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Clive Doucet is a distinguished Canadian writer and city politician. He was elected for four consecutive terms to city council in Ottawa from 1997 to 2010 when he retired to run for Mayor.
As a city politician he was awarded the Gallon Prize as the 2005 Canadian eco-councillor of the year. He was defeated twice by Jim Watson in 2010 and 2018 when he ran for the Mayor’s chair. He presently lives in Grand Etang, Inverness Co., Nova Scotia.
Mr. Doucet has agreed to write a series of nine essays about his Ottawa municipal career which
Unpublished Media will begin publishing in January 2023.
The story and opinions are his own.
The Watsonics, Part VIII: Reimagining Ottawa
" ...because a majority of Ottawa’s amalgamated residents now live outside the Greenbelt and have little connecting them to those inside the Greenbelt, the wishes of all the old communities are regularly dismissed." --Clive Doucet
Today, the world runs on feelings. How are you feeling after the isolation of the pandemic? Feelings are important. Losing cherished friends and family to a mysterious virus or suffering from an earthquake are not trivial concerns. It’s good to see journalists caring about the emotional health of the people they are interviewing. The problem is nations and cities don’t run on feelings. They run on structure and function. Without a viable governance structure neither cities nor civilizations last.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was famous for being a man subject to such intense feelings that his voice and sometimes his whole body trembled as he started a public speech. He died because Rome’s legislators couldn’t figure out how to make its governance structure work without violence. It was easier to kill him than listen to him.
Structure and function are vital sides of the same coin for every city and nation. Structure creates the framework for the nation’s house and function the animation to run it. Unfortunately, neither are working well anywhere. America, for example is literally coming apart at the seams trying to govern a nation in 2023 with an 18th century Constitution, but the U.S. is too easy a target, let's stick to a few Canadian examples of structural failures. The Ontario government’s massive amalgamation of Ontario Cities in 1997-2000. When I was asked by provincial officials what should a new amalgamated Ottawa look like I said:
“Twelve municipalities to one is too big a jump, but if you are determined on one, the city’s electoral districts (wards) must be rectangular, not square so that communities outside the greenbelt and are connected to those inside and thus forced to talk to each other, and hopefully care about each other."
What happened? The old county municipalities were all amalgamated from the deep country of Burritt’s Rapids, outside Kemptville to Parliament Hill. And the new wards were square. The effect of this structural, governance change means, because a majority of Ottawa’s amalgamated residents now live outside the Greenbelt and have little connecting them to those inside the Greenbelt, the wishes of all the old communities are regularly dismissed.
Think of the LRT route along the parkway or the privatization of green spaces inside the Greenbelt. Democracy is supposed to give you a voice, not take it away. The second Canadian example of a serious structural failure is the inability of the federal government to reform Canada’s 1867 voting system. One of the consequences is that a provincial separatist government can now be elected with a clear majority voting against it. This a time bomb waiting to go off.
A media that cares a great deal about feelings is badly adapted to deal with problems like a forced amalgamation or proportional voting. Structural problems are not sexy. They are not going to bring eyeballs to your streaming service. This has very serious consequences in the real world. A blinkered media means a blinkered, ineffective public.
The Lansdowne Park fiasco would never have happened if the city’s governance structure had not been wrecked by amalgamation. Instead of the right thing happening, Lansdowne became the template for 20 years of City mismanagement. The collapse of Ottawa’s new LRT, the abandonment of the recommended site for the city’s new hospital, the failure of the city to protect neighbourhoods from over development all go back to the local political structure which was imposed and has never worked.
There were many people who saw this coming. The resistance to the privatization of Lansdowne Park was phenomenal. Friends of Lansdowne which formed almost immediately to fight the public give-away did everything possible to save the park ultimately going all the way to the appellate court in Toronto. It didn’t work. Outside of the Supreme Court, Canadian courts are loathe to take on duly elected governments. After ‘my mayor’ (Bob Chiarelli) was defeated in 2006 and a developer friendly mayor replaced him, the competitive process to re-design and build the park was set aside for the anticipated give-away to three Ottawa developers.
