A Not-So-Quiet Ottawa:  A Montrealer’s Retrospective

I found myself amiably amused when I read The Citizen’s editorial of May 11 last (“A More Lively Centretown”). In particular, the assertion that “change has been taking place slowly, but Ottawa has long had a reputation as a city in which downtown clears out when public servants head home from work” caused me to have a very long and wistful train of thought.

Although a native Montrealer, I resided in Ottawa from August 1970 to October of the following year. Enrolled in a graduate studies programme at Carleton University, I found myself staying in various parts of the city for that fourteen – month period. While waiting for a room to become available in residence, I settled for six weeks in a boarding house on MacLaren Street. It was there, in the city centre, that I experienced my very first taste of Ottawa’s ‘lively’ nightlife.

It was a glorious Friday evening in mid September and I was sauntering along the Sparks Street Mall for no particular reason other than the great pleasure of finding myself in a car – free area. Montreal, at the time, had no pedestrian precincts and I was always a little jealous of Ottawa for that, even though the mall dated back to only 1966.

It was about dusk. I recall thinking how appealing the three or four block site was while at the same time quite conscious of just how few people there seemed to be actually present on the arcade.

Imagine my surprise when out of the blue I was approached by a police officer who abruptly asked me exactly what I was doing. Not satisfied with my answer, I was told to get myself back to my university residence! It was a refrain I would hear quite often during my educational sojourn in the nation’s capital.

Being from Montreal, I was certainly accustomed to gruff talk from those in uniform but I never quite understood how my presence on the Sparks Street Mall, on a lovely weekend evening, could create such a fuss.

(below, May 1971, not too far from that infamous Sparks Street Mall)

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Ottawa only became seemingly more overwrought a week or so later when the October Crisis quite unexpectedly descended upon the country. By the middle of that month, the War Measures Act had been declared and the Canadian Army patrolled the streets of the federal capital, along with those of Montreal and Quebec City.

By the time of this dramatic national development, I was in fact finally living in a suite in residence on the campus of the university along with three other male students, each   hailing from different corners of Ontario. ‘Quiet Bytown’ had rapidly taken its toll on us and, consequently, we were all eager for some excitement.

One evening, very much on a lark, we decided to drive into the Rockcliffe Park in order to see just how present the army was in a community well known as the abode of many cabinet ministers and ambassadors. So off the four of us eagerly went.

Before long, having arrived deep in the affluent neighbourhood, one home especially intrigued us. I stopped the automobile in order that we could better view it. There were at least four or five armed soldiers standing watch, glaring at us. Having seen what there was to see, I slowly accelerated my tiny Austin Mini to move onto our very next Rockcliffe house finding.

Unexpectedly, there was a feeble cry from my companions in the back seat of the car to the effect that one of the soldiers had raised his weapon, pointing it in our direction. Seems I hadn’t heard his command to stop and emerge from the vehicle, which we then did straight away. We were afterward coldly reproached for stalking the residence of the former Prime Minister, the Rt. Honourable John George Diefenbaker!

Having explained our silly game, while all along visibly shaking, the four of us were told yet again to get back to our university residence!

For whatever reason, Ottawa suddenly seemed more and more ‘lively’ but not quite in the fashion we had anticipated.

Yet most of my experiences in the national capital during that fourteen-month academic hiatus were of a positive nature, despite those weekend 1:00 A.M. bridge traffic jams into Hull looking for an extra drink or two.

As a graduate student in political science, I also found interest in the governmental side of the city. Indeed, I was frequently on Parliament Hill, especially during the heavily charged atmosphere in the autumn of 1970.

Nevertheless, looking back today, how I ever avoided being arrested, I do not know.

(below, a vintage Trudeau shrug, on October 30, 1970, during the October Crisis) 

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