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Canada's Capital Deserves to Be Known

By Robert Selwitz Modified: August 19, 2013 at 10:36 am •  Published: August 19, 2013

Canada's capital of Ottawa hardly evidences its wild and woolly past. But its history and fascinating mix of current urban appeals make it a place most people -- particularly those from the neighboring United States -- should get to know better. Home to nearly 900,000 (approximately 1.2 million live within its metropolitan area), Ottawa is 124 miles from Montreal to the northeast and 219 miles from Toronto to the southwest.

    Though chosen by Great Britain's Queen Victoria to be the capital of the new Dominion of Canada, it was actually her fourth choice to fill that role. The city's 1867 debut as capital continued the quirky history of a city whose prominence was due to construction of the Rideau Canal four decades earlier. The canal was originally built so that Canada's shipping and navy could avoid contact with U.S. forces that had invaded Canada during the War of 1812.
    Ottawa became the queen's choice because the then-province's two largest cities -- Montreal and Quebec City -- were defiantly pro-French and had been involved in rebellions against British rule. And Kingston, Ontario, on Lake Ontario's northern shore and Canada's capital from 1841 to 1844, was deemed to be too small and vulnerable to attack by U.S. forces that were based on the opposite southern shore.
    None of this would have happened without the 125-mile-long canal that took six years to complete. Overseen by Lt. Col. John By, the canal was the turning point in the future capital's development. One key reason was that as concerns about U.S. naval conflicts faded during succeeding decades, the waterway proved to be a vital economic boost. It allowed vast amounts of timber to move from the heavily forested region in and close to Ottawa to reach markets economically. And the constantly growing work force (including replacements for workers who died from malaria) changed this once-tiny backwater into a roiling, boisterous city.
    Ultimately, due to its 47 locks that made navigable passage possible via lakes and rivers between Ottawa and Kingston, the once-sleepy backwater saw its economy and population explode. Indeed, according to a guide, the population in what became Ottawa ballooned from 40 in 1823 to 40,000 by 1837. This huge volume of canal laborers and the inevitable corps of prostitutes that joined them resulted in the city's being widely regarded as an evil cauldron of sin and crime. But over several decades, as the population and prosperity of "Bytown" soared, this boisterous and raucous city became a viable candidate to be Canada's permanent capital.
    By didn't just build the Rideau Canal. In 1826 he also created the ByWard Market. Knowing his workers needed places to shop and relax in their lower-town residential area, By's street plan, which is largely still in effect today, designated main shopping areas.
    Today ByWard -- one of Canada's largest and oldest farmers markets -- is still fascinating. As many as 175 outdoor stalls selling plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables as well as arts and crafts are here every day except Christmas and New Year's Day. There are also multiple places to grab a tasty lunch or snack, plus many intriguing restaurants, some in rear courtyards, accessible via somewhat hidden passageways.
    Of the 24 Rideau Canal locations with locks, a series of eight midcity locks between Parliament Hill and the Chateau Laurier Hotel connect the channel with the Ottawa River. This enables vessels to navigate a height differential of nearly 80 feet. Today, during warm weather, the Rideau caters to pleasure boaters. And in several locations, including the midcity eight-lock site, the canal becomes a wintertime urban ice-skating center.
    Adjacent to this set of locks is the Bytown Museum. Once By's headquarters during canal construction, this former stone canal warehouse alongside the water is filled with maps, drawings, artifacts and lore. It's a valuable resource for knowing more about By's critical project.
    Ottawa visitors will also want to visit Parliament. Built between 1859 and 1927, this Gothic structure with copper-covered roofs began operation in 1867, when the British Parliament passed the British North America Act that united Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into the new Dominion of Canada.
    Via free guided tours (it's best to call ahead and make a reservation), it's possible to see the House of Commons, Canada's prime electoral body that operates -- and actually appears similar to -- England's. After the tour, visitors are welcome to return to watch and listen to debates on the Commons floor.
    Tour participants also visit the Senate (where members are appointed and which functions like England's House of Lords), the extraordinary city view from the Peace Tower and the grand interior of Parliament's library. The library, elegant inside and out, is particularly special. Recently reopened following a major restoration, this is the only portion of the original parliament building to survive a massive 1916 fire.
    About a 20-minute walk from Parliament Hill yields another Ottawa must-see, the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Airy, spacious and packed with virtually anything and everything to be known about Canada, it features a number of user-friendly exhibits.
    Highlights include "Face to Face," which presents pictorial and written portraits and biographies of critical Canadian historical figures. Subjects include explorer Samuel de Champlain; John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister; novelist Mordecai Richler; and military foes James Wolfe and Louis Joseph de Montcalm. They led forces at the decisive 1759 battle where the British defeat of the French established Britain's dominance in Canada,
     Then there's the First People's Hall, which covers 20,000 years of culture and history of the many people who called Canada home long before Europeans arrived. Key subjects focus on the wide diversity of and contributions made by these original occupants, varied aboriginal lifestyles throughout Canada and the impact European settlers had upon the lives of original residents.
    Also intriguing is Canada Hall, which details lives and lifestyles of the wildly differing settlers who came to North America hoping for new beginnings. Separate exhibit sections focus on the immigrant legacies of the Atlantic Coast, Central Region, Canadian Prairies, Pacific Coast and Canadian North. The museum also displays one of the world's largest collections of totem poles.
    Other major indoor Ottawa draws include the National Gallery of Canada , which features a comprehensive collection of Canadian paintings plus many fine examples of Inuit art.
    For more cultural diversion, a concert at the National Arts Center is a definite must. Sightlines and sound are excellent, as are performances by the resident Ottawa Symphony Orchestra. Many other major classical music ensembles also perform here, as do dance troupes. Throughout the year there's also a large number of English and French theater events.
    For general information about Ottawa:
    The Chateau Laurier Hotel is an elegant property that was inspired by French chateaux and offers great rooms, service and location:
    Canadian Parliament tour information and schedule: 613-239-5000
    Craig MacDonald, owner of Ottawa Walking Tours, leads fun and fascinating city tours:
    Play Food and Wine provides imaginative modern cuisine with meals made up of small plates and wines that match:
    The Metropolitan Brasserie is a comfortable spot with superb food in the heart of Ottawa:
    For information about the National Arts Center:
    Ottawa is easily reached from many Canadian cities by way of Via Rail. For train schedules, tickets and destinations throughout Canada:
    Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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