Celebration and controversy
Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations peaked back in July, but the big year in Ottawa is winding down in a most Canadian way. The Canada 150 ice rink on Parliament Hill is open until the end of February, letting the celebration glide into Canada’s 151st year. The federal government has spent $5.6 million on the rink and has also partnered with the Ottawa International Hockey Festival, the National Hockey League, and the Ottawa Senators. An ice rink on the grounds of the centre of Canadian democracy is meant to link the symbol of the Parliament Buildings with a culture and heritage of winter recreation.
The Canada 150 Rink has had its controversies. The cost of the project is one of them. Originally, it was only going to operate for three weeks in December, but due to complaints about an expensive rink operating for a short amount of time, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly decided to extend the time. The rink has also been criticized for being too bureaucratic. Participants must obtain their free tickets online in advance. It feels so Canadian, having to complete a form to receive a government service. Tickets, either printed or on phones, must be presented for scanning at the rink gate. Skaters are limited to 40-minute sessions on the ice. No hockey or figure skating moves allowed. Canadians like rules.
This is a big weekend at the Parliament Hill rink. On Friday night, Teams Alfredsson and Philips compete in an alumni game featuring members of the Ottawa Senators from the past 25 years. On Saturday night, while the Senators host the Montreal Canadiens outdoors at Lansdowne Park stadium for the NHL 100 Classic game, the rink area will be open with large video screens showing the game for an outdoor viewing party. On Sunday, there’s the Ottawa Senator’s Holiday public skate with caroling and Santa Claus on ice.
On the rink
I got my skates out of the closet and checked out the Canada 150 rink for myself on Thursday. It was bright and sunny but a bitterly cold -15 Celsius/0 Fahrenheit. But I am Canadian, one of 36 million of the chosen frozen, and bravely facing cold temperatures is an unwritten patriotic obligation. After entering the site, I sat down at a row of picnic tables where several dozen people were changing out of snow boots and lacing up their skates. There’s a very strong police and security presence on Parliament Hill, so I wasn’t really too worried about anyone stealing my winter boots.
It was noon when I hit the ice. The Peace Tower Carillon was playing its midday concert, a fine substitute for the organs that used to get played at many rinks. Everyone was traveling counter-clockwise. Retired people, small children, young couples, government employees on lunch breaks–skaters of all ages and abilities. The youngest shuffled along, many holding tubular steel devices for support. Guys in their 20s and 30s, who were evidently in quiet reminiscence of their past youth hockey careers, were the cowboys of the rink, putting their past power skating and speed skills to use.
The constant traveling in a single direction started to feel a bit like NASCAR on ice, or driving a vehicle with bad alignment. After 20 minutes, an attendant blew a whistle, and everyone had to switch direction. I’m not a professional skater. I was set to begin cautiously turning around and another skater turned around right in front of me. I slowly ran into him, but neither of us fell. I firmly but politely said “Watch where you’re going buddy,” because in Canada, buddy is what you call someone if you don’t know his real name. “They blew the whistle, you’re supposed to turn around buddy,” he responded. “Yes, I know, but you turned around right in front of me,” I said. No further words were exchanged, and we parted. It was a classic example of Canadian dispute resolution.
The crowd skated clockwise for another 20 minutes before returning to their boots and bags at the picnic tables. As I was changing footwear, two women joked about how they would like to see Prime Minister Trudeau do a figure skating routine with his family on the rink. Someone exclaimed he had made 151 laps around the rink in 40 minutes. “You counted?”, I asked him. “Of course!”, he said. A couple of us also commented on how our big toes felt numb from the cold weather. Someone else said, “But it was worth it!”, and I agreed.