Being nervous for our first interview, Ottawa Journal is led into Mayor Jim Watson’s office. For anyone who has had the pleasure of being in the Ottawa Heritage building, the office itself is something to behold. Coming out of a narrow hallway and into a bright and spacious office, the two of us observe Mayor Watson, as he finishes plans with a member of his team. Cool and collected, he offers us both a seat. On his shelves, Mayor Watson has years and years of arts and culture memorabilia from his life and his time as mayor, which makes this reporter very excited about the coming topics to be discussed in our first ever interview.
OJ: The city, being the capital of Canada, is a major tourist destination for Canadians and for tourists around the world. Especially with some of the investments from the Canada 150th celebration, how do you see this impacting the city longterm in terms of cultural and artistic relevance?
JW: Well, 2017 was a great year for the arts community. We established many funds within the 2017 budget, to provide seed and operating funding for dozens of arts groups. They were able to build their base. See continued growth, fear of stagnant growth, but the hotels, airport visitors are well. When we set up the 2017 Bureau, we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just the big shows, but we have the opportunity to local artists to perform and display their works. For example, Art East did pop-up art celebrations around the city, the wonderful Pottery Guild do the fleur-de-lis and feather features at the Museum of Nature, or events like La Machine, the gigantic spider and dragon, that drew people into the city. The event acted as a beacon to attract people here, and once here, they come to know the national art scene, but also the local art scene, whether that be the National Arts Centre or Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC), La Nouvelle Scene and the Ontario Art Gallery. While the OAG wasn’t ready for 2017, it has had tremendous success, welcoming 20,000 people in the first month alone.
OJ: There are several major cultural festivals within the city, many of which you’ve attended or been a part of. What do you think is the key to these festivals success year after year?
JW: I think what contributes to the success of festivals is high quality of programming and artistic value. Also, to ensure that prices are affordable, and not priced out of the market. Often, we see this as including national and international talent, coupled with local talent. I met a couple who performed at Westboro Fuse Festival, who then got to perform at Bluesfest, which is so important for them. They become better known and are able to sell more CDs.
Another thing that is important to the city is to incorporate art into our everyday lives. We have a great Ottawa collection called the Firestone collection. Every station of the new LRT stops has a component of art. We allow for these inclusions in our budget, to continue to show the living symbols of art, our culture and history. For example, the public artwork displayed at Pimisi station was created entirely by Algonquin artists.
OJ: Ottawa has been known in the past as ‘the city that fun forgot’ due to its high bureaucrat population. What would you say to counter a statement like that?
JW: That is something that someone would say if they haven’t been here for a while. That statement was originally from a Maclean’s articles years ago. It is always easy and fun to take potshots at larger cities, but the reality shows otherwise. The reality is, the superb culinary scene, music scene and the various strategies around that, as well as the revitalized areas like Landsdowne Park, showcase the growth of Ottawa as a vibrant city. The numbers speak for themselves, and, people are rediscovering a new Ottawa.
It is not the same Ottawa that people remember from their school trips. I came here too for university and have found the changes. What I particularly enjoy is when ambassadors return to Ottawa and rave about how the city has changed. It’s clean, it’s safe, it’s green. You can literally be out every single night, particularly in the summer months, and we are being recognized for that. Moneysense Magazine rated Ottawa the top place to live two years in a row and that has to do with the quality of life, which includes the arts and heritage.
OJ: In 2017, the city released the Ottawa Music Strategy at the Junos that were held here. We have the talent in Ottawa and within the region matched at Toronto and Montreal, and attract Canadian talent like with the Junos to our city. Therefore, how do we engage the musicians and talent agencies that are currently located here in participating on greater scales (no pun intended)?
JW: A lot of that is somewhat outside of our control. Toronto and Montreal do tend to get larger acts. We are viewed as a mid-sized market, whereas larger acts want big venues for more money. We, however, have a number of new venues like Ottawa Arts Court and Dominion-Chalmers Church bought by Carleton to be used by the Music Department and the Ottawa Symphony. Two years ago, we created another venue at Nepean Centrepoint, in addition to the thousands of uses for that facility. So, while we can’t always compete, we are able to provide venue for local artists to shine. If you’re a young and upcoming, you aren’t competing with the Rolling Stones, but you would like the venue and capacity to get your music out there.
OJ: The biggest thing that is going to be remembered about 2018 is the LRT. People watch from the buses as they test the trains. In your opinion, what do you think will be the biggest lifestyle change that the LRT will bring to the people of Ottawa?
