Living in a National Capital: the Perks and Drawbacks of Ottawa [Part 1 – Working]

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Sunset over the Parliament, Ottawa, 2011

Sunset over the Parliament, Ottawa, 2011

Ottawa belongs to the gee-no-idea-it-was-a-capital club of cities, like Brasilia, Washington or Canberra. No, Toronto isn’t the national capital of Canada. Neither is Montreal. Sorry, eh.

Spend a few days in Ottawa and the political status of the city will become obvious. Parliament Hill is the centrepiece of Ottawa’s downtown landscape, with busy-looking politicians coming and going when the House is sitting. The federal ministries, formal and functional buildings dotting the downtown core and the suburbs—Citizenship and Immigration, Canada Revenue Agency, Fisheries and Oceans, Health Canada, etc.—are for many people in Ottawa their workplace. Department of National Defence employees in uniform around Mackenzie King Bridge. Everyone in the downtown core in business attire, wearing ID badges like dog tags around the neck or skillfully clipped to a belt, the lanyard printed with the name of the workplace.

One million people chose Ottawa as their home. So, what are the perks and drawbacks of living in a national capital, like Ottawa?

This is the first part of the series focusing on three aspects of life: working, quality of living and playing. Don’t miss part 2!

Working in Ottawa

The biggest employer is by far the Government of Canada and its dozen of agencies and ministers. There is also a sizable IT sector and health sector.

Ottawa is a good place to be is you are fluent in both French and English, although that skill alone won’t land you a job. Yet, French speakers are always in demand in many customer-facing positions. This is how I entered the Canadian job market!

The federal government offers interesting career opportunities in many fields. It is usually viewed as a stable career choice (once you land a permanent position, you shouldn’t have to worry about losing it) and the pay scale is fair, although sometime lower than in the private sector for similar positions. Public servant do work a lot despite the stereotype, but you are still unlikely to put in a lot of overtime—less than in the private sector, anyway—the importance of work-life balance is one of the mottos around here.

However, for the past few years, the Conservative government has been cutting jobs in Canada’s public service. Beside, landing a permanent position requires patience—a lot of it. The holy grail to a cubicle can take years and I often joke that 99% of Ottawa residents are “in a pool”, waiting for the hiring process to eventually wrap up.

You also have to meet a series of requirements. For instance, when filling open positions, priority is given to Canadian citizens. If you have a temporary work visa or are a landed immigrant with PR status, becoming “permanent” is next to impossible (there are less restrictions for short-term contracts). According to the Official Languages Act, English and French have equal status in the government of Canada. Therefore, many positions are designed as “bilingual” or require proficient in both languages—the famous “A”, “B” or “C” level, “C” being fluent. Finally, you may have to obtain a security clearance if your position requires access to protected and/or classified information, assets or work sites (government buildings are considered “sensitive” work sites). There are different levels of security screening, ranging from “reliability status” to “top secret”. The “basic” one, reliability status, is relatively easy to obtain but for other security clearances, 5 years of verifiable background information is requested and this may be difficult to get if you are a recent immigrant to Canada.

Ottawa offers a high standard of living and has a low employment rate. Finding work in the city takes time, determination, energy, confidence, knowledge and skills—maybe more than in other cities in Canada, where the market is more flexible. However, your efforts may pay off because there are interesting and stable career options here.

Don’t miss part 2, coming up next week!

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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.

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