Monday, August 14, 2017

WE LOVE OTTAWA - Our Nations' Capital

Tuesday August 8 to Thursday August 10, 2017: With the draining of the Champlain Sea around 10,000 years ago, the Ottawa Valley became habitable. Local native populations used the area for hunting, fishing, trade, travel and camps for over 6,500 years. Three major rivers meet within Ottawa making it an important trade and travel area. The Ottawa valley has archaeological sites with arrow heads, pottery and stone tools from which its history has been traced.

Etien Brule was the first European who passed through Ottawa in 1610 on his way to the Great Lakes. Three years later Samuel de Champlain wrote about the Rideau waterfalls and about his encounters with the Algonquins. Many missionaries would follow the early explorers and traders. The first maps of the area would use the word Ottawa to name the river. 

Ottawa was founded in 1826 as Bytown, named after Colonel John By who was responsible for construction of the Rideau Canal. Land speculators were attracted to the area when word spread the British authorities were constructing the northern section of the canal here. Bytown’s population grew to 1,000 as the Rideau Canal was being completed in 1832. Bytown encountered some violent times in her early pioneer period including Irish labour unrest attributed to the Shriner’s War from 1835 to 1845 and political dissension from the Stony Monday Riot in 1849. Bytown was renamed Ottawa in 1855 when the city was incorporated. 

On December 31, 1857, Queen Victoria, as a symbolic and political gesture, was presented with the responsibility of selecting a location for the permanent capital of the Province of Canada. In reality Prime Minister John A. Macdonald had assigned the task to the Executive Branch of the Government as previous attempts at a consensus had failed. Ottawa was selected for several reasons:
  • Ottawa was a small frontier town surrounded by dense forest, far from the Canada/US boarder and situated on a cliff making it more defensible from possible attack
  • Ottawa was approximately equidistant from Toronto & Kingston in Canada West and from Montreal & Quebec City in Canada East.
  • Ottawa also had seasonal water access to Kingston via the Rideau Canal and Montreal via the Ottawa River
Lumbering, saw mills and railways were early economic drivers for Ottawa. The original Parliament buildings were built between 1859 and 1866 in a Gothic Revival style. By 1885, Ottawa’s downtown was the only city in Canada whose streets were completely lit by electricity. The Hull-Ottawa fire of 1900 destroyed 1/5th of Ottawa and on February 3, 1916, the Centre Block of the Parliament buildings was destroyed by fire and the rebuilding in 1918 is the Centre Block and Peace Tower that we have today. 

Wings & Tug'n, tied up in downtown Ottawa

The Rideau Canal passes right through downtown Ottawa and we were fortunate to get our boats tied up right at the top lock #8 at the start of the canal system. In this location, we were right in the heart of the city where most attractions are within walking distance. Parks Canada recently added power outlets to the docks, making it even more attractive to the boating community.

On Tuesday, our first outing was to visit the National Gallery of Canada, which is housed in a magnificent glass and granite building, looking out over a vista of Parliament Hill. This building opened in 1988. The gallery however, was first formed in 1880 by Canada’s Governor General at the time and it has had various homes since then. The gallery has a large and varied collection of paintings, drawings, sculpture and photographs. Its prime focus is on Canadian art, but its collection holds works by many noted American and European artists, including a strong contemporary art collection. 

National Art Gallery

The gallery is large and we chose to focus on the Canadian collection, including The Group of Seven, Emily Carr, Alex Colville, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Louis-Philippe Herbert and more. There is something quite exhilarating to see original works of art that previously you’d only known from art books and magazines. To the credit of our federal government, the building that houses these works of art displays them in a way that does them great justice. The National Gallery of Canada should be on everyone’s bucket list. 

Pics of some great original Canadian art we saw

An atrium in the beautiful National Art Gallery

Later that afternoon, we toured through the By Ward Market, named of course after Colonel By and conveniently located only a short walk from the canal. Ottawa’s first market was started in 1827 by Colonel By. It has a long and storied history, in multiple locations, destruction by fires, moves, re-builds etc. Today’s market retains much of the original flavour as a centre of trade and entertainment with merchants selling fresh produce, meat, seafood and cheeses together with restaurants, pubs and entertainment. By Ward Market a people magnet and a fun place to enjoy the services and people watch. 

