World-class whine: Why Ottawa’s haters are wrong

If Ottawa isn’t like other capitals, writes Paul Wells, it’s because Canada isn’t like other countries



My friend Andrew Cohen is vexed that the city of Ottawa will not widen the airport parkway, as we call the two-lane road out to the airport. Sorely vexed, ladies and gentlemen! The Ottawa Citizen columnist—former Globe editorialist, award-winning author, one-time resident of Washington and Berlin—gets vexed about Ottawa every several months, and this latest failure to widen the “heavily congested” parkway, a “critical, clogged artery,” has set him off once again.

“For its lack of ambition and absence of imagination, Ottawa is the worst capital in the G7,” Cohen wrote in what quickly became the most-read article in the Citizen this week. “It is unable to get anything done very quickly, whether repairing a ceremonial thoroughfare like Sussex Drive or building light rail, which will arrive decades after other cities.”

By this point, longtime Cohen readers can more or less sing along. “For mediocrity, there’s Lansdowne Park,” Cohen writes. “A (nice) stadium, shops, restaurants and condos, with a park and a wading pool as consolation.” Doesn’t sound tragic, although there is in fact no wading pool. “It replaces a sea of cracked asphalt and a crumbling stadium, and for contented Ottawans, that’s fine.” Ah. Good. Yes?

No. “But it’s just not interesting, let alone innovative.”

Ah. “And we squandered a once-in-a-century chance to remake Ottawa’s image, for example to do for our city what the Guggenheim Museum did for Bilbao, Spain.” Here one hears the far-off plaintive call of logic, as one so often does when reading an Andrew Cohen rant about Ottawa, because I am pretty sure Bilbao is not a G7 capital. But passons. There are the obligatory to-be-sure paragraphs, in which Cohen allows a few scraps of hope to drift into his readers’ minds—“Light rail is coming, though it won’t stop in Confederation Square. The brutalist National Arts Centre is getting a new glass facade, and will no longer look like a Stalinist detention centre”—before crushing the hope with a summary graf.

Like this: Whatever else Ottawa may be, he writes, it sure isn’t “a modern, progressive capital, a repository of history and culture, a reflection of our achievements and dreams as a nation.” So weep for the critical arteries, Ottawans!

It is good to be consistent. This week’s rant follows many, many previous columns from the Cohen pen, including “What passes for vision in Ottawa is simply complacent creativity,” from Oct. 15, 2014 (“We do not know how to make the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal more interesting”); “Ottawa a capital in name only,” from Sept. 1, 2013 (“A toy capital pretending to be a real one”); “Canadians don’t love Ottawa,” from Nov. 29, 2011 (“Encourage innovative street vendors and different street food”); “The trouble with Ottawa is Ottawans,” from Aug. 18, 2011 (“Ottawa wouldn’t know a new idea—let alone a big idea—if it was accosted by one”); “A city waiting to grow up,” from Oct. 26, 2010 (“the ByWard Market remains uncovered”); “A city that has given up,” from May 10, 2007 (“Money marts patronized by drifters”); “The capital of condescension,” from Feb. 14, 2006 (“a town without climax”); and “A great city if only it tried,” from May 17, 2005 (“Something about giving up and not bothering”).

It is hard to avoid repetition. Cohen wrote that the National Arts Centre resembles “a Stalinist interrogation centre,” in those words precisely, in five separate columns published in 2007, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2016. I worry about taste. Here’s what happened in Stalinist interrogation centres: people were tortured to death. Pretty frequently. Tonight at the NAC, the family of a former prime minister will hear a bold new composition by a Canadian composer whose music is widely performed outside Canada, following a panel discussion on reconciliation with First Nations attended by author Joseph Boyden and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau. The pageantry is almost secondary to the work Alexander Shelley, the best young British orchestral conductor of his generation, has done to revitalize what was already a fantastic orchestra. Increasingly these days, if you’re not at the NAC on a school night, that’s your problem. I’m not sure what’s happening in Rome tonight, but I don’t feel particularly cheated.

