Recently, I participated in a panel discussion about the direction of Ottawa (specifically, is Ottawa as bad as that notorious Andrew Cohen column from a few weeks back). During the discussion, it was noted that one of the issues that often arises when Ottawa is actually trying to do something is the many layers of government agencies that must be appeased. It’s not just the city and the province, but also the federal government. And within the federal government, it could be the NCC, Parks Canada or Public Words (or whatever they’re call now, departments change names way too frequently).
There’s been a solution that has been floated a few times, and I heard again at the television studio, we need to create a federal district, just like Washington, D.C.
I’ve never fully understood why people can be so enamoured with this idea. I’ve pondered it, and I just don’t see what’s so great about this idea. So, I think I’ll break out some of my objections.
There’s a difference between overtaking a small, 18th-century town (and a whole lot of empty space), and annexing one of the largest urban metropolitan areas in your nation. When Washington was born, it incorporated Georgetown and Alexandria (Alexandria was later given back to Virginia), but it also encompassed a lot of room for development. This vacant swamp on the Potomac gave planners a blank canvas to build what they hoped would be a great capital. They designed the streets and the blocks with intent, everything falling into a grand plan.
Sure, Ottawa may not be that old of a city, but it is an established city, already. Trying to turn it into the next Washington, D.C., ignores what it already is. Yes, the feds have been trying to shape it in their preferred image for a while (and, in certain, sometimes horrible, ways, they’ve done a bit of that), but this city has been around for a long time, and we can’t just wish away our history.
Washington is, in many significant ways, ruled by the United States government. The federal government can control spending and pass laws…all specific to the district. The council basically serves at the pleasure of the federal government.
Residents of Washington don’t have a senator. They have no voice in the Senate. They have one, one, member of congress, but she’s a non-voting member, so even though they have a voice in the House, they don’t have a vote.
You can claim this won’t happen to Ottawa, but whatever path could be laid out of Ottawa isn’t much better. Would we get a Senator? Maybe? I assume we’d get to keep the dozen or so MPs we have…but that’s out of three hundred plus MPs. The rest of the country would hold an inordinate amount of sway over local issues.
The notion that Ottawa should just be some mythical representation of the country at large completely ignores that there are people who (to borrow a phrase) actually live here. Our lives aren’t toys for some mythic nationalism that has never really existed.
The U.S. built Washington to be a jewel in the crown of their republic. It was built, from scratch, to be grand and glorious and, well, kind of nation-worshipping.
Canada doesn’t have that sense of jingoistic national pride. Ottawa hasn’t been raised to be the glorious top of our national maple tree (or whatever dumb metaphor we want to dream up). It’s been, generally, tolerated at most. Ottawa is derided for being a city of bureaucrats, a city without any fun, a boring city. It’s not true, but the reputation is there. Are we going to build on this reputation?
And what if we suddenly contract some American-style fervent nationalism? What if we decide to transform this into Washington on the Ottawa River? Are we tearing up Centretown? Do we need to annex the Golden Triangle in order to expand our glorious, monumental downtown? Do we move people out of central neighbourhoods because residential buildings aren’t what make a great capital? The NCC instructed bidders in the Lebreton Flats RFP that they weren’t looking for any residences there. They wanted tourist traps…I mean crap of national significance.
It’s ahistorical, Part II
As mentioned, the federal government has put their stamp on Ottawa, before. From the Greber plan through the current machinations of the NCC, they’ve done a lot to “re-shape” our city, including:
- Razing Lebreton Flats.
- Building freeways along our waterfronts.
- Freezing out development of our waterfronts.
- Running industry out of town.
- Getting rid of our street cars.
- Obstructing LRT development
- Twice moving Knox Church (a pretty old church, part of our heritage, you might say) because it was in the way of their car-dominated monument-building.
The issue with industry is oft-overlooked. Ottawa’s labour market is dominated by the feds, definitely (but it’s not the majority employer people seem to think it is). But that’s because the Greber plan decided that Ottawa shouldn’t have industry. That was for cities like Montreal and Toronto, and Ottawa shouldn’t compete with them.
The federal government decided that we shouldn’t compete. We shouldn’t be able to have the same standard of living. Our employment should be dependant on the federal government (and the whims of political parties and voters across the country…remember that undemocratic thing?).
Why would want to put this institution in charge of our city?
The provinces are actually important. They do things. Like health care and education and social services. Does Ottawa have to take this on ourselves? Will we be limited by the federal government on what we can spend on such services? Or will the federal government pay for our health care and education. They’re really good at paying for such things and not using them to play politics, right?
And what if you need a specialist? What if CHEO can’t do the surgery that your child needs, but Sick Kids can? Right now, you could just take your child to Sick Kids (well, it’s difficult on families, but it’s part of Ontario). If you’re on the Ottawa DC Health Insurance Plan, you’ll have to pay the difference between what Sick Kids charges and what the feds will pay. And don’t try to tell me that we’ll definitely have a gold-plated insurance plan.
Then there’s college and university. Will students have to pay out-of-province tuition to go to Queen’s or U of T? I can’t see Ottawa residents getting in-province tuition breaks across the country.
So I just don’t by it. I don’t believe that Ottawa’s ills can be solved by turning over city management to a non-representative, non-accountable technocratic entity hoping that it’ll tap into some fantastical source of Canadian nationalism that hasn’t yet existed.
If anything, we need less federal government in city affairs. It’d make far more sense to abolish the NCC than to turn it into some federal overlord.