Yuan Yi Zhu is a research fellow at the University of Oxford.
National capitals seldom have a very good reputation among a country’s denizens. They are either too wealthy or too provincial or too distant or too artificial, as the local fashion would have it. And they are invariably filled with too many politicians.
But few capital cities can be as unloved as Ottawa. Not only does it stand, in vast swathes of Canada, as the metonym for out-of-touch eastern Canadian bureaucrats – that is to be expected. But it is simply not a very pleasant place to be.
Walk a few blocks from Parliament Hill, where the city’s only impressive buildings (copies of Sir Charles Barry’s Gothic revival pile in Westminster) are located, and you quickly find yourself amid undistinguished mid-century office buildings and, in some places, genuine squalor. A street in downtown Ottawa now has so many drug users lying on its sidewalk that locals have nicknamed it “the Beach”.
The city seems to resist improvement. A light rail line, built at great expense, has suffered from repeated service outrages. Its trains could not handle cold temperatures, a serious problem in one of the world’s coldest capital cities. And less said about 24 Sussex, the prime minister’s residence, which is quite literally falling to pieces and has become unfit for human habitation through serial neglect, the better.
A few years ago, an Ottawa newspaper columnist castigated the city for “for its lack of ambition and absence of imagination” which made “Ottawa is the worst capital in the G7”. A defender retorted that Ottawa was not impressive because Canada did not have a very impressive history, and that Ottawa’s lousiness was a sort of reflection of our national virtue. Some defence.
But Ottawa became the capital of a fledging nation not because of its virtues, but because it was the least objectionable choice for the most people. When Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (now Quebec) were merged into one colony in 1841, Ottawa – or Bytown, as it was known then – was a ramshackle collection of buildings developed by land speculators due to its convenient location on a new canal.
The capital of the new colony was first installed in Kingson, a sleepy town in Upper Canada. Two years later, it was moved to Montreal, then Canada’s only proper city. But Montreal rather blotted its copybook in 1849, when local Tories (a species now extinct) incited an English-speaking mob to burn down the colonial legislature after it had passed a law which offered compensation to French Canadians they thought potentially disloyal.
As soon as the shaken representatives could meet again, they voted to decamp to Toronto, Montreal’s great rival. But the move to Toronto angered everyone else; even today, a dislike of Toronto is one of the country’s few truly shared cultural traits.
A system of “perambulation”, whereby the capital rotated between Toronto and Quebec City every four years, was trialled and universally resented. In 1856, the lower house voted to make Quebec City the permanent capital, but the upper house blocked the necessary appropriations.
Embarrassingly for the colony, which prided itself on its ability to govern itself, the matter had to be taken out of its hands. Five cities were asked to submit bids, and Queen Victoria chose Ottawa, the one option almost no one wanted. Right on the border between Upper and Lower Canada, and equidistant between Toronto and Quebec City, it was a choice calculated to annoy everyone equally, and perhaps Her Majesty’s most enduring contribution to her soon-to-be dominion.
Even then, the Solomonic judgment was resisted, and two governments had to fall in quick succession before the choice was accepted, with as much bad grace as humanely possible. Even today, the Canadian constitution’s unenthusiastic endorsement of Ottawa amounts to a single line: “Until the Queen otherwise directs the Seat of Government of Canada shall be Ottawa”, offering the tantalising possibility of the city being deprived of its main purpose with one stroke of the royal pen.
Slowly, Ottawa, as it became, acquired the appurtenances of a colonial capital. New buildings were erected, civil servants moved in, and attempts were even made to beautify the place. Two fires, one of which burned down Parliament, also helped matters. But it remained a sort of hardship post, and more than one judge is known to have declined promotion to the Supreme Court because they did not want to live there.
Today, Ottawa is the capital of a great nation. Tourists and secondary school students flock in large numbers from buses and are invariably taken to the picturesque Parliament buildings (closed for a decade or so for renovations).
But in a country stretching thinly across a whole continent, and where regional identity tend to predominate, the city where its national institutions happen to be located can never aspire to be the locus of national sentiment and attention one way or the other. And that is how most Canadian would want it to be.