Rockcliffe Park nestles like a tightly rolled wad of money in the heart of our nation’s capital. It’s the impenetrable hideaway of the power elite, where Great National Decisions are made . . . So goes the legend — but here are the facts

SUSAN DEXTER October 1 1966


Rockcliffe Park nestles like a tightly rolled wad of money in the heart of our nation’s capital. It’s the impenetrable hideaway of the power elite, where Great National Decisions are made . . . So goes the legend — but here are the facts

SUSAN DEXTER October 1 1966


Rockcliffe Park nestles like a tightly rolled wad of money in the heart of our nation’s capital. It’s the impenetrable hideaway of the power elite, where Great National Decisions are made . . . So goes the legend — but here are the facts

ROCKCLIFFE PARK is a quaint, rustic. AFFLUENT village in the heart of Canada's capital. Ottawa. It's also more than just a village it's an enclave, almost a nation of its own. or tailing that, at least some wealthy state of grace. And in the 40 years since its incorporation. Rockcliffe has developed a mystique: a mythology has grown around it which says it is the bailiwick ol the mandarins, the retreat ol the power elite. and the hideaway ol the swinging diplomatic set. 1 he underprivileged (that is. those who live in the city ol Ottawa) are prone lo taking house guests on guided tours ol the village’s shaded streets; they point out Rockel i 11 es splendid mansions. they name ihe prominent who live in them and. with the air of insiders. tell their visitors that this is the place where the great national decisions are made.

About 600 people live in Rockclilie's one square mile ol land, and family income is in the vicinity of $20.000 a year, which makes Rockcliffe the wealthiest village in the country, even ahead of Montreal's Westmount (about $18.000) and Toronto's Forest Hill Village ($16,000). Quite unexceptional three - bedroom houses sell in Rockcliffc for an average of between $40,000 and $55.000. while the lowest rents are $350. and the highest will run to $550.

At one end. the village is bounded by the stately residence of the governor general, with its impressive pike fence. At the other, are Rockcliffe’s aging cliffside castles overlooking the Ottawa River, built in the early part of this century by the timber barons of old Ottawa. In between live some 15 ambassadors and senior foreign diplomats, five cabinet ministers, three deputy ministers and the leader ol the Opposition, along with an overwhelmingly large contingent ol wealthy Ottawa businessmen, doctors and lawyers.

Yet it is the bureaucrats and politicians who seem to attract most of the attention. This leads some people to say the village has the highest concentration of governmental power in the country, and to perpetuate exotic fantasies about nation-shaking decisions being made over a brandy in any of a number of sumptuous mansions.

I lived most of my life in Rockcliffe. yet it was only when I made a return visit recently that 1 discovered that the Rockcliffe Myth is just that: while Rockcliffe has been given the label of power, in reality it's simply a middle-aging dormitory suburb with all the characteristics to match. Dinnertime conversation is more likely to be about the war on mosquitoes than

the war on poverty, and well under 50 of ns 710 houses contain people who can be described as politically' powerful. Indeed, only live ol the 26 federal cabinet ministers reside in Rockclilfe, and of those, only three have senior rank: Ciuy Favreau, president ol the Privy Council. Jack Pickersgill. Minister ol Transport, and Robert Winters. Minister of Trade and ( 'ommerce (who doesn't quite count since lie's only renting for six months). Maurice Sauvé, Minister ol Forestry, and John I in ner, minister w ithout portfolio, complete the list.

The myth probably began in those days in the early part of this century when great fortunes were made anti huge estates bordered by wilderness were set up in the village. 1 he myth grew, fed mostly on prominent names. (After all. E. P. Taylor spent part of his boyhood and received part of his education in Rockcliffe: C. D. Howe lived there during his hegemony in 'Trade and Commerce: Pierre Sévigny rented a Rockcliffe house with a swimming pool during his time as Associate Minister ol National Defense; and James Coyne ended his controversial career as governor of the Bank of Canada in the village.)

But w'hile the myth continued growing. Rockcliffc was changing; it was becoming more and more like Ottawa. “In 1953.” Jack Pickersgill recalls, “old Arthur Beauchesne ran for the Conservatives in Ottawa East [which includes Rockcliffe] after he had ceased to be clerk of the House ol Commons. He won precisely one poll in the whole of Ottawa East, and that poll was Rockclilfe Park. Liberal Jean T. Richard, who has sat for Ottawa East since 1945. is pleased to see the change, in 1962. for the first time, Rockcliffe went Liberal. "It’s now just like the rest ol Ottawa,” he says.