Cohen has a larger theme, which I’ll get to. But words matter, and the awesome pettiness of his whinging is breathtaking to behold. It is true the new light-rail network, being built on time and on budget under the guidance of a mayor who has consistently been beneath Cohen’s contempt, will not stop at Confederation Square. It will stop 600 m west of Confederation Square. Then it will stop again, 300 m east of Confederation Square. This will make Confederation Square nearly impossible to reach by any LRT rider who is encased in an iron lung. Cohen wonders why Ottawa “cannot produce better, more reasonable restaurants.” How do greater cities produce such marvels? Do they excrete them? Better restaurants generally cost more, and I’m not sure readers outside Ottawa will shed a tear at the news that when I eat at such dynamite Ottawa venues as Fraser Café, Whalesbone, Beckta or Gezellig, I am generally asked to pay before leaving. Meanwhile, if we’re being honest, a lot of Paris bistros are horror shows. A lunch of wilted sushi in London will set you back half a week’s pay. You want to eat well in Washington, you pay K Street prices. Now, Washington does have better jazz clubs, but the last time I was at Twins Jazz on U Street somebody was getting shot in the discotheque downstairs. I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation.

But of course the real complaint of most people who find Ottawa disappointing is not that it refuses to build a train station within six feet of a specified bullseye, or that it has not yet slipped the surly bonds of basic restaurant economics. It is that Ottawa has no Champs Elysées, no British Museum, no Lincoln Memorial, no Coliseum ruins. It does not have a very large number of the sort of things that make one feel impressed with oneself when one realizes one resides in a Place that Matters.

There are reasons for this. They are obvious. They are the sort of thing one might finally bother to acknowledge, when taking one’s 40th run at the same topic.


Ottawa does not have wide boulevards because the capitals that do were built by autocratic rulers who hoped at some point to march a victorious army down those boulevards. Paris, London, Rome and Berlin (!) have all, at many points in their very long histories, been war capitals. Washington was designed at a time when Americans were not yet entirely sure whether they wanted to shun imperialist European models or copy them. Tokyo and Berlin were relatively easy to rebuild along impressive lines because they were shattered at brutal human cost as the price of launching a world war. On a single March night in 1945, 700,000 firebombs fell on Tokyo, killing untold tens of thousands and levelling an area much larger than that of present-day Ottawa. This is an actual thing that happened. It directly influenced Tokyo’s development for decades to come. I’m OK with a capital that still adheres to the humble grid of its lumber-town origins.

Cohen worries that Ottawa is not innovative in “recovered green space.” It depends where you look. Gatineau Park is 105 times the size of Central Park in Manhattan and 172 times the size of Berlin’s Grosser Tiergarten. I suppose if it were only triple their size he might have a point. Wait, no he wouldn’t.

Onward. Unlike almost every other G7 capital, Ottawa is not the capital of a unitary state that spent decades under an authoritarian ruler who extorted tithes from the hinterland to build monuments to his greater glory. Napoleon, Bismarck (to pick the most polite of available German options), the Caesars, the Windsors: Handy when you’re building a tourist hotspot of the future. Ottawa is the capital of a federation, as are such sleepy burgs as Canberra, Brasilia, Bonn—because for decades, Bonn was West Germany’s capital—and, indeed, Washington in the years before lobby money started to sluice down that city’s streets.

To say that Ottawa is a federal capital and shouldn’t be home to most of the country’s class or prestige is not to make an excuse for a weakness, it is to give a name to a strength. I know federalism is tiresome for people who find a two-block walk to Confederation Square daunting, but there is a reason why federations are over-represented among the world’s most prosperous countries, and I really don’t feel cheated, as an Ottawan, when I visit the Winnipeg Art Gallery or the Art Gallery of Ontario or the Citadelle in Quebec City or the Ship Pub in St. John’s. We built our Canada where Canadians live, and since they live all over, we built it all over. It was one of “our achievements and dreams as a nation,” to coin a phrase, to do precisely that.