It was begun by the city’s Chief Administrative Officer without any authority from Council. No one not even the mayor can summarily set aside a city council motion which has been duly debated and voted on by Council. The matter must rise to Council again for another debate and another vote, but the City’s CAO did it. I remember getting a letter simply informing me that it had been done. Now that’s power.
Desperate, I cold-called a large Montreal construction firm, found someone in management and using a combination of bluster and pleading asked if his company would consider putting in a bid for the renovation of Lansdowne so that Council would have at least one choice other than a mall. A voice on the other end listened and then said very calmly, he would look into it.
After three months, the answer was no. When, I asked why? There was a long silence and then, ‘there’s a lot of money in Ottawa. It’s the capital. We’d like to bid on Ottawa projects.” I waited hopeful, conscious that something was going on in the man’s mind that was causing him to hesitate. I could almost hear him shrugging and he said, “Ottawa’s too corrupt.” I did not reply.
“In Montreal, you pay a kickback. It’s part of the job price. Everyone has to pay the kickback, but everyone gets the chance to compete. In Ottawa you don’t get the chance to compete. It’s all decided in offline phone calls. If you’re not part of that conversation, you won’t get the job. We’re not part of that conversation.” There was another hesitation then “bids on big jobs cost. Sorry, I know it’s not the answer you wanted.” And he hung up.
In twenty years, nothing has changed in Ottawa. The site choice for the new Ottawa hospital was made in a few days after a few private conversations between local politicians. They couldn’t have made a worse choice. The west side of Dow’s Lake is part of a green, National Heritage Site, vital to the core and home to more than 700 mature trees. The ground itself is smack over the unstable, Gloucester Fault line, an area Red Zoned for earthquakes. The National Capital Commission’s choice for the hospital was also a central city one, but already zoned urban, sturdily situated on solid Canadian Shield rock, and without any recreational, heritage or environmental issues.
What moving the hospital site to the suddenly free land at the farm was to liberate 50 acres at the old NCC office site for downtown, private development. The office-land for farmland deal was worth billions and made the forty acres at Lansdowne Park look like small
potatoes. A worldwide pandemic is not an easy time to fight City Hall. People face real time problems, illness, jobs, insecurity of all kinds. Nonetheless, a small group of people gathered together to see if anything could be done. They gave themselves a title, ‘ReImagine Ottawa’. It was a difficult meeting.
Unfortunately, I saw no real possibility of stopping the developer juggernaut. Been there. Done that. The lost leader at Lansdowne had been renovating the old stadium for football. The lost leader at the Central Experimental Farm would be a hospital.
Different projects but exactly same story. Developers call it ‘bait and switch’. (The actual hospital will only be a small part of the farm development, just like football was only a very small part of the Lansdowne deal. At the farm, five acres will be set aside for the hospital, 17 acres for surface parking and the rest of the 50 acres for access routes, offices, and towers.)
The good people of Ottawa don’t want to believe that there is sustained, systemic corruption in the governance of the Nation’s Capital. We’re Canadians. We like to believe our systems of government may not be perfect, but they are fundamentally honest. My experience at Lansdowne had taught me that reasonable arguments about the importance of legacy public land would never carry the day. Nor would protests. Nor would the courts. We had tried both.
We had to find something else. Something that would make systematic corruption the issue, not whether or not you liked green spaces or trees. Hence, I proposed something very different for the farm. Something that was very low key and very Ottawa; that we convene a distinguished panel of Ottawa residents to look at what had happened, and suggest a solution.
Whatever it was, it would have to involve all three levels of government because politicians from the city, provincial and federal levels were all involved in the summary decision to reject the NCC choice for the new hospital. The key would be the quality of the panelists. They had to have impeccable reputations and the gravitas which comes from a lifetime of accomplishment. For the legal side, the honourable Monique Metivier, a recently retired Superior Court judge of the Eastern Ontario District volunteered.
