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Canada Day in Ottawa: a pilgrimage to the heart of our nation

© By Hans Tammemagi

  We live in a conflicting age of glamour and violence, a me-me-me attitude and electronic gadgets I can't operate. I desperately wanted my children to experience Canada and old-fashioned culture and history. So I organized a clan gathering in Ottawa for Canada Day.
     Seven of us arrive the day before the big day: my wife and I, my son, daughter and their spouses (all about 30 years old), and my only grandchild, cute little one-year-old Cora. After settling in, we stroll to Parliament Hill as the late afternoon sun bathes the massive Gothic buildings in a soft golden light. The stage for next day's performances is set up and sound crews are "testing, testing, one, two, three," but our eyes are drawn to the grand elegance of the three noble sandstone buildings with towers, gargoyles and spires soaring skyward. As our necks crane upward I explain that these buildings have housed the House of Commons and Senate since 1867 and have been described as the "finest pile of stones in Canada."
     We saunter behind Centre Block and look down the cliff to the Ottawa River. "Did explorers paddle here?" asks my daughter. "Yes," I explain, "Samuel de Champlain, LaVerendrye and legions of explorers, trappers and lumberjacks have fought these rapids to open up our country."
     I point out the landmarks of Ottawa, which are ablaze with the last rays of the sun. The sinuous curves of the Museum of Civilization are embraced by the contours of the river bank, the glass tower of the National Art Gallery sparkle like a crystal chandelier and the twin spires of Notre Dame Cathedral wink at us like an old dowager. "We sure have a beautiful capital," murmurs my son.
     We stroll past bronze statues of D'Arcy McGee and Sir John A. Macdonald and as we read the plaques my daughter-in-law says, "I didn't know so much of our history happened here."
     "Yes," I respond, "the Hill is indeed the heart and soul of Canada."
     Canada Day dawns hot and sunny and soon after the chaos of breakfast we stroll up Elgin Street, carried along by a boisterous crowd of happy people all bedecked in red, flowing toward the Hill like a turbulent river. Vendors sell Canada flags and tattoos. Volunteers hand out small Canada flags. Buskers play at the intersections. Even little Cora flaunts two red Maple leaf tattoos on her cheeks and clenches a flag in her tiny fist.
     We arrive on the Hill and are packed like sardines into the tumultuous, exuberant crowd. I love being entrapped in the friendly crush of 50,000 people waving flags and wearing red-and-white hats, capes, shirts, and maple-leaf decals. We watch red-coated Mounties astride magnificent steeds perform their famous Musical Ride. Afterwards a Mountie rides her horse to the crowd where dozens of hands pat and stroke the horse's long nose as digital cameras click. Cora gingerly touches the enormous horse, giggles and says, "Nice hossy."
     The official ceremonies begin with the arrival of the Governor General, Michaelle Jean, in an elegant horse-drawn carriage escorted by a mounted contingent of RCMP. She waves and greets people warmly as she strides to her seat. We sit on blankets with our heads swiveling between the giant screen and the stage as musicians and dancers perform. Around us throbs an exuberant display of patriotism. A man is dressed entirely in red and white flags with a giant red-and-white top hat. A group of Africans with shining black skin hold their hands proudly over their hearts during the national anthem, their faces beaming. Young babies, teenagers, old people, even dogs are outfitted in our national red and white. But best of all is the excitement and happiness etched on the faces of my kids.
     Suddenly, the Snow Birds roar over the Peace Tower in perfect wing-tip to wing-tip precision. I feel goose bumps all over. It is wonderful to put aside our normal Canadian reserve and let forth with an unabashed outpouring of national pride. And I am happy that my family is sharing this special moment.
     After the ceremony, we walk through crowds over the Rideau Canal and its hand-operated locks, past the Chateau Laurier with its fairy-tale turrets and around the corner to a packed Major's Hill Park. Food stands, booths and entertainment line every walkway in the park. Armed with hotdogs and cotton candy we stroll on to the Art Gallery where we pose under the enormous spider sculpture and then proceed leisurely to Byward Market. Cora, astride her dad's shoulders gazes spellbound over the multitudes at buskers who unicycle, breathe fire and juggle fierce-looking knives. To escape the hot sun we crowd into a restaurant patio in a cool courtyard and sip cold drinks. As we watch, four slightly inebriated fellows strip off their shirts and jump into the fountain. We envious on-lookers cheer as they splash and play.
     Walking along Rideau Street we cling closely to each other for the street is densely packed with people. We descend to the quieter Rideau Canal and walk past boats of every ilk. I chat with a man crammed into a tiny tugboat, barely bigger than a bathtub, but in perfect working condition. He proudly describes his boat which is a replica of (a bigger) one formerly used to herd log booms. Cora is spellbound by a performing group rehearsing and changing into their costumes under the shade of a maple tree. Clothes fly back and forth as they chat and sing in English and French.
     That evening we return to the Hill. Dusk has fallen and the crowd is hushed. Suddenly spectacular fireworks explode, lighting up the sky in brilliant colours, silhouetting the soaring Gothic spires. My children gasp in awe.
     Next morning is quiet and the streets are lined with debris, as though the city is suffering a huge hangover. We walk past a deserted Sparks Mall and then along a path beside the river. On Victoria Island we stand next to a Native teepee with the distant Parliament buildings reflected in the river. My family's smiles make me happy. My daughter turns to me and says, "Dad, this has been like a pilgrimage. Every Canadian should do this at least once in their lifetime."

Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.

Photo Credits
Hans Tammemagi

If you go
For information on Ottawa: www.ottawatourism.ca
For tours and activities on Parliament Hill: www.parliamenthill.gc.ca
Canada Day information: www.ottawaentertainment.ca/events/canadaday
and www.ottawakiosk.com/canada_day.html
Wikipedia: http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa,_Ontario
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Ottawa

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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