RIDING THE RIDEAU: Capital
Exploring Ottawa via its scenic canal
By Margaret Deefholts
As I stand in Ottawa's Confederation Square on this sun-drenched
July morning, the sidewalks are a shifting kaleidoscope of colour
and movement. Tourists wearing shorts and jazzy T-shirts pause to
click their cameras at the massive granite archway of the 1914-1918
War Memorial, or zoom in for a shot of the sepia-walled Parliament
Buildings standing four-square against the sky, the Canadian flag
a-flutter at the apex of its clock tower. Others squint at the Fairmont
Chateau Laurier, its burnished copper turrets lending it the aura
of a fantasy castle. As I stand at a parapet looking down at the
Rideau Canal, two Japanese girls near me laugh and chitter excitedly
as they point to the boats tethered at the dockside.
In both a literal and metaphorical sense the Rideau lies at the
centre of Ottawa's past and its present, and the buildings which
flank its route reflect the city's history, its educational aspirations,
its cultural inclinations, its tastes in shopping, dining, entertainment,
sports and recreation. Like the many visitors to Canada's capital
city this summer, I am about to play deck-chair spectator by cruising
the Canal from its starting point at the top of the Ottawa locks
to Dow's Lake - a distance of about nine kilometres.
Once on board the Miss S.B.J. II, the cityscape takes on
an altered perspective. At Canal level the buildings around Confederation
Square have vanished, replaced by the large beige building housing
the Rideau Centre Shopping Mall to my left, and the National Arts
Centre on the right. The opera hall of Arts Centre, as I discovered
at a performance the previous night, is the second largest in North
America, and its seating capacity of 2,300 is surpassed only by
the New York Metropolitan Opera House.
Just beyond the Mackenzie King Bridge, a concert of a different
kind is in progress at Confederation Park. Ottawa's annual International
Jazz Festival is in full swing (!)and the beat of drums, wail of
tenor sax and amplified shock of electric guitar, all but drowns
out the chug of our boat engine.
Further along the Canal, past the Laurier Bridge (named after Sir
Wilfred Laurier, Canada's first Francophone Prime Minister), the
campus of the University of Ottawa sprawls along the banks to our
left. Built in 1848 by the Bishop of Ottawa, it was run then by
the French Oblate Fathers who managed it until 1965. Today its population
runs to almost 30,000 students, and its law faculty is unique in
that it offers both French (particular to Quebec) and English civil
law as practiced in the rest of Canada.
The University, although it was built 16 years after the completion
of the Rideau Canal, is a link with the past. Its original name,
'Bytown College' harks back to the days when the area was settled
in 1826 by Lt. Colonel John By of the British Royal Engineers.
The previous decades had witnessed the Anglo-American War with
American units seething across the waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway,
and the British had grown increasingly alarmed at the prospect of
being cut off from two major ports - Montreal in Upper Canada and
Kingston in Lower Canada. Colonel By's mission when he arrived in
1826 and assembled a construction crew of 4000 Irish and French
Canadian workers, was to construct a 202 kilometre waterway which
would provide an alternative route for the transport of military
supplies and personnel, between the new settlement known then as
Bytown on the Ottawa River and Kingston in Lower Canada.
That he succeeded in doing so within a space of six years -1826
to 1832 - is a measure of Colonel By's extraordinary tenacity and
ingenuity. The odds were formidable - swampy areas caused concrete
walls to sink under their own weight, an epidemic of malaria decimated
his men; the rugged terrain necessitated the placement and engineering
of 47 locks along the length of the Canal - but, worst of all, a
budget over-run that had ballooned from the original 169,000 pounds
approved by the British Treasury, to about 776,000 pounds at the
end of project, was raising eyebrows in Westminster.
On completion of the Rideau Canal the Colonel returned to England,
his health undermined by the harsh Canadian winters, the daunting
wilderness, and the intense pressure of work. He died four years
later at the age of 56, battered in mind and spirit by charges of
financial irresponsibility, and the bitter fact that his remarkable
engineering feat was never accorded the recognition it deserved.
Little did he know that his name would endure in the annals of Canadian
history, not only as the builder of the Rideau Canal, but also as
the founding father of the brawling little settlement of Bytown
that would be re-named Ottawa in 1855, and eventually become the
nation's capital city in 1867.
