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Ottawa’s Dark(er) Side

Cryptic graffiti on Laurier, Ottawa, November 2019
Cryptic graffiti on Laurier, Ottawa, November 2019

A man was shot and critically injured on “my” gym’s parking lot last Wednesday morning.

I learned the news hours later, browsing Twitter at this very gym, waiting for my HIIT class. The victim is alleged to have ties to organized crime, so it’s probably safe to assume it was a targeted shooting. This piece of background info doesn’t justify the crime but it’s still good to know that Canada isn’t yet like the US where random gun violence often make headlines.

I closed Twitter. Organized crime? A former gambling ring boss? Are we talking about Ottawa, Ontario?

Like everyone, I hear sirens once in a while. I see first responders speeding to the emergency scene, most likely a fire or a traffic accident. I get out of the way if needed and for me, that’s the end of story—I’ll never know what happened and how it ended.   

I rarely see the police, except at routine traffic stops and when officers are grabbing coffee at Tim Horton’s or Starbucks. I’m not even sure Canada has a riot police, like in France—I’ll probably never find out, public protests or violence is very rare around here.

Ottawa is the kind of place that lulls you into a false sense of security. It’s quiet, sedate even for a capital. People are friendly and generally helpful, small talk is common, discourtesy is frowned upon and we’re all very politically correct—Ottawa is a government town, a great place to raise a family, a tourist destination if you want to see the Parliament, Canada Day in the capital or thousands of tulips.

… or is it?

The truth is, I’m blissfully ignorant of what’s really going on in Ottawa. People around me care about benefits and pension plans, the environment, French immersion and the new LRT (consensus is, it sucks). It’s like I live in some kind of utopia—to catch a glimpse of the real world, we turn the TV on and watch one of the Detroit news channels where people apparently get robbed, shot, killed, arrested and sometimes all of the aforementioned at the same time on a daily basis.

My world in Ottawa is quiet and straightforward, but if you look closer, the nation’s capital does have a darker side.

You gotta give it to British culture, it’s very good at keeping all vices out of sight.

The sex industry, for instance. You’ll never see sex workers pounding the pavement like in France, it’s too cold for that, anyway. Canadians are coy about nudity and sexuality but body rub parlours and strip clubs are socially accepted. The Barefax, right in the Byward Market, has been entertaining men for years and most of the “massage services” on Bank Street aren’t the kind that help with neck pain.

Drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes are seemingly frowned upon—none of this European laissez-faire attitude, both recreational activities are heavily regulated. For instance, until recently, the LCBO and Beer Store had a monopoly on liquor, alcohol and beer sales in Ontario. Drinking in public and public intoxication are both serious offences. In fact, it’s a crime to have an open container of alcohol in a public space. Obviously, here, the key word is “public.” Canadians still drink and smoke but the fun happens on private property, in fenced backyards and finished basements.

In the wake of recreational cannabis legalization last year, I also discovered Feng and I were apparently the only Canadians who didn’t smoke weed on a regular basis. And even now that smoking pot is perfectly legal, you don’t see people doing it in public that much. 

We have other more serious drug issues to deal with, anyway, namely the opioid epidemic. It hit Ottawa as well: “Last year alone, nearly 4,600 Canadians died of apparent opioid-related causes, or one person every hour and 55 minutes. The current mortality rate from opioids in this country is about twice that of HIV/AIDS at its peak in 1995.” (Source, Ottawa Citizen, November 21, 2019.) For a long time, I didn’t see it. It’s only this summer that I started to notice a lot of people in very bad shape and what had to be needle marks—or very big mosquito bites…—on their arms and legs.

Because it’s easy to turn a blind eye to drug use, homelessness, poverty and plenty of other issues. You’ll see them in “designated areas,” for instance around homeless shelters downtown or in a few dodgy neighbourhoods. I can go weeks without seeing panhandlers and I travel all over Ottawa. If it wasn’t reported in the news, I would think drugs are some other city’s problem.

Just because I don’t see it in my world doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Just because you’re not directly affected doesn’t mean it’s not an issue.

Always a useful reminder.

Ottawa Public Library on Laurier, where you can always seek refuge from the cold
Ottawa Public Library on Laurier, where you can always seek refuge from the cold

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