Later Tuesday evening, we walked over to Parliament Hill to see the to see the Northern Lights Sound and Light Show. It is a nightly show with laser lights, music and bilingual commentary telling some Canadian History. The lights are shone on the Centre Block building on Parliament Hill and as dusk settled, some 5,000 people descended on the lawn to bear witness. It was truly astonishing how vivid the pictures are as they portrayed such things as the fire that destroyed the original Centre Block, some history of Canada’s First Nations, some detail on Canadian Confederation etc. The half hour production brought a huge applause by the audience. The size of the crowd and the likelihood that most attendees were seeing it for the first time tells you how many visitors there are in Ottawa at this time of year. It was a great experience.

Northern Lights Sound & Light Show

On Wednesday, our first stop was Mosaic Canada150. This is a special garden tribute to Canada’s 150th birthday. It is located in Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau, Quebec, just across the Ottawa River. The displays are all made of multi coloured plants depicting scenes relevant to Canada’s history, from First Nations activities, to railroads, a lumberjack, buffalo, inukshuk, horses, explorer’s ships used to discover Canada. The works are really spectacular and a large team of gardeners were hard at work maintaining the plant / sculptures while visitors busily snapped pictures. This is not your ordinary garden and it was a real treat to be able to visit it.

Amazing garden show - Mosaic Canada 150
(you really should tap and enlarge each one of 
these amazing pictures)

Our next stop was just across the street - the newly re-named, world renown Canadian Museum of History (previously named the Canadian Museum of Civilization). This museum’s primary purpose is to collect, study, preserve and present material objects that illuminate the human history of Canada and the cultural diversity of its people. The announcement to rename the museum in  2012 coincided with its increased focus on Canadian history. The museum’s permanent galleries explore Canada’s 20,000 years of human history with a shaft that includes leading experts in Canadian history, archaeology, ethnology, folk culture and more. The architectural design of the hall is the result of extensive collaboration with First Nations groups and the result is stunningly beautiful. 

Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau

The museum has three permanent exhibition galleries: The Grand Hall; The First People Hall and the Canada Hall. The Grand Hall on the firs level is the museum’s architectural centrepiece featuring a wall of windows framing a view of the Ottawa River and Parliament Hill. On the opposite wall is an enormous colour photograph (the largest colour photograph in the world) capturing a forest scent as a backdrop for a dozen towering totem poles and recreation of six Pacific Coast Aboriginal house fades. The Grand Hall also houses the original plaster pattern for the colossal Spirit of Haida Gwaii. This plaster was used to cast the bronze sculpture displayed outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington. 

The First Peoples Hall narrates the history and accomplishments of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples from their original habitation of North America to the present day, chronicling 20,000 years of history, including the harsh impact of the arrival of European settlers. 

The Canadian History Hall is a new signature gallery, meant to be more comprehensive, inclusive and engaging than previous versions. It opened July 1, 2017 to coincide with the Canada 150 Celebrations. We had visited this museum 20 years ago when we brought Fran’s parents on a trip to Ottawa, so this visit we decided to focus on the new Canadian History Hall. As promised, it is indeed much more comprehensive and inclusive, clearly showing how difficult Nation Building is, openly laying out numerous black marks in Canada’s history and then going on to explain what steps were taken to right the wrongs of our past. There is no substitute for telling and displaying history in a truthful and forthright manner. 

The museum also includes an IMAX Theatre where they were showing a wonderful and moving 20 minute film of scenes from across Canada. A visit to Canadian Museum of History is reason enough to come to Ottawa for a visit.

To complete our day, this evening, at dusk, we gathered our folding chairs and walked down to the Mayor’s Park, just behind the Chateau Laurier Hotel, to watch fireworks that were set up on a barge on the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Gatineau. Thousands of spectators gathered in the park, behind Parliament Hill and across the Ottawa River in Gatineau to watch the half hour pyrotechnic display put on by the province of Manitoba. It was truly a magnificent fireworks display in a perfect setting, capping off a second great day in Ottawa.

