The Big 150

Why I love Ottawa — Former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson’s favourite places

277 Sussex Street

When we moved into the attached house at 277 Sussex in 1942, it was called Sussex Street and had not achieved the grandeur of “drive.” It was the middle house of three attached dwellings directly across from the Royal Canadian Mint. One of the reasons I still love Ottawa is that several years ago, when there was a planning decision to create a bike lane and widen Sussex Drive and tear the three houses down, there was an outcry from historical preservationists and others in the neighbourhood. In short, the three little houses were saved! Not only were they saved, but they were shored up and new foundations were put under them, and they look as though they’ll be there for some time.

A wonderful irony is that I returned to live in Ottawa in 1999 at 1 Sussex Dr., which is Rideau Hall, the residence of the governor general. When I was a little child, we used to get on the streetcar almost in front of our door on Sunday and take it down to Rockcliffe Park, carrying a blanket, my mother’s favourite magazines, and a box with sandwiches and drinks. On special occasions, we were treated to a hot dog made on the bottom floor of that stone pavilion, and they were the best hot dogs I have ever eaten to this day. The buns were pressed in a grill with the hot dog inside. Yum!
Never in my life did I dream that I would live behind those wrought-iron gates in that park with its stately columns.

The Central Experimental Farm

We would take the streetcar from our second dwelling in Ottawa, which was on Laurier Street — a four-plex apartment building — to what seemed like the outer limits of our world. We would enter the car, carrying a basket with a picnic in it, and head straight to the Arboretum, where my mother was blissed out looking at the plants and flowers and muttering to herself and to us, “We will have a garden sometime.” I remember one occasion where we took a chocolate cake, which my mother had just learned to make, with marshmallow icing, and somehow it spread all over the inside of our basket. We ate it all up anyway with our fingers, right there in the middle of that beautiful Arboretum.

Rideau Hall

This strange ever-changing, ever-growing building was my home for six years. The first time I had a tour, it was very depressing. However, I was immediately told that, with each governor general, the interior was painted and that “refreshing” happened to the rooms. Happily, with a combination of good will on the part of the National Capital Commission’s curators and the wonderful gardening staff, we were able to bring Rideau Hall back from its faded distress to some of its deserved attractiveness. We planted perennials in the gardens so that there would not be tens of thousands of geraniums and impatiens pulled out, leaving ugly brown beds for eight months of the year to be looked at from all the windows. We engaged in a historical reconstruction of the gardens as they had been laid out by Lady Byng and Norah Michener. The interiors were painted the colours that a house of that dimension in the 1840s would have been painted — ochre, yellow, and shades of red. We had a wonderful time serving Canadian foods to visitors when they came to Rideau Hall, and it was a wonderful way to leave one’s mark on something that was historic and deserved not only to be preserved but to be embellished and treasured.

 After the government purchased the land in 1868, the former MacKay family home (built in 1838 by stonemason Thomas MacKay) was added to extensively, creating a patchwork of styles, but none so unusual as the Tent Room. Resembling a candy cane or a popcorn box, it was created by the Earl of Dufferin (Canada’s third governor general) to host indoor parties reminiscent of outdoor events held in England’s more accommodating weather. The room also doubled as a tennis court. Later, portraits of key figures in Canada’s sports history replaced tennis racquets and balls: Lord Stanley, who donated “the cup,” and Earl Grey, who donated the other (CFL) “cup.” Elsewhere, Glenn Gould’s practice piano occupies a corner of the Long Gallery, while the Ballroom bedazzles guests with its one-tonne chandelier (boasting 12,000 crystals) given to Canada by England for its aid in the Second World War. Caption: Matt Harrison. Photo: Marc Fowler
After the government purchased the land in 1868, the former MacKay family home (built in 1838 by stonemason Thomas MacKay) was added to extensively, creating a patchwork of styles, but none so unusual as the Tent Room. Resembling a candy cane or a popcorn box, it was created by the Earl of Dufferin (Canada’s third governor general) to host indoor parties reminiscent of outdoor events held in England’s more accommodating weather. The room also doubled as a tennis court. Later, portraits of key figures in Canada’s sports history replaced tennis racquets and balls: Lord Stanley, who donated “the cup,” and Earl Grey, who donated the other (CFL) “cup.” Elsewhere, Glenn Gould’s practice piano occupies a corner of the Long Gallery, while the Ballroom bedazzles guests with its one-tonne chandelier (boasting 12,000 crystals) given to Canada by England for its aid in the Second World War. (Caption: Matt Harrison. Photo: Marc Fowler)

We also got many of the public galleries of Canada, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and many others, to lend paintings on two-to-three-year cycles, which meant that all visitors — we raised that count to 250,000 visitors per year — could see Canadian art in Canada’s house. I am so happy that Michaëlle Jean and David Johnston have continued this practice!

National Arts Centre and the Precinct of the War Memorial

To me, this is the heart of Ottawa and where I was often placed as a child with my class from Elgin Street School or Kent Street School to welcome President Vincent Auriol of France or Princess Elizabeth, as she was then in 1951. The National War Memorial, to my mind, is the finest war memorial in the world. Nothing conveys the tension and the courage as well as that gun wagon and the soldiers and officers beside it, under that Memorial Arch. Every Remembrance Day for six years, I took the salute as commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces, and every year it was an extremely moving and wonderful occasion. The single most memorable moment of my mandate as governor general was the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
On the other side was the Château Laurier, where I had competed for — and lost — the Rotary public-speaking contest when I was 15, and where our family used to celebrate my parents’ wedding anniversary and occasions like our birthdays in the Château Grill Room.

And, of course, across from the Château Laurier was Union Station, where I remember going with my parents after the war to see soldiers returning. It was also the train that would take us to Montreal when we went twice a year to do some serious shopping for fashionable clothes. My mother alwa–ys wanted to go on the train to buy our winter coats at Ogilvy!

The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson was the 26th Governor General of Canada, from 1999 to 2005, and is the co-founder and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship