PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
On the way to Ottawa, Canada's national capital, we stopped to camp near the Kingston Mills Locks on the Rideau Canal. The canals were built in the 1860s over a period of 5 years, and are apparently maintained in original condition. The lock gates are still made of wood, and are operated by hand. The lockmaster said that they transit roughly 2000 boats per season and during high season there could be up to 70 per day. We saw a 50 ft. motor yacht from Santa Cruz California going through, but the lockmaster wasn't impressed. He said that they see boats from all over the world on a regular basis. The reason this and several other canal systems were built was initially a strategic military decision. Lord Wellington, at that time the Queen's Minister of Ordnance, was convinced that Canada needed to have defensible waterway alternatives other than just the Ottawa River and the St. Lawrence River. If the United States invaded Canada again, the canal systems could ensure the mobility of forces and supplies. Colonel By was the Royal Engineer responsible for the building of the Rideau Canal and the canal was carved by hand through granite amidst outbreaks of malaria. Overall, the canal has more than 40 locks stretching along its 103 km length. The first time we came upon the Kingston Mills Locks it was near sunset and it was incredible picturesque. How European it felt! It made us yearn for a boat to wander around places like this. Boats making the passage had plenty of time to chat between locks while they filled. We learned that you could buy an annual pass for $225 and that it takes 4 days to go straight through from one end to the other. Each end of the set of locks had a dock for boats to tie up while they waited for their turn or for an overnight berth (the lockmaster and his assistants went home at dusk). There were a dozen people or so fishing for one of the eight species of local fish. All of this fit into a lovely, quiet park setting complete with picnic tables and information plaques. It was so delightful that we came back the next day to check out the activity again. A couple days later we visited the locks at the end of Canal in Ottawa. They were interesting but didn't have nearly the charming appeal that Kingston left us with.
Before touring Ottawa, we stopped to visit the eastern most element of Barb's family. Barb's cousin Carolyn (who Barb had never met) and her husband Steve live just outside the city, perhaps 25 minutes, and it feels like you're completely removed from urban life. They have 2 acres of partially wooded land. We went for a walk around the property where we learned the answer to one of life's great questions: black bears actually do s**t in the woods. While meeting family for the first time can be uncertain, it only took a few family stories to break the ice.
Carolyn took us to visit Barb's Aunt Elsie and Uncle Gordon at a nursing home where we were joined by Carolyn and Steve's daughters Laura and Jen. Jen and her boyfriend Neal even brought their German Shepherd four month old puppy to visit. It was good experience for the puppy that they were training to be "therapy/companion" dog. We had quite a party going in the visiting area.
Aunt Elsie didn't recognize Barb at first, but we could all see the recognition sweep across her face when she finally made the connection. Uncle Gordon seemed a bit overwhelmed, but appeared to be enjoying himself. He even seemed to recall some details of our annual Christmas letters.
After adopting a new found branch of the family, we spent a couple of days visiting Ottawa. Ottawa does not have the industrial or manufacturing might of Toronto, nor the urban spread. This is due to its principle employer being the federal government. Canadian government is based on the British Parliamentary system. In addition to the style of organization, they have also maintained numerous British traditions such as ceremonial guards in Royal Guard style regalia, and the Changing of the Guards outside Parliament and the Changing of the Sentries outside the Governor General's residence. The Changing of the Guards ceremony on the grounds in front of the Parliament Buildings at 10AM each summer morning is quite the affair! It draws a large crowd and provides ample fodder for photography.
The Parliament Buildings are a mix of historical showcase and real working environment. There are three main buildings - the West, the East and Central building with the Peace Tower, all built in the late 1860s (or rebuilt in the case of fire which happened to the Center building). Free tours are provided and several offices in the East building have been restored to their late 1800's appearance. As the tour guide provides a historical overview, actors in period costume portraying prominent political figures stop by to discuss the current events of the day, July 2nd, 1872. It's quite well done.
We learned quite a bit about Canada's version of a Parliamentary system. It's a constitutional monarchy under the reign of the sovereign of England. When Queen Elizabeth speaks on business with Canada, she speaks as the Queen of Canada (not as the Queen of England). One of her tasks is to appoint a Governor General, who's responsible for calling Parliament into session and ensuring that Canada always has a working government. The GG holds office for anywhere between 5-7 years. The term length is up to their discretion but precedent guides them. The two houses of the Canadian Parliament are the House of Commons, which is directly elected by their representative ridings for a four-year term, and the Senate, which is appointed by the Prime Minister, again for a four-year term. The Prime Minister is the head of the party that has the majority of seats in the House and must have won his own riding too. The House of Commons has more than three times the number of Senate seats. The Senate has evolved into a body that typically has better representation of minorities than the elected Commons due to their appointment versus election. The significant role of appointed representatives and the balance they bring to governance is thought provoking since the Senate tends to work more amicably as a body than the House. As in the American Congress, either the Commons or Senate can propose a Bill. If the party that has the largest number of seats in the Commons does not have a clear majority then life can get interesting. A key difference between the Canadian and American federal governments is that if the 'ruling' party does not get an important Bill passed with a majority of the Commons then the watchdog party/parties can request a vote of 'no confidence'. If the vote of no confidence carries then a new election is held with a minimum of 37 days notice. Then the whole party starts all over again. Think what a difference that could make in the American system of government! The comparison and contrast between the Canadian parliamentary system of government with the American Congress has made for great family discussions.
All in all, the feeling of Ottawa is completely different than Toronto. While it has significant historical architecture and, of course, many federal facilities the town itself has almost no high rises, the population seem to live more in houses versus apartment/condo complexes and the pace is much less hectic. We were a little surprised that we couldn't really identify the federal workers because they weren't necessarily wearing suits. Perhaps it was casual August because many of the government functions and Parliamentarians were on summer break.
The American Embassy was right downtown and it looked like a fortress. Small windows with somewhat subtle barricades out front so that you couldn't park near the front of the building. We're sure we saw plain clothed U.S. federal agents walking around within several blocks of the Embassy. We looked for the classic earpiece thing-a-ma-jigs but they must be more discrete with electronic equipment now. Or we just aren't keeping up with the latest spy movies!
We'll continue northeast along the mighty St. Lawrence Seaway into the province of Quebec.