For her poets and writers are apt to be drawn thither, for the better companionship there and the higher rate of pay. —Rupert Brooke, Letters from America
Emma Godmere is leaving Ottawa, and I can’t say I blame her.
Anywhere two rivers meet, a city will be built. So it is that, at the junction of the Rideau and Ottawa rivers, we find the City of Ottawa, capital of Canada, and its conjoined twin Gatineau.
Ottawa became the capital of Canada simply because of its relatively remote location—not, as the tongue-in-cheek myth goes, because Queen Victoria, in one of her many efforts to amuse herself, closed her eyes and pinned the donkey’s tail here on the map. At the time a logging town, it was subsequently connected to the important military port of Kingston by a canal. Accessible, but safely out of the way.
The city is a lot smaller than municipal amalgamation makes it look on paper. It’s spread out, and without a reliable transit system to link its bedroom communities to its core, much less cohesive than the Katamari Toronto that threatens to absorb Hamilton (if it has not already done so). To make matters worse, Ottawa is barely habitable, or at least inhospitable, due to its wide range of temperature, and high-humidity valley microclimate.
Whenever I hear or read of someone comparing Ottawa to ten-times-bigger Toronto, as I bite my tongue, I recall Rupert Brooke’s Letters from America, written in 1913. Brooke, who died only two years later from an infected mosquito bite whilst serving in World War I, was an educated upper-class young man who took a trip through America—including New York, New England, and much of Canada—and wrote a series of letters detailing his observations to the Winchester Gazette in England. His travel diary thus published is of a style somewhere between a modern travel blog and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, if it were written by Oscar Wilde.
Letters from America is unlikely to find its way into schools, even Canadian ones, due to Brooke’s (appropriate for his time and social class) cheery, unabashed racism (including the chapter blithely titled “Some N—rs”). We are much the less for this, as he has set down the clearest cultural description of each of our major cities, among them Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Winnipeg.
Then, as now, “… there is an atmosphere of Civil Servants about Ottawa, an atmosphere of safeness and honour and massive buildings and well-shaded walks.”
Whereas, “Toronto, soul of Canada, is wealthy, busy, commercial, Scotch, absorbent of whisky; but she is duly aware of other things. She has a most modern and efficient interest in education; and here are gathered what faint, faint beginnings or premonitions of such things as Art Canada can boast (except the French-Canadians, who, it is complained, produce disproportionately much literature, and waste their time on their own unprofitable songs).”
Is there any wonder that Ottawa suffers so, culturally? It is like a little flower planted late in the season between two huge trees (Toronto and Montréal) whose vast canopy of leaves blocks the sunlight and whose thirsty, spreading roots draw all the water and nutrients from the soil.
If our creators are leaving for another city (I don’t count Nancy Kenny, who lives and works in a Littlest Hobo eigenstate between Toronto and Ottawa) with its established audiences, what about our Ottawa audiences? I don’t, by the way, think it’s fair to blame Ottawa audiences; we should be taking the non-audiences to task instead.
Here is the thing: Ottawa’s economy is composed (mostly) of government, universities, and a technology sector. Each of these attracts people (workers and students) from outside of the city. A significant portion of the middle-class population, therefore, has no particular roots in Ottawa.
This is not a question of immigration. Immigration, as in Toronto and Montréal, serves rather to catalyze cultural evolution. Ottawa’s nascent live spoken word community, for example, is at least 50% driven by first- or second-generation immigrants.
The Ottawa middle class is culpably resistant to the changes required to develop this city into a metropolis capable of sustaining a local culture. If we want to be urban, we must build buildings; we can’t chisel out Manotick-like villages in the middle of it all. The trade-off has always been, and should remain: if you want to live surrounded by limitless greenspace, commute from the country. The people that can afford and do appreciate cultural enrichment can also afford to travel to Toronto or Montréal to get it, and they are guaranteed an ample, competitive supply.
If any environment is culturally and economically inhospitable, the most promising twentysomething minds will leave it for one that is—thereby decreasing the rate at which local cultural offerings will be improved to the point that they impress people into becoming new audiences.
I’m not convinced, either, that the same folks who have been running the show for decades have earth-shattering “new ideas” that will coax the public from their suburban bunkers. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’ll keep my cow until I see the beanstalk.
Emma Godmere’s imminent departure (JUST when I was getting used to seeing her on stage) is good for her, but also a symptom of the underlying syndrome. We lose our best and brightest to our neighbours, whether due to talent, ambition, or a healthy synergy of both.
And who could blame them for leaving?
The quote preceding this post, by the way, refers to artists at the time leaving Toronto for the States. So there is hope that we can overcome our disadvantage of proximity in due time.