Arts & Culture

Guy Laflamme, go-to visionary for 2017, speaks about plans for 150th celebration

One of the most spectacular items on his 2017 master plan involves Maman, the nine-metre-high spider in front of the National Gallery of Canada. Maman, so the story will go, had babies. One of her offspring has been trapped underground for years and, because of LRT tunnelling, is set to escape and reconnect with her mother just in time for celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

A robotic spider scales Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. Courtesy of Jordi Bover
A robotic spider scales Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. Courtesy of Jordi Bover

“That visual will go around the world,” says Laflamme, executive director of Ottawa 2017, the non-profit organization financed by municipal, provincial, and federal governments (plus self-generated revenue) that is responsible for preparing the year-long celebrations marking the country’s sesquicentennial. He believes Ottawa is about to be rebranded. His intention for the party is to make Canadians, as well as foreigners, see Ottawa as daring, provocative, and technologically savvy — an image, some would argue, that Ottawa already cultivates.

Guy Laflamme is with Ottawa 2017, the organization responsible for the country's 150th celebration. Courtesy of Dwayne Brown
Guy Laflamme is with Ottawa 2017, the organization responsible for the country’s 150th celebration. Courtesy of Dwayne Brown

Given his vision, forget Sir John A. and the Fathers of Confederation. They are the past. Instead, we are getting a robotic spider — plus an even taller fire-breathing dragon — presented by the French company La Machine this past summer.

And in the winter, there will also be daredevil athletes skating down a winding, frozen track along the locks where the Rideau Canal joins the Ottawa River. To mark the 125th anniversary of the Stanley Cup, several NHL alumni will be in the capital for various ceremonies, including photo sessions with members of the public. And the cup itself will be at Aberdeen Pavilion, original home of the Silver Seven, now known as the Senators.

Red Bull Crashed Ice competition. Courtesy of Ottawa 2017
Red Bull Crashed Ice competition. Courtesy of Ottawa 2017

Music-wise, there will definitely be some domestic and international pop stars, though Laflamme wouldn’t name names. He did say the star power will be akin to the likes of Sir Paul McCartney but as edgy as the growling, screeching Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq. “It’s going to be very edgy — the talent I’ve never been allowed to bring to Canada Day,” exclaims Laflamme, former major-events organizer for such outfits as the Department of Canadian Heritage, the National Capital Commission, and Casino du Lac-Leamy.

Laflamme, in his personal life, is an aficionado of ear-splitting techno music, Cirque du Soleil, and the high-tech plays of Robert Lepage. But his past offerings in the capital have been decidedly mainstream. Now it’s Laflamme unleashed. He credits Mayor Jim Watson, co-chair of Ottawa 2017, for giving him free rein.

That said, it’s possible that some of Laflamme’s schemes will be curtailed. The reuniting of Maman with her offspring was still being negotiated this past summer when Laflamme was interviewed. But enough events have been nailed down to ensure that Ottawa will have an unprecedented year-long party projected to be in the $50-to-$70-million range, competing with Montreal’s 375th anniversary next year and its budget of $90 million. “We need to make sure we don’t appear to be the poor cousin,” says Laflamme.

A light show underground in the LRT tunnel inside the Lyon Street stop — one of Ottawa 2017's attractions. Courtesy of Ottawa 2017
A light show underground in the LRT tunnel inside the Lyon Street stop — one of Ottawa 2017’s attractions. Courtesy of Ottawa 2017

The 2017 party is especially important for Laflamme, who will be 57 next year and plans to retire afterwards, travel the world, and then spend half of each year at his property in the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. His country home on a windswept hill overlooking the water is actually where the blueprint of Ottawa 2017 was written in the summer of 2014 by Laflamme, alone, except for window-rattling music, “good bottles of wine,” and piles of research. “It was not planning by committee,” Laflamme says.

When Laflamme started his job in 2014, he examined polls to determine what Canadians wanted for the 150th anniversary. He talked to the mayor and every city councillor individually. He consulted community and business groups, as well as organizers of Canada’s 125th and 100th anniversary events. He researched international tourism trends, Ottawa’s physical assets, and attitudes toward the city. And then he flew to the Magdalen Islands to write a 400-page blueprint.

Junos will be in Ottawa this spring. Courtesy of Ottawa 2017
Junos will be in Ottawa this spring. Courtesy of Ottawa 2017

A handful of descriptive words he calls “the DNA” of his plans define the kinds of activities to be offered. Firstly, think big, large-scale productions; then bold, audacious activities to “reposition” Ottawa as a “refreshing, contemporary,” tech-friendly city; brief, meaning visitors will have to make definite plans to view one-day wonders like the escape of the giant spider; connect, providing opportunities for strangers to meet; move, activities designed to stir emotions and “generate goosebumps”; authentic, events defining who we are as a people; transform, activities to change views of the city; immerse, events stimulating all senses.

The results?

A robotic spider; the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship (an event better known as Red Bull Crashed Ice); pop stars from Canada, Britain, Ireland, and France; National Day celebrations by at least 25 countries at the Aberdeen Pavilion and Horticulture Building in Lansdowne Park; the Junos, honouring Canadian musicians; a picnic for residents of Ottawa and Gatineau on a temporary lawn placed on a car-free Alexandra Bridge; the Canadian Video Games Awards; a sci-fi multimedia time-travel adventure on the theme of transportation along 350 metres of the underground LRT tunnel inside the Lyon Street stop; dozens of cultural activities by local organizations; and surprise events announced only a day or so before they take place.

Gatineau's mayor, Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, shares a picnic with Ottawa mayor, Jim Watson, in advance of the Interprovincial Picnic on the Bridge, scheduled for July 2, 2017
Gatineau’s mayor, Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, shares a picnic with Ottawa mayor, Jim Watson, in advance of the Interprovincial Picnic on the Bridge, scheduled for July 2, 2017. Photo: courtesy of Ottawa 2017

And then there are the large metal shipping containers. They will be stacked to resemble a spaceship on York Street in the ByWard Market and repurposed as pavilions for each province and territory as sites for art exhibitions, music performances, and fashion shows.

Courtesy of Ottawa 2017
Courtesy of Ottawa 2017

A spaceship, a fire-breathing dragon, a picnic party — one might wonder what their connection is to the 150th anniversary of Confederation. The links offered by Laflamme seem rather tenuous at times. Consider the robotic screaming fire-breathing dragon. At one point, it will be on a boat floating along the Ottawa River past the Nepean Point statue of Samuel de Champlain, who paddled the same waters 500 years ago in search of China. Well, China, represented by the dragon, has come to Ottawa and Champlain. Get it? Will anyone get it? The skating and hockey events of 2017 perhaps have a more direct link with our past, but not necessarily to Confederation.

So can you truly celebrate the sesquicentennial of Confederation without Sir John A. and the Fathers?

By and large, Canada did just that for our centennial in 1967, when the focus was instead placed on a confident future rather than a storied past. Laflamme believes the federal government in its own separate plans will cover the history angles in 2017 through museum exhibitions and other events. In truth, given the choice, wouldn’t most Ottawans want to meet a giant robotic spider rather than a Sir John A. look-alike?

Laflamme definitely prefers the spider. And he’ll have to wear the results for good or bad, since the entire party is his vision. But it’s also his swan song, and because of that, we can be fairly confident that he’s pouring everything he’s got into making it a success. “For me, it’s my grand finale,” he says. “I don’t want to leave with a failure.”