GENERAL ARTICLES

So This Is Ottawa

She is a well-known writer who had never been to Ottawa. Maclean’s sent her there . . . Here’s what Ottawa did to Mary

MARY LOWREY ROSS June 1 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

So This Is Ottawa

She is a well-known writer who had never been to Ottawa. Maclean’s sent her there . . . Here’s what Ottawa did to Mary

MARY LOWREY ROSS June 1 1943

So This Is Ottawa

She is a well-known writer who had never been to Ottawa. Maclean’s sent her there . . . Here’s what Ottawa did to Mary

MARY LOWREY ROSS

HALF A dozen times in the past I had almost got to Ottawa. Once the taxicab was actually at the door and then something turned up and the taxicab dissolved and the moment vanished. Ottawa remained beckoning and unattainable. So nothing could have been more surprising than to find myself on the day coach headed for the capital; except possibly the day coach itself.

No amount of importance can get you luxury travel on the daytime route to the capital. Soldiers, international purchasing commissioners, nursing mothers, babies, dollar-a-year men, all travel the same democratic way. There are more assorted types in an Ottawa day coach than you could find in a Hollywood casting bureau. The babies cried; the lounge-car types, for whom day-coach travel must have seemed almost as alien as riding the rails, sat on the edges of their dusty seats, trying to organize bridge games on their spread knees. The mothers of families organized box lunches on theirs. The Army, Navy and Air Force rocked cheerfully and endlessly through the aisles, stepping on carefully polished shoes and scuffing expensive brief cases. When a five-year-old piped suddenly, “Daddy, where do we sleep in Ottawa?” everybody laughed, grimly or heartily. The question is standard humor on any route to the capital.

In Ottawa itself, the favorite joke is the one about the man who, seeing a stranger drowning in the Rideau, secured his room number and hurried back to the hotel; there he was told that the room wras already taken by the man who had pushed the victim in. The story is no more than an exaggeration of a fantastic dilemma.

Every hotel room in Ottawa is filled, constantly. Even when you have made your reservation long in advance you are likely to be set down to wait in the lobby till the occupying guest reluctantly turns in his room key. Everyone who has any sort of foothold in the capital clings to it.

But strained and crowded and often exasperating as Ottawa is, it still retains and enforces its oldfashioned decorum. The crowds mill and collide in the station but once you come up through the underground tunnel into the lobby there is an almost ecclesiastical calm. The travellers sit about

quietly in the lobby, waiting for their room keys. The guests are silently whisked to their rooms. A little after eleven the magazine stand closes. The big dining room stands shadowy and empty. In the downstairs grill there is still music and dancing, both very decorous, but apart from this the night life of the hotei appears to be over by midnight, with everyone tucked into bed and soundly and blamelessly asleep.

Ottawa, seen for the first time in the morning sunlight, is a fine sight. Long before town planning, the capital had the shape and perspective of a beautiful city and its natural conservatism has resisted anything but the most cautious improvements. The buildings stand square and solid as Empire, and the willow-pattern bridges bend over the shining canal. The taxicabs sweep down the sharply angled streets, the bumpy little streetcars

rock perilously along, and everyone leaps from sidewalk to safety zone and from safety zone to sidewalk. Nobody seems to get hurt, though the traffic system appears to have been designed by a very old civil servant in a state of dreamy abstraction. “Plebiscite Square” someone has named the capital’s main section, perhaps because it offers every possible hazard combined with an almost miraculous safety.

This is the old Ottawa, faced by the Chateau and the Parliament Buildings and threaded by the Rideau Canal. I went up to the House of Commons and wandered through the empty corridors and up to the Peace Tower, which is beautiful and remote and tragic. The attendant offered to sell me souvenir booklets of the Royal Visit. “Ottawa was very different in those days,” he said wistfully.

But it is hard to imagine the old Ottawa very different under any circumstances. It is traditional by habit and the newer the buildings, the more immemorial they contrive to look. The stout oak

doors hasped with iron (A.D. 1929) which lead out of the Tower look as though they had come down from Tudor days. Even the attendants have an air of hoary survival. The elevators, a necessary modern note, are lined with crimson like the Senate Chamber; though not, fortunately for the taxpayer, ceilinged like the Senate Chamber in luxurious, real twenty-two carat gold.

Dreamy Timelessness

THE Mounties are everywhere, a traditional part of the Canadian decor. This seems to be their only function. There is a story, however, about a Mountie who stood in front of the House of Commons Library so long that someone finally asked what his duties were. He was told that the Mountie had been set on guard there at the time of the Parliament Buildings fire and it had never occurred to anyone to remove him since.

Superficially, at least, this sense of dreamy timelessness carries over into the Legislative Chamber. Nobody hurries, nobody apparently even listens. The day I visited the press gallery Prime Minister Mackenzie King was discussing the

Continued on page 47

So This Is Ottawa

Continued from page 7

advisability of appointing secretaries to the members of the Cabinet. He talked for forty minutes, covering the subject patiently and exhaustively. When he had finished a Progressive Conservative member rose and talked another forty, presumably opposing the measure, • though the legislative acoustics muffled most of what he had to say. The members chatted among themselves, leafed through the Parliamentary agenda, or abstractedly studied the ceiling while the speakers plodded on, rendering to Hansard the things that were Hansard’s. It was a curious sight, like watching a man wearily practicing elocution in an empty room.

Empire and Emergency

THAT IS the Old Ottawa. The New Ottawa is something very different.

