Sunday, October 30, 2011

Annual Autumn Fieldtrip to Ottawa, Canada

Posted by Political Science department Chairman, Jeff Ayres:

One of my favorite courses to teach at Saint Michael's is Canadian Politics, and one of the highlights of the course is our annual three-day fieldtrip to Canada's capital in Ottawa. We have been fortunate to have been able to accompany students and faculty from the University of Vermont's Canadian Studies Program for over a decade now each fall semester to Ottawa. The trip gives us a whirlwind tour of Canadian politics, society and culture, and these past three days (October 27-29) did not disappoint. While our itinerary is generally the same each year, including visits to Parliament and meetings with M.P.'s, tours of the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, an Ontario Hockey League game featuring the Ottawa '67's and time spent exploring the city of Ottawa including the historic Byward Market, each annual visit is shaped uniquely by current political events, and the trip this year served as a reminder especially of just how many ways Canada distinguishes itself from the United States.

A view across the Ottawa, River from Gatineau, Quebec of Canada's Parliament

Canada has a parliamentary system, inherited from the United Kingdom, and we arrived on Parliament Hill in the wake of a spring 2011 federal election that produced a major political realignment in Canada with the formation of a Conservative majority government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and an official opposition formed historically for the first time by Canada's leftist social democratic New Democratic Party. One of the highlights of this trip is the opportunity to attend Question Period, a centerpiece of the adversarial parliamentary system, where the opposition parties in the House of Commons ask questions of the government and seek to hold it to account for stated government goals and policies. What we witnessed was an opposition (there are four opposition parties in Canada's House of Commons--the NDP, the Liberal Party, the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party) struggling to challenge a government that clearly intended to pursue its mandate to craft a decidedly more conservative ideologically domestic and foreign policy for Canada. Following Question Period we had an opportunity to speak to and ask questions of two Members of Parliament from the opposition New Democratic and Liberal Parties, who discussed the many differences between Canada and the U.S. (a more collectivist political culture, stricter campaign financing laws, the notable lack of a right to bear arms, and the ever persistent French-English divide).

Saint Michael's students and faculty on a glorious sunny, blue sky (but cold!) Friday morning in the shadow of Parliament Hill on our walk to the National Gallery

Friday is a long but rewarding day for us in Ottawa, as we immersed ourselves in historical and cultural contexts to better understand current political debates. Canada's beautiful National Gallery of Art, which first opened in 1988, is always a welcome opportunity to see collections of both Canadian as well as American and European art. In particular, our tour guide helped us to appreciate the importance of the works of Canada's famous Group of Seven, who shared nationalist ideals and shaped a sense of developing Canadian identity in the years before the Second World War through the depiction of the rugged Canadian landscape (especially the Canadian Sheild).

Students and faculty from Saint Michael's and the University of Vermont walking towards the National Gallery

After visiting the National Gallery, we travelled across the Ottawa River to Gatineau, Quebec, the home of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and explored a number of exhibits that helped us to appreciate the origins of Canada's multinational (English, French and First Nations) and polyethnic heritage. The Grand Hall is an amazing space backed by a huge photograph of Canada's Pacific Northwest forest, and filled with totem polls and house facades of First Nations of the Northwest (and said to be the largest grouping of totem poles in the world).

Totem pole in Grand Hall at Museum of Civilization

We wrapped up Friday with a lesson of just how important the game of hockey remains to Canadians as one of the few rituals that still has the capacity to knit together the great regional, national and polyethnic differences that so-often divide Canadians. We first attended a lecture by Canadian historian and hockey expert Andrew Hollman at Carleton University, and then travelled to the Ottawa Civic Centre to watch an Ontario Hockey League game featuring the Ottawa '67's (named after the date of Canada's confederation in 1867) and featuring an exciting win in a shoot-out by the 67's.

Ottawa '67's hockey game at Ottawa Civic Centre

A great way to end the trip is to spend Saturday morning exploring Ottawa's Byward Market area downtown, filled with stores, coffee houses, bakeries, and multitudes of speciality food shops. One of my favorite pastimes is to spend an hour or two with the Saturday Toronto Globe and Mail and Ottawa Citizen newspapers with a few pastries and a bowl of cafe au lait in Le Moulin de Provence at the heart of the Byward Market. I have actually lived in Ottawa several times--once for about nine months in 1992 and again in 2003-04 during my Fulbright with my wife and two daughters--and we rarely missed a Saturday morning in the Market.

Interestingly enough, the trip this year did coincide with the still unfolding "Occupy Wallstreet" movement, and across from our downtown Lord Elgin hotel, in Confederation Park, was a large encampment of Occupy Ottawa protesters raising awareness that the border is not a barrier to the challenges posed to Canadians of growing economic inequality, soaring education costs and spreading youth unemployment. We learned a great deal about what distinguishes Canadians politically, socially, historically and culturally from the United States, but I left also recognizing how much we also share as allies, neighbors and participants in this current era of global political transformation and continued economic crisis.

Occupy Ottawa Protesters in Confederation Park