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Ottawa, we need to talk: What’s with the weird brown shoes?

By Michael McKenna on May 16, 2012

We’re resurrecting a series that ran in the early days of the blog, way back in 2009 when King of the Hill was still on TV and Poker Face meant more then just being good at card games. The few articles posted in our original “I hate to be a snob about this” series – now reborn as “Ottawa, we need to talk” – allowed people to kvetch about the things in the city that drove them wild. Even Pollyanna had a few Oscar the Grouch moments. To submit an idea for an article, please write to

Michael McKenna is a recent addition to Ottawa and writes for Ask Men.

So I’m new here. And I really don’t want to be that guy, and get things started on the wrong foot… but I think there is something a little strange going on in downtown Ottawa, and wonder if the 613 might benefit from a “fresh set of eyes”.

I’ll get right to it: It’s the shoes. What is going on with the shoes? I am speaking, of course, about those weird sort of brown, neon-accented “sport hiking” sneakers from the ‘90s. You know the ones. Please don’t feign ignorance. You found them at Sports Experts arranged on a cardboard display unit designed to resemble Mt. Kilimanjaro, and emblazoned with product names like “Trainathon X-Terra K2″. The box boasted waterproof uppers and a sole made from “Beryllium Carbonox”. You slid them on over white sport socks, tucked your suit pants behind the tongue, and proceeded to stride down Wellington Street. These are facts. I was there. Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be.

As a newcomer, of course, and a person who is curious about the world that surrounds him, my first instinct was to understand this strange custom. Could it be, perhaps, that all Ottawa social events can potentially turn into midnight hiking marathons at a moment’s notice? Do groups of otherwise well-turned-out Director-Generals (side request: a little “Ottawa cred” for knowing about that) forego dessert, leaving Beckta or whatever, to go trudge up the Gatineau Hills in single file? At ten o’ clock at night? For no reason?

I realize that this is a little far-fetched, but explaining natural phenomena tends to be a long process. Our first explanation (as per above) is always kind of laboured and insane. Take fire, for instance. We had to detour through Zeus and Prometheus and vultures that eat your liver for two thousand years before getting to this sciencey-sounding thing I found on Wikipedia. It’s not easy, and these shoes are no different. Even though I have since abandoned the “impromptu hike” explanation for a series of (somewhat) more reasonable-sounding alternatives (ideal-of-civil-service-related footwear populism, poorly-maintained and puddle-filled government offices, a collective gesture of contempt towards supercilious Montrealers like myself), there remains an element of mystery.

There are, after all, alternatives. I am not proposing that you go completely 514, purchase a set of those two-tone Italian wingtips and spend the rest of your days smoking long, unfiltered cigarettes and caring about soccer. That’s too far. But if you want to appropriately finish off a navy suit, a blazer and jeans, or even that white shirt/black trousers/Jansport-backpack-from-Grade-9 look that we’ll discuss later, there are ways to handle this a little better than what’s currently going on out there.

At WOLF & Zed on Sussex, for example, one can easily purchase a John Varvatos boot that will effortlessly signal to the world that you are a competent adult professional who is not going to run off howling into the forest at any second. Even something like a decent set of Clarks will complement a robust tweed without also feeling compelled to announce your love of Ultimate Frisbee to everyone in the office, street, or (god forbid) restaurant-where-I-am-also-dining.

I recognize that this might raise a few hackles, you know, as nobody likes a pointed word (especially from Montreal, whose sartorial sins range from white patent-leather belts on lower Saint-Laurent to entire torsos of poorly-drawn tattoo monsters on East Sainte-Catherine), but I thought this needed to be said. It’s not the entire solution (see above re: the Jansport backpack, and we’ll discuss the Oakleys another time), but it’s a start.

It’s a way to get out of the woods.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Well said, mon ami! I look forward to your searing rebuttals of adults wearing backpacks to work. 🙂

  • Anne Onimos

    I think you’ve thought too much about this.

  • Todd

    I hope I’m never mistaken as a competent adult professional.

  • Bee

    Amen! Why are so many Ottawans so averse to looking attractive? Because it takes effort, I suppose. I would like to praise the Gatineau admin assistants who get really dolled up for work- it may be slightly unprofessional in the opposite direction, but at least they’re trying to look their best! (Feel free to dismiss this comment as the mad rantings of yet another Montreal transplant.)

  • Ben

    LOL @ “easily purchase a John Varvatos boot that will effortlessly signal to the world that you are a competent adult professional”.
    Yes, because they are dirty cheap and they are definitely for everyone.

  • Michael McKenna

    Danielle, Bee and Ben: I am glad we are on the same page here. It’s an ish.

    Anne: It’s good to think about things, and for life to not remain an unexplained and unexplainable blur.

