Ottawa Does Not Suck

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Parliament Hill on a Map, Ottawa

When I’m abroad, I’m sometimes asked where in Canada I live exactly. Unfortunately, I’m usually only prompted with three choices: Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal (the latter is only if the person I’m talking to detected a hint of French accent). Apparently, a lot of people are convinced Canada is a large piece of ice attached to the U.S.A with a couple of civilized cities, one of the East Coast and one on the West Coast.

“I live in Ottawa,” I reply. “The capital.”

That’s usually when I have to explain that neither Toronto nor Vancouver are the capital of Canada (I bet Australians or Brazilians also have to do the same about Sydney or Rio de Janeiro—I sympathize).

“Where is Ottawa?”

“About a two-hour drive south of Montreal and a four-hour drive north of Toronto.”

Their face light up. “Ah, so you are close to Montreal and Toronto!”

Yes, we live close to the civilized world. But Ottawa is a bona fide city, the fourth largest in the country with almost 1 million residents.

If by any chance the person I’m talking too has heard of Ottawa, they usually feel sorry for me. “Ottawa? But why not Toronto or Vancouver?”

Come on guys. Ottawa does not suck!

It’s funny how popular capital-bashing is in the new world: Australians with Canberra, Americans with Washington DC etc. The old world usually have capital envy—French may not like Parisians but most acknowledge that Paris is somewhat of an exciting place to be.

A lot of Canadians seem to be prejudiced against their nation capital because they associate it to the federal government. Indeed, the government is the biggest employer in the region and you really can’t forget it: there are ministries everywhere and Parliament Hill dominates the downtown core. That said, Ottawa has other employers too, including technology companies and the health sector. The federal government does not rule our lives more than the private sector does in other cities. And while civil servants do enjoy job security, it’s really stereotypical to claim they are all entitled, boring and lazy. Oh, and by the way, a lot of people in Canada actually claim that people in Toronto are just a bunch of soulless snobby suits trying to look important. See: stereotypes go both ways.

Ottawa is also viewed as a conservative WASP middle-class city. There is some truth to it. Since a lot of people are civil servants, they enjoy a degree of job security those working for the private sector may not have. Salaries in the government aren’t bad either, and you can easily be “middle-class” when both partners work for the government. People who no not worry that much about losing their job tend to have more disposable income and they are quick to buy a house and have kids. I find it both fascinating and scary to see twenty-something, barely out of their teens, buying property in the ‘burbs because they just became civil servant after their Bac or Master and are starting a long career in the government.

Now, is Ottawa conservative? The current government certainly is, but again it was elected by Canadians so it would be wrong to say Ottawa is particularly conservative. I’m really split on that one. As for multiculturalism, Ottawa reflects the diverse Canadian population: 25% of the residents are born outside Canada.

The rest of the complaints revolves around how bad Ottawa drivers are (funny, we say the same thing about Montreal and Montreal says the same about Toronto…); how bad the winters are (but again, we feel lucky compared to Montreal and Montreal feels lucky compared to Northern Québec etc.); how bad the hockey team is (… yeah, okay, this year the Sens suck); how boring people are etc. Nothing really constructive.

There are plenty of things that drive me crazy in Ottawa. Public transit in general and OCTranspo in particular, some poor urban planning, the “not in my backyard” mentality, the way some think there is no future outside working for the government…

But there are plenty of upsides of living in the capital too. For instance, Ottawa is the cheapest big city in which to live in Canada. Housing is still affordable here and so is gas, groceries etc. The crime rate is very low and while some people (who probably haven’t traveled much) will tell you that Rideau is a rough place, I feel very safe everywhere I go. There is also a lot to do in Ottawa, from cultural sights (many museums, the Parliament etc.) to outdoors activities (boating on the Canal in the summer, skating on it in the winter).

Overall, I’m pretty happy to live in Ottawa. I can’t say it was love at first sight but I grew to like it. It has upsides and downsides like any other place but if you can make it work for you, it turns out to be a great city.

It’s funny that city-bashing is such a popular sport in Canada… a country where we don’t have that many cities to start with!

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

32 Comments

  1. A city that calls it’s hockey team the Senators ought to be boring!

    I guess that in the New World (and Switzerland) the thing is that capitals aren’t “organic” capitals in the sense that most often the capital cities were chosen as capitals because they were some kind of a neutral ground between existing (and often feuding) cities.

    Even if I say this, I would be more than pleased to move to Ottawa and have a great job with the Federal Government. My parents are both civil servants and they made/make good money 🙂

  2. Haha, I like this post! It really is an interesting thing that in the New World, capital cities aren’t the big ones. It is true even in the state level, at least here in the US. The capital of New York State is Albany, but that is not the biggest city in the state. Same thing goes with California, Florida, and a bunch of other states.

