COLUMN

Ottawa’s usual air of unreality

Allan Fotheringham October 16 1989
COLUMN

Ottawa’s usual air of unreality

Allan Fotheringham October 16 1989

Ottawa’s usual air of unreality

COLUMN

BY ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

My favorite time of the year in Ottawa is the one day in October when it is semi-summer, just before the Arctic gales arrive and the high-paid swivel servants start walking around in parkas, thus making them look as if they lived in Flin Flon. On this particular day last week, the sun shone brilliantly, the blue sky performed magnificently and the deputy ministers in their skimpy shorts were doing their noon-hour jog along the Rideau Canal where within weeks (hours?) they soon would be skating.

This is the famed window of comfort in the town that fun forgot, the brief glimpse of civilization between summer heat and winter chilblains. Richard Gwyn, the Toronto Star scribe who lived here for years before departing for London (which, like Vancouver, has the worst weather in the world and the best climate), once wrote that for two months of the year Ottawa was the most pleasant capital in the world.

He was, of course, referring to September and October, spring being a season that in a good year lasts approximately eight minutes. It was a remarkable statement, I told him, somewhat like saying that your girlfriend was extremely beautiful except for the majority of the time when she was a falling-down drunk. Two months out of 12 is not sufficient to save a city from itself.

But this is a special day, speckled with desperation as the inhabitants of the Athens of the Tundra squeeze their final bits of pleasure out of the Indian summer before parka-time hits. In Question Period, the showbiz that passes for politics, John Turner has never looked better, mastering the spurious outrage that all the performers in the Commons seek so as to make the 30-second clip on The Mansbridge. It is a measure of the Liberal party’s genius that the best single performer it possesses at the moment is the man they are committed to dump. Turner knows it and relishes the revenge. He is to announce his departure in January, to join one of the megalegal firms that now, thanks to the Supreme

Court, have permission to set up branches in all provinces. If hamburgers can be franchised, why not hired guns?

There is the usual confusion in the Paris of the North, the Prime Minister of all of us not quite sure how he can retreat—being a clever tap dancer—on the GST to 7Vfe per cent without receiving the resignation of the stolid Michael Wilson, who doesn’t even know how to waltz.

Benoît Bouchard, who has just delivered the last spike, has the mein of a wounded bassett hound, and Doug Lewis, the justice minister who is supposed to give us a definite policy on abortion, grins like a teenager on the way to a high school hop. The government’s chances are not at all helped by Robert Bourassa’s sincere pledge to cross the nation explaining the Meech Lake accord to obviously confused unilinguals. As one Québécois columnist put it, Robert Bourassa going on the road to plug Meech Lake is rather like Imperial Tobacco

sponsoring a telethon for lung cancer.

Ottawa retains its charms. It is surely the only capital on the globe—leaving aside its weather—where the daily stroll along its sumptuous downtown boulevards is interrupted by the searing odor of stale grease emanating from the chip wagons parked on the key intersections and dispensing the cuisine that makes the Venice of the Steppes what it is today. The Michelin guide will surely have a ranking soon.

The Prime Minister, to excite the pulse, has announced that Ramon Hnatyshyn, a defeated Tory candidate and therefore immediately eminently qualified for the job, will take over Rideau Hall in the new year. This follows a grand tradition. Vincent Massey was the first Canadian as governor general and Ed Schreyer was the first socialist geegee and Jeanne Sauve was the first female one, and now we have the first one whose name can be neither spelled nor pronounced. He is from Saskatchewan, where all the great ones come from.

Ottawa, the visitor realizes after some absence, exudes the usual air of unreality. Obedient snivel servants, no traffic within miles, stand dutifully on street comers under orders of the red light. In the best hotel in town, at 11 p.m., there are exactly two couples in the lounge, one of them heavily involved in foreplay over the GST. On Parliament Hill the sunlight is thick with the exhaust from the limousines waiting for the 39 cabinet ministers who are required to rule 26 million Canadians, while the Americans somehow can get along with 14 ministers to supervise 250 million.

There is much confusion in Ennui-by-the-Rideau as the leaves change and the joggers turn into skaters. The Gliberals and the N-Dippers are without leaders, the outgoing chiefs in each case looking better than any of their potential successors. Everyone hates the government because of Via Rail and the GST and because it’s probably the Conservatives’ fault that the Blue Jays went into a swoon.

Quebec once again has thrown the nation into angst, and Harold Ballard remains the most interesting person in the country. Robert Campeau has gone belly-up and Erik Nielsen is still in hiding, like Elvis Presley and Jimmy Hoffa. There hasn’t been a Gucci-count of Brian’s closet for ages and the news of Pierre Trudeau’s comeback has been out of the gossip columns for weeks. The first jogger has yet to fall through the ice of the Rideau Canal and you still can’t buy a gallon of gas after sundown. Constancy, sometimes confused with constipation, reigns.