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Photo by Mike Taylor (Apt613 Flickr pool)

Ottawa’s potential greatness lies in its creativity

By Kevin Bourne on January 18, 2016

There has been a lot of debate lately about whether or not Ottawa is a great city.  On one side of the coin you have Andrew Cohen with his usual Ottawa-bashing pieces, while on the other side you have Paul Wells of Maclean’s who doesn’t share Cohen’s views on the city.

After calling Toronto home for the first 29 years of my life, the past six years in Ottawa have frankly been the best years of my life.  Without my familiar surroundings, I found myself, my creativity and a sense of purpose in Ottawa.  I never picked up a camera until I moved here.  Unlike other people, I didn’t see what Ottawa lacked as a setback; I saw it as an opportunity to create something and fill gaps.

Ottawa became my blank canvas.  Those of us from big cities know how hard it is to actually make a significant contribution to the growth and identity of a large metropolitan centre.  Ottawa is the perfect size in population, urbanism and economics, and is at the perfect place in its growth, for anyone willing to do the work to make a significant contribution.

That opportunity and sense of fulfillment is something you seldom get in larger cities that are further along on the growth curve.  I find larger cities tend to breed a consumer mentality.  Cities like Ottawa can actually breed a culture of creativity and entrepreneurship because if you want something to happen here you often have to do it yourself.

When I moved here the thing that bothered me the most was how small of a media market we were for a capital city.  I’d say, “Ottawa should have a bigger media voice.”  That’s why I co-founded SHIFTER Magazine.  We have great cultural blogs and websites like Apartment613, Couch Assassin and Ottawa Showbox, but not many that connected Ottawa creatives to audiences outside of the city.  Through our motto, “Create your world” we encourage people that if they want to see change, the solution isn’t to complain, it’s to create something.

I admit when I first moved here it felt like a sleepy small town in need of a serious wake up call.  But that has changed.  I once flocked to Toronto and Montreal for shopping and other more cosmopolitan experiences, but more and more I find myself not envying these cities.  And with major projects like LRT, Lebreton Flats, the Zibi waterfront project, Art Courts redevelopment, the Rideau Centre expansion, and a new downtown library branch (a potential partnership with Library and Archives Canada), Ottawa is in for a drastic big city makeover.

Kevin Bourne

Kevin Bourne

So in this debate I side with Paul Wells in disagreeing with Cohen.  A lot of the change we’ve wanted to see has either happened, is happening or will happen soon.

Now there are two areas where Ottawa is admittedly lacking; the first is cultural relevance, both nationally and internationally. There are no West Wing-like political dramas or NCIS-like federal crime dramas set in the capital like in the United States.  There aren’t many, if any, significant films, TV series or novels set in Ottawa.  Many celebrities who are from Ottawa don’t really care to admit they’re from here. Some even say they’re from Toronto (not naming any names).

When it comes to tech companies, while we are a great place to start a tech company and do R&D, the companies that have cultural relevance, like Facebook and Google, have chosen Waterloo over Ottawa.  Bluesfest is a world-class music festival, but hasn’t seemed to capture people’s imaginations the way the much younger Osheaga has.

Cultural relevance increases your ability to attract talent, investment, and tourists.  Look down Highway 401 and see how Drake alone has made Toronto more of a destination for both athletes or tourists.  This makes you ask the question, “Why does Ottawa struggle to export things of major cultural relevance?”  Our greatest exports right now are the Ottawa Senators, Shopify and federal politics.  Justin Trudeau, in all his hotness, is making Ottawa a little bit more sexy south of the border.

The other area in which we need to grow is in the maturity of our creative industries, like music, film and fashion.  In order to grow our creative industries we need to borrow from our approach in growing our technology sector.  Invest Ottawa has identified key tech clusters, like aerospace, software and cleantech, and has given business development managers the responsibility of supporting the growth of these clusters, and, I’m sure, has growth targets affixed to these clusters.

Why not have our arts strategy be based on a similar model, where we identify key creative clusters where Ottawa either has competitive advantages, high growth potential or that are a part of our cultural identity, like music, craft brewing, festivals, visual arts, and fashion, and focus our energy and resources on growing, promoting and exporting them?  Perhaps like Invest Ottawa, this cluster based strategy could go a long way in connecting the arts to investment.

I love monuments and big projects, but Ottawa’s greatness isn’t just about things created with bricks and mortar.  Our greatness will depend on what we’re able to create with our minds and talents.  If we can consistently create at a high level and learn to export the things we create, this creative capital will help us to shed our reputation as a ho-hum political capital.

Kevin Bourne is co-founder and editor of SHIFTER Magazine, an online magazine for creatives and aspiring cultural influencers.  He is also a former blogger at Reinventing Ottawa.