Dr. David Rogers, an internationally recognized and much-decorated Medical Physicist from the National Research Council and Carleton University came forward. Dr. Declan Hill, author of the best seller, ‘The Fix’ and an investigative journalist recognized internationally came forward. Dr. Johnson, an engineer and founder of an Ottawa water quality measurement firm. At the City Hall press conference, they all made the same, basic point. The weight of the evidence arising from a few phone calls over a couple of days was not sufficient to justify the city’s sudden rejection of the National Capital Commission’s six-month consultation study which had selected a large, surplus federal office site close to the downtown.
The panelists recommended a public inquiry to find out what had happened. I was hopeful that these four distinguished residents of Ottawa would receive the needed media traction to carry us into an Ottawa equivalent of Montreal’s Charbonneau Commission. It didn’t happen. The story caught media attention for the usual weekly Monday to Friday news cycle, then died.
The response of the city and their developers has always been silence. Say nothing and keep on going with business as usual. Sooner or later, people get tired, and the media loses interest. Nonetheless, ReImagine Ottawa persevered, approaching all three levels of government asking for a public inquiry. Later, they would organize many protests against the provincial MPP who had supported the mayor; created a photographic memory book of the trees to be destroyed; organized a coast-to-coast national singalongs; put videos together. They never quit.
Francois LeGault, Quebec’s Premier doesn’t believe in systemic racism. He thinks it’s all just a few bad apples in the barrel. The good people of Ottawa don’t believe in systemic corruption, it’s just a few bad apples in the barrel. Easily solved by kicking the bums out. Unfortunately, City Hall doesn’t work that way.
You can talk about the craziness of building a multi-generational hospital over an active fault line or extending the urban growth line to include a bog against the advice of the city’s own planners until you are blue in the face, and I have. But nothing will change until the people of Ottawa can admit to themselves, they don’t have government for the people by the people. They’ve got government for private interests by private interests.
For a brief moment, I had thought when the City’s own Integrity Commissioner found the Chair of the City’ Planning Committee had a serious conflict of interest with developers by employing one in her own office that things might change. Finally, ReImagine Ottawa had some institutional corroboration, but nothing happened except she quietly stepped down. Not a single project she pushed through Committee was reviewed. Everything stayed the same.
It was encouraging when the Provincial Inquiry into the LRT’s mismanagement unequivocally condemned the Mayor and the Chief Administrative Officer of unacceptable interference in the project’s management. (Serious stuff like hiding needed information from Council and privately over-ruling the advice of the project’s engineers). Surely now things would change, but systemic corruption like systemic racism doesn’t rely on one person or persons, that’s why it’s called systemic. The City’s Chief Administrative Officer and the Mayor, like the Planning Chair quietly resigned, and that was it.
In the real world, Ottawa Transit is still a mess. The hospital is still being built in the wrong place. Lansdowne Park is still ugly and bankrupt. The city police are still divided and ineffective. The city’s wealth dissipated on a vision of a city that’s the same as it was in 1976 with more pipes, more asphalt and sprawl and an icing of the city centre of condos to make it look like something has changed.
I have become convinced that anger, outrage (feelings) about the mismanagement of any particular city project will never work to bring about the changes that are needed. Until the people of Ottawa have composed in their minds a very different image of what their city might look like, (its structure) and how it might work, (its function) nothing will change. Feelings won’t work except to get passing headlines in the media. How a reimagined national capital might look like will be the subject of my final Watsonics essay coming soon.
Thank-you for hanging in.
Clive Doucet served as Capital Ward’s City Councillor from 1997 to 2010. He ran for Mayor twice in 2010 and 2018. His last book is Grandfather’s House, Returning to Cape Breton. The Watsonics is a nine-part political memoir being published in instalments. This is part 8 of 9.
More in this series...