JW: The first thing is that it will be less stressful. The Bus Rapid Transit fails us in the downtown core, especially when competing with other traffic. The new LRT downtown is going underground and will be fully segregated, allowing people to get to where they need to be without a buffer period. I think it will bring more people downtown, and also out to the suburbs. Currently, we have the capacity to bring 8,000 people by bus to the downtown core, and with the LRT, we will triple that capacity to bring 24,000 people. Overall, it is better for the economy and for the environment, and allows people to move to a different neighbourhood they never explored before. For example, once the new stadium opens at Lebreton fields, people will have access to the train to go to a restaurant, a game or a show, without having to worry about finding two parking spots or be bogged down in traffic. It opens up people’s opportunities in regards to housing. We see this with the existing O-Train. Students from Carleton University are able to live as far as Greenboro and South Keys because they are able to take the train into school. This opens up people’s opportunities.
OJ: Going back to your younger days, did you have an artistic side?
JW: I was in high school musicals, but only in the chorus. Nonetheless, I enjoyed going to theatre and concerts, but hardly the same amount of talent.
OJ: Did you have a favourite artist growing up?
JW: When I was growing up, we didn’t have the same [access to] technology. It was essentially the radio. The Beatles and Rod Stewart were classics. I was influenced by my sister’s choices, as she was the one with the vinyl player and records. Vinyl was king. Now she works at the NAC, so it worked out. Now, I liked Sarah McLachlan, Jann Arden, Blue Rodeo, and I try to support Canadian talent through their CD sales.
OJ: What is one of the most creative pieces of work that you have seen during your time as mayor? Whether that be in the presentation of an arts or culture event or the marketing of an event?
JW: In 2017, there was a presentation called Fire and Ice. It was an outdoor winter reception in Manotick, including a bon fire reception before dinner inside the Suntech tomato greenhouses. There was a beautiful table in the middle of these tomato greenhouses. It was cold outside, warm inside, and you were surrounded by tomatoes plants! A few local chefs prepared a delicious meal. There was also a larger demonstration called Canada’s Table, where 1,000 people were invited to dinner on Wellington Street, included with entertainment.
In terms of music, there was a great event at the Shaw Centre, sponsored by CIBC, the main sponsor. It was a private concert with Blue Rodeo. Approximately 200 people attended, with gourmet foods from across Canada. I thought that was pretty special.
Also, I like the GCTC. It is a nice-sized venue that puts on a lot of fun events. Jann Arden performed there, or Rick Mercer did a charity fundraiser there. It was fun!
OJ: Ottawa is a very large city, with many distinct cultures bringing their own perspective of arts and cultural activities to Ottawa. What have been your strategies as mayor to engage the different cultures together in promoting these events?
JW: We’re very blessed to have a number of great festivals. Some that come to mind are the Lebanese fun fest, Greek Fest, Vietnamese and Chinese celebrations, Croatian, Indian, and Ukrainian festivals. All number of festivals that are tied to culture and heritage is impressive. The great thing is it allows those communities to share their cuisine, music and dance with a broader audience. We [as a city] were able to do that with ‘Ottawa Welcomes the World’, a series of diplomatic showcases at the Horticulture Building at Landsdowne. That attracted over 230,000 people. We also have the embassies all located in Ottawa, therefore we can showcase great pieces of art, and artistic showcases, all sponsored by embassies and high commissions. That’s gives Ottawa a unique advantage. Obviously, no other city has a capital advantage like that.
With the few remaining minutes and with all our questions out of the way, we challenged Mayor Watson to a Rapid Fire Question Round:
OJ: If you could meet any famous Ottawa native, alive or dead, who would you meet and why?
JW: I would say Lorne Greene. He was a CBC newscaster turned actor. He was on a famous highly rated show called Bonanza, and actually got the key to the city.
OJ:What Ottawa team would you prefer to play on? 67s, Senators, Red Blacks or Fury?
JW: I would say the Fury. I can barely skate, and football would kill me, but I played soccer in high school.
OJ:On a lunch break, would you go for poutine or shawarma?
OJ:What activity would you rather participate in: a dragon boat race, or yoga on Parliament Hill?
JW: Probably dragon boat racing. I have a head of one of the boats here in my office. I was on a team with the mayor’s office, back when I was mayor in the 90s. I believe we still hold the record for the slowest team, but I don’t think I could handle yoga in the heat!
A huge thank you to Mayor Watson and the Mayor’s Office for having us for the interview. We at Ottawa Journal are excited to explore everything and share everything our amazing city has to offer in the arts and culture realm.