Ottawa: Canada’s Creative Capital?

Photograph by Douglas Sprott. On the surface, local Ottawa is not remarkable. But take a closer look...

In 2009, celebrity academic Richard Florida called Ottawa the most creative city in the country. The news surprised everyone, including many Ottawans. For decades, the capital of Canada has suffered a reputation as a stuffy government town.

Florida’s findings were published in a study called Ontario in the Creative Age. Granted, part of the reason Ottawa emerged at the top is because 40.9% of the population here is defined as “Creative Class”, people who think for a living. Many of these include public servants. I can hear the guffawing already – since when are government workers ever qualified as “creative”? More on that in a moment.

Florida has been written off in some academic and media circles as an opportunist and a trendy “flavour of the month” intellectual. While I don’t wholly agree with his overall approach, I do see something useful in his research. What the findings confirm is Ottawa’s creative potential. After eight years of living in this city, the metaphor that aptly captures Ottawa for me is an awkward teenager. It is constantly looking to its older siblings Toronto and Montreal for inspiration and clues as to what it should become. But ultimately Ottawa needs to look within to discover itself and to blossom. And when I say Ottawa, I mean local Ottawa – not the Capital of Canada. Local Ottawa comprises the parts of our city that don’t include Parliament Hill, the Rideau Canal and anything else you might find in a tourism brochure.

Where is creative potential found in Ottawa? It may come as a surprise, but there are plenty of people here who are among the ranks of the public service, trying to make a difference. Nick Charney is one example of a public servant who actively uses social media to engage his peers and the public on innovation in government. There are others who, perhaps frustrated with bureaucracy, will choose another outlet that’s distinct from their day job. I know public servants who moonlight as musicians, artists and writers. But it doesn’t end there. There are a host of independent cafes, tech start-ups and social entrepreneurs emerging all over the city (though the majority remain concentrated downtown). There is an arising restlessness for change and I am not sure where it’s coming from. Could it be from the new arrivals Ottawa is attracting to the city because of its relatively stable economy, while in the midst of a recession?

Florida is right, the talent is here. The issue that comes up again and again in the nation’s capital is the lack of institutional support and infrastructure for nurturing this creativity. There is a risk of losing the talent without this support. This is in fact a weakness that Florida points out, “if [Ottawa] doesn’t gain talent as quickly as its peers it will be left behind.”

I know far too many people who escape to Toronto or Montreal on the weekends because they cannot find the right kind of social life here. Ottawa’s core downtown district generally shuts down by five or six o’clock on a week day because customers are not available after hours. Instead, they go home to their families after work. If the city had an efficient transit system to tie its core with outlier communities, then perhaps Ottawa wouldn’t be half the sleepy government town it presently is. Or maybe it is a question of actively engaging single urban professionals in city life. Local artists and musicians would have better access to local audiences and would be more likely to stay, rather than leave for opportunities in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

Those are some initial thoughts, anyway. But what do you think? What do we need to do inject some life into this city?

0 thoughts on “Ottawa: Canada’s Creative Capital?

  • Lia

    Great article, Amen. I think we often confuse nightlife with creativity, although people always do assume there’s no culture without bars and dancing. Ottawa is known as a great place to raise a family and I think that the creative culture here is in line with that, in that it is a daytime culture. Personally I experience the creativity of the town online or immediately after work, dropping in on galleries etc. Most of our established cultural places are in shopping high streets rather than in night-time areas.

    But if the question really is, how can we have more nightlife? I have no answer for that one. Good luck!

  • Bob LeDrew

    I also think there’s a change in what “nightlife” is. For example, we host house concerts. In the last three and a bit years, we’ve held about 27 concerts. We’ve probably had more than 600 people come through the house to hear a show. We’ve also likely put about $20K in the pockets of the artists who’ve come through the doors. Some have walked away from our house with $1500 or more.

    All of this happens under the radar. There’s no postering, no ads, most of the time no media. It’s people coming together to enjoy music and support it.

    I recently went to a local bar to hear a musical friend play. We could barely hear the music over the din of chatter and because of the layout. I’m at the point of just giving people I know money rather than going to the show, because I WANT TO HEAR THE MUSIC.

    There’s a subliminal culture movement happening in music, and I think in other forms of art as well.

  • Bianca Spence

    As a born-and-raised Torontonian who moved to Ottawa 5 years ago, my first observation is that there is a vibrant cultural community, but not much in the way of subculture, or freebies, or PWYCs. The downtown area is generally pretty quiet on the weekends. I think a nightlife fuels community, which in turn fuels more creativity. Living without a car makes it a challenge to go to certain “house concerts” in the suburbs, or to venues like The Black Sheep in Wakefield.

    Since moving here, I feel like I have to search for culture and creativity. In bigger centres, like Toronto and Montreal, it finds me.

  • Rusty Priske

    Every time I see someone say that there isn’t things going on in Ottawa I scratch my head.

    No nightlife in Ottawa? There are so many events – and I mean GREAT events – going on that I have to skip way too many.

    Poetry shows alone fill pretty much every possible day.

    If you can’t find what is going on, you aren’t looking very hard.

  • Mike L

    No nightlife? Maybe I’m biased because I live in Sandy Hill but I never lack a place to go and party regardless of the night. Sure the downtown core gets empty, but did you honestly not know that the bars of Bank, Elgin and the market are a short walk away?

