Thursday 12 March 2015

Ottawa in 1914

People gathered together outside of the original Centre Block building for the opening of a session of Parliament. (Library and Archives Canada, PA-023306)


by the Rev. John Pollock, St. Enoch's


In bracketing Ottawa with Edinburgh I pay compliment to both cities. Both are beautiful, and each is fairer than the other – with a difference. If Ottawa has no Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh is without a river. Possibly the Western Metropolis may be even more east-windy, but she is less west-endy than the Eastern. Nevertheless, there is a certain Metropolitan tone about her, an atmosphere which indicates a corporate self-esteem.


One cannot be half-an-hour in the city without being reminded of Edinburgh. Why, here is a Princes Street charabanc, guard's tin horn and all, just as if it were about to start for Rosslyn! Round the corner is heard the skirl of the pipes; and as the stalwart kilties swing into view you almost feel as if you were in the Lawnmarket. If their uniform is open to criticism – including as it does Rob Roy hose, Forty-second kilts, Royal Stewart plaids, and glengarries that sport the Borderers' check – the incongruous combination is not ineffective. As you walk along Sparks Street you hear about as much of the Scotch accent as you do at Portrush at Glasgow Fair time. On this last day of October there is an Edinburgh nip in the air. In Montreal, as I left it, the talk was of all Saints' Day, when many of the business houses close; but here the shop windows proclaim the popularity of Hallowe'en. I have made no statistical inquiry as yet; but I have a strong impression that there are more Scottish Born in Ottawa than there are in Belfast. And I am told that if I keep my eyes open – which, of course, I sternly refuse to do – I shall see more good-looking girls here than in any other city in the Empire outside of the Scottish capital. Edinburgh papers please copy.


Ottawa is a beautiful city: beautiful for situation, and beautiful in itself. Here again, indeed, it resembles Edinburgh, in that its beauty is largely self-contained. Beyond the suburbs there is little worth going out of the city to see. But the city itself is beautiful both from without and from within. Looking from Riddeau Street, over the fine new ornamental bridge which spans the railway, up towards Sparks Street on the higher level, it puts no great strain on one's imagination to fancy himself looking over the South Bridge, with his back to the Register House – the Post Office representing the "Scotsman" building, and the magnificent Chateau Laurier, though on the wrong side of the street, the North British Hotel while just over the parapet is the Waverley Station in miniature. Within a stonecast are some of the handsomest buildings, though by no means the largest, on the North American Continent. Of course, as Glasgow never misses an opportunity of reminding her proud sister, the chief buildings of the Metropolis belong equally to all the cities of the land, for they are national.


The seat of the Dominion Parliament is a magnificent pile, an extensive suite of imposing architecture, placed perhaps more picturesquely than any other legislative buildings in the world, crowning a wooded height that looks down upon the river. The approach from the city is very fine, an ideal setting for a State cavalcade. Unfortunately for me, the Houses were not in session. The chambers where the affairs of the young nation are discussed were deserted, and the furniture was in overalls. But I gave myself the thrill of sitting in the seats of the mighty, including the Speaker's chair. Armed with a note of introduction I penetrated into the Parliamentary Library, a stately-domed poligon, said to be the largest apartment without pillars on this side of the Atlantic, and strongly resembling the historic reading room of the British Museum. Here I had a most fascinatingly interesting conversation with Dr. Griffin, the Chief Librarian, who gave me no end of entertaining "inside" information about Canada and its Parliament. Mercenary motives led me into the presence of more than one of the Ministers of State, and I found them delightfully human. One of than, after handing me a cheque, thrust his arm in mine, and led me out to his club, where we had a toothsome "meridian" together, and talked on a variety of topics, including Home Rule. He also introduced me, as a brother Scot, to some men of wide fame; and I came away feeling that after this the privilege of shaking hands with me was one not to be granted without discrimination.


Looked at from the clubhouse window on Parliamentary Boulevard, the main building, with its commanding position, its extended facade, its lofty tower, its spacious gravelled terrace, reminded me of my Alma Mater, Gilmorehill University. I must climb that tower, and have a look at the fair city from its elevation of something like two hundred feet. And it was a climb, that might have ended in disaster; for as I clung to the narrow and almost perpendicular ladder, with my ear a few inches from the biggest bell in Canada, "the clock struck one, and" – well, the famous mouse and I understand each other. But the view is worth it all. In the foreground lie the winding walks of Parliament Hill, embraced by an arm of the Ottawa river, with beautiful bridges upon it like bangles that glitter in the sun. Over the river, on Quebec territory, is the City of Hull, and on the distant horizon the famous Laurentian Hills. On the right, like the hanging gardens of Babylon, are the first eight of the forty-seven locks of the Riddeau Canal, by which it accomplishes the ascent of nearly five hundred feet to Lake Ontario. Beyond peeps Riddeau Hall, the official residence of the Governor-General, which in summer must be wholly invisible in its umbrageous environment. Walking, map in hand, around the tower gallery, several outstanding buildings attract attention – the National Gallery, the Dominion Observatory, Ottawa University, and a number of handsome churches, conspicuous among their spires being that of St. Andrew's, where the Presbyterian "quality" most do congregate. Ottawa is rich in public parks. There are Bingham's Park, Riddeau Park, Rockcliffe, Sandy Hill, and, most beautiful of all, the Government Driveway, which almost encircles the city, and a walk in which carries one in imagination to West Princes Street Gardens. It is, indeed, a fair prospect from the tower. What must it be "in the summer time, when the leaves are on the trees!"


When the late Professor Blackie was asked what was Edinburgh's principal industry, he replied, "Education." I am not sure that this is as true of Ottawa; but certainly the Canadian capital is not, in the ordinary sense, an industrial centre. The whole life, of the little city moves around the Parliament House. This rather unhealthy condition of affairs was historically inevitable, "Bytown" having been chosen as the seat of government not on account of its importance – for it had none – but simply because of its political and strategical advantages, and the magnificence of its site. Bytown did not make the selection; the selection made Ottawa. The village of 1827, with a population under one thousand, has become, with her twin sister across the river, a city of 150,000 inhabitants. The presence of the Legislature will cause her to be more and more, like Edinburgh, the home of eminent lawyers and litterateurs, and create an aristocracy of intellect around the Viceregal Court. Already there are, in proportion, more titled people in Ottawa than elsewhere in Canada, men and women who have, most of them, won the honours they wear. The business community is rapidly enlarging itself; so that soon Ottawa will not have all her eggs in one basket. She is evidently resolved to take her place among the busy centres that throb with commercial and industry life. It is a safe prediction that, say, twenty or thirty years hence, Ottawa will, by reason of his intrinsic excellence, be one of the foremost cities of the Dominion.

Reprinted from the The Witness, 23rd January 1914, this article was part of a series called 'Cities of the West' by Rev. John Pollock of St. Enoch's Presbyterian Church, Belfast.

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