Canada is also a country with, by and large, a long and profound attachment to the liberal European idea that the state needn’t build monuments to itself because it would prefer to invest in citizens’ human capital when it is not simply letting them keep more of the money they earned.

Paris is the ancient capital of Jacobin central planners, dotted with museums and cultural landmarks built, in many cases, not as odes to France’s genius but as mementoes from presidents nearing their term limits. Many are white elephants, like the Bastille opera house that never gets mentioned on anyone’s list of things Ottawa should copy. Washington’s monuments are lovely, but the finest of them remembers a president who was gunned down in the last days of a devastating civil war. And its finer restaurants do a better job of mocking the American dream than of celebrating it.

Ottawa is looking a bit dog-eared these days. Of course: it has come through a nasty few decades. Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien spent a decade cauterizing a ruinous public-debt spiral. Most of Stephen Harper’s decade was about coping with the aftermath of the worst global financial crisis in my lifetime. Justin Trudeau is eager to patch up Montreal’s highways before more of them fall on somebody. Which project should we have postponed for quicker access to Ottawa’s airport? Which, incidentally, is 15 minutes from downtown by taxi. I promise you there is no easier airport to reach in the G7, except for Reagan National, a permanent monument to the U.S. Congress’s ability to safeguard its own prerogatives.

In earlier columns, Cohen used to complain that Ottawa had no light rail. It is being built. He didn’t like the NAC. It is being spectacularly refurbished. He worried for the library. On the day his most recent column was published, the National Archives announced plans to work with the Ottawa Public Library on a new downtown showcase. He was upset that the big hockey rink is a half hour from downtown. Plans to return it downtown are well advanced. Meanwhile, I return from Los Angeles, where some locals were buzzing about Janet Cardiff’s art installation Forty-Part Motet, created at Canada’s National Gallery, and others were lining up for a Lawren Harris retrospective curated by the comedian Steve Martin, using paintings on loan from the same National Gallery.

If Ottawa is not full to brimming with the plunder of empire, if it is forced to share its glories with residents of provincial capitals across a continent, if it has fewer marble monuments in a country with more happy citizens, I’m not sure it stands as any kind of failure or disappointment. I know a writer who used to admit as much. “It is unfair to compare Ottawa to Washington, Paris, London, Vienna or Rome, great imperial cities which are, or were, the cockpit of Empire and the hub of their universe,” Andrew Cohen wrote in the Ottawa Citizen on Aug. 4, 2002. Back then he thought the National Arts Centre conferred “a sense of presence.” If any part of Ottawa is getting seriously worn out, it is certainly the tired rhetoric of its most dedicated Cassandra.


World-class whine: Why Ottawa’s haters are wrong

  1. Important to note there IS a wading pool at Lansdowne. It’s in the park on the other side of the baseball field which is across from the canal entrance which has the skateboard park and right now, an outdoor skating rink, cooled by pipes and serviced by a Zamboni and filled with skaters.

    I mention the existence of the wading pool only because this article is bang on about whining. Lansdowne also features a work of art with a water feature and when it came out that it was for looking at – not playing in – the whiners were quick to jump on it (mind you these were all people who have never been downtown where the parking is not free) and complain about having no place for kids to play in the water. The existence of the wading pool and splash park did not yield a correction to the goofy story about the work of art.

    Such is the nature of whining. It’s an end in itself that requires little thinking.

  2. One does get tired of op-ed complaints about Ottawa. What the complainers seem to have missed is that Ottawa is what it is because that is what its citizens want, and we live in a democracy.

    If you want a fast-paced, dynamic go-ahead kind of city, you need a fast-paced, dynamic go-ahead kind of populace. These are generally associated with business and trade oriented cities, not political capitals, unless, like Paris and London, the business capital and the political capital have grown in the same place. In the meantime, civil servants and their families seem to enjoy Ottawa as it is, the techies are not complaining, possibly because they are up to their patoots in beta tests, the health care sector is run off its feet as it is, and university students tend to make their own, erm, entertainment.

