Thursday, March 01, 2007

This week's City Journal column

Before I moved to Ottawa, I had never met anyone from Nepean or Kanata or Orleans.
Everyone who came from this part of the world said they were from “Ottawa”. And that makes sense. Ottawa is the capital of Canada, one of the country’s major cities, a showplace of the country’s culture, and a very good place to live.
Yet, when it’s time to pay for the roads, the transit system, the police, and the sewers, people all of a sudden claim to be citizens of some other place.
Without Ottawa – downtown Ottawa – there would be no city. There wouldn’t be a Barrhaven, a Gloucester or a Rockcliffe. If Queen Victoria hadn’t chosen Ottawa to be capital of Canada, with all of the benefits and baggage that came with the decision, Bytown would be a place of 5,000 where people worried whether the main industry, the local paper mill, had a future.
This little town would look with envy on its rivals, Smiths Falls and Arnprior.
But Queen Victoria did choose Ottawa. This city – every job, whether in the public sector, the private sector, the tech companies, the universities – exists because Parliament Hill lies at its core and the bureaucracy is clustered nearby.
That’s why I agree with what councilor Clive Doucet said in these pages last week about the irrational lack of community in this city. The suburbs try to pass themselves off as real municipalities, supposedly cut down in fill flower and dragged into amalgamation. Suburbanites refuse to accept responsibility for the entire city, and, instead, talk as though their enclave is somehow self-sustaining.
It’s not like Ottawans – all of us, downtown and in the burbs – are saddled with onerous burdens. Indeed, why don’t we admit we’re the biggest freeloaders in Canada? And not for the federal jobs and the spin-offs that come with being a national capital. For the sake of argument, let’s say every bureaucrat puts in a full day’s work, every day.
But pay for a major art gallery? Why should we, when we have the National Gallery? How about a concert hall? No need to raise money for one, like Toronto did (several times, in fact). We get the NAC, free.
Parks? The best ones covered by the National Capital Commission. As is the Canal’s much-used skating rink. Museums? Yup, we put out a few bucks for some tiny ones around town, but the really big ones belong to all the people of Canada.
Library? Well, we have a small main branch and some little ones around town, but, if you really need to research something, you go to the National Library.
Conservation areas? Well, we locals pay for some, none of which are particularly well-developed like the ones in Southern Ontario. Why should we bother when we have Gatineau Park?
And yet we’re hardly a model city. Our transit system is falling apart, charges ridiculously high fares and still loses money. Our garbage disposal system is twenty years behind the times, and our “landfill”, Carp Mountain, will soon be visible from Vanier. The roads downtown are obstacle courses, the major suburban roads are thick with ugly strip malls.
But the big problem is the lack of community, which manifests itself every morning on local talk radio, in the quest for tax freezes, and in pining for the days when Nepean was “debt free”, i.e. freeloading on the feds, the province, and the city of Ottawa.
Maybe someday people in the ‘burbs will realize the arts groups, the community health centers, and the renewal of the city core are things that make the entire city great. And the panhandlers, graffiti artists and creepy kids hanging around the Rideau Centre are as likely to come from the suburbs as they are from downtown.
Think of that, suburbanites, next time you’re on vacation and someone asks you where you’re from.

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