Ottawa Culture

Over the years, I have tried explaining what it is about Ottawa that gives me a rash. I have a love hate relationship with this City. I love it, for all its warts, but I could never put into words what actual warts Ottawa has.

It all started when I was 13. We had just moved back after a posting. We were living in our old hood, what was Westboro, a cute community, 15 minutes outside of the downtown core. It was full on WASP, but not tony enough, after all, Mountain Equipment Coop hadn’t moved in yet, and made it the place to come shop and spend a day. No, it was just WASP at that time. The gentleman across the street, had decided his house, a charcoal grey, needed new trim. So he began to paint it, a beautiful shade of periwinkle blue. He managed to paint only half the trim, before the petition started to circulate in the neighbourhood. It was a polite, diplomatic, cease and desist letter, outlining that the periwinkle blue was an unsuitable colour for the neighbourhood. My parents were the only people on the block who refused to sign the petition. They thought it was ridiculous to stop someone from painting their house. As my Mother pointed out, the blue was cheerful, and looked great. It turned out, the gentleman who spent time painting his house trim that colour, was actually an architect. The neighbours weren’t thrilled with him, he lived a “life style”, they didn’t care for. I guess they didn’t appreciate that he traveled, never had children, but was married to the love of his life, who happened to be an attorney. In protest, he left the trim half painted, it stayed like that for 3 years, before they decided to move to Toronto, leaving Ottawa to never return.

The most interesting people seemed to disappear from Ottawa. For years, I couldn’t figure out why. It was safe, beautiful, clean, mostly affordable, and was almost perfect on paper.

Looks can always be deceiving.

My husband and I moved into a small walkup in good Ol Westboro, it was a steel of a price, was beautiful, and heck, did I mention it was cheep! We moved in the year before Mountain Equipment Coop built their insane new store just down the street from us. So mostly, the hood was still middle class WASP.

It was about a month into us moving in, that we noticed by-law officers circulating, leaving tickets and warnings. I sat at my living room window while sick, and watched ticket after ticket being left in mailboxes or windshield screens. It was the oddest sight, no one was out, except for the officer. The street was unnaturally quiet, we even joked that it was like living in the middle of a cemetery, you could not even hear a dog bark after 8pm with the windows wide open.

Ottawa’s flaws begin to shine through slowly, as we began to fall deeper into our careers and life. Our friends, who just bought a new house. Began to get complaints that their garbage had been put out 10 minutes before the allowed time. Their car was over the sidewalk on their driveway by, literally an inch, the colour they chose for their front door was not in compliance with the neighbourhood colour palette. It seemed like an endless list of ridiculous complaints. They quickly grew tired of the tickets, the complaints and the inhospitable environment that they were coming home to. They moved to another neighbourhood, the same things started up again, complaints would come their way, they began to get ticketed for by-law violations. It wasn’t just them, I began to notice those working in our Human Resources department sit on their phones calling in various by law violations in their own neighbourhoods. I thought I was going mental, but no, this is just Ottawa.

It came to me in a recent trip to Ottawa, that although it is a stunning city, and has so much to offer. It is 90% made up of Federal Government Employees. Many of whom will never get fired from their jobs, so they have nothing to lose, but they also have a sense of entitlement. It is that sense of entitlement that creates a really toxic undertone to Ottawa. It is what I began to feel suffocated by.  It wasn’t just that sense of entitlement, but the sense of superiority.

Let’s just get something straight, there is a sense of entitlement everywhere, but in Ottawa, it becomes cumbersome and rather tiresome because that one person in the neighbourhood ends up leading the rest down the wrong path. It is a part of Ottawa’s culture that I never understood, nor did I ever like.



Growing up the way I did, I never really felt attached to one particular place, I never felt grounded or secure. I grew up with the feeling that the rug was always about to be pulled from under me with every posting announcement. I have never gone back to the countries I have lived in abroad, I always felt for some reason, it would ruin them, it would taint the happy memories that I have held onto during the bad moments.

When I left Ottawa several years ago, I knew I would have to come back, I just didn’t know when. Ottawa always had this push-pull feeling, it was sort of home, or as close to me understanding what home was. I had history there, family that had lived there, and we always came back to the same neighbourhood. In all my in and outs from Ottawa, it never really changed. The people, the culture, even the bars and restaurants that divided federal department employees, political wonks from every different political party, it just never really changed.

Four years had passed. I was feeling positive, and was ready to reach out to old colleagues, see old friends, and reunite with a city that I always felt torn about. I was finally able to see Ottawa through the lens of a tourist, and holy smokes, it was really fun!

We made it to the hill for the changing of the guard. A ceremony I would see constantly when I worked on Parliament Hill, and kinda made fun of, because the tourists made it difficult to go from one building to another for a meeting. Standing there watching the changing of the guard, I was struck by a huge difference. It not only seemed like a smaller ceremony than I had remembered, but, there was a huge security presence. I shrugged it off. After the ceremony, we walked over to the main statue where the tomb of the unknown soldier lay. A statue that I spent my youth hanging out around on Canada Day, Remembrance Day… A statue, that I never really acknowledged as significant, it just seemed like a great hangout when I was 14-19. As I was showing my son, it struck me hard, the guards standing, keeping watch over, the security detail all the way around the downtown. As I turned slowly 360 degree to look around, my emotions got the better of me. Everything, and I mean everything, seemed to have changed. It was only a short time ago, that people had been shot at on the very platform I was standing on. An act of rage and hatred that I had never seen or heard of in the history of Ottawa. That innocence and freedom that I was handed every time I came back to Ottawa, no longer existed, it had been extinguished the moment that act took place.

My heart-felt a little heavy at that moment, because I remembered the colleagues and friends I quickly texted after I heard the news. They were all fine, just shaken. One friend, was just across the street, another was in an office on the Hill. The city, had become a capital city that day, one that in many ways, I finally understood, because it grew up. As the event unfolded, its resilience, its culture, finally moved, the small town acting like a big city that I loved to hate, had finally become a big city, an international city.

It felt off in every way, that I noticed that switch, and guilty that I connected the two events. And sad that the city no longer had a love hate place in my heart, it was all love, because, the international kid I was, and the International adult I had become, finally fit into a city I couldn’t while growing up.

It was the first time, I had a glimmer of what a homecoming felt like.

Dip Kid