This past weekend the streets of downtown Ottawa, Canada overflowed with hundreds of thousands of people thronging to see La Machine.
The “travelling urban theatre” made its North America debut in my hometown as part of our ongoing Canada 150 celebrations. A gigantic mechanical dragon and spider wandered through the streets and public parks for a show entitled “The Spirit of the Dragon-Horse, With Stolen Wings.” The creatures lived, breathed (sort of) snorted and farted (really), and walked among the people of Ottawa 24 hours a day for four days as they pursued their quests. My social media feeds and the Ottawa news channels were full of pictures and videos of these feats of engineering at play in our city. The dragon and the spider were a huge hit.
As cool as that all sounded, as unique and interesting as it seemed, I could not summon the interest in going to see it for myself.
Cottages called to me. I spent the weekend in peaceful surroundings. Sun, water, relaxation. I couldn’t bear the thought of those crowds.
Last week, before the dragon and the spider descended on my city and before the hundreds of thousands of people flocked to see them, I went for a walk downtown. At the heart of Ottawa, a few hundred feet from Parliament Hill, I encountered these baby bunnies. They were small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. By myself I spent some quiet moments with the bunnies.
For me, quiet moments with those bunnies beat noisy dragon time.
Yesterday most Canadians celebrated a civic holiday. Not every Canadian (some provinces don’t have a long weekend in August) and not all for the same reason.
Because there is no specific occasion for a holiday in August (other than it’s really great to have a long weekend in the summer) provinces and municipalities have creative licence. In British Columbia, it is British Columbia Day. (Okay, maybe not so creative.) In Alberta it’s Heritage Day. (Better, if a little vague.) In Toronto it’s Simcoe Day. (For John Graves Simcoe, first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.) Here in Ottawa we designate the weekend as Bytown Days and Monday specifically as Colonel By Day.
Ottawa’s original name was Bytown, in honour of Lieutenant Colonel John By. Colonel By, a military engineer, was the first city planner, and he laid out plans for the area that has become our downtown core. He oversaw the construction of the first bridge across the Ottawa River, a vital link between the provinces of Ontario and Québec. Most famously, he engineered and supervised the building of the Rideau Canal and the lock system that connects the Ottawa River to the Rideau River. (Here in Ottawa, Rideau is pronounced REE-deau, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Pronounce it Ri-DEAU and we’ll know you’re not from here.)
Canadians first had the notion that a navigable trade route other than the St. Lawrence River might be a good idea after the war of 1812, when American/Canadian relations were a little more fraught. At the time, the unquestioned need to maintain water transportation avenues that could be protected from American attack made the prospect of carving through 125 miles of bush and swamp and rock seem not only possible but imperative.
For six years, thousands of Irish and French Canadian labourers and skilled stonemasons endured hellish working and living conditions with high incidents of accidents, disease and death to build the canal and the lock system. Malaria, of all things, was a major threat. They did it because they needed the work to survive, and they believed that their labours would ensure the survival of future generations.
These days we are at peace with the United States. These days our supplies travel by airplane or highway or train. These days, the trade route that Colonel By envisioned, that water transportation link that people lost their lives over, is a place for pleasure only. In the summer yachts fill the locks and cruise the canal.
In the winter skaters laugh as they glide way between Beavertail stands.
I wonder, what would Colonel By think of how we use his creation today? I walk beside the canal and the locks on my lunch breaks in downtown Ottawa. As I stroll in peaceful, malaria-free Ottawa, I imagine Colonel By surveying his city from his vantage point on the great cliff at Major’s Hill Park where his house used to stand. I envision his stiff British bearing as he peers down to watch us walk and bike and boat in the same area where men suffered and died.
I wonder if Colonel By, a man who lived in harsh times, would despair at how we luxuriously and thoughtlessly take his engineering marvel for granted. Perhaps he would scowl over our carefree abandon. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he would commend us all for shaping our city into one of safety and freedom. Maybe he would give us a rousing Hurrah! for creating a vibrant, economically progressive, multicultural and compassionate city to honour his name.
Read more Rideau Canal history here: http://www.rideau-info.com/canal/history/hist-canal.html
I hear different opinions about my home city of Ottawa, Canada.
Green space, natural environment and waterfront access usually make the list.
Galleries, national museums, and historic buildings rate a mention too.
Since Ottawa is the capital of Canada, Canadians from other parts of the country often (mistakenly) confuse the federal government with the municipality. I don’t know why, but it seems that the people who do so are the ones that hold a negative view of the actions of parliament, so the name of my beautiful home city sometimes elicits strong negative reactions from people who don’t know better.
But most often we residents hear about Ottawa’s lack of party life. “Ottawa, where the streets roll up at 9:00,” we hear, or “Ottawa, where fun goes to die.”
I think the people who say so aren’t trying hard enough. Elgin Street and the Byward Market provided enough entertainment for me when I was looking for such things, and our culinary masters make international headlines, so gourmet food is accessible, if that’s your thing.
And we do have a sense of humour. Would a dour city have a sign like this one at a crosswalk on the Sparks Street Mall?
The Canadian federal government doesn’t have a Ministry of Silly Walks, but Sparks Street does.
Most work days I go for a lunch-hour walk around one of Canada’s iconic sites—Parliament Hill.