    That’s nearly 50% of Ottawa’s population that seems fine with Ottawa as is.

    For those who really must have a a fast-paced, dynamic go-ahead environment, Toronto is a great place to settle. If that’s still too boringly Canadian, and Calgary is out of the question, there is a whole country next door that gets altogether too exciting on occasion.

    No one is forcing you to stay here, gents. Why not move along, then, if there’s nothing here to keep you?

  3. An Ottawa bubble buster, or something.

  4. Incredible!

    Hating Ottawa is so 10 years ago. I’ve only lived here 8 and even in that time seen a huge difference in bars, restaurants, capital projects actually getting done on budget. And its gotta be the easiest place in the country to live in.

  5. Canada: Big, Empty, Slow, Colonial…Bob and Doug country.

    • Then leave. There must be a country somewhere more deserving of a lady of your obviously superior culture and breeding.

      • lots of people live here, including you. Does that make it perfect?

        Use your head dude.

    • Emily, I don’t know where you live but you need to get out more. Big, empty and slow would equate to paradise for many of this troubled world’s people.

      • Lots of people would like to spend their lives on a beach too, that doesn’t mean they should.

        You should always try and make a place better.

  6. Very well said.

    Cohen is both repetitive and tiresome He has been maundering on about his contempt for Ottawa for years now. Alas his ideas for improving Ottawa are pretty dismal–put a roof over the Byward Market? But mostly he seems to want the city to build a great monument of some sort.

    He wants the city to get moving but any time they start something he is opposed, for example he threw in his lot with the “Friends of Lansdowne in their attempts to kill the project to revitalize that once derelict site.

    The real question is why he is still here. He seems to have a visceral dislike of the place and yet he stays on year after year whinging and whining. If he dislikes the place so much, why not go somewhere that suits him better?

    • That’s the weird thing about many of Ottawa’s critics: they want stuff that would make the place even worse.

  7. Thank you Paul Wells for highlighting the fact that Cohen has written so many columns bashing Ottawa. I just shrugged when I read it
    If he had written a column saying a few nice things about our capital, now THAT would have been news.
    I’m a J-School alumni from the early 90s at Carleton and I’m sure glad I graduated before this guy was hired. His students should listen to his courses with a grain of salt.

    • I lived in Ottawa while in high school and university many years ago. Most of us young people there at the time concluded that if Canada was going to get an enema Ottawa is where you’d stick the tube. But it has improved somewhat since then-now a nice place to visit but I still wouldn’t want to live there so I don’t.

  8. Like many ex and current servicemen I had two tours in Ottawa. The first one was I was in the ranks and, behold, the first cocktail bar opened. The second was much later when I was privileged to serve on and RCAF Squadron based at Rockcliffe and the Uplands that toted VIPs around the world. My point is that in the first try I was an 18 year old from the West Coast and was agoggle at what the nation”s cap[ital had to offer – the seat of government (boring speeches on the problem of prairie freight rates) and some terrific pictures, mostly stored in the basement of an old building that house the national art gallery (nobody would use capitals) a mayor who was proud of the ubiquitous potholes every Spring – and the Byward Market that sold excellent cheeses, turkeys and caponed chickens (patronized by the embassies, I was told).

    By the time the second tour came around I had visited every European capital as well as Washington and a few elsewhere.By this time I also had a little family And you know what? I loved our own little quirky capital where I could pull my kids on a toboggan in Rockcliffe Park, picnic in Gatineau Park , and occasionally listen to boring speeches about prairie freight rates.

    My point? It didn’t have to emulate London or Paris or Washington because it was the capital of MY country. I think Andrew Cohen must be jaded, a problem that comes from writing too many columns perhaps.

