually cruel, like bureaucrats anywhere – in companies as well as in government – but they seem to lack the sheer bloodymindedness of their opposite numbers in Washington. They are good citizens, demanding of their local government – they know, after all, how governments work – and concerned about the kind of city they will leave behind when they move, as so many of them do, to some other place.
So I find myself writing something I would have thought impossible when I arrived here to cover the swearing-in of Lester Pearson in 1963: Ottawa is a handsome, interesting, livable city, a credit to her people and an ornament to us all, if they and we but knew it. I am sorry to go.
I have one final, sexist reason for regret, a dirty-old-man reason I neglected to tell my wife. Ottawa is full of young ladies who wear no brassieres and who bounce and jounce and jiggle and wobble along the walkways in a way that makes mandarins run into trees and old men topple off park benches. In Washington, a city of cover-ups, the bra-less beauty is a rarity.