09 June 2010


It's a compliment and a condemnation at the same time. A few years ago, when a good friend and I first visited the squeaky-clean Canadian capital, we both could not help but compare the city to its Swiss counterpart. Both cities are pretty, easily walkable, well-groomed, relaxed... and just a bit boring. They also both suffer from serious lack of international awareness. (Quick! Name the Canadian and the Swiss capital!)

Crucially, they both owe their status to a 19th century compromise. In the case of Switzerland, the nascent confederation after 1848 had to pick between the candidate cities of Zurich (too big and flamboyant), Lucerne (centrally located, but small and catholic) and Berne (close to the French speaking areas and sleepy enough to suit a government ;-). Obviously, being chosen boosted the bernois self-esteem, and today's extrovert mayor frequently overlooks a small detail: In true Swiss modesty, Berne was bestowed the title of federal city, but not capital - Switzerland officially has none.

Canada, however, does. Ottawa was chosen by Queen Victoria in 1857 as the capital of the Province of Canada, and even the mighty Queen had compromise in mind. She was trying to strike a balance between the rivalling anglophone Upper and francophone Lower Canada, between which the capital had tumultously shifted back and forth. The small logging and shipping town on the Ottawa river had two added benefits: It sat at the entrance to the strategically important Rideau Canal, and was further away from the American border than Montréal, Toronto or Québec. With the war of 1812 still fresh on British minds, a safe distance from the rebellious Yankees down south was deemed a wise precaution.

Queen Victoria's pick transformed the sleepy city into... ahem, a beautiful and expensively built sleepy city, complete with it's own mini-version of Westminster. Even the bells on the parliament's tower sound like their big brothers back on the Thames, and must have been a comfort to colonial masters on their northern adventure. Visitors today, such as my German friends and I this past weekend, can marvel at lampposts ornated with golden Maple Leaves, enjoy a selection of well-appointed museums or wander through streets in the Embassy neighborhood, eventually ending up at 24 Sussex Drive, the Canadian couterpart to 10 Downing Street.

Other than lobbists, tourists and the students attending the city's two universities, it is mainly government employees that can be seen around town. Right upon the first visit, I noticed that the fashion accessory of choice during lunch break on Sparks street was the government picture ID dangling from your belt. And when I attended a wedding reception in town this weekend, a significant percentage of the other attendees were employed by the big Maple Leaf and had followed the call to Ottawa from all corners of Canada. Though technically, the happy couple does not actually live in Ottawa, Ontario, but across the bridge in adjoining Gatineau, Québec. And while the two cities are very closely linked, there is no doubt that a provincial border separates them: In Gatineau, the Maple Leaf lampposts are replaced by... typical Québec potholes!

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