I remember Canada’s 100th birthday, July 1, 1967. I celebrated at Expo67 in Montreal, part of a crowd of, if I remember correctly, 471,000 people who gathered to celebrate the centennial.
So when they predicted 450,000-500,000 people converging in Ottawa for Canada Day 2017 I wasn’t deterred by the thought of a crowd that big. I went downtown anyway. For the next couple of days my thoughts on the celebration, starting with some generalities and hopefully adding a few insights. In 1967 I rode the monorail a lot on the Expo site. In 2017 I had to make due with OC Transpo, our public transit system. Nice to have you along for the ride.
It had been pouring rain for a couple of hours. I figured that would deter some of the crowds. I was wrong.
My first clue was at the Transitway station. On normal a Saturday there is never more than a half-dozen cars in the parking lot. This Saturday it was full.
The bus ride downtown was non-stop. Standing room only. Everyone going to the same spot, Parliament Hill.
The bus dropped us off four blocks from the Hill at 11 a.m. The streets were closed and people lined the streets for as far as the eye could see, waiting to go through the security checkpoint at the base of the Hill. My estimate was that I would be lucky to get through the line in less than three hours. Checking news reports later I discovered I was wrong – it was at least five hours, for some eight. They were expecting half a million people and it seemed like they had all arrived at once.
Maybe I am not patriotic enough. I wasn’t willing to line up that long. Not even for the chance to see Prince Charles and Camilla, or to hear Bono and The Edge. (I did see Charles on the giant screen, reviewing the honour guard several streets away. I guess there wasn’t room on Parliament Hill to have that ceremony.) However, having been around all week and watching the security arrangements being put into place, I knew where the VIP entrance was. I guess writing this blog makes me a VIP, because they let me in.
The lawn in front of Centre Block was a sodden mess. I was thankful that I had worn rain boots. I saw a number of people who had opted to go barefoot, carrying their shoes and socks, and as I left the Hill shortly after 1 p.m. they were pumping the water off the lawn. As I read later in the day, large sections of the lawn normally filled with people were empty and there were only 25,000 people attending the noon-hour show, compared to 40,000 last year. I suspect that was a security thing, there were more than 15,000 people in the various lines. I wasn’t sure where some of them headed – access was not well defined or at least not that I could see.
The music on Canada Day runs for hours, the cream of the country’s musical crop, more or less. A lot depends on what you like. I’m not a big fan of the performances, which is one of the reasons I have avoided the Canada Day crowds most years. It’s usually one song, then on to the next act. That isn’t long enough for my taste, unless it is a group I really dislike.
For example, Buffy Sainte-Marie was the first musical act I recognized, right after an indigenous dance performance. I’ve seen her perform a couple of times in the past decade. Always a great show. And she was great this time, but only for one song. That just was not enough.
There were still thousands in line when I left, having decided I would come back later for what was promised to be a phenomenal fireworks show. Public transit was free all day, and so there was no reason to stick around downtown.
I don’t know many people who planned to come to the hill for the festivities. Some expressed concerns about terrorism (the threat level has been unchanged since 2014, but that doesn’t seem to have sunk in). Others don’t like crowds. Everyone who was there, except me, was wearing red and white, our national colours. I just didn’t think of it.
I have avoided the crowds each July 1 for more than 15 years, pointing out that I can always go next year. With a move coming this fall I figure it may be another decade before I am in Ottawa for Canada Day. So this time I felt I should go, whether I wanted to or not. I’m glad I did, but don’t expect to miss it next year.