  9. Great defense of my wonderful city. I love living in Ottawa. Though, I will have to agree with Cohen that Lansdowne is a world class disappointed. It is a fancier big box outlet in what used to be our best neighbourhood. No one needed a Jack Astor’s steps from the canal.

  10. Granted, I’m not a resident so I don’t really notice issues with transit, but I always enjoy visiting Ottawa. I think it’s a uniquely Canadian city, warm and welcoming, and fitting for our capital. The “huge monuments” a la Washington style are obviously not wanted, re the recent outcry against the victims of communism memorial. And most of the capitals mentioned were set up to try and intimidate or indicate power to the rest of the world…I don’t think we’ve ever felt the need for that kind of display.

    If you want to be part of a big metropolitan city, you do have the option of visiting or living in Toronto, it’s not that far away.

    Ps…perspective is funny, I always think the airport is so close!

  11. Agreed in full. I’ve been living in Ottawa for a decade, and there is quite simply no other Canadian city I’d rather live in. In fact, there is no other city anywhere I’d rather be in, with the possible exception of Seattle.

    Cohen is a malcontent who fancies himself an intellectual. Typical of someone educated beyond his intellect, he lacks the humility to realise it. Thus he regales us with the same tired and petty complaints, lime we didn’t hear him the first time.

    In reading his columns (which I no longer do), one gets the impression that he is gently chiding the reader and Ottawans in general for not yet having “caught up” to his advanced thinking on whatever pet topic he’s chosen to whine about that day. His lack of humility and self-awareness leaves him entirely unable to see that he is not, in fact, the smartest person in the room, and that nobody listens to him because he has very little to say.

    His columns on foreign policy have the identical tone. The exasperated school teacher scolding his students for not thinking like him, while the kids make faces at him behind his back. This is what happens when one spends too much of his life reading dry academic journals and sitting in too many classrooms listening to too irrelevant “intellectuals” for too many years. He sees Ottawa like he sees the world: a giant master’s thesis that can be perfected if only we study enough. And naturally he, who no doubt studied more than anyone else, is the one we should listen to.

  12. Ottawa is a lovely city…but for god’s sake…pave more of the Trans Canada HWY…my son was killed coming home from Algonquin for Reading Week 2014 in a 2 lane section as Chalk River. He was a passenger. The driver was also killed. Side-swiped by a transport. The shoulders of hwy 17 had 2 feet of snow on them. Our beautiful capital and country deserve a better trans-can thru ON…my son loved Ottawa too…

  13. What a silly apology for mediocrity and the status quo. There are many things wrong with the way the capital is run, and Professor Cohen is right in saying more effort is needed to make Ottawa worthy of its role as the seat of our government. Besides, instead of bending over backwards to discredit Professor Cohen, Wells might have done what good journalists usually do: check some of his facts. For instance: Lincoln died “after” the Civil War, and not in its final days, as Wells mistakenly claims. Moreover, Gatineau Park is on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, and not in Ottawa as he suggests. Finally, and perhaps more importantly: the job of the journalist/pundit is not to lick the boots of the powers that be, but to point out their shortcomings and misdeeds, and maybe even suggest solutions. Bush-league scribblers need not apply…

    • Actually, Abraham Lincoln never saw the official end of the Civil War — Lee had surrendered to Grant just a few days before the assassination but the war was not officially proclaimed over until five weeks later in May after Confederate forces finished surrendering. It wasn’t until May 10, 1865 that Jefferson Davies was captured.

      So Wells is technically correct.

