Canada Day in Ottawa

By | Category: Travel destinations

In Ottawa on Canada Day

My wife and I were flying to Ottawa to celebrate my son’s engagement. Despite my natural anxiety about preparing for the ceremony and the family visits, I was thinking about how a new country in North America had been established.

As the plane hovered over the eastern coast of Canada, I recalled how everything was started by Jacques Cartier, a French sailor from the seaport city of Saint Malo in Brittany. He sailed in 1534 with two ships to establish a stake in the New World. At the time European countries were involved in a frenetic race to make history and clone themselves in the glamorous New World. All wanted stakes. The news of the rich resources in the New World reached kings and queens, the rich and the powerful, sailors and warriors, opportunists and investors and all wanted a share.

Ottawa and its river

What went through the minds of Cartier’s men who at the time they first stood in what we now know as Canada? Did they know at the time what it was going to become in the future? Did they despair due to the hardships and cold weather that they faced that first winter?

They landed in a vast untouched peninsula which, in their eyes, was a new and undiscovered world. In truth it wasn’t. The land was already inhabited by First Nations peoples who had lived there for centuries and now had to face unwanted guests who were arriving there with the intention of staying.

There are contradictory accounts of the meetings between early pioneers and the indigenous peoples. Sometimes the First Nations peoples were friendly and hospitable, but occasionally there was hostility and aggression.

Public architecture in Ottawa

But these are the views of the settlers not the First Nations peoples They had an oral tradition whereas the settlers were the ones to write accounts of the arrivals and life.

My thoughts of what life must have been like for all in those early days came to swift ending as I realised we were about to land in Ottawa – Canada’s capital city.

Like many other cities in Canada, Ottawa- beneath its virtuous image of a vibrant city- stands a sophisticated and fascinating past. We were here in the heat of the summer, to explore and bring to the surface that hidden mystery of a new born country.

It was a few days to 1st July and the city was getting ready to celebrate Canada’s birthday, otherwise referred to as Canada Day. Unlike the majority of capital cities, I found Ottawa’s streets clean and tidy in a modern setting and with no traffic jams.

the war memorial to those who gave their lives in war

As is my preference in visiting any city to which I have not been before, I strolled around to explore the city’s landmarks. My first stop was Confederation Park since it faced the hotel at which I was staying. The park was opened in 1967 during Canada’s bicentenary celebrations and holds several sculptures as well as  a memorial fountain at the centre of a park. It honours Colonel John By, an English military engineer, who supervised the construction of the Rideau Canal. He also gave his name to the settlement that grew up here, Bytown, which eventually was called Ottawa. The name “Ottawa” is believed to be an Algonquin word meaning to trade which seems appropriate given that trading between First Nations people and the settlers was vital for the settlers to initially survive in this land.The fountain, which was gifted by city of London, stood in the centre of Trafalgar Square for over a century.

The parliament building in Ottawa

I walked up the hilly Elgin Avenue and reached Confederation Square which is an important ceremonial location in Canada. The National War Memorial with its high arch and two different large bronze sculptures stands in the centre of the square in commemoration of all Canadians who died in wars and conflicts in the past. The memorials are an attraction for tourists as two soldiers in colourful uniforms uard the memorials.

I walked along Wellington Street and arrived on The Hill on the southern banks of the Ottawa River. This is the location of an eighteenth century military base which, today, is the site of the Canadian Parliament. Incidentally, Ottawa was chosen as the capital by Queen Victoria because, firstly, it was far away from the border with the United States and relations weren’t cordial at the time and because it wasn’t Toronto, Montreal or Quebec the three eminent cities of the time and which were squabbling to become the capital. The Gothic revival architecture of the buildings resembles parliament in London but with its watchtower, named Peace Tower. Like London, the lower house is called the House of Commons but the upper house is the Senate.

inside the parliament building – Ottawa

There are three major structures at the top of the hill. The senate and commons chambers are located at the central block with the tower in front façade and the oval shape library at the back of the building. The east and west buildings are administrative offices. There are free, guided tours for visitors and schools during thesummer period.  At the moment though any visits will be limited as refurbishment is taking place, refurbishing that will last a decade!

Our tour of the East Block was a glimpse of the activity of Canada’s government and parliamentary life in the first century after it was born during 19th century. The guide led us to the restored heritage offices of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John Macdonald and his colleague, Sir George-Étienne Cartier. We also visited the office of the Governor General, Lord Dufferin and the Privy Council. But it was a tour of the Central Block that I found most appealing. Here there is  magnificent architecture in Gothic Revival style. The connecting hallways were designed symmetrically around the confederation hall, an octagonal chamber which is located in the main entrance. The beauty of limestone columns, dark pillars and arcaded curved arches suggest that you might be in a building from the Middle Ages. What you are really entered though is  a gallery of art and architecture.

touring the Rideau Canal in Ottawa

I walked around The Hill and behind the Parliament, standing on the viewing terrace overlooking the Ottawa River. On my right was the Major’s Hill Park above the Rideau Canal with the backdrop of the National Gallery of Canada and the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. On the opposite side, across the Ottawa River on the North shore, is the Hull area of Gatineau, where the Canadian Museum of History is located.

I returned to the Parliament Hill again on 1st July, the Canada Day. It was hot with a temperature of 37 degrees. It deterred many people from coming out, and there had been warnings by officials about the heat wave and the danger of dehydration. However, the streets around Parliament were still full of people celebrating and waving the Canadian flag. I missed the early morning pride parade and the air show, but enjoyed the stage performances and the lively atmosphere. It was a colourful and joyful day in the capital, where you could see people from all backgrounds. It was also an opportunity for people to take pictures with the soldiers in ceremonial red uniform. . In the evening, the celebration ended with colourful fireworks lasting over 10 minutes around the Parliament Hill. I could not get to the Parliament Hill – the crowd was larger than I imagined – but I arrived on time in the park a great view of fireworks.

enjoying the fireworks in Ottawa on Canada Day

In the following days, I took a hop- on/hop-off bus to explore the city, always a good way to get an overall impression of a destination, and used it to visit and visited several museums such as the Canadian Museum of History, the National Gallery of Canada, the Bank Museum, the Canadian War Museum and the Supreme Court of Canada. I complemented this by a boat tour as the view of a city you get from a river is so different from that seen on land.



Images and story © Mohammed Reza Amirina.

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