The New Ottawa isn’t localized. It is scattered all over the town like a pocketful of marbles dropped on the floor. There are wartime Govern-

ment departments in empty storehouses, in old warehouses, over stores and tobacco shops—where ever there is floor space for desks and telephones and the endless miles of beaverboard partitions which are all that keep the various departments and subdepartments from living in each other’s top drawers. The Food Administration is housed in a bank. The Wartime Prices and Trade Board is in twenty different places at once. The Housing Registry is an office in the station. The National Film Beard operates in an old lumber mill. The Department of Munitions and Supplies occupies an enormous area of temporary structures, a sort of dignified Shackville. The new Supreme Court Building has been taken over by a research bureau, the Income Tax Department and the War Information Board. The Supreme Court continues to sit as it has met for the past fifty years in an ancient gate house.

There are broadly speaking two architectural styles in official Ottawa —Empire and Emergency. The new

Supreme Court Building is Empire hastily converted, with the invaluable beaverboard, to Emergency.

You can wander through endless marble corridors leading into a bewildering series of mahogany panelled offices; all beaverboard guarded, for Ottawa appears to have nervous misgivings about the new element that is flooding into its official life.

The new element isn’t overimpressed by marble walls and corridors. It is made up of newspaper people, research workers, secretaries, economists, and graduates and postgraduates up from the universities. They are deeply impressed by their jobs, however, and by the stimulat ing experience of Government experimentation that is going cnallaroundthem. “They are the new Civil Service,” the head of a department told me, “with none of the traditional Civil Service attitudes.” The new Supreme Court Building with all its grandeur of marble and brass and mahogany is just “the office” to most of them. “I’d rather be over in Temporary,” a research department worker told me. “It’s a lot livelier. Besides the windows here leak.”

The new Supreme Court Building is, of course, a stately exception to the current rule of frugality in Ottawa. Most of the people in the new departments work, with a dozen others, in a single large bare room. A secretary gets no more than a table, but an executive rates a desk, a telephone and sometimes a beaverboard partition. When a fresh appointee arrives they shift the furniture, install a telephone and run up another partition. Expenditure everywhere is cautiously pared down, for taxes, rationing and controls have made the public acutely sensitive about operations in Ottawa.

No Orchids in Ottawa

ANY HINT of extravagance brings - in floods of angry mail and a demand for airing it on the floor of the House. When a woman executive appeared at a public luncheon with an orchid corsage, privately donated, pinned to her last year’s coat, she was criticized; and though the incident ¡happened over a year ago she is still catching echoes of resentment from an outraged democracy. (“Running round the country at the taxpayer’s expense all dolled up in orchids!”) There is the case too of the special-delivery air-mail letter sent by a certain executive. It drew a stinging editorial from an Ontario paper on the ground that it was an unnecessary extravagance, which “required special handling at the Toronto airport and took up space in the plane.” This sort of thing has spread a wave of nervous economy through every department. Executives everywhere are as apprehensive as a conscientious housewife accused of squandering the grocery money. “Tell them we haven’t any rugs here,” said a secretary in the Food Administration Buildings. . . They haven’t any rugs. In addition most of the windows are dirty and some depart-

ments claim, with a sort of meek pride, to be afflicted with cockroaches.

There is a certain pride too in the universal summing-up, “Of course, Ottawa is simply a madhouse.” To a superficial observer Ottawa isn’t exactly a madhouse, but it does suggest at moments the laboratory of a mad experimental scientist on the screen. There is feverish activity and an almost fanatical absorption in the task.

You can’t be long in Ottawa either without wondering if anybody really has any comfort or fun.

The capital is almost intolerably crowded. When I called on the head of the Housing Registry she told me she had just interviewed the mother of nine children who, evicted from her Ottawa home, had gone ,to live with relatives. Altogether there were twenty-four children, plus adults, in a six-roomed house.

The food distribution problem is almost as critical. There are few restaurants in Ottawa. At noon the office workers line up patiently along Sparks Street waiting for a chance at counter and cubicle. This usually occupies the whole lunch hour. There is no time for loitering and shopping; which is just as well, because there is little shopping attractions for a city of its size.

There are, to be sure, shops. They carry dresses, underwear, stockings and yard goods, sometimes all in the same window. There are few specialty dress shops and no exclusive millinery establishment with one or two costly little numbers poised behind plate glass. It was hard to believe that a city which houses about 18 legations from all over the world should have a retail section almost exactly like the main street in a small Ontario town. But this, I was told, was typical of Ottawa which is content and rather proud to be provincial when it isn’t being magnificent and viceregal.

There is no legitimate theatre in Ottawa and little surface gaiety. When people want to relax they go across to Hull which still retains something of the illicit attraction of prohibition times. There are good French restaurants in Hull and even night clubs. I visited one of these on the far outskirts of the town It was a nice night club to go home from.

There are, of course, the movies in Ottawa. And when the movies are filled, as they usually are, the young people come out and stroll hand in hand through Ottawa’s stately streets, or go up to Parliament Hill to look out across the river to the Gatineau Hills. There isn’t anything better to do in the capital. And on a clear day when city and landscape are both looking their best there isn’t anything much better to do anywhere.

Everyone criticizes the capital. They say it is snobbish and provincial and bureaucratic, that it is sluggish in its action and incalculable in its thinking and certainly a madhouse. Yet even the most prejudiced are likely to fall in love with Ottawa, simply because it belongs so perfectly to its legend and its landscape, and is so beautiful to look at.