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Ottawa Does Not Suck

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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