Saturday, July 28, 2007

Trip to Ottawa: Parliament Hill

Speaking purely for myself, the central goal of the trip was a visit to Parliament Hill. It seems to me that a trip to the capital of the country demands a visit to the very heart of government.

As mentioned previously, my first visit to the Hill during our stay in Ottawa was on the night of our arrival. The second was the real, grandiose visit, and it took place the following morning.

P-Doug and I got up early. MG wasn't interested in going because first of all, she's been to the Hill numerous times, and secondly, a lot of walking and standing takes it out of her. So P-Doug and I decided to walk from the hotel to the Hill.

The hotel we were staying at offered a complimentary Continental breakfast from 7-9 every morning. We were tardy getting there, arriving a little after 8 or so, and the place was packed. One family seemed to have perfectly timed their routine such that one or the other of their members was forever at the serving table, mastering the toaster, or picking over the pastries, or being extremely choosy about cereal... its type, its quantity, the depth of the milk. We had trouble finding a seat but we did eventually manage it and had enough to get us going.

The Changing of the Guard on Parliament Hill

P-Doug and I set out just before 9, taking our time walking along Rideau Street and Wellington Street. I decided to pull out all the stops for this... when was I going to be on Parliament Hill again?... and I brought all three of the cameras I ordinarily shoot with these days... the S70 for infrared shots, the S80 mostly for motion capture, and the Rebel XT with the 28-135mm lens attached for some strong close-ups and detail work. The first order of the day was the Changing of the Guard on the Hill, and so when we arrived at 9:30, I immediately staked out my vantage point at the outside corner of the field by the East Block and set up my tripod. P-Doug expressed surprise that I was dedicating myself so soon, with half an hour to go, but I knew what I wanted and that was the price of ensuring I got it. He excused himself to take pictures of the Centennial flame. I imagined he'd be back shortly, but as it turned out I didn't see him again till after the elaborate ceremony was over. I did catch sight (and long-distance, digitally-zoomed images) of him photographing details in the arch under the Peach Tower, though.

As I waited for the Guard to arrive, I noticed people gathering at the far end of the same field I was stationed on; nattily-dressed people seated in rows of chairs to review the ceremony I also caught the approach, from my right, of a man who appeared to me to be a French (French from France, I mean, not French-Canadian) general, accompanied by a woman who was, perhaps, his wife. They passed behind me and eventually joined the crowd up at the other end field.

The Guard arrived sharply and were on the field when the Peace Tower chimed ten o'clock. Two different regiments; one from Saskatchewan and one from Quebec, I think. They looked magnificent; “spankin' in red”, as Sgt. Obadiah said in one episode of Sharpe. A hundred of them, maybe more, marching to their own brass band music and bagpipes. For half an hour they owned the field and the eyes of the couple thousand spectators gathered all around them. When they left the field, traffic halted as they marched away down Wellington Street. I was surprised; I would have expected that was typical in London, but I hadn't expected patience with that kind of thing on this side of the Atlantic. I have to say, it was kind of heartwarming to witness. I mean, I guess people didn't have much choice, but they didn't make a fuss, either.

The tour of the Centre Block

Afterwards P-Doug found me, packing up my gear, and we wandered the grounds for a bit. In his travels, he had noticed a large white tent on the west side of the Hill and it turned out to be where one acquired the (free) tickets to tour the Parliament Buildings. P-Doug snagged what were just about the last two for the Centrel Block tour just before noon. So we looked around, mostly at the statues of Canadians, monarchs, and Fathers of Confederation to be found there, before queuing up for the tour. When I last toured the Parliament Buildings in the mid-80 as a teenager, the group simply gathered before the Peace Tower and were led in the front. Not anymore. These are the days of post-9/11. We had to line up to a lower door around the side of the Tower, and for the next half hour we trudged forward, a little more, a little more... finally we came to security centre where we had to empty our pockets, demonstrate cell phones really worked, and things like that. P-Doug had his Swiss Army knife confiscated for the duration of the tour; my camera tripod was taken from me (P-Doug pointed out that this was actually a blessing in disguise since it saved me from having to lug it around for nothing). I suppose I'm glad someone's taking this stuff seriously, but it makes me sad. For hundreds of years, people could just tour the Hill and no one made them feel like potential criminals. Someone in the 1960s actually did plan to bomb the House of Commons and ended up killing himself instead when his bomb went off in the washroom while he was setting it up, but even then they didn't make you jump through security hoops afterwards. Yet some people hundreds of miles away crash planes into a couple of buildings – something that security on the sites of those targets would have done absolutely nothing to prevent – and suddenly, here we are. It's weird, don't you think? It's like burning your finger taking out a roast, but not bothering to wear oven mitts till your neighbour dies from smoking in bed.

The suggestion while we were in line was that we weren't going to see much of anything. The list I could see suggested that we weren't going to get to see the Commons, or the Memorial Chambre – both, actually, the two things I most wanted to see. But just to be inside the building would be enough. Surely, there would be wonderful things to see and photograph.

