An Ill Wind for the NCC Blows Through 24 Sussex
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, January 2, 2005

Not since Aristophane’s Lysistrata persuaded the women of Athens to withhold conjugal rights from husbands refusing to make peace with Sparta has a political wife effected so shrewd a move. Opening the doors of 24 Sussex Drive for charity, Sheila Martin revealed the drafty corridors, threadbare carpets and otherwise generally dilapidated condition of one of Canada’s premier heritage properties. The women of Ottawa came and tsk, tsked, as well they might. So resounding was their message, it was heard all the way to the Northwest Territories.

“We were shocked to hear about the state of the prime minister’s residence,” says Ruth Spence whose tenure on the Board of the National Capital Commission has been extended pending the creation of new appointment guidelines. “Yellowknife has new buildings but the prime minister is head of the country and needs somewhere warm and comfortable to live. Imagine if the temperature hit minus 51, like it did here a few days ago!”

The prime minister refused comment about what repairs the mansion, built in 1868, might require but the leader of the opposition didn’t hesitate. “Mr.Martin should be more concerned about the needs of Canadians than his own personal comforts,” Stephen Harper scolded in the National Post. “We have a $9 billion surplus and I’d like to see some money go to taxpayers rather than our obsession being our personal living accommodation.”

Preston Manning first questioned the value of Ottawa’s heritage properties when he called for Stornoway’s conversion to a bingo hall. In a misplaced reaction to the Gucci shoe excesses of the Brian Mulroney era, western politicians have tended to confuse stewardship and good comportment with living high off the hog. Now even the eastern politicians are being cowed into submission.

For the beleaguered National Capital Commission, among whose duties is the maintenance of official residences and heritage properties, it hasn’t made things any easier. Adding to its woes, Ottawa residents do little to make it feel welcome, as if it is some kind of NIMBY (not in my back yard) nuisance. In fact things have gotten so bad, there are calls for the chair’s resignation , a committee of local members of Parliament has convened to bring the institution “into the 21st century” and, incredibly, there’s a website dedicated to its “oblivion”.

Analyzing the problem would be simple if it was just a matter of transparency and accountability, today’s catchall phrase for whatever is wrong with anything. But the NCC received the auditor general’s Award for Excellence in Annual Reporting three times – in 1996-97, 1998-99 and 1999-2000. And, alone among Canada’s cities, Ottawa and Gatineau are the recipients of NCC largesse – last year its budget exceeded $114 million - for the creation of impressive green spaces and shorelines, museums and celebrations and, of course, official residences and heritage sites, including the parliament buildings. All of which attracts hundreds of thousands of people spawning millions in economic activity to events like Canada Day and places like the National Gallery.

Of course, as some claim, those closed NCC Board meetings could be the problem. But in four years, attendance at the NCC’s open annual general meeting went from 500 to 40+ and of thirty public meetings and consultations, the numbers reached a high of 500 on LeBreton Flats to an average of 150 for the rest. Or maybe, as architectural commentator Rhys Phillips has suggested, it is all those years of playing national cheerleader with bureaucrats, developers or retired politicians at its head. Perhaps a replacement for the NCC with signature design talents to lead it is the answer.

One thing is clear. For whatever reason, the NCC has failed to enlist Canadians, particularly those resident in Ottawa, to its higher purposes, though even this might be remedied by comparisons with cities, nationally and abroad, where similar organizations have made similar attempts.

“Capitals are the means through which countries represent themselves to their citizens and the world,” Carleton university professor John Taylor told the Ottawa Citizen last March. As the dimming of Confederation Boulevard’s 300,000 Christmas lights signals the end of the holiday season and skating on the Rideau Canal begins, let’s hope the problem is some or all of the above and not the symptom of some deep, national malaise which would be vastly more difficult to fix.

The Aristophanic manipulations of women from Ottawa to Yellowknife may have arrived just in time.

Margret Kopala writes regular columns on western perspectives

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