The legend is helped along by Rockcliffe's prestige. Seemingly everyone needs to have something to which to aspire, and, according to real-estate agents, in Ottawa that's residency in Rockcliffe. They say that it's mostly Rockcliffe's status that makes sales easy and inflates the price of village houses to about $15.000 higher than similar dwellings in Ottawa. (Though to be fair, not all residents are statusseekers — many people live in Rockcliffe because they simply enjoy the uncluttered country atmosphere ot the village, which although it is surrounded by the city of Ottawa, is cloistered from it. They enjoy its trees and expansive lawns, its lack of sidewalks and its minimal street lighting.)

Rockcliffe seems designed for a mystique. It has mysterious winding roads marked "private”; it has lanes


and cul-de-sacs and mansions hidden behind groves of trees; it has a lake where swimming privileges are jealouslv guarded — and all this within 10 minutes of Parliament Hill. What’s more, the village has a highly secretive diplomatic crowd. (Mrs. Felix Lovinck. wife of the dean of the diplomatic corps, claims she doesn't know whether politics are discussed by the male guests at her dinner parties after they adjourn to the drawing room for liqueurs and coffee.) And to show how sensitive some residents are about discretion, some years ago one astonished teacher at Rockcliffe Park Public School found himself in serious trouble with the parents of children to whom he had assigned an essay on their father’s occupations. Apparently, even talk about daddy’s job is a verboten subject in Rockcliffe.

Then, too. there's nothing so nasty as an election for village council in Rockcliffe. Accession to membership on that body seems as smooth and uncluttered as succession to the British throne. Reeve Allan Gibbons can't explain how residents react to elections to council because "it's so seldom we have one.” And in fact, there hasn't been an election there in 10 years. When Dennis Coolican resigned as reeve to take up his job as vice-president of Brazilian Traction in Toronto, he invited his friend Allan Gibbons, the senior man on council, to replace him. Later that evening, at Coolican’s farewell party (at Gibbons’ house). Les Mundy, secretary of the Bank of Canada, was asked to fill the council vacancy. "It's all very informal, and perhaps not very democratic,” says Gibbons, with a flair for understatement.

Elections seem to happen only through inadvertence. Two years ago, two candidates were nominated for school board, but unknown to one of the nominators, only one vacancy existed. As a result, a sitting member of the board was defeated. "I felt just terrible,” says the embarrassed nominator now. “because the fellow w'ho was defeated was a friend of mine.”

At least some village residents regard this neglect of democracy as amusing. One local personage, w'riting in the Ottawa Journal under a pen name (though Rockcliffe gossip being what it is, most people know it’s a lawyer named Hammy Hill), envisioned the changes in the village if it were ever annexed to Ottawa. “A vast

retraining program would have to be set up to teach the villagers the use of the secret ballot." he wrote.

Fortunately for the myth, there are just enough isolated happenings in Rockcliffe to keep the gossip mills grinding and the legend alive. Just as the world was fascinated at the keyhole look at the Kennedys, when Bobby pushed Ethel, fully clothed, into the swimming pool (as though that was a Kennedy habit), stories earlier this year had the former justice minister. Guy Favreau. driving his Honda to work every day — which he actually did once. Other rumors about the famous are more accurate. It's actually true that Davidson Dunton. president of Carlton University and associate head of the bilingualism and biculturalism commission, used to play a swinging tenor recorder in a largely Rockcliffe music group.

Some of these stories arise in council. like the request made by a resident named Arthur Hardy, an Ottawa lawyer. It seems that Hardy had put in a swimming pool, only to discover that it was too shaded for his liking. But he couldn't move the pool without trespassing on a village road allow'ance. His solution? He'd pay, if council would agree to move the road. The council wasn't really against his proposal. except that if the widow who lived next door agreed, her property would be devalued. So Reeve Gibbons was delegated to warn her. she vetoed Hardy's proposal, and he’s still swimming in the shade.

Legend has it that great wealth abounds in Rockcliffe. even though many people in the village have only modest incomes — there’s even one cab driver. That legend is based on isolated anecdotes, such as the one about the little boy at Rockcliffe school who caused quite a stir. He wrote an essay on the topic of a trip to a summer cottage and in it talked about going to the Caribbean and home via Honolulu. When asked if he had misunderstood the assignment, he replied simply. "No, that's where our summer cottages are.”


