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O Canada - Ottawa and Montreal

Updated: Mar 2

Before diving into Part III of the cross-Canada story, I need to pivot to another story -- a topic that was very much on the minds and tongues of most Canadians during that summer of 1990: The Meech Lake Accord. It was a topic of conversation that came up frequently with many of the Canadians I met that summer traveling from coast to coast. This story is also an important political backdrop to events that occurred in this posting.


Meech Lake, Quebec

In April 1987, then Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, and all ten provincial premiers, convened at Wilson House on the shore of Meech Lake, just a few miles northwest of Ottawa, in the province of Quebec. Known as the "First Ministers," they met for the purpose of discussing a series of amendments to the Constitution of Canada. What resulted from these discussions (which controversially excluded all other government officials and the media), was known as the Meech Lake Accord.


Why was this important? The reasons are varied and somewhat complicated, actually, but essentially, it was a maneuver on the part of Mulroney to win Quebec’s consent to the revised Canadian Constitution. Five years prior, the Quebec government refused to sign the Constitution Act, 1982 which estranged the province from the rest of the Canadian "constitutional family." With Quebec unmoored from the general constitutional framework of the rest of Canada, the call for Quebec sovereignty was gaining strength in the 1980s. Mulroney sought to quell the separatist movement by proposing constitutional amendments that would recognize the "distinct society" of Quebec, and recognize the francophone minority scattered throughout the rest of Canada. The deadline to ratify the Meech Lake Accord was June 23, 1990 -- which had to be a unanimous decision by all 10 provincial governments. That deadline came and went as I was passing through Alberta that summer.


The result? The Accord was not ratified unanimously (Manitoba and Newfoundland held out). Failure to pass the Accord greatly increased tensions between Quebec and the remainder of the country. Renewed support for Quebec sovereignty flourished.


June 30, 1990 - Ottawa

The trains connecting the Corridor cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City were significantly more comfortable, more modern, and quite a bit more crowded than the ones out west and further east in the Maritimes. However, I was loathe to take a chance on a confining seat in a crowded coach class car, so I paid to upgrade to a first class ticket and splurge on a guarantee of more comfort. The train left the station in Toronto that morning and arrived in Ottawa four hours later.


I had no idea of what to expect when I arrived. I knew Ottawa to be the nation's capital, but I knew little else about it. What I found upon subsequent exploration was an enchanting and beautiful city situated on the high southern banks of the Ottawa River. It is strategically located where French Canada and English Canada meet -- Ottawa being on the Ontario side. The city of Hull is just across the river in Quebec. The center of government, an area known as Parliament Hill, rests on a bluff overlooking the river. A collection of main government buildings, including the House of Commons and the Parliament of Canada, forms a sort of open plaza alongside Wellington Street. Built in the Gothic revival style, they are grand and majestic and patinaed and commanding.

There was something special in the air that day. The next day was July 1, Canada Day, and Ottawa was expecting a very special visitor. In the meantime, I wandered the city, grabbing several snapshots of the buildings, the river and surrounding attractions. To make up for the expense of the first class ticket, I elected to stay at a youth hostel for the next two nights. The Ottawa youth hostel was no ordinary one. It was a former jail that had been converted into sleeping quarters. My "room" was a former jail cell equipped with bunkbeds and not much else. My experience of it was somewhat disappointing. The concept was cool, but in reality it was rather uncomfortable and incommodious. I stayed just one night in the cell, and spent my second (and last) night at a B&B instead.

July 1, 1990 - Canada Day in Ottawa

Canada Day is a national day of celebration, commemorating the joining of Canada's original provinces as one nation in 1867. On this particular occasion in Ottawa, the entire city was buzzing with the anticipated arrival of one very special visitor -- Queen Elizabeth II. Over the course of the day, I was fortunate to be able to see her four separate times. The first time I got to see her was near Parliament Hill. I was standing on a stone pilon above the heads of a thick crowd of people who were pressed against the police barricades. The street had been cleared for her passage, and soon enough, a procession of Canadian Mounties came through, then the police, and then her motorcade. She was seated in the back of a white limousine, and all I really got to see of her was a flash of the color through the tinted windows and her hatted profile as she waved from the opposite side of the car to the crowd.

The best view I had of her passing by was later in the day, very close to the first spot where I saw her earlier. I arrived at the police barricades along the street early enough to ensure an unfettered view -- one that would not require me climbing atop stone pilons or shimmying street lamps. I stood next to an outspoken septuagenarian who had lipstick on her teeth and clots of mascara hanging from her lashes. She had a dim view of the French and called Margaret Trudeau a "tramp." On my opposite side was a friendly French-Canadian family who engaged me in lighter banter. The father was a professor at the University of Ottawa. Forty-five minutes later, the procession began. First came the Mounties, then the largely unpopular Brian Mulroney who whizzed by in a blur, probably on the advice of security. All I caught of him was a wave to the crowds, . . . and his characteristic moon-shaped face. Next, came the Queen herself, seated in an open-air, horse-drawn carriage and flanked by more Mounties. The pace was a bit slower so I was able to get a great shot of her waving to the crowds. The din of the crowd grew in a slow crescendo as she approached with lots of cheering, and then suddenly, quite noticeably, the fervor died out as her carriage moved away from us. The whole thing lasted no more than 30 seconds or so.

