Capital cities must be more than functional and efficient places for their residents and employees. A nation-state usually has higher-order objectives for its seat of government, especially if it is a political capital like Canberra, New Delhi, Washington, Bras’lia or Ottawa-Gatineau, as opposed to a metropolitan capital like London or Tokyo.1
What distinguishes these new political capitals is that they are intended to be tools for nation-building. Such invented traditions can be retrogressive (imperial New Delhi) or even malevolent, depending on the values of the sponsoring governments – most notoriously Hitler’s plans for Berlin or Mussolini’s evocation of imperial Rome. In contrast, the best capital-city design can showcase the cultural and democratic values of the sponsoring government, such as Paris’s grands projets or the Lincoln, Jefferson and Vietnam War memorials on the Mall in Washington. In this spirit, Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for Washington physically captured the separation of the executive and legislative branches of the United States government through the siting of the Capitol and White House.2
Washington and Paris may not be good models for planning Ottawa-Gatineau, not only because their sites are different but also because the United States, France and Canada are very different countries. Canada is not a monolithic state peopled by a single ethnic group, which makes defining a simple and clear national identity rather difficult. This complexity can be seen as a national strength in accommodating diverse new immigrant groups, one of the most difficult tasks in the modern world. However, Canada’s character means that few of the traditional nation-building tools are appropriate. We cannot promote a single language (as in France), give preference in immigration to a single ethnic group, promote the shared experience of compulsory military service or mythologize patriotic wars against colonial oppressors. A bilingual, multicultural Canadian federation must work with a more limited set of nation-building tools – adapting national symbols, renaming geographic features, supporting national sports, celebrating culture and promoting shared values.
Canada is something of a model for the modern multinational state, since it is one of the world’s oldest democracies, the first state to negotiate peacefully its freedom from colonial rule and a country with a relatively good record of tolerance while accommodating a large and diverse population of new immigrants. The best approach to nation-building under these circumstances seems to be to avoid the corrosive effects of ethnic nationalism and focus instead on civic nationalism – promoting the shared liberal democratic values and history of the country. Unfortunately, civic nationalism provides relatively few strong symbols for building a national identity or a capital city. Baldwin and LaFontaine’s coalition for responsible government or the Fathers of Confederation negotiating a federal union seems a bit dull compared to storming the Bastille or the Winter Palace, or even crossing the Delaware.
So, if the traditional nation-building symbols are less appropriate in a multicultural state, what strategies can we adopt in building a capital city? Urban planners, like doctors, might start with a commitment to do no harm, by avoiding introducing symbols that privilege one ethnic group. The next step might be to adjust other symbolic elements to become more inclusive. The Peace Tower replaced the Victoria Tower, the maple leaf flag replaced the Red Ensign and the maple leaf replaced the British Crown as the dominant symbol of the federal government throughout the national capital. More recently, a patronizing statue of an Aboriginal guide kneeling at the feet of Samuel de Champlain’s monument was moved elsewhere on Nepean Point.
Similarly, Pierre Trudeau recognized the poor symbolism of federal government buildings largely concentrated in Ontario. The Canadian Museum of Civilization and huge departmental buildings in Gatineau, across the river from Parliament Hill, are highly visible symbols of a capital city that includes Quebec. Replacing common English street names in the Hull sector of Gatineau not only improved regional way-finding but also reflected the vastly changed character of the Outaouais since the Wright family’s founding settlement. Similarly, the National Capital Commission’s unceasing effort to promote bilingualism on both sides of the Ottawa River allows the capital city to visibly reinforce Canada’s official language policies.
The next step to programming a capital that inspires pride among Canadians is to make the best use of common national symbols. This is an imperfect strategy, because many of these elements are perceived differently within the country. The armed forces are a positive focus near Confederation Square and the new War Museum. However, the Changing of the Guard on Parliament Hill is an Òinvented traditionÓ conveying a feeling of membership in a long-vanished British Empire. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police seem to be a more authentic presence for many Canadians. The governor general has developed into a positive force in nation-building: ceremonies for the Order of Canada, the Governor General’s Literary Awards and similar prizes make Rideau Hall the centre of Canadian culture.
In a more limited fashion, the national currency and postal service are celebrated in displays at the Mint, the Bank of Canada and the Museum of Civilization. International sport is one nation-building tool that is clearly underused in Ottawa-Gatineau. It is a pity that so few national championships and national teams are seen in the national capital, in comparison with Australia’s Institute of Sport for high-performance athletes in Canberra.
Perhaps the most important contribution our capital city can make is to act as a teaching venue for Canadian history and values. Public education on common histories is one of the best nation-building tools available to a multicultural state. The programming of the national cultural institutions in Ottawa-Gatineau can play an important role in reinforcing a multicultural, bilingual image for the country. In effect, the national museums are a flexible stage, where exhibits can entertain and educate visitors about the various strains of the country’s past, which is the context of its present and future. The great outdoor festivals supported by the NCC – Canada Day, Winterlude and music festivals – should continue to play a major role here by reflecting the complex and constantly changing content of Canadian culture. Plans for more outdoor programming venues in the core area will reinforce this activity.
Beyond programming content, the form of national institutions and symbols and their setting in the capital city can also reinforce Canadian values and inspire pride. Confederation Boulevard, one of the most important achievements of the recent decades, and the recent core area plans refocus the major institutions around the much-abused Ottawa River. These designs tap into Canadians’ strong interest in the natural environment and beautiful landscapes, without denying their urban culture and northern location. By a stroke of good luck, the site of the portage around the Chaudire and the Ottawa River’s name are also significant for our First Nations. This is why the Confederation Boulevard plan is a masterful piece of symbolic urban design: it retroactively links the nation’s three founding groups – Aboriginal, French and British. The riverside Museum of Civilization, it should be noted, was designed by a MŽtis architect, Douglas Cardinal.
