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Ontario: No Political Hat Trick

12 Oct

Back in the middle of the summer, when politics and elections were the furthest things from most people’s minds, Toronto mayor Rob Ford hosted a barbecue for 800 of his closest friends.

It was a special event honoring federal finance minister Jim Flaherty for his work helping Toronto-area candidates make historic breakthroughs during the federal election earlier this year.

Those federal breakthroughs came about six months after Ford’s own breakthrough victory in Toronto – a steak-and-potatoes conservative mayor winning power in what some perceive as a brie-and-white-wine liberal city.

The barbecue came to the attention of the media because of a surprise guest who showed up to address the gathering: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In a video of the event shot by one of the barbecue guests and later posted online, Harper made partisan comments about Ontario politics:

“We started cleaning up the left wing mess federally in this area,” Harper said. “Rob’s doing it municipally. And now we’ve got to complete the hat trick and do it provincially as well.”

When Harper made those remarks in early August, it seemed likely that Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak had a good chance of completing that conservative hat trick. Only two months before the scheduled provincial election, his party sat comfortably atop public opinion polls, and the trend over many months had shown Progressive Conservative support growing as support for Premier Dalton McGuinty’s governing Liberals steadily fell.

In retrospect, Hudak was trying to swim against a couple of longstanding currents in Ontario politics. The first was the tendency of Ontarians to give party leaders some extended time on the opposition benches before they are willing to vote them into government. Hudak’s two immediate predecessors as PC leader – John Tory and Ernie Eves – learned that lesson the hard way, as did McGuinty himself when he was trounced by Mike Harris in his first election campaign as Liberal leader in 1999.

The second – even more unfailing – current was the tendency of Ontario voters to vote in different parties provincially than they do federally. In the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals held power in Ottawa, so did Bill Davis’s Tories at Queens Park. In the ‘80s, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative governments negotiated with Liberal and NDP governments in Ontario. In the ‘90s, Liberals under Jean Chretien owed successive majority victories to Ontario voters, who handed them near-sweeps of this province. At the same time, they were giving Mike Harris similar victories in provincial elections. Finally, the current Harper era in federal politics has coincided with the McGuinty era in Ontario.

When the video of Harper’s barbecue speech showed up online, his aides seemed to realize that it probably wasn’t helpful to the Hudak campaign, or to the conservative cause, for the Prime Minister to be seen making such a blatant partisan intervention into a provincial election campaign. A bit of an Internet cat-and-mouse game ensued, with Conservatives trying to remove every online appearance of the video as quickly as McGuinty supporters could get it reposted.

As I have written before on this blog, it helps to imagine this province as an Ontario-shaped target, with a lop-sided blue bull’s-eye in the middle, stretching across the rural southwestern, central and eastern parts of the province. That’s the conservative heartland – a couple-dozen ridings that right-leaning parties usually win easily in both provincial and federal elections.

Splotches of NDP orange dot the outer edge of the province-shaped target, where the most urban neighborhoods of our cities and the least-populated stretches of our northern regions lie. When New Democrats do well in Ontario – as they did in both elections this year – the perimeter of the province grows a deeper shade of orange.

Between the orange edge and the blue bull’s-eye is the red Liberal donut that expands or shrinks at the expense of the other colors, depending on the Grits’ success from election to election.

In May’s federal election, the Tories and the NDP both took big bites out of different sides of that donut – most notably in Toronto-area ridings. The result was the worst showing ever for the federal Liberal party.

In Ontario earlier this month, it was Toronto voters – and to a lesser extent those in Ottawa and a few other urban areas – who preserved the red donut enough to give the McGuinty Liberals a narrow minority victory.

It’s hard to know if Harper’s comments helped McGuinty win. But they certainly underlined the fact that in this province, political hat tricks are hard to come by.

Capital Shortcomings

18 Aug

Contrary to an old myth, it’s not really possible to see the Great Wall of China from outer space.

From the Moon, astronauts say, you actually can’t see anything on Earth that’s been made by human hands.

Once you get much closer to Earth in space, NASA reports, you can see many human-made objects. Cities at night. Major highways. The ancient pyramids of Egypt.

But the Great Wall of China? Nope. Another myth … busted.

On the other hand, let’s say you were on the opposite side of the Earth from China, floating in space above Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. What human-made thing would stand out the most?

The Peace Tower? Probably not, If you could see anything of it from that height and angle, it would be only its very tip.

The Rideau Canal? Possibly, although it may be too thin to stand out on its own.

Never having been in outer space, here’s my guess what would stand out first, descending on Ottawa from above the Earth’s atmosphere:

The Central Experimental Farm.

Take a look at Ottawa on Google Earth if you don’t believe me. You don’t have to zoom in too closely before the large brown-and-green elbow-shaped swath of territory comes into view.

I floated over Ottawa this past summer, a lot closer than NASA does – on a hot-air balloon ride – and from that vantage point, there is nothing in the capital that stands out more than the huge agricultural space that takes up so much of the geographical centre of town.

Now, the Experimental Farm is a fine institution. I have had dozens of happy visits there over the years.

But floating above it in a hot-air balloon, I had to chuckle to myself. I remembered growing up in Montreal and making fun of my Ottawa friends for living in a city – a national capital, no less – built around barns and pastures.

The rest of Ottawa from the air is pretty enough, but largely nondescript. That adjective would fit much of our city from the ground, too, save for the area around Parliament Hill. There are far too many ugly functional government buildings and there is far too little imaginative urban planning befitting the capital of such an advanced country.