But what was the purpose of her visit? It was strategic, as it turns out. She was there to pull the country together in the wake of the Meech Lake Accord failure. Across the river in Hull, Quebec, separatists were protesting her visit, waving the blue and white Quebec flag as they shouted at the passing procession.

After seeing the Queen, I decided to walk across the bridge into Hull, Quebec. On the way, I met the Mayor of Ottawa who shook my hand and agreed to a photo. He's the guy in the brown suit in the photo below.

Most businesses were closed for the national holiday, but the Canadian Museum of History was open and admission was free to the public in honor of Canada Day. It's a beautiful building with a unique architectural design. It was constructed to incorporate elements of the Canadian landscape. The roof was designed to be reminiscent of the rolling fields of wheat emblematic of the prairie provinces. The cantilevered levels of the Curatorial Wing represent the outcropping bedrock of the Canadian Shield. The museum is located in Hull, just across the river from Parliament Hill.

This was my view of Parliament Hill from my vantage point standing on one of the bridges crossing the Ottawa River. It almost looks like a scene from a fairy tale.

There was a lot going on that day in the capital city. Everywhere I went, throngs of people were aggregated in celebration. Hot dog and French fry carts littered the downtown sidewalks. There was a free concert with live musical performances in one of the open spaces near Parliament Hill. As night descended, people gathered on the grounds on Parliament Hill to watch the fireworks and sing "O Canada." After all the festivities had concluded, I walked back to the B&B.

July 2, 1990 - Montreal

I had a bit of time to kill before the train departed for Montreal later that afternoon. I laid out on the grass in a lovely little place called Strathcona Park, just a few blocks from my B&B, and let the sun soak into me. It turned out to be a bad idea. My fair, UV-sensitive skin doesn't tolerate a lot of direct sunlight. By the time I boarded the train for Montreal, I was considerably more red in complexion with diminished brain activity (I felt short-circuited), and nauseous from what I could only surmise as an overdose of solar radiation.


The train ride to Montreal was very quick, just two hours long. When the train pulled into the station, I was already feeling significantly better. I had called ahead and reserved a room in a B&B on Rue Laval. A taxi took me directly from the station to the B&B. It was already fairly late in the day. I decided to go to bed early that day and sleep off the remaining fatigue I was feeling from being sick earlier.


July 3, 1990

I was up early that day. The only bits of Montreal I saw the day before were along the route from the station to the B&B, and I was eager to get out and explore this major Canadian city. Fortunately, the B&B was within walking distance of downtown. I spent most of the time walking up and down Dorchester Boulevard. It had recently been renamed René Lévesque Boulevard in honor of a former Quebec premier who championed Quebec sovereignty. René Lévesque Boulevard is a broad east-west corridor that passes through the heart of the city.

Montreal is the largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. It is a wonderfully cosmopolitan place that is both old and new and retains much of its founding French culture and architecture. Because of the Charter of the French Language law (Law 101), passed in 1977, commercial signage in Quebec must be exclusively written in French. There is almost a sense that you have stepped into a foreign country as you wander the streets of Montreal. I say "almost" because though the dominant language is French, Montreal is clearly a North American city that, on its face, resembles most other cities in Canada and the United States.


One of the places where you can really get a flavor of the past and of Montreal's origins is in Vieux-Montreal (Old Montreal). It is a well-preserved section of the city near the banks of the St. Lawrence River, where you'll find 17th century buildings along cobbled lanes. I enjoyed wandering through this part of the city tremendously.

July 4, 1990

One of the best places to get spectacular views of the city is on Mount Royal -- a large and intrusive rock hill in the center of the city, and the place from where the city gets its name. Montreal has one of the best subway systems in the world. You can get on a subway train downtown and go directly to Mount Royal in a matter of minutes. The morning I went there, the air was still thick with fog which made it difficult to see the downtown core from the hilltop. Still, it was a nice park and a great opportunity to see the city from a higher vantage point.

I spent the day continuing my exploration of the city by foot. I must have walked 15 miles or more that day, wandering through neighborhoods, shopping and getting pictures of buildings, monuments and parks. Here's one of the most impressive buildings I found along my route.

Montreal offered so much to see, and yet I was there for just two-and-a-half days. I would make it a point of stopping again in this beautiful city on the return portion of my journey.


East of Montreal lie the Maritimes -- the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland & Labrador. In the next installment, I'll share what it was like to visit eastern Canada in the summertime and experience the thrill of exploring the old cities and see the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.


Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!


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