However, the symbolic landscape of the national capital region does not need to be rebuilt to incorporate every new ethnic group. The complicated relationship between the Aboriginal, French and British peoples is an essential element of Canadian history, and the many past accommodations between those three founding groups within one nation-state are an essential context for the multicultural present.
Politicians and planners must take care when adjusting the symbolic content of a capital city. Monuments and memorials can privilege ruling elites, undermine minority rights or reduce patriotism in other groups.3 Once again, the best strategy appears to shift from ethnic nationalism to civic nationalism. Canada’s National War Memorial in Confederation Square (1939) was an early and surprisingly diverse example of this approach. Vernon March’s The Response shows members of all armed services, including women and Aboriginal soldiers, struggling for peace. More recent good examples include the Peacekeeping Monument on Confederation Boulevard and the memorial on Parliament Hill to the ÒFamous FiveÓ who fought to have women recognized as legal persons. The NCC’s 2006 commemoration plan appears to be a good guide for future action, calling for more emphasis on the nation’s core values and its intellectual, cultural and community life.4
Finally, the National Capital Region should be beautiful. It should connect to Canadian values by celebrating the region’s remarkable landscape and by promoting excellence in the design of the public buildings, streets and public spaces in the symbolic core of the capital city. The shoddy appearance of Ottawa and Hull in 1945 could be excused as a wartime hardship, but it was a national embarrassment for a country that wished to take its own place in the world. Laurier, King, Diefenbaker and Trudeau were right to make building a more worthy capital a national priority: good urban design and attractive architecture communicate Canada’s quality to international visitors, not to mention the benefits that local residents can appreciate every day.
It is slow work undoing a century of damage to the Ottawa River and redeveloping declining industrial areas near Parliament Hill. Preventing further design atrocities such as Place de Ville and Place du Portage should be a priority, a good first step toward which would be refusing to rent space in ugly and tall buildings that undermine the national objectives for the capital city as contained in NCC plans.
Building a capital city that is worthy of Canada is a long-term endeavour, requiring a sustained effort over perhaps a century. The important work began in the early 1950s, so the job is about half complete. The density of national institutions and visitor attractions around Confederation Boulevard in the symbolic core has not yet reached critical mass, and there are still many mistakes to be undone. From the many ideas in circulation, here is a set of projects that would improve Canada’s capital city:
A First Nations Centre should be built on Victoria Island to celebrate the culture of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.
Some of the obsolete mill buildings near the Chaudire should be reused as a new home for the Museum of Science and Technology, whose collection should be moved from its uninspiring home in a suburban warehouse.
A National Portrait Gallery should be opened on Confederation Boulevard to be a teaching centre about the people in Canada’s history. The institution should have regional galleries in other cities for travelling exhibits and its online collection should be combined with the magnificent Dictionary of Canadian Biography
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Constitution should be prominently displayed in an interpretation centre in the lobby of the National Library and Archives Building on Confederation Boulevard.
The Sparks Street Mall should be redeveloped so that it is once again as lively as the ByWard Market. The CBC’s storefront studios on the mall should have interactive Canadian history media content, developed in collaboration with the National Film Board.
A monument to multiculturalism comparable to the sculpture outside Toronto’s Union Station should be built on Confederation Boulevard.
Three new bridges should be built across the Ottawa River (the most recent bridge was built in 1973, when the regional population was barely half its current 1.3 million). One should be named for Baldwin and LaFontaine, and be as elegant as the 1843 Union Bridge. Another should remove the truck traffic from Lowertown and Sandy Hill.
A streetcar system should seamlessly interconnect both sides of the Ottawa River, allowing the historic Prince of Wales and Alexandra rail bridges to be converted for transit, cycling and pedestrian use only.
A free loop bus should carry visitors and residents, especially schoolchildren, around Confederation Boulevard, connecting all the national institutions.
A water’s-edge walkway should be built around the Ottawa River in the core, with a new footbridge as good as the one in London or Bilbao, Spain.
And finally: Free the Chaudire! We should bring back the boiling kettle falls of the Asticou, as planned by Algonquin elder William Kommanda. If Canadian engineers can design a system at Niagara that combines the river’s falls with hydroelectric power, they should be able to do the same for the spectacle that once entranced the Aboriginal peoples and 19th-century visitors, including the Fathers of Confederation.
Building these projects would boost the quality of life in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. More importantly, it would create a Canadian capital that would inspire more pride in its citizens, by physically expressing the history and interconnection of its three founding peoples and setting the stage for celebrating the country’s values and cultures.
Peter Hall, ÒSeven types of capital city,Ó in David L.A. Gordon, Planning twentieth-century capital cities (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 8–14.
Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The invention of tradition (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 107–13 and 126–27; M. Christine Boyer, The city of collective memory: Its historical imagery and architectual entertainments (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).
Brian S. Osborne and Geraint B. Osborne, ÒThe casting of heroic landscapes of power: Constructing Canada’s pantheon on Parliament HillÓ, Material History Review, Vol. 60 (Fall 2004), pp. 35–47.
NCC, Canada’s Capital Commemoration Strategic Plan, (2006), p. 4. The report identifies fundamental Canadian values as including Òpeace, order, and good government,Ó equality, democracy, cultural diversity, linguistic duality, cultural excellence and environmentalism.
David Gordon teaches planning history, community design and urban development in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University. He is author of Town and Crown: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Capital, forthcoming in 2012 from University of Toronto Press.
Photo: The Confederation Boulevard plan is a masterful piece of symbolic urban design: it retroactively links the nation’s three founding groups – Aboriginal, French and British.