  3. Funnily enough, our textbook for seconde has a whole little section on Ottawa which we did in October, so now I and about 150 seconde students know a lot more about Ottawa! Maybe that’ll make a difference for you someday Zhu =)

  4. Interesting post! In Asia, most of the biggest cities are capitals, so we don’t really have this city-bashing game. But we do bash the big cities’ notorious traffic and the snobbishness of the urban dwellers! 😛

  5. As not many people would know about Ottawa and it is good sharing on this post. You know, Singapore is so small that there are people who still thinks that we are part of China 🙂

  6. Many people only thought of Toronto or Vancouver when talking about traveling in Canada. Now, after reading your post, I’m going to include Ottawa on my destination list. 😀

  7. Appar­ently, a lot of peo­ple are con­vinced Canada is a large piece of ice attached to the U.S.A with a cou­ple of civ­i­lized cities

    It isn’t? Damn 😛

  8. “Come on guys. Ottawa does not suck!”

    I love this line ^^

    I had the same sort of conversation with French friends :
    “- Oh you live in Canada now ? Montréal looks so cool !
    – Indeed, but I’m living in Ottawa.
    – Sorry ?
    – Ottawa. The capital.
    – Ottawa is the capital of Quebec ?
    – Oh damn…”

  9. I’ve only visited Ottawa once for half a day and loved it. It’s a city with a small town feel. I’m hoping to pay it a proper visit one of these days…

  10. Well, I live in a capital too, and I totally sympathize. I’m Brazilian and when I travel abroad, most people dont’t know Brasilia is the capital of Brazil. And we also have the good and bad things that come with being the capital. Guess it must be the same in Australia, for example…

    • Ah yeah, I can see that! And most people think Brasilia is less fun than Sao Paolo or Rio. I haven’t visited that part of Brazil but I would be curious to see the capital. Brasilia, that is. Not Rio 😆

  11. As a proud born and raised Ottawan, I HATE how ignorant people are when it comes to our city. It’s exactly as you say, some people think Canada just consists of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

    Um hello? Ottawa is the political center of the country! Sheesh!

    Anyways, I love it here, the balance of parks and city, the museums, the history. It’s a beautiful city! I do have to agree that some of the people tend to be a little…quiet and reserved (and o.k. maybe a little boring, but most are friendly and that’s all that matters to me!). 🙂

    • I love Toronto, not a huge fan of Montreal and I’ve never been to Vancouver. But I do think people shouldn’t discount Ottawa. I hate the media bias too. Like if I go to cbc.ca, the default location is always Montreal. Hello? Don’t you know your capital?

  12. As a Canadian I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been to Ottawa and the only images that come to mind are the Parliament buildings and skating on the river. Most Europeans I’ve met think Toronto is the capital as well. I’m lucky that most people have heard of Calgary because of the 1988 Winter Olympics and because it’s close to Banff which the Germans love.

    • I’ve heard of Banff but I’ve never been there. I must admit I don’t know the Western part of Canada. I didn’t know much about the country before I came here!

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  14. I’ve lived in Ottawa for 25 years and I can’t say I like it. I’d leave if I could. I also didn’t like Washington, DC in the US, Toronto, or Montreal. Just not my kind of cities. I’ve been all over Canada but unfortunately I’ve never had the opportunity to move elsewhere permanently to free up my spot for someone who loves Ottawa. Well, there shouldn’t be a problem finding those people houses anyway with the sheer amount they’ve been building in the last few years.

    Our transit system is bad (and the fact that they can strike and effectively shut down the city is absurd), and I hate the NCC’s iron fist over our parks and recreational trails. There’s barely anywhere I’m allowed to bring a dog. Also not enough support for cyclists, and because of that and the transit problem nearly every family has at least one car and traffic is freaking awful half the time. Don’t get me started on the never ending road work…

    I’m from Winnipeg originally, and though an improvement, in Ottawa the winters are still terrible. Even as close as Kingston the winters aren’t as awful. It can be damp and slushy, or heavy snowfall, or freezing rain that destroys everything, or so dry your skin cracks and bleeds. Salt and dirt all over your car, ruining its lifespan. The worst though is that we have so many people new to Canada in Ottawa, that when the snow falls you see pretty quickly who can’t handle it or doesn’t know that snow tires exist. If we had a proper transit system those people could choose to get off the road and to work safely without worry (and without worrying me they’re going to kill someone on the road!).

    They are building expensive rubber stamp houses and condos all over the darn place, and the older houses just keep climbing in price. You can’t get a new house with a yard anymore, and you’ll also have about 2 inches between your house and your neighbor’s.

    The same products, big box stores, and restaurants are everywhere – boring. Hardly any new or interesting businesses or entertainment pop up every year, and restaurant quality is generally underwhelming. You just can’t get good sushi here like you can in other places.

    Nothing much to do once you’ve seen the museums and yearly festivals a bazillion times. If you don’t drink or club what is there to do? More than half the year we freeze our butts off and the ski hills are hours away.

    I have only ever met one civil servant who wasn’t entitled, boring, and lazy – She was a new immigrant and worked her butt off. Everyone else goes home earlier and earlier these days and take so many days off. Stereotypes are certainly unfair but there’s usually some truth to them.

    You have every right to love Ottawa, but others also have the right to not like it. Every city has its problems, but I will argue that Ottawa is an exceptionally boring and poorly planned city. People aren’t complaining without cause.

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