We drove into Ottawa, capital city of Canada, in the middle of June 2011. At the time, the city was preparing itself for the visit at the end of the month of William and Kate, who are one day likely to become King and Queen of this vast nation. On July 1st, which is Canada Day, they will celebrate with Canadians the birth of the nation. Ottawa will then host a great fireworks display attended by the newly married young couple. To become King and Queen of Canada eventually, William and Kate will need to avoid divorce and William will need to survive his grandmother and father. For their part, Canadians will need to retain their love of monarchy, which is also probable because Canadians love to distinguish themselves from their neighbors to the south. When those neighbors regard their present Head of State in this age of Obama, they must surely reflect on what might have been. Unlike the royal couple, there were no carriages or escorts of gorgeously red coated Mounties for us. Yet we can still tell you about Ottawa. Why did such a city, small in relation to great Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal through which we also passed, become the capital of the nation? The credit or blame for that attaches to William’s great-great-great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who was asked in 1857 to select a new capital for Canada. The original capital was the city of Kingston, which lies about 100 miles to the south of Ottawa and sits on the shore of Lake Ontario. Unfortunately, Kingston also sits on the US-Canadian border and was therefore deemed to be indefensible in the event of another war with the US, similar to the War of 1812. Consequently, a capital well to the north of the border was required, instead of Kingston, and Queen Victoria selected Ottawa.
Ottawa is one of the world’s cleanest cities and this is very evident to any visitor. The Ottawa River forms the border between the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The city of Ottawa lies on the southern or Ontario side of the river. The city on the Quebec side of the river is called Gatineau. Geographically, the whole urban area seems like one big city with a river running through the middle and with plenty of bridges. Linguistically however, one notices that Gatineau is very much more French than Ottawa. In fact, three major rivers meet in Ottawa. In addition to the Ottawa River, there are the Gatineau River and the Rideau River. The Rideau River runs south to the Great Lakes and to the St Lawrence River, which ought to have made life very convenient for the people of Ottawa. Unfortunately, rapids and waterfalls render parts of the Rideau River impossible to navigate, so the construction of the Rideau Canal was necessary to give Ottawa access to the sea. The word “Rideau” is French for “curtain”, which is what the falls resemble in winter. Ottawa is really cold at that time of year and then the frozen waters of the canal become the world’s largest skating rink as well as giving skaters convenient access to downtown Ottawa. Downtown Ottawa is dominated by Government buildings, which include all the buildings related to Canada’s parliament and Supreme Court and the official residences of the Prime Minister of Canada and of the Governor General, who is the representative of the monarch in Canada. Then there is an abundance of statues, universities and museums. Finally, there is a plethora of foreign embassies – 130 to be precise, although some streets seem to be nothing but embassies. It is as well that, instead of opening an embassy in Ottawa, several dozen smaller countries rely on their US embassy to handle Canadian matters.
It was an Ottawa embassy that provided the West with the first evidence of the Cold War and the fact that our Russian allies were not as friendly as we had assumed. The date was September 5th 1945, only a few days after World War Two had ended. Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet Russian embassy in Ottawa, defected with a mass of documents showing a big Soviet spy network operating in the west and together with plans for a Soviet atomic bomb.
As one drives around this impressive city, it is hard to remember that Europeans did not arrive here until a couple of centuries ago. Before then, the Algonquin Indians lived here and the name “Ottawa” comes from the Algonquin word “adawe”, meaning “to trade”. The first Europeans could not grow enough food to survive, so they began cutting down trees and transporting them by river to markets in the east. The timber trade enabled them to survive and Ottawa was soon thriving, even though few lumberjacks from those times could have imagined the very dignified city into which it has developed.