      Yes, the Gatineau Park is in Quebec, it and Gatineau itself is considered part of the National Capital Region. I’d be willing to forgive Wells for thinking it is part of the capital of the country….since Gatineau Park is not under the control of Ottawa, the city of Gatineau, the province of Quebec or the province of Ontario…

  14. Mixed feelings about this piece. I spent kindergarten in French Immersion in Ottawa in the same neighbourhood as Alanis Morrisette (We’re the same age; I always wonder if we crossed paths.)
    Great things about Ottawa:
    1) True-ish bilingualism and biculturalism — much less than Montreal but much more than anywhere else. This is rare in the world.
    2) Intellectual life. Interesting conversations to be had with many smart, if geeky, people engaged with the world, with public policy. More so than other Canadian cities.
    3) Everyone who grew up in Ottawa seemed happier than people from other cities. The gentleness of a government town; less status consciousness than more polarized cities, plus the aforementioned smart dorky people generating the gene pool, was always my theory.
    4) the Wellington Street government precinct through to the Chateau Laurier is undeniably impressive.

    The things that are wrong are more subtle.
    1) so many neighbourhoods seem a bit unncessarily dreary, the pinched Presbyterianism of old Ontario small towns shining through, 1960s ugliness, the bloody pulp mill still there on the other side of the river!
    2) Various design fads that came and went and left ugly marks; the neo-Soviet Tunney’s Pasture thing, the Place du Portage monstrosity and the rest of downtown Hull.
    3) I don’t crave Washington-style monuments necessarily, but there could be a location where there’s a bit of magic and a deeper sense of place. The War Memorial maybe. Even then that’s somehow less, than say, Portage and Main. Or any street in the Annex or Plateau.

    Given the natural advantages of Ottawa’s setting it could have been as nice as say, Victoria BC..

  15. I expect this kind of rah-rah boosterism from the chamber of commerce, but not someone as savvy as Paul Wells.

    Mr. Cohen does not hate Ottawa; he laments that it misses so many opportunities to be better. Rather like the government machinery it houses, Ottawa typically does the banal thing, when it does anything at all.

    • I expect this kind of rah-rah boosterism from the chamber of commerce, but not someone as savvy as Paul Wells.

      Mr. Cohen does not hate Ottawa; he laments that it misses so many opportunities to be better. Rather like the government machinery it houses, Ottawa typically does the banal thing, when it does anything at all.

      It is surely a stretch to suggest that a capital city cannot have more innovative architecture and urban design without centuries of autocratic oppression – that Landsdowne’s renewal couldn’t have been more ambitious without the benefit of imperial plunder.

      It’s also a bit of a stretch to say “almost all” G-7 countries are unitary States. Besides Canada, the USA and Germany are federal states, and the United Kingdom is at least a quasi-federation in all but name.

      Ottawa supports commodius middle-class living as well as anyone can expect from a place with so harsh a climate. But with just a bit of chutzpah it could support so much more.

      • Listening to the likes of Cohen would not make Ottawa better. Of anything, Ottawa would become more staid and boring. Cities develop quite by accident. And great cities become great entirely by accident. A city trying to be great is like a person trying to be cool or trying to be smart, or for that matter, trying to be sober. If you need to try, you aren’t. There is nothing wrong with Ottawa the way it is, and certainly nothing the frightful bore Cohen suggests would make it any better. He gets hung up on details that only an academic could care about.

        You want to see what happens when academics are allowed to plan “great monuments” for a city? Visit the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. Winnipeg’s skyline was never much to look at, but the CHRM has placed a giant, ugly tumour among the few decent heritage buildings Winnipeg could boast. It is an abomination that only a group of academics and civic activists could have come up with (along with a certain wealthy Winnipeg family who wished to build a monument to themselves with public money). It is quite remarkable how “big thinking” can be such a disaster. I’m guessing it is just the sort of project Cohen would like to see in Ottawa.

  16. This is an interesting column in that the writer says a lot of true things then goes on to make the wrong comparisons.

    Yes Canada is a decentralized federation and does not need a grandiose federal capial , I totally agree.

    But why does he compare Ottawa to Canberra or Brasilia and then offset his arguments with past the imperial splendours of London, Paris, Rome and even Washington all of which are not available to Ottawa for obvious historical reasons, If we can’t be a Rome, say, shoud we be content to be a Canberra ?