    As already said, nightlife doesn’t equal creativity, but at least recognize that there is nightlife.

  • Amen

    Thanks Lia :) Perhaps you could clarify for others what you mean by nightlife? That can be a catch-all term to refer to any number of things…did you mean nightclubs? Seeing more people on the streets? etc.

  • Kevin Bourne

    Nice article Amen!

    I believe creativity in a broad sense is an afterthought in Ottawa. When we talk about creative economy in Ottawa we really mean technology. There are so many other creative industries.

    People, especially leaders, can look at the institutionalized forms of creativity like the NAC and the museums and think that means Ottawa’s creative scene is healthy but these national artistic outlets don’t reflect what’s going on locally (and aren’t really a platform for local creativity).

    I’m not sure if leaders and decision-makers in the city are well-connected to the different creative industries in the city, especially those thta aren’t mainstream. Is creativity in general a real core value of Ottawa? I question whether there is consistency in the vision of City Hall and the NCC. Sometimes the policies of the NCC conflict with efforts at the local level.

    I agree cities like Ottawa should primarily look within for inspiration but there are also advantages to looking without whether to Toronto, Montreal, Sydney, London or Paris. Every city has a strength that other cities can learn from.

  • Amen

    I was thinking about the vague concept of “creativity” in Ottawa, and I think it boils down to organic and fluid communities. With the number of strict rules Ottawa has in place, people aren’t free to gather, take risks and generally freely express themselves in the city. In the great cities of our time, such as New York (it always goes back to NYC for me), these sorts of gatherings and practices are widely promoted. Note the free Wi-Fi access in parks, the ping-pong tables, the public chess games. You can be anonymous in a city like that, but you are also encouraged to interact with your fellow urbanites. Recently (like, a week ago!) a friend tried to do sidewalk art in Ottawa and was threatened by a city councillor for her actions, because it was regarded as “vandalism”. I mean, come on! This may be fodder for my next column, so stay tuned. More rants to come! :)

    And thanks for the comments, love hearing everyone’s thoughts on this!

  • Amen

    Not to rag too much on Ottawa, I will grudgingly acknowledge that there instances in this city where this fluidity is represented, albeit in carved out events and spaces. For examples the music festivals and most especially, on Canada Day. Ironically there is the one day of year where many Ottawans actually prefer to stay in the city, where Ottawa (usually) get its right. And it’s because it’s the one time of year where the city lets its guard down and lets its citizen act as they please. Sure, it’s a bit chaotic, but probably not more so than any other healthy and vibrant city. And if we’re going to give citizens only a few days of the year to “be crazy”, so to speak, what else can you expect? Hah.

  • Kevin Bourne

    On a side note I looked up “creative industries” on Wikipedia and it lists these insutries: advertising, architecture, art, crafts, design, fashion, film, music, performing arts, publishing, R&D, software, toys and games, TV and radio, and video games.

    Ottawa is a player in R&D and software, and a minor but growing player in video games and performing arts, but in the other creative industries it is barely on the map if at all. If being Canada’s Creative Economy Capital is something we aspire to and want to work towards I think it’s great, but we’re not there yet.

  • Ian

    Hi Amen,

    I must say the fact that Ottawa has been named Canada’s creative capital perhaps does a disservice to many other Canadian Cities like; Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto.

    Kevin Bourne’s definition of creativity is a good one. Based on that it is unclear to me how Ottawa could be Canada’s most creative city.

    Back in November of 2009 I had written a blog post called “Ottawa the city of comfortable brown shoes” which IMHO more accurately captures our Creative status. Don’t get me wrong I love Ottawa … and hate it too and want to affect change in a positive way. However, to call Ottawa Canada’s creative capital is more than a bit of a stretch. In Jim Collins Book “Good to Great” one of the key differentiators of good versus great are facing the brutal facts.

    Like it or not Ottawa is a city laden in bureaucracy from the federal government to the NCC acting like the department of silly rules and let’s not forget the City of Ottawa with even more rules and regulations (like sidewalk painting incident) or as I like to think of it a bureaucracy for bureaucrats. Bureaucracy has a huge impact on local creativity that seeps and permeates into many aspects of the city.

    If you look at just the raw numbers Ottawa may have more people per capita employed in creative industries, however, what is the creative output? Montreal from a cursory glance strikes me as a far more creative city than Ottawa. Why do I say this; great vibe and energy in the downtown core and world class creative output (robust gaming industry, artistic community and Cirque du Soleil). Where is the Ottawa equivalent of Cirque du Soleil?

    Being critical of Ottawa’s creativity doesn’t mean I love Ottawa less than other people … perhaps more.

    What are you (readers in general) doing to make Ottawa more creative?

  • Amen

    I think the creative output is there, Ian. Again, due to the rate of attrition in this city the numbers are not as large as their potential and because it’s largely hidden from public view. I think what’s most needed is for the citizens in this city to finally wake up and rail against the rampant bureaucracy. At the moment city council and the NCC seem to run the show, with little public consultation. Just look at the story that came out on Friday, about the revitalization of the downtown core. The plan is to bring in private consultants to determine what the downtown will look like in 2019, but no real discussion of what we the citizens think of these plans. We need to take a cue from the great Jane Jacobs, zero in on our needs, speak up and make our voices heard.

    A shameless plug here, but I’m working on a documentary to explore this very topic, so keep your eyes peeled, we may come knocking at all your proverbial doors for an interview :)