Most Canadians think of their capital only as the scene of sensational political crises, but there is another Ottawa and another side to her political life
THE capital of this country is an incomparable stage setting. A city of towers, high above a mighty river, with a background of ageless hills, it cries aloud for great drama, for combat, for pageantry and chivalry. In the high vaulted corridors and gilded chambers of parliament one expects gallant gentlemen, figures in the heroic mold, leaders of men commanding undying loyalties. To come upon this city for the first time is to feel the glow of expectations, but to remain is to retreat to the mild cynicism of disappointment or into the apathy of disenchantment.
This is no tale of sentimental bubble burst. This is the true experience of hundreds of intelligent patriots who have gone to Ottawa with high hopes and returned home with faint hearts.
What sort of city is Ottawa?
There are two Ottawas. There is the capital of Canada which is on Parliament Hill, and there is the Ottawa of the civil service. The latter is a cheerful well-behaved community which pays its debts and goes in for sports. The former is a democratic parliament, a close-up picture of all the vices and few of the virtues of the people of this country. It is responsible government which is responsible to the lowest common denominator of democracy.
‘The Indelible Stamp of Mediocrity’
WHAT sort of people are these members of parliament? Most of them are gentlemen; all of them are approachable; a few have genuine ability; and the vast majority have the indelible stamp of mediocrity. It is a mediocrity so apparent that if it were possible to exclude all broadcastings from the air of Canada except parliamentary debates, a militant electorate would arise and terrify the Commons into five-minute debates which would mean sessions of one month instead of five.
The enforced leisure is the thing which strikes first upon a newly elected member of parliament. Most members have enjoyed some measure of success and have been so involved in the strenuous business of earning a living that they have enjoyed a little leisure and less reflection. Comparatively few display the faintest interest in the magnificently equipped Library of Parliament. Many never go near it. It is safe to say that members’ wives apply more frequently for current fiction than their husbands do for any books.
The back bench member, without interest in reading or ability in conversation, is one of the saddest spectacles in the Ottawa pantomime. Visualize the record of perform-
anee of a worthy back bencher during the frenzied progress of a three-week debate:
9.00 a.m. —Up. 9.30 Breakfast. 10.00 Morning papers. 10.30 Stroll up to office at the House and discuss latest rumor with other members. 11.00 Send for stenographer and dictate letters to constituents giving them all the inside dope. 11.30 Gossip with members as to how long the session will last. Smoke a cigar. 12.00 Constituent calls. More gossip. Show him around building and introduce him to party chiefs. 1.00 p.m. —Take constituent to lunch in parliamentary restaurant. 2.00 Stroll about corridors and talk with members. 3.00 In seat when House opens. 4.00 One of the other crowd speaking. Very dull. 5.00 One of our crowd speaking. Very good. Applause. 6.00 House rises. 6.30 Dinner in restaurant with some of our crowd. 7.00 Gossip, cigar and evening papers. 8.00 Decide House will be dull. Off to hockey game. 10.30 Look into House. One of their crowd speaking. 11.00 House rises. 11.30 Declines to go on party. Back to hotel and to bed.
There are, of course, industrious members of parliament. But for the old faithful back bencher, that is a pretty fair average. Sometimes there are committees sitting in the mornings, and the back benchers flock to them for they can smoke in committees. But, even there,
it is the activeminded few who direct proceedings.
And so, for five or six
dreary months. The lumbering machinery of parliament goes on guided by a score of hands and carried by the numerical weight of the unspeaking and none too intelligent majority.
In the conduct of parliament there are tense moments, there are plots, counterplots and occasional real flurries in debates, but they are staged and performed by these few whose mental equipment rises above the mediocrity of the House. These are the leaders—excellent men. But as for the undying loyalty they are supposed to command, it is thin and rare. Anyone who knows the corridor grumblings and the small eruptions in the party caucus is sadly aware of the shifting sands of personal fidelity in politics—at least in these post-war days.
Pomp and Circumstance and Moth Bags
'T'O BREAK the sodden leisure of the back bencher
are occasional parties.
