What better time to visit our nation’s capital city than during our Sesquicentennial this year. After all, Lonely Planet has officially recognized Canada as the 2017 Destination of the Year and The New York Times selected our country as the No. 1 Place To Go in 2017.
Ottawa Tourism has launched a barrage of festivals, various sporting events and unique immersive multimedia productions with ample activities and attractions to be experienced throughout the country’s 150th anniversary celebrations. Ottawa 2017 offers the assurance that myriad festivities will “spark our imagination and ignite our future.”
Amid the array of activities, I proceed to initiate an historic quest of D’Arcy McGee. Has Canada’s only political assassination victim been acknowledged and revered over the past century and a half, I wonder? Evidence of his legacy dots the urban core as we amble our way through the viable vibrancy of the series of special events this year.
Our forefathers did indeed act upon their capital ideas, and their connections are still evident in the city where Queen Victoria established Canada’s Capital in 1857. Prior to that year, Ottawa was named Bytown, after Lieutenant Colonel John By, who was instrumental in building the Rideau Canal (1826-32). He was also the surveyor for one of the nation’s oldest and largest Farmers’ Markets, which still bears his name.
Nestled in Ottawa’s historic Lowertown (at the east end of the canal), the ByWard Market has become a vital link between rural and urban life from past to present. During peak season, up to 175 outdoor areas are open, drawing as many as 50,000 visitors on a busy weekend. As patrons explore stalls replete with fruits, vegetables and arts and crafts, busking musicians and jugglers enhance the marketplace experience. Four square blocks of the most eclectic neighbourhoods in the country are transformed from a daytime Farmers’ Market and shopping district into a chic nocturnal dining area with lively clubs and cafés. At the Asian-fusion restaurant named Kinki, our waitress informs us that “being in the heart of the city, the market is a magnet for tourists and residents alike.”
We make a stop for a beaver tail, not the paddle-like appendage of Canada’s national emblem, but the trademark pastry originating here. Servers at the Beaver Tails booth don brown T-shirts with “addicted since 1978” emblazoned on the front. Pam and Grant Hooker created this warm, whole wheat, sugary, cinnamon-coated baked good that has been pleasing palates for more than three decades.
Around the corner at the popular café, Le Moulin de Provence, one may partake in a tasty presidential/Canadian creation. On a scheduled visit to Ottawa in early 2009, President Obama made an impromptu stopover at Le Moulin de Provence, resulting in the creation of this tasty treat. Consequently, the maple leaf-shaped shortbreads laden with red and white icing became known as the “Obama Cookie.” The establishment appropriately capitalized on an attractive edible souvenir with a photo coaster in an individual cookie tin. The American president’s visit sweetened his relationship with Canada in more ways than one.
On the opposite corner of York and William Streets is the venerable Fish Market. The seafood restaurant has been situated in the heart of the ByWard Market for more than 30 years. Also located under the same roof are the Coasters Seafood Grill upstairs and Vineyards Wine Bar Bistro downstairs. The latter was the first of its kind in Ottawa, and has been the recipient of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence annually for the past two decades.
“Being our own fish and seafood supplier, we sell 1,000 pounds of mussels each week with our all-you-can-eat-mussels special,” says owner Barb Dow Mireault proudly. “I think the only constant in our business has been change. You have to constantly keep re-creating yourself in our industry,” explains the congenial restaurateur. “But never forget who your guests are, never forget your market in the Market.”
The marketplace atmosphere continues south of the ByWard Market, near Parliament Hill. The Sparks Street Mall is the designated Heritage District, which predates Confederation. An Outdoor Market Program and more than 30 structures of historical significance make for an intriguing stroll.
This premier commercial centre was named after an Irishman, Nicholas Sparks, who became a councilman for both Bytown and Ottawa. Six years later, another prominent Irishman became the unfortunate recipient of a dubious distinction. Honourable Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a Father of Confederation, was assassinated on this street in 1868. His was the first and only political assassination in Canada. Patrick James Whelan, an old nemesis, shot McGee in the head in front of the Toronto House Hostelry a few days before the parliamentarian’s 43rd birthday.