Journalist Andrew Cohen stoked much local controversy two years ago, when he wrote about these shortcomings in his book The Unfinished Canadian:

The reason we don’t think boldly about Ottawa is that we are not proud of Ottawa. We have none of the reverence for our capital that the French have for Paris or the British for London or the Italians for Rome… Canadians don’t demand a vision of their capital from Parliament, and Ottawans don’t demand a sense of their city from City Hall. Ottawa is happy with the ordinary. It is genteel and orderly, terrified of spontaneity.

Of course, Ottawa is something of a contrived national capital, plucked from back-country obscurity by Queen Victoria as a compromise location between Ontario and Quebec. As far as national capitals go, it certainly is no Paris or London or Rome.

But Washington, DC is also an example of a contrived capital. Its location was picked by its namesake, George Washington himself, who lived a short way down the Potomac in Virginia, and it was built almost from scratch, not ready for use as the capital until 1800, a year after Washington’s death.

If you floated over Washington, DC in a hot-air balloon – and managed to avoid being shot down by the U.S. Air Force – you’d probably notice a beautifully laid-out capital city, its large avenues forming diamond shapes over its grid of streets, and meeting up in large circular plazas and parks. You’d also see the city’s most impressive buildings and monuments all along its lengthy National Mall.

On the ground, Washington is no less impressive. If you wanted to visit all of its incredible free museums, many of them part of the Smithsonian Institution, not to mention the city’s great historical monuments, you’d have to spend at least a couple of weeks in D.C.

It is a city that understands its importance as a living history museum. After walking around Washington for only four days this summer, I think my kids now know as much about American history as they have learned about Canadian history over a number of years.

Our capital should offer the same kinds of experiences, shouldn’t it? So why do we settle for less?

Ottawa… it rhymes with Obama… sort of…

16 Feb

Greetings, and welcome to beautiful Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, the second coldest capital city in the world.

After Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Well, the third coldest really, ever since Kazakhstan moved its capital north a dozen years ago, from balmy Almaty to freezing Astana (you remember that big move, don’t you?).

Of course, some put Ottawa all the way down at seventh on the chilly capital city list, after Ulaanbaatar, Almaty, Moscow, Helsinki, Reykjavik, and Tallinn, Estonia.

But still. We’re cold. Really cold. Top Ten cold.

So cold we’re cool.

And we do have the world’s longest skating rink.

Well, we DID have the world’s longest skating rink. Until last year, when Winnipeg’s River Trail knocked the Rideau Canal out of the Guinness Book of World Records, thanks to a few hundred metres of extra shoveling.

But Winnipeg’s skating trail – as long as it may be – is a scrawny, emaciated thing, the width of three or four skaters. Dozens of Ottawans can fit across the Rideau Canal. Hundreds, in some sections.

So we still have the world’s LARGEST skating rink.

Does that make you feel better?

And we remain the world headquarters for Beaver Tails. And maple baseball bats. And Canadian politicians.

If you want any of those things, you know where best to find ‘em.

Right here in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Did I mention how cold it gets?

Years ago, I interviewed a number of ambassadors to Canada who had arrived from warmer corners of the globe. I asked them about their experiences serving in the second… or third… or seventh coldest capital city on earth.

Some of them struggled to maintain a diplomatic demeanor. The ambassador from Barbados seemed near tears when describing his first Ottawa winter.

New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Canada was much more cheery. He explained his country was so small that he had to serve simultaneously as envoy not only to Ottawa, but also to the capitals of a number of Caribbean island nations.

As chance would have it, he always had to do his annual tour of Jamaica, Trinidad et al. in January, February and March.

He always made sure to brag about his winter travels to his fellow ambassadors back in Ottawa. Diplomacy can be a vicious business.

The New Zealand emissary didn’t seem too fazed about leaving Ottawa in February and missing Winterlude.

Too bad for him, no? Because Winterlude is… cool.

In fact, Winterlude can be added to the list of Things Ottawa is the World Capital Of: Beaver Tails, maple baseball bats, etc.

Let’s see Barbados try to host an outdoor ice sculpture competition.

So… why am I bothering to go through this list? Why am I trying to hype the wintertime charms of my adopted hometown?

I’m doing so with one person in mind:

Barack H. Obama.

The new American president, you may have heard, will be visiting Ottawa this week. It will be his first trip outside the United States since his inauguration, restoring a longstanding tradition that was broken by George W. Bush, who visited Mexico first.

Bush eventually did show up in Ottawa for a full state visit, complete with a lavish dinner at the Museum of Civilization, a courtesy call to the Governor-General, and hundreds of riot police holding back thousands of protestors.

When Bill Clinton visited Ottawa as president in the winter of 1995, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton went for a skate on the canal and a taste of Beaver Tail.

But word is that Obama will not be doing any of those things, despite the fact his visit coincides with Winterlude.

He won’t be addressing Parliament (he may be saving his first major address on foreign soil for the Muslim world), he won’t be meeting the public, and they may keep Air Force One’s engine running at the Ottawa airport, because he won’t be in town for more than a few hours.

It’s a bit of letdown for Obama’s many Canadian fans. He’s more popular here than any Canadian politician.

But there may be time to change his mind and get him out on the canal. Despite a Hawaiian background, Obama – who cut his political teeth in Chicago – is a cold-weather fan.

A few days after becoming president, he was already scolding the residents of Washington, D.C. for closing down local schools on account of a bit of snow.

No doubt Obama’s aides will be perusing this blog to prepare for his trip north.

So… have I mentioned how delightfully cold it gets up here?