Fireworks on the Ottawa River (Manitoba night)

On Thursday, our last full day in Ottawa, we too a tour of the Centre Block & the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. On numerous visits to Ottawa over many years, we’d never done this. The tour is free, but you have to go to a government office on Wellington Street, across from Parliament Hill to pick up your ticket for a specific time slot. Of course, you are competing with thousands of other tourists for these tickets that are normally all handed out by mid morning. The office opens at 0900, but the line up starts at 0650 (this is a very popular attraction). Bob went to line up first at 0745 and I took over at about 0820 and we successfully obtained tickets for 1345 hours. The gathering place is by the flag pole next to the East Block building where you are met by your guide and ushered over to the basement entrance to Centre Block to pass through security (metal scanner and the works). 

The first part of our tour turned out to be a personal highlight. It was in a hallway in the basement where there were plaques on both sides. It was at that moment that I recalled my maternal grandfather had served as a Member of Parliament in the William Lyon MacKenzie King Liberal government. Fran and I quickly scanned a series of plaques until we found his name G. A. McLean,  etched on a panel for the 18th Parliament of Canada from October 14, 1935 to January 25, 1940. He was the MP for Simcoe County. Suddenly, this tour took on more meaning for us. My mind was focused on imagining what it must have been like to serve in this role right at the conclusion of World War II. One room we toured was the Reading Room, which would have been regularly used by MP’s (pre computers and smart phones) to keep up to date on Canadian and world news through newspapers and printed materials. It reminded me of my grandfather in later years, always reading newspapers in his living room chair, never loosing his interest in current affairs. 

MP's from the 18th Parliament of Canada under
William Lyon MacKenzie King

MP for Simcoe County - George Alexander McLean

Standing on the floor of the House of Commons, with its traditional British green carpet and chairs, or the Red Room where our Senators meet, helped make the lives of our government officials have just a little more meaning as we pondered the challenges they face dealing with government business.

On the floor of the House of Commons

The Red Chamber, where the Senate meets

For the tour, we had a very enthusiastic summer student. Once again, we were very impressed that the topics she covered included issues from our past, such as Indian Residential Schools. Our earliest governments embarked on a deeply troubling attempt to force our First Nations communities to integrate into “civilized society” by removing their children from home and moving them to distant live-in schools so the children would loose their traditional language & culture and be indoctrinated into western society. Assimilation attempts actually began as early as the 17th century and the last residential school was finally closed in 1996. About 150,000 children are believed to have been put in these schools and at least 6,000 died while residents. Large numbers of children suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse while at these schools. While much has been written on this subject, on our tour, our guide pointed out a relatively new stained glass window in Centre Block depicting the impact of this dark period on Canada’s First Nations and our government’s efforts at reparations. Very refreshing.

New stained glass telling story of 
Indian Residential Schools

Our tour included a trip up the Peace Tower in the middle of Centre Block. It was built from 1919 to 1927 and it is dedicated to the more than 65,000 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War. The Peace Tower stands 302’ 6” tall. It is a freestanding bell tower whose bells chime every quarter hour. It also houses the carillon, a set of 53 bells sounded form a keyboard found in a small room located midway up the tower. The bells are all different sizes, the larges weighing 22,244 pounds and the smallest weighing 10 pounds. 

The Peace Tower also contains a Memorial Chamber to commemorate those who died in military service for Canada. Each soldier’s name is hand written in a book (different books for each conflict) and every day at 1100 hours, there is a formal ceremony where one page of each book  is turned so that during the course of a year, the names on each page is on display for a day. The Parliament Security Services Officers perform this duty on behalf of our government and for all Canadians.

During our tour of the Peace Tower we learned that each day, the Canadian Flag that is lowered is mailed out to a Canadian. The names are taken from a sign up list, which is now 73 years long (73 X 365 days). We loved this idea and decided to sign up the youngest member of our family, our grandson Alex, who is just 2 years old. He stands the best chance of being alive when his flag is mailed out and also, it seemed appropriate that he be on the list as he was born on Canada Day. 

Currently, the West Block building is currently under renovation, including enclosing a large courtyard which will become a temporary House of Commons staring in 2018. At that time, the House of Commons will close for about 10 years while the building is renovated and all its systems brought up to date. 

Later that evening, we had a great get together with a former TD colleague of Stephen’s and his wife. Chris and Karen live in Ottawa and have been following our blog and made contact when they knew we were in Ottawa. It had been quite a long time since our last visit and we had so much fun catching up with each other. 

A tribute to Oscar Peterson outside National Arts Centre

Fran as a "T"