Canadian Geographic
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Evolving cities


Founded: 1826
Urban Area: 2,778 sq km
Rural Area: 5,318 sq km
Population 2006 (Metro): 1,130,761
Rank by population: 4

From a rough and ready lumber town, Canada’s capital has grown into a dynamic, modern city, the heart of one the great urban regions of the country.

Ottawa’s story, from the day it was incorporated on January 1, 1855, in many ways parallels that of the country as a whole. It is a story of brains and brawn, of enterprise and luck, of hardship and courage.

It all started with Bytown, a small settlement named for Colonel John By, the engineer who oversaw the construction of the Rideau Canal between 1826 and 1832. The canal, much of which was dug by hand, is the nucleus around which the city grew. It remains one of Ottawa’s main attractions - in summer as a waterway for pleasure craft, and in winter as the world’s longest outdoor skating rink. It is the mighty Ottawa River, however, that gave the city its first industry. Used for centuries as a highway into the heart of the continent, first by natives and then by voyageurs, in the 19th century the Ottawa River found a new vocation in lumbering.

Every summer for nearly a century, rafts of squared timber were floated down the Ottawa, rafts made of logs cut from the forests of the river’s watershed. The middle of the 19th century saw great sawmills built at the Chaudière and Rideau Falls. And the lumber barons - led by J.R. Booth, the biggest of them all - brought enterprise and wealth and employment to the city.

Ottawa, by 1857, had potential to be the Capital of the Province of Canada. The Bytown and Prescott railway first crossed into Bytown in April 1855 – Ottawa experienced economic progress and expanding transportation routes. The railway was a bold achievement, and Sir Richard Scott believed in Ottawa’s progress and potential to become the Capital, but “…without the railway the hope was only a dream”.

By 1857, the Province of Canada was in political upheaval – the question of where to locate the political capital was paramount. Local, regional and sectional divisions lead to a political deadlock – the choice of a capital was both a political, commercial and sectionalist choice, fraught with tension.

Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of the United Province of Canada. The construction of Canada’s first permanent Seat of Government was heralded by the Prince of Wales, who was invited to lay the cornerstone of the centre block in September of 1860. But the Queen’s choice was not met with unanimous approval or jubilation. Dissatisfaction was not allayed until late in the process of building the capital in Ottawa – the final political decision to make Ottawa the national capital once Confederation was achieved, was not officially in place until 1865. Ottawa became the functional legislative capital in 1866, and was officially made the Capital of the Dominion of Canada with Confederation in 1867.

On the eve of the 20th century official Ottawa huddled in its few magnificent ‘piles of stone’ on Parliament Hill and in the nearby Langevin Bock, linked by muddy streets to Government House a few kilometers away. Some offices were rented. The rest was commercial city: the lumber and hydroelectric capital of the Dominion. But lumber declined and the government grew as it assumed a greater management role in an increasingly complex society. Numbers in the civil service climbed steadily to 1939 and dramatically in the Second World War.

From the beginning of the 20th century, planners had sought to transform the nation’s capital into a modern, sophisticated city with many symbolic buildings. Successive generations of public buildings, consciously aligned to the picturesque Gothic-revival style used for the original Parliament Buildings, had gradually transformed downtown Ottawa.

A capital presence in Ottawa began to be expressed through the planning and design of the landscape. The original agency for capital design, the Ottawa Improvement Commission (1899) developed parks. In 1927 the OIC was transformed into the more invasive and powerful Federal District Commission, especially to create a war memorial and park adjacent to Parliament Hill. A conscious penetration of capital functions into the commercial core of the city was thus begun. In the 1930s the FDC acquired land in Quebec that would become Gatineau Park.

During the Second World War inelegant “temporaries” were built on and around Parliament Hill but their use for office work continued after the war. Guided by the proposals of French planner Jacques Gréber, the FDC made changes to the post-war national capital region including the purchase of the green belt ringing the city and the decentralization of government offices into clusters of modern buildings on the periphery of the city, notably Tunney’s pasture, Dow’s Lake and Confederation Heights. The FDC’s initiatives were assumed in 1958 by its successor, the National Capital Commission. By 1960 Ottawa – with major parts of its commercial heritage purchased by the federal authority and either destroyed or preserved for national purposes – had been transformed into a capital city.


This series contains a map, graphs, and a slideshow exploring the development of the city of Ottawa. The interactive map shows generalized land use downtown in 1901, 1935 and 1961. The user can toggle the year using the slider below. Two graphs indicate the numbers of female and male workers, respectively, by industry and year from 1911 to 1961. The slideshow contains three archival images depicting views of the downtown area from 1876 to 1908. Users can navigate the series using the controls above or buttons below the image space, and can explore portions of each by clicking to zoom in and out, and dragging to pan around.


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Quiz :

In what year was Halifax, Nova Scotia founded?