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Blinkhorn: Ottawa

Although it’s well off the beaten track in southern Ontario, next to Quebec and about 200 miles west of Vermont’s northern border, Ottawa, with its majestic Parliament buildings and small city civility, has always been special to me.

As a young newspaper reporter covering national election campaigns, I visited Ottawa frequently and walked down the very hall in the Parliament center block where the recent shootings took place.

It amazed me how easy it was – and still is - to get into that imposing center of Canadian democracy. Even more amazing was how easy it was, with a press pass, to get into the ornate parliamentary dining room on the sixth floor, a dining room with its own subculture. Anyone wanting a discreet conversation would avoid a table in the center of the room under the arched domes. The acoustics there were such that even whispered discourse could be widely overheard.

There are several parliament buildings clustered below a 300 foot Peace Tower whose 52 bell carillon can be heard for miles each day at noon for 15 minutes. The daily recitals are published in advance; this Friday a special Halloween suite will be featured, after the national anthem, “O Canada” of course.

The buildings and tower form an enclave on a hill overlooking the Ottawa river and secluded from the commercial center of Ottawa, a short walk away.

Ottawa, from an Algonquin word meaning “traders,” was actually designated as the capital by Queen Victoria in 1857 when Canada was still part of the British empire. There’s an apocryphal story that she, blindfolded, stuck a pin in the middle of a Canadian map. The real story is political… Ottawa is suitably centered between English and French Canada and far enough from the American border to discourage invasion – a genuine concern in those times. Ten years after Victoria picked the capital, Canada effectively became an independent country when the articles of confederation were agreed upon in July, 1867.

The parliament has had its share of troubles. The center block burned to the ground in 1916 and was replaced several years later in the same Gothic style as London’s parliament. A major renovation is currently underway and won’t be completed for another six years.

In 1966 a deranged bomber, intent on killing as many members of parliament as possible, blew himself up in the same center block. And in 1989, an armed man hijacked a bus and fired shots outside parliament.

Last week’s terror attack took place on the same day a heated debate was getting underway in parliament over the Conservative government’s decision to increase anti-terrorist powers in the country.

Now, I suspect that decision will receive significant support. And though I sincerely hope I’m wrong, what has until now been easy access to the center of Canadian democracy may be a thing of the past.

Tom Blinkhorn worked for 30 years in international development with the World Bank in Africa, India, and the former Soviet Union. Before that he worked for 12 years as a reporter for US and Canadian newspapers.
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