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Who would have thought, less than 200 years ago, that at the confluence of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, in the heart of a dense forest, a city would develop that would become the capital of Canada?
An early agricultural settlement led by Philmeon Wright had begun on the site of what is today Hull, on the Québec side of the border, around the year 1800. Construction of the canal began in 1826, under the supervision of Lieutenant-Colonel By. A tiny hamlet developed with the workers brought to build the canal and the managers brought to oversee the construction as its residents. It was called Bytown after the lieutenant-colonel.
It took seven years to complete the canal; in 1832, a little village was built at the confluence of the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal. The town flourished, mostly because of the dense forest surrounding it; wood-cutting gave work to many people.
Two very distinct areas developed on each side of the canal: the upper town, on the west side, where the more affluent inhabitants had sumptuous dwellings built, and the lower town, on the east side, which became home to the town's poorer residents, mostly French and Irish, both groups being predominantly Catholic. There was rivalry and tension between these two groups and Bytown's first years were tumultuous ones. The 19th century profoundly transformed this small city of just a few thousand souls.
Kingston was the capital of United Canada between 1841 and 1844, but its proximity to the United States worried the authorities who feared eventual attacks on this important, yet vulnerable colonial administrative centre. They sought another site for the capital, with Toronto, Québec City, Montréal and Bytown. Though it was gritty and violent, Bytown had a lot to recommend it: it was located on the of Upper and Lower Canada, it had an equally English- and French-speaking population and the British government owned ideal land for the construction of government buildings. In 1857, Bytown was chosen as the capital of United Canada and was thus renamed Ottawa. Ottawa remained capital with the signing of the British North America Act in 1867, and has kept the title ever since.
The Parliament Buildings (Information on activities, 239-5000 or 800-465-1867) truly dominate Ottawa. The summit of the hill is topped by three buildings spread over a 200m2 garden. Centre Block contains the House of Commons and the Senate, the two chambers of the federal government (see further below). The two other buildings, East Block and West Block, enclose various administrative offices. Guided tours of Centre Block visit the interior of the building, including the west wing where visitors are treated to an up-close look at the House of Commons, in which members of parliament elected through universal suffrage hold debates and adopt federal laws. In the east wing of the building, these guided tours pause at the large room that houses the Senate, the Upper Chamber of the federal administration, whose government-appointed members are responsible for studying and approving laws adopted by the House of Commons. In addition to these two rooms, the guided tours visit the Library of Parliament as well as the Peace Tower, where you can see the white-marble Memorial Chamber. The Parliament is also the scene of numerous events, notably the changing of the guard, which takes place every day from late June to late August at 10am.
Continuing along Wellington Street, another Canadian institution comes into view: the Supreme Court of Canada (corner of Wellington St. and Kent St., 995-5361). This Art Deco building was conceived by architect Ernest Cormier, who began its construction in 1939.
The first building on the tour is the unmistakable and imposing Château Laurier (1 Rideau St.), on the shore of the Rideau Canal, which has been one of the most prestigious hotels in the city since the day it opened its doors. Ross and MacFarland were hired in 1908 to complete the blueprints. They favoured the Château style, to keep with the look of the other Canadian Pacific hotels, and built an elegant, romantically alluring hotel of relatively bare stone facades topped by pointed copper roofs, turrets and dormers. No detail was overlooked in making this a hotel of the highest quality, and the interior decoration, which can be admired in the lobby, is sumptuous.
The National Gallery of Canada (free admission to the permanent collection; 380 Sussex Dr., 990-1985), with its collection of 45,000 works of art, 1,200 of which are on display, offers a fabulous trip through the art history of Canada and elsewhere. Rising above the Ottawa River, this modern glass, granite and concrete building, a masterpiece by architect Moshe Safdie, is easily identified by its harmonious tower, covered with glass triangles, recalling the shape of the parliamentary library visible in the distance. The first rooms of the museum, on the ground floor, are devoted to the works of Canadian and American artists. Fifteen of these rooms trace the evolution of Canadian artistic movements. The following rooms present important works by artists who made their mark in the early 20th century. The ground floor also includes Inuit art galleries, which merit special attention. With about 160 sculptures and 200 prints, they provide an occasion to admire several masterpieces of Inuit art. The museum also houses an impressive collection of American and European works.
Laurier House (335 Laurier Ave. E., 692-2581), a delightful residence built in 1878, belonged to Sir Wilfrid Laurier. When King died in 1950, the house was bequeathed to the government as part of Canada's heritage. Visiting it today, you can explore several rooms decorated according to King's tastes and a few others decorated with the Laurier family's furniture.
One of Ottawa's liveliest places, the Byward Market (around York and George Sts.) is a pleasant open-air market where various merchants gather to sell fruits, vegetables, flowers and all sorts of other items. All around, and on the neighbouring streets, there are many shops, restaurants, bars and cafés, some of them with pretty outdoor terraces. On fine summer days, the area is at its liveliest, with crowds of people out for a stroll or a little shopping.
The Rideau Canal snakes through the city, to the great delight of people who come for a breath of fresh air in the urban mélé. In the summer, its banks boast parkland dotted with picnic tables, and there are paths alongside the canal for pedestrians and cyclists. In the winter, once the canal is frozen over, it is transformed into a vast skating rink that crosses the city. There is a small lodge facing the National Arts Centre, where skaters can don their blades and warm up.
The National Arts Centre (53 Elgin St., between Confederation Sq. and the Rideau Canal, 996-5051) on the west bank of the canal, occupies the former location of Ottawa's 19th-century city hall, which was destroyed by fire. Excellent concerts and plays are presented here throughout the year.
Visitors are immediately impressed upon entering the National Aviation Museum (Rockliffe Airport, 993-2010) by the unique atmosphere of this huge, wonderfully laid-out building. The fascinating exhibition housed here and culled from the museum's beautiful collection of airplanes thoroughly brings to light the dazzling, rapid-fire evolution that so far is just 100-years long.
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