The opening of parliament is not bad. It is in reality only a skeleton of the ancient ceremony. There are, the daily press duly reports, brilliant uniforms, a salute of guns and a cavalry escort, but the uniforms are so seldom used that they savor of moth bags and cleaners’ fluids. There are field guns, but not enough to form a real battery, and the cavalry escort rents its horses for the occasion. The State Drawing Room following the formal opening is a woman’s show with men in uniform to make the background. There are some privy councillors in breeches and stockings, playing at knightly and courtly games.
Once, at least, in the session, the back bencher will be asked to Government House to dine with His Excellency the Governor General. There will be other back benchers and perhaps a front bencher. The dinner probably remains the one cheerful spot in the long weary session. There may be other parties. Some of them may be successful, but the back bencher will feel slightly uncomfortable and slip away early leaving the music and dancing to wives and daughters, senior civil servants and the permanent hangers-on of the parliamentary organization
The long session sets in like a quarantine regulation on members of parliament. Considering the inflicted idleness it is a wonder that there is not more scandal among the elected representatives of the people. The back bencher, successful, but not wealthy, is suddenly lifted from his congenial walk of life and established in a palatial building among amiable strangers. He is no orator and does not feel like addressing the House—at
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least for a few weeks. Bong and monotonous debates drone on and on. Mostly only the expected things are said and in the expected manner. <The Press Gallery crowd, could, given the name of the speaker, write a fair report of his speech without hearing it.) The modest back bencher sits sunk back in his chair. He goes into the lobby and smokes and waits and yarns—then back to the House to sit again. He snaps his fingers and has a page boy bring the local paper from his hometown. He reads it and wonders how long the debate will last. Perhaps after three weeks of over-eating and oversleeping the subject wears itself out from sheer exhaustion and the division bells ring about four o’clock in the morning. The back bencher and all his party are in their seats. The assistant clerk of the House calls the names. The back bencher rises in his place. His name is called. He sits down. He has voted for his paity and his duty is done.
A City That Loves a Back-Stairs Story
'T'HE other side to the Ottawa picture 1 is that of Ottawa, a Canadian city, the most urbane and civilized of the sisterhood of Canadian cities, and the most Canadian; a sporting young matron, conscious of her position, remarkably bilingual and able to bow before a throne or dine boisterously at a country club with equal success. She listens to too much back-stairs chatter, but that is perhaps pardonable considering her position of advantage.
See her on Sunday mornings in winter. Two thousand people, breeched and booted, with skis and poles aloft board an early train for the Gatineau hills and spend the day on the snow. There is no such spectacle of sporting blood elsewhere in Canada.
The vices of Ottawa are the vices of every capital. Ottawa loves a really low down, behind-the-scenes story. It is a pardonable vice. How would the clubs'of London live if it were not for the gossip in the smoking rooms? But Ottawa is quick to forgive. She can fling an offender out the back door and take him in the front ¿[dicker than any place in Canada.
As for the much maligned civil service, picture its workers on their jobs at modest salaries, living fairly well, and in constant terror of the periodic swoop of parlia-
mentary economy. Its women, lower paid, for similar work, than in*any oti'.er city, are bright and sophisticated. See them at a minute past four any summer aftern.on. Fivt thousand well-dressed, attractive females pouring into the streets in the calm, unhurrying Ottawa manner. Then come the men, a few seconds later in closing their desks They are sober and quiet men who come closer to being average Canadians than any other people in Canada. They buy evening papers, make spiall purchases, and take street cars home.
Ottawa really îads a double life—not a vicious double life, but an existence of pardonable duplicity. While parliament sits, the city is cheerful, but restless and slightly uncomfortable. When the final frantic days o the session are concluded, and the boo of the last salute of prorogation dies, Ottawa becomes its gentle genial self, and the civil service stops work at four o’clock. While the formidable eye of parliament is on the Service the closing hour is five, but with M.P. s scattered from Koot may to Antigonish, the agreeable practice of four o’clock closing lasts until the end of September.
