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Living in the National Capital Region: Ottawa or Gatineau?

Gatineau or Ottawa? Quebec or Ontario?

Prospective immigrants interested in moving in the National Capital Region (NCR) often ask whether they should settle in Ottawa or in Gatineau. This is a rather big decision to make, because even though the two cities are very close geographically speaking, they are located in two different provinces, with the Ottawa River as a boundary.

I live in Ottawa and I don’t go to Gatineau often because I don’t need to—that said, a lot of my friends and acquaintances chose to live in Quebec for various reasons. There is no “good” or “bad” place to live: both Ottawa and Gatineau have their strengths and weaknesses, as the article will highlight.

What is the National Capital Region?

The term “National Capital Region” or “NCR” is used to describe the Ottawa-Gatineau area.

The National Capital Region is an official federal designation for Ottawa, Ontario; the neighbouring city of Gatineau, Quebec; and surrounding urban and rural communities such a Nepean, Kanata, Barrhaven, etc.

The National Capital Region in Numbers

  • Area: 4,715 km2 (1,820 sq mi)
  • Population: 1,451,415 (Ottawa 883,391 and Gatineau 265,349)
  • Phone area codes: 613, 819, 343, 873
  • English as a mother tongue: 501,870 (Ottawa) vs. 25,365 (Gatineau)
  • Language spoken most often at home: English in Ottawa (by 606,535 people) and French in Gatineau (by 193,685 people)
  • Language most often used at work: English in Ottawa (by 441,285 people) and French in Gatineau (by 89,540 people)
  • Population of immigrants: 178,545 in Ottawa and 20,780 in Gatineau

Other interesting facts, numbers and stats are available in the Ottawa community profile and in the Gatineau community profile.

Living in Ottawa or in Gatineau… what’s the big deal?

The region falls into two provinces—that’s the “big deal”—or rather the biggest deal. Indeed, Canada is a federation with two distinct jurisdictions of political authority: the country-wide federal government and the ten regionally-based provincial governments.

For residents, this means that a number of matters are the responsibility of the province they live in, the Government of Ontario for Ottawa and the Government of Quebec for Gatineau. The following areas fall into the provincial responsibility:

  • Healthcare
  • Education
  • Administration of justice
  • Natural resources and the environment
  • Vehicle drivers and vehicle use (driver licenses, winter tire use; seat belt and child seat use)
  • Welfare

To give you a few examples of practical differences between Quebec and Ontario:

  • In Quebec, the legal drinking age is 18 but in Ontario it’s 19 (yes, a lot of 18 years old Ontarians go to bars in Quebec!). Beside, in Ontario, you can only buy alcohol at the LCBO or Beer Store, but in Quebec it is sold in supermarket and convenience stores.
  • Ontario/Canada income tax is significantly lower than Quebec’s. The sales tax is also higher in Quebec: in Ontario, the HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) is 13%, in Quebec it is 14.5%.
  • In Gatineau, parents can benefit from $7/day daycare services, subject to availability (and the waiting list is long!). Childcare services are much less subsidized in Ottawa, and will cost more.

Of course, Ottawa and Gatineau are also two distinct municipalities so there are a number of differences here. Garbage collection and waste management are municipal responsibility, and so are municipal services such as fire, emergency medical services, police, parks, roads, sidewalks, drinking water, stormwater, etc.

For instance, in Ottawa, the local bus system is operated by OCTranspo, and there is also a small light-rail service, the OTrain. Gatineau residents rely on the Société de transport de l’Outaouais (STO), the local bus network. Some buses do operate between Gatineau and Ottawa.

What are the pros and cons of living in Ottawa? How about Gatineau?

Potential issues
  • Real estate is more expensive in Ottawa, both renting and buying.
  • Higher property taxes.
  • Childcare services are more expensive.
  • Rush hour can be brutal to and from popular suburbs such as Kanata or Barrhaven, especially when the weather is bad. And if you live close to Scotiabank Place, the hockey arena, expect traffic during the NHL season!
  • Cheaper real estate.
  • Cheaper car insurance and electricity.
  • Exposure to a unique culture, Quebec really is a distinct society.
  • A chance to learn French, or to practice the language on a daily basis.
  • Two great attractions nearby: the Museum of Civilization and Gatineau Park for outdoor activities. Okay, make it three with the Casino du Lac-Leamy.
Potential issues
  • French is the main language, you may feel uncomfortable if you only speak English.
  • If you work in Ottawa and have regular office hours (roughly 9-5), expect a lot of traffic, especially crossing the bridges from/to Gatineau.
  • Income taxes are higher than in Ontario.
  • Potential issues with the healthcare system: finding a doctor in Quebec is harder than in Ontario, and there are long waiting lists for many specific healthcare needs.


What would you recommend?

It really depends on what you are looking for. This is the general trend I observed:

  • Young adults tend to live in Ottawa, especially in the downtown core, for easy access to the two main universities (University of Ottawa and Carleton University) and the nightlife.
  • Working couples without kids also often stay in Ottawa, generally in the suburb (in places like Kanata, Nepean, Orleans, Barrhaven, South Keys, etc.) because they are closer to work (assuming they are working in Ottawa) and pay less income taxes in Ontario than in Quebec.
  • Working couples with kids tend to live in Gatineau because real estate is cheaper, houses are bigger and childcare services are subsidized (which explains higher income taxes). Some English-speaking couples also want their kids to learn French early and take advantage of living in a French-speaking community.

Both communities, Ottawa and Gatineau, are nice—the decision of where to live mostly depends on what you are looking for.

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