A HERE are also the family dynasties in Rockcliffe. H. S. Southam. founder of the great newspaper empire. moved to the village. Living there today are his widow and three of the four Southam children: R. W. Southam. publisher of the Ottawa Citizen; Mrs. Duncan MacTavish. wife of a prominent Ottawa lawyer and former Liberal Party president; and Mrs. F. H. Toller, whose husband runs a prosperous real-estate business. Another Rockcliffe resident is their

cousin. Ci. Hamilton Southam. coordinator of the National Arts Centre and owner of one of the best collections of paintings in the country.

An Ottawa naturalist named Hoses Lloyd, who moved to Rockcliffe sears ago because of its splendid bird population. svrote teasingly. but with a little accuracs that before 1926 Rockcliffe ssas a sillage of “castles, houses and shacks, mostly inhabited by civil servants: some of svhom have wealths wives — in fact, I hase even heard it said that the latter were essential here.”

JL HI. with real-estate prices at an all-time high, even wealthy wives aren't enough in many parts of Rockcliffe today: many houses are priced beyond the reach of individuals. Recently the house owned by Senator Cairine Wilson was fought over by the Vatican and the British government. It's a huge castle, complete with elevators and a ballroom, in an older section of the village. The Vatican won. paid SI 85,000 and converted the ballroom into a chapel. Actual land prices have increased as well. Lots that sold for as little as $500 in the 1930s nowcost between $20.000 and $25.000.

Some Rockcliffe real-estate transactions make page one of the local press, and, with a little extra digging, can produce intriguing sidelights. Recently. it was reported that Prime Minister Pearson had purchased a rather plain, five-bedroom house on Montague Place for $69,000. What wasn't reported was that the prime minister gave a firm commitment to his present tenants that he wouldn't move in for two years — which shows that he, at least, isn't planning to move out of the PM's residence for some time.

The odd important decision has been made in Rockcliffe through a village institution known as the walk-to-work group. It currently includes Bank of Canada governor Louis Rasminsky. and Hartley Zimmerman, head of the Defense Research Board. In the mid1950s, Jack Pickersgill used to w'alk with John .1. Deutsch, who was then with the finance department and is now the head of the Canada Economic Council. One morning they were discussing money from estates in which nt) wills had been prepared, money which then went into general government revenue. Could it not be put to some better use? And. just in front of Ashbury College, a private school for boys, the answer came. Their conversation had led to the idea of establishing the Canada Council.

However, dogs, rather than politics or government, are probably the most

frequent topic of village conversation, since one in three residents owns one. Two Rockcliffe women recently were discussing their poodles: one had epilepsy. the other a heart condition.

“Our dog is taking tranquilizers." said the epileptic’s owner. "Oh. ours is on digitalis,” said the other, with a look on her face that indicated she realized how preposterous this sounded. “And to top it off." she said, "the vet said we could try to shelter it. and maybe add a year or two to its life, or we could let it lead a normal life."

Meanwhile, the poodle in question was racing up and down the stairs, yipping happily to itself. “We decided it was silly." said its owner. "We decided to let it lead a normal lile."

Rockcliffe. as might he gathered from that conversation, is rarely concerned with welfare costs and unemployment. as other area councils are. And because of that. Rockciifte's charming myth could well collapse.

Ottawa has for years lusted after Rockcliffe's tax revenues (the village is currently assessed as part of Carleton County) and has rather resented her prestige. Recently, the capital's desire for annexation was supported by the results of a study done at the instigation of the Province of Ontario by Murray Jones, a town-planning consultant. He recommended Rockcliffe become part of a regional government.

Almost immediately, the village sent a questionnaire to residents — 80 percent responded, which indicates the seriousness with which Rockcliffe views this threat — and 557 householders opposed annexation, eight did not give their views and three were in favor.

One of the three sell-outs to Ottawa was Jack Pickersgill, who describes Rockcliffe’s parasite existence as a “disgrace.” (The village relies on Ottawa for all its services except police: it contains no apartment buildings, no stores, no offices. ) Several years ago. he took his views to council. “With each statement I made, the enthusiasm grew for driving me out of Rockcliffe entirely. But it really didn't bother me in the least that everybody in the room thought I should be taken out with the Rockcliffe garbage . . . though I learned later that a lot of people barely spoke to my wife for some time afterward.”

Pickersgill describes Rockcliffe as a luxury suburb. “But Rockcliffe is the worst of them all. because it's so utterly free of anything crass or commercial. I think it's better to have some contact with real life — that’s why I live next to the cemetery.”

What he neglects to mention is that the cemetery, as you might have guessed, is across the street in Ottawa. ★