Members of parliament are only transient to the Ottawa scene. They are like the actors in a touring theatrical troupe who appear do their art, and pass on. Their activities are restricted to Parliament Hill, the Chateau Laurier, and Government House. The cabinet ministers are exceptions. They are residents and as such doubtless sigh with relief when His Excellency dismisses his parliament.
So the drowsy midsummer days descend* upon Bytown. High above the city on Parliament Hill the Victory Tower dominates the city. Down below in the dim cool echoing corridors, dusty motor tourists from the byways of North America are herded through a ten-minute tour of the Buildings. They peer into the House of Commons, stand awed and awkward in the old Library, are silenced by the crimson dignities of the Senate, and escape into the sunshine.
Over in the East Block, where the offices of the Governor General and the Prime Minister are, and where tourists do not go, slim maidens carry .official-, looking files through the faintly musty, somehow romantic corridors, and there is. the faraway clatter of typewriters.
There are shadows in the old East Block, in fact most of the shadows from the Canadian scene since Confederation days moved solemnly through the halls. Frock-coated, gaunt men with high hats and queer collars and ties—the job hunters, railroad builders, rakes and gentlemen of other days appear and disappear into the heavy ancient air.
No, Ottawa’s duplicity is not sinister. As the capital of a country, it must have delegations, deputations, ward healers, malcontent soldiers, swank and a breath of scandal. But that is much less than half of it. Ottawa is a city of homes for sober citizens of moderate incomes, where clubs and social life must adjust themselves to the civil service scale of salaries.
It is just small enough to be meeting the same people frequently. On the streets every day you meet persons who though not in political life are still very much in public life. *Tn the movies you sit beside a justice of the Supreme Court; in the street car beside a railway commissioner who spends his days tinkering with the arteries of the nation, or beside an inspector of Mounted Police just out of the north who wishes he were back there away from the heat and the city.
Arctic men are in themselves a group. Scientists, pc.icemen, navigators and administrators live in Ottawa quietly for a while, go daily to a Government desk, and then slip away into the north for indefinite periods without so much as a note in the social columns to tell of their absence.
In the white-tiled lunch you meet a soldier whose rank and name during the war would have made your heels click, or a deputy minister back from some solemn international conference in Europe. Down on By Ward Market you will find a former Prime Minister of Canada, market basket on arm, inquiring prices of fruit and vegetables.
The Most Uniformed City in Canada
OTTAWA is the most uniformed city in Canada. If you were to form an opinion at first glance, you would say
that the Canadian army had run to sergeant majors, and then you would learn that most of them are military staff clerks.
There are men of the Royal Canadian Air Force in blue and silver. There are Royal Canadian Mounted Police, one division in blue and yellow and spiked helmets patrolling the government buildings day and night, and the regular mounties, booted and spurred. In the House of Commons end of the centre block there is a smart protective force in blue with white-topped caps, and in the Senate there is another force of police. There are civic police and firemen, motor men, bell hops, railroad employees, and so on into millions of buttons and silver and brass.
The midsummer, between-session idyll is sometimes disturbed by a celebrity. Now Ottawans are no cheap celebrity hunters. They will not fall for any transient movie-acting notoriety seeker. They do not collect in herds in the manner of most North Americans to gape in awe at distinguished visitors. Either they leave notable personages strictly alone or they put on a rather decent show, scarlet, gold lace and all—and at appropriate moments they can raise lusty cheers, which is an extraordinary -thing for any Canadian crowd.
Thus the life of the nation’s capital swims on, divided between Parliament Hill, the Dominion’s own pet annual show and the Ontario city, safe and sane. The broad blue Ottawa absorbs the tumbling waters of the racing Gatineau from Northern Quebec, and those of the lazy pretty Rideau from Ontario. On the sunny plaza between the Chateau and Parliament Hill, idlers lean on the stone balustrade and watch the barges mount through the ancient locks of the Rideau Canal on summer days. In the winter the city glistens white and armies of skiers trail across the plaza to reach the distant hills. The blue Laurentians push their mountain shoulders up in billows against the sky. The Victory Tower stands militant in the sunlight on Parliament Hill. It is an incomparable city, a stage set for giants.
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