Cruise Wellington St. in Ottawa. The Supreme Court, imposing, its stone façade projecting might and right. The Parliament buildings, revival gothic architecture, majestic, impressive, ostensibly monuments to the might of our history and democracy. The Senate, a trough of reward and privilege, gives the finger to the ideals, but assures us crony capitalism burns bright.
The structures are being glossed and polished in a marathon rehab budgeted at $3 billion.
If you’re fortunate enough, you can sit in the gas-heated outdoor terrasse of its neighbour – the Chateau Laurier hotel – one of the old great railroad hotels, its splendour as faded as the railroad it used to serve. From this perch, one can admire the mansion of government and stare down at the Rideau Canal Locks. They are said to be as they were when first built in 1832.
A cellphone call and about fifty bucks, or about as much as it costs to feed a family at McDonald’s, dispatches a crew to turn cranks to open and close the locks and manipulate water levels so you can cruise through on a pleasure craft. It’s said to duplicate the procedure as it was done almost 200 years ago. A splendid show and a boatsman’s bargain, if there ever was one.
The hotel has been Covid slapped. The bar, where once a good jazz combo made a career, is open only weekends. The furniture in the grand lobby is gone. You park your car, you schlep you bags, you clean your room. Not a burden but the decline in service is not matched by a decline in price. The Karsh photos that still hang in the lobby – Churchill, Casals, Leacock, Einstein, Riopelle – are almost worth the price of admission..
A five-minute walk away, the Riviera on Sparks boasts a “mixologist” renown among imbibers who celebrate innovate ways to make alcohol ever more appealing. Its drink list has more column inches than most newspapers these days. Dinner for two about $200.
But, here in the land of extravagant restaurants, great salaries, superb pensions, big-buck lobbying, consulting, sub-contracting, double-dipping and influence-peddling, there was an Aboriginal woman sitting on the sidewalk eating crumbs off her fingers from a take-out container. There was a guy outside the hotel sitting on the sidewalk, staring at a few coins in a faded paper cup. A few feet past him, a young man was stretched out on the sidewalk. People just walked around him. He declined assistance or an ambulance. He said he was fine. A few hours later he was propped against a wall on Wellington, staring at nothing.
People with cups out patrol every car at every stop along King Edward. There were “security guards” wrestling someone to the ground on Rideau St. as cars rolled around them, like the ubiquitous phone videos of Black people being assaulted by police.
Members of parliament, their staff, the massive bureaucracy and all the sucker fish make real money. Then there are the people serving the people who make real money. Then clerks and burger flippers and restaurant staff, some doing better than others but with Covid, restaurants and their staff got crushed.
This is also the home of government benevolence or income redistribution. The feds spent hundreds of billions trying to compensate for the pandemic. Money flowed and is still flowing to individuals and corporations. And, while tales of criminal government indifference float in from across the border, our federal government quickly and efficiently set up computer systems and call services and money flowed to Covid-smacked Canadians with a minimum of fuss. If one had to speak to a human, the human was actually human, sometimes apologetic when there was a snafu. The government seemed to work.
Yes, Ottawa’s a beautiful city with inspired museums, parks, bike paths, light rail, waterways, beaches, architecture to appreciate and money to be made. But, why are so many people begging and living on the street?
How is it that in the capital, like in most Canadian cities, starving people are picking at crumbs? In Ottawa, our showcase city, they are just a few feet from the Byward market that overflows with food, where two cups of gelato cost $20 with a tip? People lie on the street ignored. People walk between cars at intersections with their cups out, mostly ignored.
Yes, the citizens of the city go to work, live or set up or crash on sidewalks under the auspices of the municipal government. Seemingly, not the concern of the feds. If we spend billions to renovate the offices of lawmakers, hundreds of billions on Covid victims, why can’t we spend a few billion for people passed out on streets, starving on stoops, begging at stop lights?
People living in misery should be treated as well as pleasure boaters cruising through historic locks. And not just in the capital but in every Canadian city where desperation and destitution, jacked up by Covid, resides. But, of course, poverty, without the word “child” in front of it, has been deleted from the public dialogue.
There are no economic benefits from ignoring the homeless and the hungry. They end up in overcrowded hospitals and/or jails, where the price tag for assistance is markedly higher than social services and subsidized housing. Poverty hurts us all.