Our guide was a young woman in her early 20s. She showed us first the foyer of the House of Commons. This is where the reporters wait to pounce on MPs, cabinet members, and the Prime Minister as they either emerge from or enter the House. Our guide pointed out the corner where well-known Parliamentary reporter Mike Duffy routinely sets up. It was a nice, homey touch that just about any Canadian would have appreciated. It made the place real, immediate, ours. The place in our living rooms nightly, with those familiar faces.

To my surprise and delight, we were indeed ushered into the House of Commons, with its green seats, wooden desks, and stained glass. The Prime Minister's chair was tipped forward to let visitors know which it was. We were told that the stained glass windows had been ordinary glass till the 1970s, but that they had been replaced with these beautiful ones, each of which represented a province or territory (at the time, there were 12 instead of 13, since Nunavut wasn't created till 1999). Though we were only there a few minutes, I felt honoured to be in there, thinking of the people who've passed through, both Canadians and statesmen from abroad, and the history that's been made there.

We passed through a hall that formed a gallery of all the British monarchs of Canada, from its earliest days to the present. We were taken to a conference room that also doubles as a gallery for all the French monarchs of Canada, up to the French and Indian War when New France effectively ceased to be.

From there, the Senate. Canada's Senate is unelected, and some provinces are vastly over-represented and others vastly under-represented. Some people want to make it elected and essentially equal to the Commons. Some people want to abolish it altogether. I personally would like to see it elected, so long as the Commons has the final say when push comes to shove, and the power to tax and spend stays with the Commons alone. Regardless of all that, the Senate Chambre is beautiful, clothed in regal red. It is in the Senate that Parliament is opened, since the monarch is forbidden by practice from entering the House of Commons (at least in any official capacity). Canada's thrones are here; ordinarily, Parliament is opened from those thrones by the Governor General, though there has been at least one occasion that I know of where Queen Elizabeth II herself opened Parliament in Canada; in 1957, I believe, when John Diefenbaker became Prime Minister after his massive electoral victory.

Eventually we were shown to the Library of Parliament. One of those “obscure” facts that everybody knows is that the Library was the only part of the Centre Block to survive the fire of 1916 that destroyed the rest. People seem to marvel at the sheer genius of... closing the doors. I'm pleased it was done, but a little amused by the way people seem to treat this as something akin to glimpsing relativity. Closing thick iron doors in advance of a fire... I have to imagine that idea predates World War I. Still, it's good that it was done. The building is a jewel, and its loss would have made Canada a little poorer, no matter what replaced it. Having just been re-opened to the public after years of renovation, it's beautiful just to look at. We were told that the statue of Queen Victoria, which dates to the 1850s (I think), had to be wrapped in “miles” of bubble wrap when it was removed to prevent damage to it during the restoration efforts.

The official tour ended there, but just about everyone in our group made their way up the Peace Tower to the elevators that take you to the observation deck. P-Doug pointed out something I'd forgotten: once, the elevator stopped below the bells of the Carillon, and you climbed stairs the rest of the way. But that meant the deck was unavailable to people in wheelchairs. An ingenious elevator was designed that moves slightly sideways, around the bells, a bit like one of the turbolifts on the Enterprise, and takes visitors right up to the observation deck. The view of the Ottawa River and Gatineau on the other side is something everyone in the country deserves to see at least once. Ottawa itself is a city of trees, not unlike Toronto in that respect, and here and there landmarks of significance can be easily discerned... the statue of Champlain, the Rideau Canal, Rideau Hall where the Governor General lives, the National Art Gallery, the National War Museum, the National War Memorial, the Museum of Civilization, the US Embassy...

On the way down, the next stop, virtually obligatory, is the Memorial Chambre. This is where the Books of Remembrance are kept, recording the names of the Canadians of various services who have given their lives in war or in other service to the country. The central book records the names of those lost in World War II. The chambre is lined in marble, its walls carved with crests, poems, and quotes in English and French about the sorrows of war and loss. It is a place of solemn reflection, not vainglory. The pride to be felt there is the pride of having endured what had to be endured to preserve a way of life, not that of having destroyed someone else's. P-Doug and I lingered there for quite a while.

From there, we made our way back to the hotel, and launched the abortive, many-Quebecked attempt to see the National Art Gallery laid-out elsewhere.

The National War Memorial

Though it's strictly not part of Parliament Hill, the National War Memorial is so close-by, and the ceremony so similar to what we'd seen on the Hill, that I think it bears mention here rather than elsewhere.

Sunday morning we on our way to the National War Museum. It wasn't due to open for a while yet, and so it seemed only fitting that we stop and take a few shots of the National War Memorial near Parliament Hill en route. We got there at quarter to 9, took some beautiful shots of the cenotaph, and were on the verge of leaving when I noticed something exciting. Up out of the stairway from Rideau Canal, five soldiers in red coats and a piper in kilt were emerging. They assembled themselves, and marched past. I realized that they were the honour guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Two of them broke off, given instructions by the commander, and the piper and remaining three red coats departed (I gather the soldiers are relieved hourly). The two soldiers in the honour guard performed a few synchronized maneuvers before setting up, stock straight, to stand their watch. It was moving. I was horrified to discover, though, that my camera hadn't been set up right to record the march past. So I determined to get up and out early before we left Monday morning and record it properly, and I did. Some of the shots you see here are from that second session.

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