I step on the escalator a second time, grip the railing and throw my head back to watch Alex Janvier’s masterpiece reveal itself on the ceiling seven storeys above. While its formal moniker is Morning Star, visitors to Ottawa–Gatineau’s Canadian Museum of History commonly refer to it as a modern-day Sistine Chapel.
As the escalator climbs past the curvy white staircases that conceal parts of the painting from below, the full glory of the circular work shows itself on the dome of the Haida Gwaii Salon. I grip the railing a little tighter and ponder the layers of meaning in its geometric shapes and colours—the circle of life, the four seasons and the clash of Indigenous and European cultures.
After a third escalator ride, I leave Morning Star to the next amazed visitor and continue exploring other highlights of the museum, from tall totem poles of the Pacific Northwest to Nova Scotia’s famous Bluenose. Outside the museum, just across the Ottawa River, Canada’s Parliament Buildings glisten in the winter sun.
I zip my coat and head to Parliament Hill to soak in more history and revel in Ottawa’s snowy wonderland. I join people warming their hands at the Centennial Flame, which was first lit to mark the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967. Some dig in their pockets for spare change to toss in the surrounding fountain. They get a wish and every year, a Canadian with a disability receives about $5,000 in money collected from the water.
The Hill has 20 or so monuments and statues that test my memory of grade-eight history class. A sculpture marking the War of 1812 is popular with kids who climb over its cannon. There’s Sir John A. Macdonald, one of many tall bronze figures. Our first prime minister is also the man who charged Manitoba Métis leader Louis Riel with high treason under a little-known 1342 British law.
There is happier history here too. Beaming families pose with the Famous Five, statues of the women from Western Canada who fought bitterly for women to be declared “persons under the law”—a fight they finally won in 1929.
It stands to reason that the capital city of the Great White North would embrace winter with open, parka-clad arms. Sure enough, Ottawa offers plenty of ways to enjoy the snow and more than a few places to escape it.
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The Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was created after the War of 1812 to make sure there was a secure route from the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario. As it turns out, it’s been more valuable for the purpose of merriment rather than military.
Whether you bring your own skates or rent a pair at the canal, you’ll glide alongside tourists, university students going to school and commuting workers, briefcases in hand. But don’t let the world’s largest skating rink intimidate you—while the Skateway’s surface spans more ice than 105 NHL rinks combined, it’s still about a kilometre short of Winnipeg’s skating trail along the Assiniboine and Red rivers at The Forks.
Wandering down from Parliament Hill toward Sparks Street, I keep my eyes peeled for politicians who aren’t yet cast in bronze. I pop into Brixton’s Pub for a pint and hope to spot a Member of Parliament. The TVs in this pub are more likely to be tuned to the news than sports, and if you look carefully, you may see faces from the screen talking policy at the next table.
It seems fitting to raise my glass to Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The Liberal-Conservative MP was shot dead down the street in 1868 as he entered his lodgings after a late sitting of the House. The man charged with the murder, Patrick Whelan, was convicted on flimsy evidence and hung at the old Ottawa Jail, just a few blocks from Brixton’s.
I learn more about the evidence—or more accurately, the lack thereof—on the Ghost and Gallows tour. We meet our guide in a dramatic, long, black cape on Sparks Street and walk over to the jail to see death row and the gallows. The small stone jail opened for business in 1842 and opened again as a hostel in 1973, after the locks on the cells were moved to the inside of the heavy metal doors.
If you’d rather your chills remain strictly weather-related, zip up your coat, go directly past jail, and walk a few blocks north to ByWard Market. The lively shopping neighbourhood is named for Lieutenant Colonel John By, a Royal Engineer and the man who built the 202-kilometre Rideau Canal and its series of locks—a 19th-century engineering marvel. While likely not as challenging, By also designed the four-block market where today you’ll find museums and galleries, boutiques, restaurants, cafés and pubs.
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By died in 1836 before he could toast his success at ByWard’s Chateau Lafayette, the oldest tavern in Ottawa. The Laff, as it’s affectionately known to locals, opened in 1849 and has been welcoming dignitaries and dive-bar aficionados alike ever since. Every Saturday afternoon for the past 20 years, Lucky Ron has been making his own kind of history on the Laff’s small stage. Devoted regulars lovingly heckle the country singer who plays the same standards in the same order every week, 52 weeks a year.
I join the crowd singing along—“Yippie yi ooh/Yippie yi yay/Ghooooooost riders in the sky”—and laugh as regulars partake in some good-natured ribbing. Lucky Ron happily pretends he can’t hear them. As the show continues, the queue outside grows as people clamour to take part in this bit of local history, in spite of the freezing weather. In Ottawa, it seems, not even frigid temperatures can cool the mood.
Getting there: Direct flights from Edmonton and Calgary to Ottawa take about four hours.
Eat & drink: Feast on a panwich (a pancake breakfast sandwich), poutine and hearty fare at Flapjack’s Canadian Diner, near the Rideau Canal, then, for dinner, seek out tacos and small plates inspired by Southeast Asian street food at Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen & Bar in ByWard Market.
Things to do: Ottawa’s Winterlude festival proves that ice is nice. From Feb. 2 to 19, 2018, visitors can nibble on maple taffy, watch competitive ice carving and zipline above the snowy scene. Throughout winter, Gatineau Park, just across the Ottawa River in Quebec, boasts more than 200 kilometres of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails.
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