Ottawa, Quintessentially Canadian
“You want the best poutine?” The cashier cocks her head, intrigued by my unusual inquiry. It’s a quiet weeknight and I am inside Le Moulin de Provence, the casual French bakery at the southern end of ByWard Market. A few days earlier my uncle had recommended this boulangerie, his bass voice full of self-assured conviction. “Whenever I’m in Ottawa,” he mused, “It’s where I get my breakfast… and lunch… and dinner.”
I have followed his advice, polishing off a slice of spinach flan, a formidable beef ciabatta, and finally a religieuse chocolat. But I am also here in Ottawa to find the ultimate poutine, that indulgent French-Canadian dish that has been elevated to national status. The cashier pulls a white pastry bag from the top of the pile and scribbles the directions in blue ink. “I had poutine in Québec City, but it was nowhere near as good as this.” She marks my map with a small cross, a gentle smile peeking out from underneath her piercings and blonde highlights. “Look for Jack’s chipwagon on the intersection of Rideau and Friel,” she adds. “It’s right opposite a TD Bank.”
On first appearances, Ottawa is everything you would expect of a national capital. Stately government buildings, sporting a unique blend of Victorian Gothic and château-style roofs, stand toe-to-toe with museums and proud memorials. Leafy parks and manicured lawns lie sprinkled around the city’s heart, filling the scene with dazzling bursts of autumn colour.
I take in the last rays of the afternoon sun from Nepean Point, a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River. At its peak a bronze likeness commemorates the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, founder of Québec and the “Father of New France”. Imposing as it may be, the sculptor did misinterpret one important detail – the astrolabe, it turns out, is upside down.
Even today, it’s not hard to imagine the wilderness that greeted Champlain when he first set his eyes on the valley in 1613. Although the Chaudière Falls have since been dammed, the river maintains its broad course, flowing past undulating banks still lined with stands of oak and sugar maple.
Darkness is falling when I arrive at Parliament Hill. A handful of onlookers huddle around the Centennial Flame, drawn like children to a campfire. At seven o’clock I sit on a low wall by the steps, listening to the Cambridge Quarters and then the solemn peal of the Peace Tower bell.
In its earliest days Ottawa was never meant to be the capital. It wasn’t until 1857 that Queen Victoria chose the city – then a fledgling lumber town – as a compromise between two competing English and French-speaking regions. The issue was also one of defence; less than fifty years had passed since the War of 1812 and Ottawa’s location offered better protection from a potentially belligerent neighbour. (Anglo-American relations were rather frigid at the time.)
The next morning I am back at the Centre Block for a 40-minute guided tour. Hosted by Lindsay, a gregarious third-year sociology student, it plays out like an All-Canadian quiz show. At the entrance to the library she pulls us to one side. “Can anyone tell me why the library which we’re about to see looks different from everything else?”
I am standing a little over an arm’s length from our tour guide and the group has fallen silent. “Because,” I offer, “it was the only part of the original building to survive the fire of 1916.” Lindsay is elated. She raises her right arm, all the while wearing a bright, show-stopping smile. “Give me a high five!” The ensuing ‘slap’ resonates down the stone corridor, unyielding in its Neo-Gothic sobriety.
I first came to Parliament as a nine year old. My sole memory of that particular time was gazing up at the library’s tiered bookshelves, its soaring wrought iron roof and the marble statue of Queen Victoria. When we swing open the doors those details come rushing back to life. After all these years, the library is just as dreamy as I remember.
On the other side of the river, in Québec, I visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Like Parliament it is not my first time, but there is one permanent exhibition on the third floor that I have never seen. An eye-opening journey through 1000 years of history, Canada Hall is a visual feast that charts the country’s development from east to west.
Near the beginning, I linger at the section dedicated to the 16th century Basque whalers. There are two items recovered from a shipwrecked Basque galleon – a leather shoe and a jar – and a replica of a tombstone found in Placentia, Newfoundland. Only a few months ago I had stood on the beach at San Sebastián, Atlantic waves lapping at my feet, and now I could finally grasp the sheer distance that these men had come.
Canada Hall, as it turns out, is proving surprisingly personal. In a Winnipeg street scene, attributed to the eve of the 1920s (and its landmark General Strike), I come face-to-face with a mirror image of my own family history: a full-scale reconstruction of a Chinese laundry shop. At the turn of the 20th century my great-great-grandfather ran one such place in Brooklyn, beginning a cycle of migration that would straddle an ocean and the better part of 100 years. “You were meant to be American,” my grandmother would tell me. But in the 1960s, we became Canadian instead.
It was a strange existence, growing up in Asia but spending almost every summer immersed in Canadian life. We’d grab a box of timbits from the nearby mall and read for hours in Chapters. Occasionally there’d be a road trip to Muskoka, or Niagara Falls, or Québec. As a boy I assembled models of log cabins and pored over brightly animated maps of Canada. Then my grandmother would test me on the provincial flags and capitals. “Fredericton”, for some odd reason, seemed very hard to spell.
At Rideau and Friel I struggle to find the chipwagon standing opposite TD Bank. It is situated in the middle of a residential inner-city neighbourhood, devoid of the sparkling monuments that define Downtown Ottawa. And then I see it. There is no sign – no obvious indication that this may sell the best poutine in town. Jack’s chipwagon is a nondescript trailer tucked away behind a wooden fence, with three blue benches parked on the tarmac.
The wait for my medium poutine is not too long. Opening the plastic box unlocks an aroma that proves simply irresistible in the advancing chill. It is a luscious balance of smooth gravy, melting cheese curds and thick hand-cut fries. I lift the fork from the pile, letting off wisps of steam into the autumn air. Around me the street swirls with a slow parade of jeans, sweat shirts and baseball caps. This is the Ottawa that I find most endearing – down-to-earth, friendly and quietly unaware of its beauty. And that makes it very Canadian indeed.