A statue of McGee can be found on Parliament Hill and a five-cent postage stamp of him was issued in 1927. D’Arcy McGee later had his legacy personified by several structures in the city. The flagship of the McGee’s Pubs is located at the top end of Sparks Street Mall, where the “Fishing Bear” statue dwarfs passersby. McGee’s Inn (Auberge McGee) was formerly his brother’s residence and is a dignified old manse on Daly Street. The owner, Ken Armstrong, reveals that “this residential road has been home to an impeccable pedigree of judges, mayors and three prime ministers.”
The McGee government building on Sparks Street has a plaque mounted on its exterior in his honour stating that he was “considered the most eloquent of the Fathers of Confederation.” Since 2005, the murder weapon sits in the Canadian Museum of Civilization. It was purchased at an auction for $105,000 and can be viewed in the Face to Face: Canadian Personalities Hall. The revolver is a .32 calibre Smith & Wesson and lies on a desk formerly used by McGee himself.
Among the 7,000 artifacts on display at the Bytown Museum, situated in the city’s oldest stone building, is a unique McGee entity. In Victorian times, it was common practice to create a “death mask” and, since he was disfigured, one may observe the solid mold of the plaster cast of his right hand instead. This is eerily appropriate since he was an avid writer and poet.
Whelan was hung in 1869 at the Ottawa Jail on Nicholas Street in front of a crowd of 5,000 (while McGee’s funeral drew 60,000 people). The jail, which is a hostel today, holds the dubious honour of hosting Canada’s last public hanging. Mostly, youthful individuals frequent the inexpensive, spartan accommodations provided in former cells of the Old Carlton County Gaol. Feel free to pose for an amusing photograph with your arms and head poking through the holes of the old wooden pillory in front of the building.
Author and travel writer, Ron Brown, described the authenticity of the existing interior structure in his book, Behind Bars: Inside Ontario’s Heritage Gaols. “The cells remain as the former inmates might remember them, as do the narrow iron stairs and the sturdy doors that guard the cell blocks. Indeed, even the location of the gallows rests undisturbed.”
An informative and entertaining 90-minute “Ghosts and the Gallows” walking tour is available to the public. “Many people go by the building every day, but have no idea of its unique history,” says Glenn Shackleton, manager of The Haunted Walk of Ottawa. “As a ghost historian, the frequent paranormal activity in the building makes it an even more amazing gem in the city.” Death Row was on the eighth floor and the last remaining working gallows in Canada are on the seventh floor. “The Ottawa Jail Hostel has a well-earned reputation of being one of the most haunted buildings in North America. Some of our tour guides even refuse to go inside!” exclaims Shackleton.
A downtown landmark hotel is celebrating its centennial. The castle-like Château Laurier was the vision of Charles Melville Hays. In the early twentieth century, he was the General Manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway of Canada. Hays dreamed of extending the railroad all the way to the west coast establishing deluxe hotels en route.
Unfortunately, Hays went down with the ill-fated Titanic in 1912, less than two weeks before the scheduled opening in late April. Canada’s seventh Prime Minister and the hotel’s namesake opened the luxurious structure on June 1, 1912. Sir Wilfred Laurier, whose marble bust is in the lobby with a photo of Hays and the Titanic, was the first to sign the hotel’s guest register. An impressive list of politicians, royalty, entertainers and artists had visited the opulent 429-room hotel, referred to as “the third chamber of Parliament” over the past century.
Evidently, a ghost resembling Hays has been observed with other paranormal activities including eerie sounds emanating from within and unexplained random shaking of objects. “Possibly an unfulfilled desire keeps his spirit relentlessly roaming the halls of his creation,” a senior staff member tells us.
Prominent personalities and their connections in the Capital can be revealing, ensuring one can appreciate the past while experiencing their presence in different forms. |
IF YOU GO
Ottawa Tourist Office: www.ottawatourism.ca or 1-800-363–4465
Sparks Street Mall Outdoor Market Events:
May ~ Spring Festival
June ~ Chicken & Rib Cook-Off
July / August ~ Buskers
Christmas ~ “Lights on the Mall” celebration
Canadian Museum of Civilization: www.civilization.ca or 1-800-555–5621
Haunted Walk of Ottawa Tours: www.hauntedwalk.com or 613-232-0344