Story and photos by Dorothy Dobbie
One spring evening, an hour after midnight, a young man named D’Arcy McGee made his way back to his boarding house after a late sitting on Parliament Hill. He had just turned the key in the lock when he was shot dead with a single bullet to the head.
It was April 6, 1868, just one year after Confederation, and the Irish Fenian Brotherhood was actively pursuing separation from England. D’Arcy McGee, the popular Irish MP from Montreal, had written some harsh words about the brotherhood and this was his reward.
So began and ended the history of violence in Ottawa until the fall of 2014, when the House of Commons was stormed by gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. He was quickly dispatched by Sargeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, now ambassador to Ireland. The shocked and dismayed MPs eventually recovered (although you can still see the gunshot holes in the Hall of Honour) and life has gone back to normal. Granted, security on the Hill is now tighter – but that doesn’t deter the three million people who visit Parliament Hill each year to see just where the nation’s business is done.
The Hill itself, with its beautiful stone buildings and many monuments, is worthy of half a day’s exploration. Right now, the first thing you will notice is that
many of the Parliament buildings seem to be under wraps; this is part of a 20-year, $3-billion (and counting) renovation project. The West Block is particularly shrouded; it is under very expensive and extensive modification to serve as the temporary House of Commons chambers when the renovations to Centre Block take place. To accommodate the chambers, the former courtyard at the centre of West Block is being domed with glass. It is slated to be ready for occupation in 2017, Canada’s sesqui-centennial year. (The Senate chambers are being moved to the Congress Centre, the old railway station, which is also under extensive renovation to accommodate the temporary move.)
At the bottom of the Hill just outside the entrance is the Confederation Building, where you will see a lovely bushy, but not tall, White spruce tree struggling, it seems, to grow up. It never will.
The tree was planted 15 years ago and should by now be a giant, but that was back in the days of Dolly the cloned sheep when everyone believed everything can be cloned – and in the horticultural world, it generally can. However, this cloning utilized a new process called plasmogenesis that failed. The result is a tree that “thinks” it’s a branch and, instead of being the giant White spruce it should be after all this time, it is a stumpy, though pampered, eight-foot, disfigured parody of a tree. It stands as a monument to man’s hubris!
Behind the Hill you can still see the many caves and tunnels that were once occupied by feral cats, fed by MPs and other volunteers. The colony was started back in 1924 to deal with an infestation of rodents in the then new Centre Block. The cats were cleared out two years ago at the request of the volunteers.
Within a stone’s throw of Parliament Hill, crossing the Rideau Canal locks, is the famous and wonderful Chateau Laurier, the still beautiful railroad hotel, which is the place to stay. Even if you can’t afford the tariff there, you can still have tea or drinks at elegant Zoe’s Lounge, listening to the piano and rubber necking to see political luminaries.
Cross the corner, pass the War Monument and the Congress Centre, and drop into the Rideau Centre, the downtown shopping mall that is now home to the second Nordstrom store in Canada. The whole shopping centre is getting a makeover as a result. While you are there, drop into Shepherd’s a couple of doors down. It is owned by Marlene Shepherd and her daughter Trudy. Marlene is the wife of former MP Francis LeBlanc.
Going north, just up the street and around the corner, though, is the fun place to be: the Byward Market. It is filled with fabulous food and produce, unique boutiques and a
million restaurants. It’s a wonderful place to hang out for an afternoon or evening, exploring all the little shops and galleries, not to mention the bars and nightlife options later in the day. A little further up the street you will come across the National Gallery of Canada – you can’t miss its glassy splendour.
If you continue north, past a couple of dignified federal institutions on Sussex Drive, you will eventually round a curve and reach the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Dr. Kitty corner from that sits stately Rideau Hall, home of the Governor General. It is set in a lovely 79-acre park that is sometimes open to the public. So are the state halls at certain times of the year.
Carrying on up Sussex will take you past toney Rockcliffe, which was a separate village until 2001 when it was annexed by the City of Ottawa. One of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Canada, the parklike district is home to many ambassadorial residences.
The city is full of art galleries, book stores and at least 15 museums. Across the Ottawa River in Gatineau (formerly Hull) is the not-to-be-missed Museum of History (formerly the Museum of Civilization). The building was designed by Aboriginal architect Douglas Cardinal, who at 81, has just been commissioned to help with the soon-to-be-iconic Canadian History hall slated to help celebrate our 150th birthday when it opens in 2017. While you are in Gatineau, be sure to stop at one of the many exquisite restaurants.
For Canadians, a visit to Ottawa is different from a visit to any other city in Canada. You will marvel at the beautiful Library of Parliament that survived the terrible fire of 1916. You will want to drop into the Canadian War Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Go to an event at the National Arts Centre. Watch the Changing of the Guard. Climb the Peace tower and search for family names on the open pages in the Books of Remembrance listing our war heroes . . . I promise a lump in your throat up there that will force you to turn your eyes to the magnificent view of Parliament Hill and the glorious Ottawa River below as you regain your composure.
Most of all, though, you will feel the history of our country through the echo of your footsteps in Parliament’s marble halls. As you peer into the chamber, imagine your idols of the past, sometimes laughing and jousting and, at other times, speaking movingly from their hearts. All wanted the same thing: to carve out a mighty nation.
Many like to be cynical about our government, but I defy you not to get just a bit choked up at some point during your visit.