    Todd: X-Treme, dude.

  • steve

    the first shoe in the picture looks an aweful lot like my default shoes. i am sorry for bringing the city down, but they are comfy, hide mud well, and i like them!

  • FJQ

    I enjoyed this, as others have said, I look forward to your future musings!

  • McC_1848

    You get no cred — Ottawa or otherwise — for your grammatical error, pluralizing the adjective rather than the noun, in your reference to “Director Generals;” it’s Directors General, like Governors, Auditors and Others General. Thank you.

  • McC_1848

    PS, I agree, these shoes do suck.

  • Yo Mike! You’ve obviously never played White People Bingo cause you’d know that in a town as honk-tastic as Ottawa, “performance outdoor apparel” (regardless of the context) is a must have!

  • Mike

    Or women wearing New Balance sneakers while also wearing a business attire!

  • G.P.Butler

    This article had a great hypothesis, but I think its false. The idea is that even well paid Ottawans lack the style of Montrealers and should fix that – store referrals included in article.

    However, I think the author doesn’t get Ottawa yet. Wardrobes cost a lot of money and like any city, the middle income bobo (bohemian bourgeoisie) class sets the style vibe of the place. Montreal and Toronto are very urban places in which bobos live in the city, go to clubs, ride subways and rarely get out of the city. They spend their money on attire for urban fashion. 416ers and 514ers spend clothing allowance on snazzy leather shoes and new fashions.

    Ottawa is an outdoorsy town. In twenty minutes you can be in the Gats, there is great skiing a short drive away, there is amazing biking on the trail network. Plus, winter is really cold. You need a warm jacket (goose down costs a pretty penny), Gortex shells are also important for layering (that will be $600 please). You need great shoes for hiking, boots for winter, and as for shirts and pants, you want good quality thermal layering with high-tech fibers.

    Keeping a wardrobe like that is expensive and who has money left over for funky indie label clothes or Holte Renfrew on top of that. Besides, until we get subways, fancy suit trousers will just get ruined by the salt, so why bother.

    So, its not that we don’t admire Montreal fashion, its just that we are a different species of Canadian – Homo Outdoorsus.

  • Jimmy J

    Being an outsider, I’ve noticed the differences as well.

    Along with the brown shoes, there are so many things to add to what is a typical Ottawan, but i wont put Ottawans down as that is their style here.

  • Graham

    I agree with GP. Many people, myself included, deceived by the tall-ish buildings and occasional crowds, have come to the conclusion that Ottawa is a city. It’s not. It’s an urban basecamp. How else could the town support so many outdoor / running stores? You can go broke trying to find a good meal for a decent price, or you get can buy a nice softshell.

    Once you understand this it will all make sense.

    I myself have started running. I think my eyes have stopped watering at spectacularly expensive “small plates” as well. Maybe my next car will be a Subaru. All-wheel drive is so practical, what with all the snow and all …

  • Cee

    If I have to choose between ill-fitting moccasins or comfortable running shoes for wearing with my business attire when I’m not meeting clients or upper management, running shoes it is.

    I’ll wear one of my pairs of lovely mid-range Allen Edmonds Park Avenue’s if I feel like it, but if I don’t… well running shoes work too.

    I think Ottawa’s style can be defined as “don’t give a (darn)” – we just don’t care about style, and don’t understand why anyone would.

  • kate

    As yet another recent addition to Ottawa’s population, I can’t really complain about the poor choices in footwear — it makes everything I wear look great by comparison 😉

  • How long before we can expect an article about Canada Goose jackets and Hunter Boots? I believe they are the official uniform of Ottawa 9:00-5:00ers from September – April, are they not? Or maybe an article about Lululemon pants, Uggs and hoodies? Maybe one on Crocs? Especially high-heeled Crocs?

  • Andrew

    Bravo! Or what about the business suit and backpack? Nottawa needs a fashion enema.

  • Rob Near

    Great article. You have exposed a regrettable Ottawa phenomenon.

    G.P.Butler- Like the author says in the article, you needn’t buy expensive boots to look good. A pair of Clarks will set you back roughly $100–probably the same cost as the “weird brown shoes”.

  • Mary R

    While I agree that these shoes are hideous and would likely never sleep with a man who wore them for any purpose other than actually hitting up a steep hill, I do think that G.P. Butler has a point. Ottawa lacks a swank urban scene that Montreal and TO definitely possess. I just don’t agree that we shouldn’t at least try to do something about it If the gentlemen of Ottawa with their government salaries can’t afford a slick pair of John Varvatos boots, a pair of Timberland boots ( can look nice, allow you to climb a mountain if need be and are decently priced. There really aren’t any excuses for the footwear pictured above.