“Didn’t you used to be Jim Watson?” Former mayor looks back
People & Places

“Didn’t you used to be Jim Watson?” Former mayor looks back

Serving the people of Ottawa over the last 12 years as mayor was the honour of a lifetime. During my time in office, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting thousands of residents from all walks of life and in all corners of the city.

From bake sales to community barbecues, corporate galas to rural fairs, every interaction has been an opportunity for me to learn from those who care about the future of Ottawa — and for that, I’m truly grateful.

If I could be so bold as to offer one piece of advice to my successor, it would be this: never assume that everyone knows you just because you’re the mayor of a G7 capital. Two stories stick out to me as both funny and humbling reminders of this reality.

During the last municipal election, I was canvassing at a seniors’ apartment building on Richmond Road. At one door, a resident greeted me with great enthusiasm and said, “Thank God you’re here! I’ve been waiting for you.”

I had rarely been met with such excitement and anticipation while canvassing. I then asked her why she was so enthusiastic, to which she replied, “Because I’ve been waiting all afternoon for you to come fix my TV!”

Illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia

I burst her bubble when I told her I was the mayor of Ottawa and was there to ask for her vote in the upcoming election. Without missing a beat, she said, “Well, you’re not much use to me then!”

I handed her a brochure and we bid adieu. My volunteers had a little chuckle as we headed to the next door.

The second story involved a snowmobile. My colleague and friend, councillor George Darouze, had been trying for years to get me out to his snowmobile club in Osgoode. With more than 1,000 members, it had been named the best snowmobile club in North America, and he was rightly proud of all the volunteers who run the programs and groom the trails.

A few years ago I headed out to Osgoode and got a crash course on driving one of those sleds. I then took it out for a brief spin outside the clubhouse — and clearly had not paid much attention to my safety briefing, as I forgot the difference between the gas and the brake. Within two minutes of me mounting the snowmobile, I crashed into George’s sled and went flying in the air, landing on hard-packed snow and one of the skis from his machine.

I was immediately taken to the Queensway Carleton Hospital, where I was told I had broken my pelvis in three places. I quickly realized I couldn’t stay in my two-storey home, as I was now confined to a wheelchair. So I booked myself into a seniors’ retirement home in the Glebe to convalesce for the next two months.

When I began my stay at the Lord Lansdowne, the very helpful staff told me I could eat in the dining room or, for more privacy, have my meals brought up to my room. For the first few weeks, I opted to have the meals brought to me, as I was a bit self-conscious of the state I was in.

I believe it was my sister, Jayne, who told me I should be more sociable and go downstairs to eat with the rest of the residents — who were all fairly older than I was. I finally dragged myself into my wheelchair to roll down to the dining room. I was directed to a table for two, to dine with a very nice elderly resident.

We began chatting and she asked me what I do for work. I replied that I work for the city of Ottawa. She then said, “Isn’t it terrible what happened to the mayor
on his snowmobile?”

I then had to fess up that I, in fact, was the mayor. She then responded, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you. You need to get your picture in the paper more often.” At that moment, I could envisage every reporter and politician rolling their eyes and laughing at that last statement.

There are dozens of other times when you’re brought down a peg or two, like the Starbucks server asking for your name, or being mistaken for John Manley, or the ultimate: “Didn’t you used to be Jim Watson?”

Despite being the longest-serving mayor in Ottawa’s history, these stories reminded me — and all in public life — to never assume you’re as well-known as you think you are. As my late mother used to say: “Don’t get too big for your britches!”

Wise advice for any new or aspiring public official: Humble pie should always be on your daily menu.

Jim Watson is the former mayor of Ottawa. He has also served as a city councillor and a Member of Provincial Parliament.