Opinion: When I visited Ottawa, it was sad to see what had become of my hometown


Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Growing up in Ottawa, our family took great pride in showing off the Canadian capital to friends, relatives – even newly released Soviet dissidents. Compact, beautiful and user-friendly, it was better for us as “PKs,” or professors' children, than life in Washington and London, two other capitals we occasionally called home during our sabbaticals.

Sure, Ottawa was and still is one of the coldest capitals in the world, but the joys of ice skating on the Rideau Canal, documenting the fall colors of the Gatineau Hills with our Instamatic cameras, or biking along endless bike paths through protected greenbelts on sweltering summer days more than made up for those brutal months of shoveling snow and freezing at bus stops. In my opinion, the ByWard Market in the summer still rivals notable seasonal spots elsewhere in the world.

My Ottawa is full of nostalgia: It was here that I got my first job selling ice cream from a bicycle cart while my brother, a musician, busked in the streets. It was on Carling Avenue that I had my first kiss. It was in Ottawa that I graduated from high school and university, smoked my first cigarette, learned the craft of journalism, served Her Majesty's Government as a senior assistant to a Member of Parliament, and produced an award-winning current affairs radio program on Carleton University's campus station CKCU-FM.

Whenever I return to Ottawa, the precious memories from my teenage and early adult years flood back into my mind like an unstoppable tsunami – warm, fuzzy feelings that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

But unfortunately that didn't happen this spring, when I spent a few days at the big UN Plastics Summit, which attracted delegates from nearly 180 countries.

Not only has the city centre resembled a ghost town – largely because thousands of civil servants, backed by powerful unions, refuse to return to their desks – but many of the walkways I used to take through the city centre have turned into a disturbing obstacle course of homeless people camping on the sidewalks. In fact, the last time I felt this way – and I have been in some of the meanest cities in the world – was in Pretoria, South Africa, around the time of the BRICS summit last year, when I took a wrong turn into the diplomatic quarter and had some disturbing encounters. On many walks through my former home, I shook my head in disbelief and thought, “This is not the Ottawa I know or love.”

It turns out I am not alone. Several foreign delegates at the UN Plastics Summit told me they were surprised by the number of homeless People and others causing unrest in the immediate vicinity of the Ottawa Convention Centre. Old friends from their student days who still live in the capital say they are not proud of what they see every day.

It is difficult not to feel sorry for the small family businesses that are struggling to survive in the face of the sharp decline in customer frequency. Numerous cafes and snack bars are suffering as a result, including the abandoned Presse Café.

Hotels and business travel centres are feeling the impact as the federal government stops hosting as many events. “Business travel is a little bit behind because of the government and the way they're doing things. And because of the work-from-home policies, the federal government is now not hosting as many meetings as they used to,” said Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association.

Currently, the government requires employees to be in the office two days a week, but this rule is not enforced everywhere. Starting in September, it will be increased to three days a week, CTV Ottawa reported, citing an article in Le Droit.

I rarely agree with Ontario's bombastic Premier Doug Ford, but recently it seemed to make sense when he urged federal workers to return to their desks: “You have to get the economy moving. [in Ottawa’s] Downtown. These restaurants are suffering, the shops are suffering. Public transit ridership is suffering. I think that's a normal demand. They're being hired, they're coming to work. Imagine if I told everyone else in the province they didn't have to go to work? Our economy would be in the ground. So they shouldn't get special treatment.”

He's right. And I'm not betting that the current liberal federal government will show the backbone needed to force the unions into submission any time soon.

Ottawa is undoubtedly a complicated organism. Representatives of several government agencies, including the National Capital Commission and the provincial, regional and City officials and sometimes even transit all have a say in development and day-to-day operations. Squabbles between the unelected leaders of the bloated NCC and elected councillors are commonplace, even over the design of sidewalks.

Another vivid example of Ottawa's too-many-cooks-at-work style of government is the much-maligned Rideau Street area between Sussex Drive and St. Patrick Street, which, despite billions of dollars in investment over decades, resisted attempts to turn itself into an urban legend. The 2016 sinkhole disaster may have been a sign from heaven that it was destined to become something different.

When I covered the city as a young reporter in the 1980s, I wrote for The Globe and Mail about ambitious plans to transform the main artery into a covered, heated pedestrian mall. As I predicted, it never worked out, and today the street is open to buses, cars and pedestrians. Discount stores, fast-food outlets and cannabis shops line much of its length. Cheap and run-down, it has to be one of the most unsuccessful urban planning projects in the country. (One Tripadvisor post calls the mall “the definition of an urban planning disaster.”)

And the lack of consensus over the renovation of the prime minister's official residence – 24 Sussex Dr. was always part of the city tours when I accompanied visitors around the city as a child – needs to be resolved soon so that what Politico called “Canada's most famous renovation project” can be returned to the NCC. Portfolio of attractions.

It is to be hoped that a vigorous effort to bring housing to the city centre, especially through the construction of high-rise buildings, will bring back more vitality and help alleviate the acute nationwide housing shortage.

Of course, it's easy to make a quick visit to my former home and criticize decision-makers for poor policy decisions. For one thing, other cities around the world are grappling with a host of post-COVID problems. In New York, for example, City Hall has failed to dissuade restaurant owners from their outdoor dining stalls, which are robbing neighborhoods of valuable parking spaces and hindering access for pedestrians, sewerage, pest control, and emergency vehicles. (For many restaurant owners, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure free land and expand their operations, but many of the stalls have fallen into disrepair and now serve as canvases for graffiti artists.)

Second, much has changed in Ottawa since I was a boy throwing newspapers across my neighbors' lawns in Alta Vista. Today, the majority of households in the capital consist of two people and the citizens have aged considerably.

But my perspective is shaped not only by having lived in the city for many years, but also by comparing the situation in other capital cities. Visits to the world's major capitals in recent months, including Washington, London, Rome, Warsaw and Brussels, have shown that they have recovered from COVID in ways that Ottawa has not.

Let's look at this crisis as an opportunity to reimagine what Canadian inner cities should look like, especially Ottawa. Ultimately, if Canada wants to preserve its image as a middle power in the G7, it must first fix its front door.