    Could he not look at more modest capitals such as Helsinki, Stockholm or even Oslo or Amsterdam. Anyone who has ever visited any of these knows instinctively that Ottawa doesn’t even come close in any respect. Why accept third rate because we can’t ever be first rate. Why not aspire to be at least second rate ?

    I can understand the proud comments from actual Ottawa citizens, its nice, clean, relatively crime-free and because of the huge government footprint it is very prosperous and immune to the vagaries of the economic cycles found in all commercial cities. We get it. Canadians don’t hate Ottawa, they just don’t care about Ottawa, because if they don’t actrually work or deal with the federal government , they don’t really have any reason to go there.

  17. I see Alex Cullen, who was vociferously opposed to the Lansdowne development has weighed in.
    Andrew Cohen,who railed at Ottawa for not having a downtown sports venue did the same, throwing in his lot with the “Friends of Lansdowne” who opposed the refurbishment of a sports venue which had been in the heart of the city for over a century, a place with a rich back ground of rugby, football and hockey.

    The” Friends” -and Andrew Cohen-wanted the city to rip down the stadium and plant a lot of grass and build some grandiose museum or monument.After delaying the project for years and costing the city over a million with their serial court cases, they are even now clearing their throats to prepare for a full throated whine over the possibility of a rink or anything other than more grass and another museum at Lebreton Flats..

    Ottawa has too many people who,like Andrew Cohen, love to complain but oppose anything positive that the city attempts.
    I give you Andrew Cohen’s pals and allies, the Friends of Lansdowne.

    Strange days indeed:


    • It would be hell to be stuck beside Andrew Cohen at a party. He’s one of those pills who – if he stopped blathering about some oh-so-important public policy issue for even a moment – would use that interlude to crtiticize the wine selection.

  18. Ottawa is a nice place … what’s wrong with that? I’ve wandered the grounds of the parliament buildings, discovered Lester Pearson’s bronze statue oddly stuck up in a flower bed, been entertained by the collective statues of Canada’s leading women’s libbers out on the front lawn, watched some actual MPs trudging up the walk on their way to work, admired the great architecture of the back-side of parliament and sat on the curb by the flame with a motley assortment of tourists, back-packers and workers on lunch. In Washington, after being moved along by the robo-cops in front of the tank in front of the White House and then being accosted by police a few blocks away for driving while white in a black neighborhood, I perceive that the atmosphere is not quite the same. I even stayed at the hotel where Regan’s outline was semi-permanently painted on the blacktop out front.

    My impression of Ottawa is not just the amount of green-space but the general appearance that someone really gives a damn as compared to Kitchener-Waterloo or Toronto; Ottawa parks may however have too many smiling people.

    As for the national gallery, perhaps we should recall that beauty marks are actually black warts. Glass and concrete, concrete and glass and the world’s longest accessibility ramp, ever. Putting that aside (even scenic cities like Vancouver have a lot of that nouveau bunker tradition – does gold tinted glass make it better?), the collection as displayed is the real let-down; luckily, the city has many other better museum places to spend time. Personally, I would much rather spend a day at the Beaverbrook or the McMichael.

    As some others have pointed out, one thing about Ottawa is that one can always find great places to eat; bonus, Friday through Sunday and other times when those that presume to rule us are elsewhere, waiting is minimal.

    Now, for Canada’s true culture, Ottawa is not a excessive drive to go see a hockey game with adequate parking and reasonably priced accommodation nearby. I was in a fender bender on approach to the Toronto ice museum but didn’t hang around out of consideration for the vehicular armageddon that was rapidly developing and/or threats of physical harm from passing pedestrians.

    As I said, Ottawa is a nice place – very Canadian of it. Undoubtedly the raccoon capital of the world.