The Rideau never fulfilled its original military purpose, but as
Bytown (bisected by the Canal into "Upper Town" and "Lower Town")
grew to a population of 10,000, the Canal became a bustling industrial
waterway for steamers carrying lumber, coal, ore and a variety of
consumer goods. Later improvements to the St. Lawrence Seaway and
the introduction of railway routes, weaned the Rideau of commercial
traffic, but passenger steamers continued to service the towns that
lay along its route. Today, however, it is a pleasant recreational
waterway for paddle boats, pleasure craft and tour boat operators.
Paved pathways run along the green belt verge of the Canal, and
we pass joggers, cyclists, kids on roller-blades, mothers pushing
strollers, and folks sitting on shady benches, nibbling on peanuts
and popcorn as they watch the world go by. A light breeze springs
up stiffening the Canadian flag on the aft of the boat, and setting
a-quiver the leaves of willow trees and poplars along the pathway.
At one time the flagpoles of fifteen foreign countries were mounted
on buildings lining the Rideau, but today the only one we pass en-route
is aloft the German Embassy building. Although the Embassy was built
in 1952 (well after the end of World War II), the Germans were still
apprehensive about hidden listening devices. To make sure the place
was "clean" all their construction materials down to the last nail,
were imported from Germany.
Another construction curiosity along our route is the Pretoria
Bridge. It is a swing bridge with stone stanchions that stand like
castle ramparts on each side. Originally built in 1917 and dedicated
to the Canadian soldiers who fought and died during the Boer War,
the bridge underwent a major renovation in 1982. In the process
of dismantling it, each and every stone and metal piece was meticulously
catalogued so that it could be re-assembled in its original form.
The boat engine echoes as we pass under its low archway, and I duck
instinctively as a pigeon flutters agitatedly past us.
It is obvious that residential property flanking the Canal doesn't
come cheap. Two identical brown brick buildings - Canal 111 Condominiums
- range in price from $500,000 to $1.4 million. A short way further
along, a strawberry pink building - winner of the 1985 Governor
General's award for architecture - has 24 apartments each boasting
a unique layout with no two rooms identical in shape or dimension.
Also, every suite is named after a former Canadian prime minister
or governor-general. An elderly co-passenger shakes his head. "Well
son-of-a-gun, what sucker would want to live in an apartment named
after Brian Mulrooney eh?" His wife is busy clicking her camera
at the building and doesn't comment.
Puttin' on the Ritz isn't just living alongside the Canal, it's
also dining there. At the Ritz Restaurant. In an earlier incarnation
it was the Ottawa Rowing and Boat Club, but today the Ritz is an
up-scale Italian restaurant which once played host to Bill and Hilary
Lansdowne Park, one of Ottawa's popular landmarks comes into view
on our right. This is where visitors - as many as 50,000 people
a day - flock to the fairgrounds of the annual Central Canadian
Exhibition. Prominent among the complex of buildings on the site
is the whimsical silver-domed Aberdeen Pavilion, built in 1897 and
now designated a National Historic Site. The Pavilion has been the
venue for several agricultural shows over the years which has earned
it the tongue-in-cheek sobriquet of "Cattle Castle". Lansdowne Park
is also dear to the hearts of Ottawa hockey fans who recall their
Stanley Cup victory over the team from the Yukon when the finals
were played here in 1904. The cantilevered Z-shaped grandstand of
the Frank Clair Stadium rears cobra-like against the sky, and was
filled in years gone by with 35,000 cheering fans of the Ottawa
Rough Riders football team.
The Lansdowne Park complex has catered to more than sports entertainment.
Its Civic Centre has witnessed several political party leadership
celebrations: Pierre Trudeau was the winner in 1969, Brian Mulrooney
in1983 and Kim Campell in1993. Reaching further back into history,
this is where Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry assembled
before marching away to the trenches of World War I.
We putter into the sun-glinted deep blue waters of Dow's Lake dotted
by recreational boaters enjoying the glorious summer weather. It
is hard to imagine that this was once a hellhole of dank swampland
which probably gave Colonel By many a sleepless night. That is,
until he hit on the ingenious idea of flooding the area from a northern
arm of the Rideau, constructing a dam on firm land further ahead
and installing locks to raise and lower the water levels.
