Story by Mariellen Ward
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
OTTAWA, ONTARIO — Our weekend in Ottawa was what you might call Gonzo Lite: we found ourselves in the centre of a political maelstrom … but without the dark drama, drugs or despair.
My sister, artist and writer Victoria Ward, and I were in Canada’s capital to research our Irish heritage. We had just checked into the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, the city’s pre-eminent hotel, when we met Craig MacDonald of Ottawa Walking Tours. The first thing he told us was his tour started at the “Chateau” because it really was at the centre of things in Ottawa. A spectacular location at the intersection of the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River, a clear view of Canada’s Parliament Buildings and 101 years of historic associations gave the grand hotel a regal air, like a dowager empress presiding over empire.
To prove his point, Craig pointed across the elegant wood-panelled lobby to an ornate timepiece behind the check-in counter and said, “That clock was rescued from the Titanic.” Four eyebrows shot up. He had our attention. Craig explained that Charles Hays, the man who built the Chateau, went down with the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. In fact, the opening was delayed several months because all the linens, silverware, cutlery and china Hays bought in France to outfit the hotel also went down with the ship. (Read more about the Titanic connection to the Chateau Laurier.)
Craig said this to us on April 14, 2013, which meant that night was the 101st anniversary of the tragic sinking. More eyebrow raising.
Then Craig pointed across the street and told us the Liberal leadership convention was underway and many of the media and political heavyweights were staying at our hotel, possibly including Justin Trudeau. The charismatic young scion won the race that weekend to become the Liberal party leader — a victory that could change everything in Canadian politics come the 2015 elections.
At this point our eyebrows were on the ceiling. Victoria and I were in Ottawa as part of a road trip to discover our Irish family roots and also learn about the Irish history of the city. We didn’t expect to find ourselves in the centre of current history-making events. But I had been at college when Hunter S. Thompson, of the Gonzo school of journalism, was the patron saint of journalism students. I was on the story.
During Craig’s Irish-inflected walking tour of Ottawa, I learned that the pub named after Irish-born Father of Confederation, D’Arcy McGee, held pride of place at the corner of Sparks Street and Elgin. We peeked in to see the pub, which was designed in Dublin, handcrafted in Wexford and shipped across the Atlantic in 1997 to fit into an 1883 heritage building.
Fellow Irishman Patrick J. Whelan assassinated McGee in April 1868, a year after confederation and a few doors away from where we stood. Though I am tracing the Whelan name through Canada and to Ireland in September as part of The Gathering 2013, there is no evidence that we are related to this particular Whelan. He was the last man to be publicly hanged in Canada, so some goosebumps were raised, to join the eyebrows.
While walking along Sparks Street, which is a popular pedestrian mall in downtown Ottawa, we learned the street was named for Nicholas Sparks, who was also an Irish immigrant to Canada. He was born poor, but through hard work and dumb luck rose to become very wealthy and one of the city’s leading citizens. At one time, he owned most of the land on the Ottawa side of the river, so when Colonel John By arrived to build the Rideau Canal in the 1820s (to connect the St. Lawrence with the Ottawa River, giving Canada a safe route for the water transport of supplies in the event of another war with our neighbours to the south — thus far, not needed), he hit pay dirt. Literally. His fortune was made, and Bytown’s high street was named after him.
That night we headed to the historic Byward Market for a delicious dinner at the Fish Market restaurant, an Ottawa institution that serves large portions of fresh fish. I ate a a half-dozen oysters followed by succulent piece of Arctic char topped with mango salsa. Back in the rough-hewn days of the 19th century, when the Rideau Canal was being built, the inhabitants were not eating so well. This area was known as Lower Town, and it was the swampy preserve of poor Irish and French workers. The well-to-do British and Scottish immigrants lived across the canal in Upper Town, where Sparks Street is now.
Searching for Trudeau and the Liberal Party
After dinner, we decided to combine looking for evidence of Ottawa’s Irish heritage with a Gonzo-inspired quest to penetrate the bastions of power, to immerse ourselves in the action and to get to the heart of the story — in other words, to find “drunk Liberals.” This was a political story worth following, a historic moment in the making. We walked a couple of short blocks through the cool spring night to D’Arcy McGee’s pub, figuring that the young ones, at least, would be in a pre-celebratory mood the night before “the coronation” of their leader. They hoped their man would lead the party to a more glorious future, and we hoped they would be partying in a suitably Irish establishment.
We had to elbow our way in through a swarm of Young Liberals, past the glass-encased, plaster-of-Paris death hand of D’Arcy McGee, to the carved-wood bar. Drinks in hand, Victoria and I worked the room to find out what we could about the next day’s proceedings, and emerged triumphant with a time, a place and a coveted JUSTIN button. The next day, at the appointed time, we managed to gain entrance to the convention, just an hour before the man of the moment, Justin Trudeau, won a landslide victory.
The room went bananas. And we were swept up by the excitement, the obvious promise of a luminous leader, the import of the moment and the heady aroma of political power. There was something special about both the man and the moment. He stood lightly on stage, upheld by promise, the seemingly unanimous support of his party, and the unfolding inevitability of destiny. And we had a front-row seat.
Walking back to our hotel, seeing its fairy-tale spires, modelled after a Loire Valley chateau, and the stately magnificence of the Parliament Buildings silhouetted against the setting sun, I thought: this is Ottawa. This is Canada’s political ground zero, where history, geography, architecture and nationhood meet.
It was a golden moment. While Trudeau was being paraded from media interview to media interview, and eventually to a victory party, we continued to walk, past the hotel and down to the picturesque spot where the canal meets the river, basking in the last rays of the spring sun. With the burnished windows of the Chateau to our left, we stood at the Celtic Cross, erected to the memory of 1,000 Irish workers and their families who died building the Rideau Canal, and thought of our ancestors.
The Celtic Cross bears five symbols etched into the solid stone: a mosquito, an explosion, a wheelbarrow, a pickaxe and shovel, and in the centre of them all, a harp, the symbol for Ireland. They seem insignificant emblems to represent the struggles and hard work of our ancestors; slight objects to build a nation upon. But perhaps that’s the point; that it is at these intersections, these small moments of sacrifice, triumph and tragedy, that become the fabric of a nation, and that provide the soil and the foundation for something as solid as Canada.
More About the Fairmont Chateau Laurier
Location: 1 Rideau St Ottawa, ON
Reservations: Book online at the hotel’s website or call toll free 1-866-540-4410
Nightly Room Rates: The hotel has a current Summer Sale special that takes 20% off of the regular room rate. Bookings are non-refundable and with the savings the rates are reduced to approximately $175.
Mariellen Ward is a professional travel writer, blogger and editor based in Toronto. Breathedreamgo.com, her award-winning travel blog about “meaningful adventure travel,” is inspired by her extensive travels in India. She writes for many print and online sites, self-published a book of travel stories, Song of India, co-founded the Toronto Travel Massive (a successful monthly meet-up group for travel bloggers and industry) and regularly speaks at events and conferences. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.