“Why do you hate the NCC?” a radio host once asked me.
I was taken aback. Hate the NCC? It seemed like such a bizarre question. (The rest of the interview was just as strange. By the end of it, I was carefully examining the radio host’s hairline, marveling at how well the surgeons hid the lobotomy scar.)
Why would anyone hate the NCC? It’s sort of like a local Santa, bringing us canal skating and beaches at Meech Lake, Lac Philippe and Lac La Pêche. It makes us snow slides and provides a venue for every drunk in eastern Ontario and west Quebec to show their stuff on Canada Day.
I don’t hate it. But I think the NCC needs work, or could be radically pruned without any harm at all to the National Capital region and the country.
Let me count the reasons.
First, I live near LeBreton Flats. Most people see it as empty land, with one condo and the Canadian War Museum. But I think the flats are really a monument to bad policy. You can’t understand what happened there without reading Phil Jenkin’s great history of the neighbourhood, An Acre in Time. Jenkins artfully showed how a living, vibrant community was wiped from the city for the offence of being the poorest part of town.
The government towers that were supposed to be built there eventually rose above downtown Hull. The NCC took control of the flats and went into the ragweed-growing business. Millions of dollars later, it’s a money pit that should embarrass the feds, if such a thing was still possible.
Most cities would have ended up with a new residential community. That’s what happened on the old railway lands and vacant industrial land in downtown Toronto. Or, being a national capital, Ottawa might have ended up with a great downtown park. Every important city — New York, London, Paris, Berlin — has one.
And I’m not at all impressed that much of the accessible southern part of the Gatineau Park has come to resemble a very upscale subdivision.
Nor am I thrilled that the NCC reports to Parliament through the local political minister. That’s John Baird, but you can’t blame him. It’s always been that way, and it tells you how the top people in politics and the public service see the NCC.
I also think many of the things the NCC does — from running the canal to holding festivals — can be done by other government departments and agencies, like Parks Canada and Canadian Heritage.
Over lunch a few weeks ago, one of my friends defended the NCC. His theory — one that seems to be current among opponents of Lansdowne Park and other critics of the city’s pro-developer administration — is that we need the NCC to keep a lid on the excesses of Ottawa council.
He rightly pointed out that many councilors would be working at Cinnabon if they hadn’t found work in municipal politics. The NCC supposedly acts as a parent, letting the kids make harmless messes and taking the sharp things away.
That makes some sense, when the city is piling more than $200 million onto its debenture debt to be part of a partnership at Lansdowne that makes little public policy sense and, as the condo market sinks below the waves, may not make much economic sense either.
But I think, if the Harperites are serious about saving money, they need to do much more that simply throw people out of jobs. They need to look at ways of making sure bureaucracies like the NCC have firm mandates, don’t duplicate the work of other federal departments, and have real political scrutiny.
Make the NCC a co-ordinating agency that draws on the expertise of Parks Canada, Canadian Heritage, Canada Lands, and planning experts at the municipal and national level, rather than a service provider and land-owner. Make it transparent to the public and parliament.
Then I might learn to like it, or, heaven forbid, even love it.