Abutting Dow's Lake is Commissioners Park which is ablaze with
tulips during the Tulip Festival. Thousands of bulbs are sent to
Ottawa every spring by the appreciative people of the Netherlands
in commemoration of the liberation of Holland in World War II by
Canadian troops - and in gratitude for the safe haven provided to
the Dutch Royal Family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
Queen Beatrix gave birth to Princess Margriet at the Ottawa Civic
Hospital, declared by the Canadian Parliament as being "Dutch territory",
so that when she arrived on January 18th 1943 the baby princess
was deemed a Dutch citizen by birth.
It is noon by the time we return to our landing dock in the heart
of the city. I emerge onto Rideau Street, and the arterial roads
converging onto Confederation Square now pulsate to the ebb and
flow of mid-day traffic. I pause to look once again at the Rideau
Canal. It lies below the level of the adrenaline-pumped streets
- a gentle blue vein, threading its way out into the distance.
IF YOU GO:
Paul's Boat Lines run several Rideau Canal cruises daily on
the Ottawa Queen or Miss S.B.J.II.
The tours (with commentary in English or French) run for 1 hour
15 minutes. Tickets cost $12.00 for adults, $10 for seniors, $7
for children. A family pass that includes 2 adults and 2 children,
is $30. Phone 613-225-6781 for information and reservations
While Ottawa is linked by air and road to major Canadian cities,
getting there by rail is a relaxing way to journey through Ontario's
green, trolling countryside. Old stone churches, red brick houses
fronted by white-railing porches, yellow hay bales dotting farm
fields, meandering streams, leafy thickets and glimpses of the indigo-blue
waters of Lake Ontario, all pass by your window. Treat yourself
on one of Via Rail's train services to/from Ottawa to Montreal
and Toronto. While they offer comfortable economy class seats, their
luxurious first class service (VIA 1) is outstanding. It includes
a sumptuous three course meal: appetizer, choice of entrée, rolls,
and desert, accompanied by complimentary aperitifs, wines, and after
meal liqueurs. Reclining seats are generously cushioned, and there
is ample leg room. An electrical outlet allows the use of a laptop
computer. Privileges include the use of Via Rail's Panorama Lounge,
priority boarding, baggage handling and attentive personal service.
For Via Rail schedules and fares visit http://www.viarail.ca/en_index.html
and follow the links.
Where to Stay:
Ottawa's hotels, motels and B&Bs cover a wide variety of locations,
amenities and price ranges. For detailed information browse through
the listings at http://www.ottawahotels.com/
The Fairmont Chateau Laurier is more than just a place to
stay. It is an experience. Whether relaxing in an opulently appointed
room or dining in style at Wilfred's Restaurant, guests are surrounded
by elegance and old-world charm. Among the hotel's attractions is
a well-equipped fitness centre and spa in addition to an indoor
heated swimming pool. The Grande Dame of hotels is part of Ottawa's
history and its guest register includes several prestigious names,
including heads of state, royalty and world-renowned entertainers.
It has also been home to three former prime ministers, and the late
Karsh of Ottawa who operated his studio there for nineteen years.
Join a tour of the hotel (offered daily until Labour Day, and on
weekends thereafter) for a behind-the-scenes look at the background
and history of the Chateau, interspersed with anecdotal tales of
the characters who have walked its corridors.
For further information on hotel tour timings, room availability
and prices as well as package bookings go to www.fairmont.com
or Phone: (613) 241-1414 or Fax (613) 562-7030.
The Rideau Canal Locks. A step-ladder of eight locks lift
vessels up the 80 foot ascent from the Ottawa River to Parliament
Hill. To view them and chat to a lock-master, walk under the Rideau
Street overpass (the east bank of the Canal) and then turn northwards.
Visit the adjoining Bytown Museum, Ottawa's oldest stone
building dating from 1827 when it functioned as the treasury and
storehouse for the construction of the Rideau Canal. For details
of hours, ticket costs and an overview of its fascinating exhibits,
go to http://collections.ic.gc.ca/bytown/index.htm
Ottawa Tourism: 1-800-465-1867
Ottawa Website: www.tourottawa.org