Ottawa: A City of Two Seasons

Two hours west of Montreal and six hours east of Toronto, on the Ottawa River and facing the province of Quebec lies Ottawa, Ontario. Originally called Bytown, Ottawa started out as a thriving and rowdy lumber town in the early 1800s due to the proximity of the Ottawa River. Following the War of 1812, Bytown’s population increased with the influx of Irish and French-Canadians who came to work on the construction of Colonel John By’s Rideau Canal (a recent World Heritage site). In 1857, Queen Victoria was asked to choose a new capital city for the province of Canada, which consisted of Quebec and Ontario. According to legend, she stuck her hatpin into the site of Bytown on the map laid out before her. It was more likely that the town’s location and resources were the persuading factors. And so, Ottawa was born and is now celebrating its 150th birthday.

The Ottawa of today is a beautiful little city (one can walk across the city centre quite easily) with its parks, architecture and the Rideau Canal. There is something for everyone, as the saying goes. For the more culturally inclined, Ottawa has the National Art Gallery, the National Art Centre and the Bytowne Cinema. One can keep the kids (and parents) amused at the Bytown Museum, the Currency Museum, the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Experimental Farm and the Aviation Museum. For a spot of reflection, visit the War Museum and the Canadian War Memorial. Elgin Street and the Byward Market are full of restaurants and bars. Athletes can run or bicycle to their hearts’ content along the Rideau Canal or boat on Dow’s Lake. There are plenty of hotels that cater to all types of people and many have suites, which include a kitchen (the Byward Market sells fresh local fruit and veg in the summer… time to fry up a fiddlehead).

Technically, Ottawa is in a temperate climate and therefore has four seasons. I have been visiting the capital of Canada for years and I think of it as having two seasons – weather- wise and culturally. Currently, I am in summer – the time of Open Doors Ottawa, Canada Day and – if you stretch the season a bit – the Tulip festival. Music and cultural festivals rule the summer season in Ottawa. At times, the list seems endless: Chamber Music, Bluesfest, Folk Festival, Ottawa International Jazz Festival, Capital Pride, Ottawa Fringe, CHIN Picnic, Carnival of Culture ….

In 1953, the Ottawa Tulip Festival became a date on the city’s calendar. The Tulip Festival occurs each May and brings to Ottawa colour so desperately needed after the long (exceedingly long) grey winter. It brings in visitors from all over the world (a sight in themselves). The tulips are planted all over the city but the majority are to be found along Dow’s Lake, which is part of the Rideau Canal. Other main sites are Parliament Hill, the Capital Infocentre, Commissioner’s Park, Major’s Hill Park and the banks of the Canal. At City Hall can be found wooden four-foot tulips, each painted with a different motif. The Tulip Festival owes its beginnings to World War II. Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and her family were evacuated to Ottawa and here she gave birth to her third daughter in a hospital room declared Dutch territory for the day. In gratitude, tulips were sent and are still being sent.

Ottawa’s Open Doors Day is a yearly event that I attended for the first time. Over one weekend in June, buildings of historical or architectural significance open their doors to the public and volunteers lead tours. One of the most popular places to enter is the Ottawa Hostel, probably because of its appearance on the TV show Creepy Canada. Formerly the Carleton County Jail, this hostel (yes, you sleep in a cell… really) is noted for being the execution place of Patrick James Whelan for the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a member of the first Canadian Parliament. It is thought Whelan was framed, so his rather perturbed spirit is said to still reside within the thick walls on this 19th Century structure. If ghost sighting is not for you, there are plenty of other places to see like the Cartier Square Drill Hall, the Laurentian Club, the Conference Centre, the Heritage Building of City Hall – hmm, there is a ghost there too.

Canada Day is the country’s birthday celebrating Canada’s becoming a self-governing Dominion on 1 July, 1867. The city is covered in red and white and maple leaves – on people as well as places! The main part of the celebration takes place on Parliament Hill where one can see the Mounties perform the Musical Ride, the raising of the Queen’s Flag, the presentation of the Ceremonial Guard to the Governor General (Queen Elizabeth’s representative), various musical acts and, to me the most stunning and dramatic event, the flyover of the Snowbirds. In addition, at Rideau Hall, a select group of immigrants attend a special citizenship ceremony. A recent addition to the day is the CHIN picnic. The CHIN multicultural radio station is the creation of the late bandleader Johnny Lombardi.  His experiences in World War II led him to believe that by learning about other peoples’ cultures through music and dance we could develop understanding and acceptance. One mustn’t forget the fireworks – the best place to see them – the new Corktown Footbridge.