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Ottawa History

Permanent settlement came relatively late to this area of Ontario. American Philemon Wright founded Wrightsville on the Quebec side of the river (now Gatineau) in 1800–01, but things were quiet on the Ontario side until Lt. Col. John By arrived in 1826 to build the Rideau Canal. The military project was designed to provide an alternate route between Toronto and Montreal, since many feared the St. Lawrence River was too vulnerable to an American attack. The canal was never used for military purposes and rarely for commercial ones; today, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre is popular with recreational boaters. Its construction did leave one indelible legacy, though: the village of Bytown, which grew up at the north end of the canal and became Ottawa. The rough-and-ready town had strong ethnic and class divides. Irish and French-Canadian lumbermen and laborers lived and fought each other in Lowertown and the ByWard Market, where they built competing Catholic churches—Notre-Dame Basilica for the French, St. Brigid’s for the Irish. Anglophone Protestants snapped up the less swampy land in Sandy Hill and Centretown. Landowner Nicholas Sparks lent his name to one of the city’s main commercial streets (now a pedestrian mall), and donated land for St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and Christ Church Cathedral. However, Bytown was undeniably a backwater when Queen Victorian chose it as the capital of the new Dominion of Canada. Work soon began on the grand Parliament Buildings, but the first Centre Block’s history was short-lived: most of it burned to the ground in a huge fire in 1916. A smart Hill clerk saved the stunning library at the back of the building by closing a set of iron fire doors. It took four years to rebuild the Centre Block; in the meantime, parliamentarians met in what is now the Canadian Museum of Nature. Located far off the main trade routes, Ottawa never developed much of an industrial base. From its early years, it was instead a centre for merchants, universities, religious institutions, hospitals and government. Until the 1960s, most residents still traced their roots to the British Isles or France. In later decades, Ottawa attracted many Lebanese and Italian immigrants, and smaller populations of newcomers from East and South Asia, East Africa and the Caribbean. While it is not nearly as ethnically diverse as Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, its small Chinatown and Little Italy are fun places to shop and dine. Much of Ottawa’s development has been closely tied to the federal government. In 1950 French urban planner Jacques Gréber was hired to create a new design for the city. On Gréber’s recommendation, the government created a greenbelt, expanded Gatineau Park and ripped out the rail lines along the Rideau Canal to create scenic Colonel By Drive. The 1960s and Canada’s centennial led to another wave of construction, most notably the National Arts Centre. When height restrictions on downtown buildings were lifted in the late-1960s, a thicket of bland office towers sprouted.
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