Updated: Aug 15
Ottawa has always been a compromise, a place where logic and convenience supersede steaming passion and bloody war. While that proud, bejeweled, aging Grande Dame Québec, 'La Vieille Capital', and the former Gallic capital Montréal have always been fiercely fought over, both hot beds of rich history and culture, Ottawa is, well, a typically British compromise. It all goes back a long way. On New Year's Eve 1857, Queen Victoria was presented with papers, maps and options, and given the onerous task of choosing where the new permanent capital of the Province of Canada should be. Monteal's Parliament had been burned to the ground by rioters a few years earlier. This vital meeting for the future of Canada must have been a huge inconvenience and distraction for the diminutive monarch who was probably preoccupied with choosing her frock, her tiara and her tiny dancing shoes for her end-of-year palatial celebrations just a few hours away. So she did exactly what all wise kings and queens should do (to keep their heads)... she listened to the advice of her senior politicians and nodded at each point in approbation. Prime Minister John Macdonald summed up. "It can't be in Quebec or Montreal (the former capital) because the damn Frenchies are everywhere and these cities are too easy for the US to attack. Toronto is always full of troublemakers and is far too near to the US for our liking. It can't be Calgary or Vancouver because we haven’t really discovered them yet. Nearly everywhere else is too small to provide MPs with a decent lunch. Also geographically, strategically and diplomatically, Ottawa sits in the middle of nowhere on the cusp between English and French Canada. So...we recommend Ottawa. It is English-speaking like Blighty and is far enough away from the French to avoid them but near enough to hire their chefs". "Brilliant." said Victoria. "Ottawa it is then. Now... I think I shall wear the red silk dress with the Hanover Tiara and those cheeky little pink shoes with the kitten heels".
So Ottawa it was. And still is. The Parliament building is magnificent, sitting high on the bank of the Ottawa River, with its own very own Big Ben. But even this is currently being compromised. It was closed 12 months ago, for at least 10 years, to be renovated. So they have moved the Upper and Lower Chambers to nearby temporary premises - the House of Commons next door to a large old building that formerly housed MP's offices. Here some brilliant architect has superbly converted a central courtyard, covering it in and building a faux chamber within the old stone walls. It is a stroke of genius. The Senate, meanwhile, has moved to the old Main Trunk Railway Station and has been recreated on Platform 4 or somewhere within its cavernous bowels. Internally, both are very familiar to Westminster, even down to the layout with the Speaker's chair at the end and the green seats in the Commons and the red in the Upper House.
The current House of Commons
The House of Commons chamber inside the walls of an old courtyard
The Senate, one-time Main Railway Station
The Senate Chamber
The Parliament building
The rear of Parliament overlooking the river A walk down to the river involves a long outdoor staircase, a descent of over 100 steps. You can immediately see the problem they had 150 years ago with bringing boats from this level up to connect into the much higher Lake Ontario, and then on to the St Lawrence and the Atlantic - and thereby Britain. Call for one Lieutenant-Colonel John By, an English military engineer, who with the help of several thousand French and Irish men with shovels, started digging through the wild and sparsely populated Ottawa Valley. His formidable task began in 1826 and took six years, crucially opening up Ottawa to water traffic from the east. It involved no less than 50 dams and 47 locks, all dug by calloused hand. Sadly, old By never got the recognition he deserved. On completion of his 'Magnum Opus' he retired back to England, only to have to survive a damaging ignominious UK Government inquiry into his Canadian expenditure. He died in the village of Frant, Sussex, with little or no acclaim, in 1836. But his legacy was in reality enormous. Today you can only marvel at the steep climb the canal takes through the huge locks right next to the seat of Government itself. Justly, his name is celebrated and applauded here and his statue rightly overlooks the locks that he so brilliantly constructed.
So we have the Houses of Parliament and the Rideau Canal. What else is there to draw in the tourists? To be brutally honest - not much. There are some elegant Parisian-style pavement cafés outnumbered by London-style pubs but this town is all about running government, big business and its 40,000 student University. There are some beautiful parks, especially along the canal, the magnificent War Memorial, their own Notre Dame and the fabulously plush Fairmont Hotel. But two days is ample to experience what it has to offer. And then only with a long lunch or two.
So now we move on to the real hardline French Canadians, many of who can trace their lineage back to the early settlers of the late 16th century. And their version of French has not evolved very much along with their tolerance of the British. They have a formidable reputation for being amongst the most unfriendly and disagreeable people in Canada, if not the world. The English-speaking Canadians still have huge issues with them, from their over-representation in Parliament to their Québécois rudeness. We have brushed up on all our diplomatic skills and 300 year old French patois and are ready to resume old battles. We are already irritated. All the road signs we have seen in English-speaking Ontario are in both languages. As soon as you enter the Province of Québéc the English is completely dropped. Bienvenue et bon chance.
AND FINALLY... However, there are some truly exceptional things that we must credit the French with. Their wine, of course. Their ‘Ooh La La’ sexy language. And especially their food. Thanks to the likes of Georges Auguste Escoffier, we can all experience the sheer delights of haute cuisine made simple. Even a visit to the supermarket here gives us the chance to enjoy the most imaginatively prepared food, as we found out today. One of our favorite meals is to spatchcock a chicken and put it on the barbecue with spices and lemon. Here, they have beaten us hands down. Just look at this. Ooh La La à la Grecque.
Not only superbly spatchcocked in readiness for the grill but miraculously deboned. Sometimes, we are forced to admit that there are things about the French we love.