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Complexity in our nation’s capital

By Paul Knowles

The first question we had after a flying visit to our nation’s capital a few weeks ago was, why don’t we do this more often? Because Ottawa is a wonderful city with dozens of fascinating things to do. We had time for only two of them, but both of our chosen sites were nothing short of terrific.


I had read about exciting changes in the exhibits at both the National Gallery of Canada, and the Canadian Museum of History. We spent the first afternoon at the Museum, across the river from Ottawa in Gatineau.

The museum’s new “signature gallery” is the Canadian History Hall, opened for the first time this summer.

Visitors walk through two floors and 15,000 years of Canadian history. And this is history presented with a new ring of truth and fairness. The wonderful things about this country are there, for sure – but so are the tragedies and the scandals.

This is an honest display, open about mistakes, evils, triumphs and accomplishments. There are some heroes, some villains, and a great many with a foot in both camps. The gallery forces visitors to confront the contradictions – a supposedly peaceful nation that has wreaked disaster upon its first peoples, and upon various groups of immigrants like the Chinese labourers brought to build the nation-spanning railroad, or the Japanese and Ukranian Canadians interned during the second world war.

Of course, there is also plenty of evidence that Canada is a great country to call home. But it’s clear that our history demands close examination, discussion, and honesty.

I was thoroughly captured.

The next day, we visited the National Gallery of Canada, which is placing a new emphasis on the big picture (sorry for the pun) of Canadian art, exhibiting Native Canadian works side by side with other Canadian artists across the ages. Here you find the best in Canadian art, from pre-history to the present.

I was especially thrilled with work by Jean-Paul Riopelle, Norval Morriseau, Antoine Plamondon and, of course, the Group of Seven and their associates like Emily Carr and Tom Thomson.

The exact exhibition we saw of Canadian Art came to an end at the first of this month, but staff at the gallery assured us that most of the pieces will continue to be on display, as they darn well should be.

The art at the National Gallery gets into your head via a different route than the information at the Museum of History. The latter is rather cerebral; you think, and then, given the power of the information, you react emotionally. The art first hits the emotions; you feel, and then you start to think.

Different paths, but the same result – as a Canadian, I am forced to think deeply about this country.

I left Ottawa with a complex set of personal responses – still proud to be Canadian, still aware of my great good fortune in being born in this, the best of all nations, but also aware that our history is not pristine, and that some of what our foreparents did, a century or two ago, continues to reap a harvest of pain. With citizenship comes responsibility; I am more aware of this than ever.

Ottawa: there is no better place to get in touch with what it truly means to be Canadian.