Jim Watson, the mayor of Canada’s capital, joined the Ottawa 2017 briefing in progress. He talked about the city he clearly loves and currently runs, sounded excited, then handed the reporter a puck.
“Most mayors hand out medals,” he said. “But I hand out pucks. So there you go …”
And here we go to our story:
Ottawa recently launched Ottawa 2017, projected as a world-class party celebrating the country’s 150th birthday as a nation, a shindig that could forever change your image of Ottawa.
So what is your image of Ottawa? You don’t really have one, do you? You’re not alone.
First, about the party: It began with traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks (only bigger) and essentially won’t stop until the next one. While other cities in other provinces (Ottawa is in Ontario, across the Ottawa River from Quebec) will be marking the sesquicentennial in various and colourful ways throughout this year, the centre of it all – appropriately enough – will be in Canada’s capital city.
Festivals and fun and curious stuff will go on here – including, for five days in July, giant mechanical monsters taking over downtown. (Details on everything: www.ottawa2017.ca.)
“Our overall approach for 2017 is to spark people’s imaginations,” says Guy Laflamme, the festival’s executive producer, “and to ignite our future.”
Which, as with any anniversary celebration, includes honouring the past.
The first-ever Canadian National Hockey League game was played here in December 1917 between the original Ottawa Senators (they left for a half-century, then magically reappeared in 1992) and the Montreal Canadiens (who never left Montreal). A hoped-for centennial rematch on the front lawn of Parliament Hill melted in a sea of … well, it isn’t going to happen. But in March, Ottawa will honour Lord Stanley, who 125 years earlier donated a then-modest silver punch bowl when he worked here for Queen Victoria. Same Stanley Cup as today’s, only with add-ons.
So no outdoor game, but what surely will happen: Ignite 150, a promised “series of 17 epic stunts and gatherings”, including “a yoga session on a barge floating on a local waterway accompanied by a live orchestra”. Also, in March: The Red Bull Crashed (not “crushed”) Ice downhill skating world championships (people familiar with this insist this extreme sport is a hoot). Plus, mainly beginning in spring, extra concerts, exhibits, sporting events (including the 2017 Canadian Football League Grey Cup final) and lots more fireworks.
There also will be upgrades. Two: The Canadian Museum of History (www.historymuseum.ca) will open a new Canadian History Hall. The National Gallery of Canada (www.gallery.ca) will introduce a major rethink of its Canadian and Indigenous galleries.
And of course, Canada Day – when, on July 1, 1867, Canada became “Canada” instead of three separate British colonies – will be recognised with especially grand pyrotechnics on Parliament Hill and around town.
What the mayor and the producer are hoping for is a hangover effect of the non-alcoholic persuasion.
“We want to change the perception people have about Ottawa,” says Laflamme, who has been in the events business for 25 years. “We want an artistic approach that is bold.”
It presumably will be thrilling and fun – words that, until now, have rarely been associated with Ottawa. Canadian audiences have long treated Ottawa mainly as an obligatory field trip: see the Houses of Parliament, do a museum, have lunch in a park, maybe take a boat ride on the Rideau Canal and get back on the bus.
“They basically did ‘school-group things to do’, ” concedes Jantine Van Kregten of Ottawa Tourism, “and they feel like they’ve checked it off their list.”
For US tourists, it hasn’t been on the list at all. Two hours by car or train from Montreal, more than four from Toronto and nowhere near Banff, the city has largely been an afterthought (if thought of at all).
That may change.
“The outsider’s perspective,” says the mayor, “sees snippets of Ottawa when we have Barack Obama here or William and Kate arrive here. It’s probably had the image of grey flannel and bureaucratic, and we’re really working hard to change the image of Ottawa from what Guy and I call ‘Ottawa the Old’ to ‘Ottawa the Bold’. We have much now to offer.”
And that’s not empty hype. Here, uninfluenced by The Gift Puck, is a brief sampling of what Ottawa provides visitors even when it’s not in party mode:
> Tours of Parliament. Serious renovations begin in 2018, which, in stages, will limit access and ruin photos for all but scaffolding fans. The Library is a dazzler. Honest. See it all now.
> Changing of the Guard. Summer mornings on the lawn in front of the Parliament buildings, it’s full of pomp and circumstance and marching band music – and it’s free.
> Rideau Canal. An engineering wonder opened in 1832 and Unesco World Heritage Site since 2007, for visitors it’s a pleasant in-town waterway in nice weather, when you can rent boats or cruise on a tour – and in winter, when it freezes, it’s a skater’s delight. Locals commute to work on blades. Honest.
> ByWard Market. A public outdoor market since 1826 and the heart of the city’s liveliest restaurant and nightlife district – the exact opposite of Ottawa’s image of grey flannel and bureaucratic.
> National Gallery of Canada. Not as comprehensive a collection as the one at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, but there are many good things, including a giant spider, and the building is neat.
> Canadian Museum of History. Already excellent, the aforementioned new History Hall surely will kick it up a totem pole. Other museums in town: Aviation & Space, Nature, War and Agriculture, and I probably left something out.
> Gardens and parks. Plenty of both. Tulips, for historical reasons, especially resonate here; the annual festival is in mid-May. Major’s Hill Park, near the canal locks and the Fairmont Chateau Laurier (www.fairmont.com/laurier-ottawa) is a favourite.
So consider Ottawa, especially in 2017. Good town.
It’s worth a medal. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Alan Solomon