I arrive at the east slope of the hill and descend to where the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal meet. The view of the water and of Nepean Point where Samuel de Champlain holds his astrolabe aloft is motivation enough to descend, even though I know eventually I will have to ascend.
I discovered something interesting during this daily walk. Like me, many people choose to go down and up this hill every day, but unlike me, they choose to do it over and over again.
Down, up, down, up, down, up.
Some of them do it as part of a torturous “boot camp,” so they carry a medicine ball, or drag a sled with a heavy weight behind them, or tote a heavy pole over their shoulders. Down, up, down, up, down, up, with extra weight to make it more difficult.
The decision to make life more difficult when we have the option of coasting seems counter-intuitive. Don’t we all long for the easy ride? Life is challenging enough, one would think. Do we really need to make it harder?
We do, actually, because choosing the easy road early in life leads to a hard road later in life. If we want to run and jump and bend and stretch in our later years, we have to run and jump and bend and stretch in our youth. Life requires hard stuff early on, so we can enjoy good stuff later.
Life is full of ups and downs—some chosen, some thrust upon us. Training for the uphill grind is a good idea.
“The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
The gunman who shot Nathan Cirillo this week here in Ottawa was not thinking clearly. The irony of the place of his death was lost on him, I am sure. He died creating chaos in the shadow of the Peace Tower. His angry rampage and his death show us one thing:
Peace Towers above all.
I read the quote at the top of this post in the book Made for Goodness And Why This Makes All the Difference by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu. Martin Luther King Jr. gifted me with the most faith-sustaining quote I have found thus far, and my wish for my city, and for the people of Montreal who also saw one of their own die this week, is that we turn to it now.
It will help us if we remember that every evil act unleashes a search for the good. It will help us if we remember that every act of evil advances us further along the arc of the universe toward justice. It will help us to remember that the arc is long.
Here’s a fact about our city: almost every resident knows someone who works in downtown Ottawa. The federal government employs a large percentage of our population, and most of them work near where the shooting took place. When anything occurs in downtown Ottawa, almost every resident immediately thinks of how it is affecting someone they know—a spouse, a child, a neighbour or someone from their bridge club.
You have to know that a shooting in the downtown core on a workday in Ottawa paralyzed this city in a way it would not in most other places. The news rippled out for miles in every direction, and within that radius, virtually every person had a spouse, a child, a neighbour or a member of their bridge club—someone they knew and loved dearly—in mind.
We are more than a city; we are an interconnected community.
We have not had a high profile on the world stage. Here is a version of a conversation I have had often when travelling in other countries:
PERSON FROM THE OTHER COUNTRY (PFTOC): Where are you from?
(awkward pause while the person tries to politely figure out how to tell me he has no idea where that is)
ME: . . . Canada
PFTOC: Ah, yes. Canada.
(visions of polar bears and RCMP officers dance in his head)
ME: It’s the capital city, you know.
PFTOC: Really? I thought Toronto was the capital.
ME: Oh, sigh.
Often I wonder, why do people not know about the capital city of Canada? Perhaps more do now; this week international media have their cameras and their news feeds focused on us. The writings cover many different angles of the story: the words of love whispered to Nathan Cirillo as he lay dying [if you read nothing else, read this], the Canadian national anthem played at the Pittsburgh Penguins/Philadelphia Flyers game [thanks for that], the rivals in the House of Commons embracing [rivalries are vapours, really] , the long, hard day of devastated Muslims in our city [please read that one too], and the inevitable security concerns.
The events this week in Montreal and Ottawa started international conversations, and when we discuss acts of terror or evil, what we’re really doing is asking: How can we create good from this? Desmond Tutu suggests that we are made for goodness, and I believe these conversations, unleashed by an act of terror, help us search for the good. They show us that any action taken out of hatred, revenge or anger fails in the long run.
Because Peace Towers above all.
— Michael O’Neill (@mikeyo19) October 23, 2014
On the weekend of our Canadian Thanksgiving, my mother, my family and I went for a hike at the Shaw Woods Outdoor Education Centre. Before we left I downloaded their excellent information sheets about the trail we planned to take. (Ever the dutiful mother, I wanted our walk to be educational as well as healthful and fun.)
We had to drive for an hour and a bit from our home in Ottawa to get there, and my daughter fell asleep in the car. When we arrived, she was in a groggy, just-woke-up place. “Hiking,” she grumbled. “Why do we have to go hiking?”
We set out on our path, and I began to read aloud about John Shaw, a miller from Inverness, Scotland. “John arrived here in 1847 by canoe from Bytown [now Ottawa] with his wife Barbara Thompson . . .”
I stopped reading. “They came here from Ottawa by canoe,” I said. I pictured the two of them paddling through rain into strong winds. I imagined them straining under the burden of heavy loads as they portaged all their worldly goods around rapids.
What a hardship.
I read on. “. . . and their two-year-old son, John.” “They did all that and they had a two-year-old with them.” I said.
Toddlers in warm, safe homes are challenging enough. Imagine travelling by canoe for weeks with one. Were there even life jackets in 1847?
I turned to my daughter, “That sure makes our little hike in the woods seem pretty easy by comparison, doesn’t it?”
Forages into the past that dig up reminders of the hardships our ancestors faced help to put all our petty little problems into perspective. Whatever comes at me today, at least I’m not in a canoe in the rain with all my worldly goods and a two-year-old.