  19. I am a life long Albertan but visited Ottawa last summer for a wedding. The heat and humidity not withstanding, we loved our stay in the nations capital area. We took a boat trip on the canal. We stayed near the parliament grounds and did tours and were in awe of the history of our nation. We went to Meech Lake in Gatineau on two different days and thoroughly enjoyed the beauty and cooling off in Gatenau Park. I was only sorry that I did not take my children there when they were in school. I must say I was surprised that there was no light rail transit but I found the same thing in Phoenix several years ago (since that time, Phoenix has installed one). Ottawa has a wonderful small city appeal to it…a little bit like St. Johns Newfoundland. It is very welcoming with the out door markets and eateries. The people were friendly both in the commercial venues and out on the streets. My kind of town. I would very much like to return in the winter.

    • Agree, its a nice place but a as a capital of a G8 country what does it feel like ?

      BTW French Canadians never ever call it the nation’s capital ( there are 3 in Canada) but the federal capital. It may well be English canada’s national capital, but Quebec City is French Canada’s national capital. Just saying.

  20. Enjoyed reading your article. you have a great sense of humour Paul.
    I adore Ottawa and love visiting the beautiful city.

    Andrew Cohen should lick his wounds and whine no more.

  21. I have to agree with Cohen on this one.

    I lived in Ottawa my whole life and was generally more excited to visit places like Victoria, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City because they had more of a signature stamp, a badge of uniqueness. Ottawa has original spaces but they are generally uninteresting, apart from Chateau Laurier and Parliament Hill. You won’t find our own CN Tower or Place Ville Marie here.

    The building density is too low in the city core, forced down by height regulations, and community groups hold developers by the jugular when a daring project is announced, and then killed down the pipeline.

    It seems to me like Ottawa is a large city with a big small town chip on it’s shoulder, and it’s annoying. Even now, with light rail coming, groups are still opposing it or it’s necessary bus detours. If they wanted to live in peace and quiet, the Ottawa valley is large and rural enough that they could move to a relaxed country property, no problem. Taxation rules in Lanark county are good enough to encourage a move and it’s close enough to commute to Ottawa. However, they only want things one way and having a 12 storey condo block sunlight in their back yard is akin to building a hog facility next door, it seems. It’s narrow minded and it kills innovation in my opinion, especially for larger more necessary projects like LRT.

    However, the winds of change are coming and Ottawa is becoming a metropolitan location. Slowly, people’s opinions on construction noise and traffic detours are changing. Condos have sprouted on both sides of Rideau street and people complained less than one would expect when a 45 storey condo broke ground in Dow’s Lake. The only one that made noise, it seemed, was the ward councillor. Assuming the money keeps rolling in for this project, it will be the tallest building in the city. Maybe if we come back to this topic in 20 years, the outcome of these discussions will be different.

  22. As a recent arrival in Canada I have to say, unfortunately, that Andrew Cohen is dead right. Ottawa is a huge disappointment. The fact of the matter is that the city is unattractive and boring.
    I’ve travelled a lot and lived in many different parts of the world and I can say that not only is Ottawa not in the same league as the other G7 capitals, there are hundreds of cities in many of G7, and non-G7, countries that beat Ottawa hands down. For a country of Canada’s stature that’s a shame.
    Canada’s capital should be used to showcase of all the best of Canadian talent in architecture, urban design, culture and innovation. Canadians everywhere should be embarrassed about the current state of their capital. I suggest moving the capital to Toronto as a good first step.

  23. Ottawa is better every time I visit, especially in the summer – since I’m not likely to go skating on the Rideau. The National Museum of Canada and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau are excellent institutions, improving all the time, and I’ve had many memorable meals in both cities. Gatineau provides an interesting contrast to Ottawa and together they make the capitol region worth visiting. I always hated that the Harper Conservatives killed the National Portrait Museum, because there is no better way to teach history and reflect the spirit of a nation than a portrait museum. We see proof of this in London, Washington and Canberra where these galleries are very popular and do challenging and engaging programming. The Liberals should reinstate this project to enrich the cultural landscape. I just wish Ottawa was as close to Toronto as it was to Montreal – but not even Master-wizard Justin Trudeau, can do anything about that geographical fact.

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