Friday 3 May 2019

The Parliamentary Cats of Ottawa, Canada

For many years a cat sanctuary was located within the grounds of Canada's national Parliament in Ottawa, until being closed in 2013. I was lucky enough to visit in in 2010 courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission. 

To mark a marvellous lost institution, here's my story, which ran in an Australian newspaper but never made it online...

A cat may look at a king, as the old proverb goes. Presumably that also applies to queens, even a statue of a queen of the most far-flung empire the world has ever known.

I’m standing in the grounds of Canada’s Parliament in the capital Ottawa, watching a cat who’s looking at a statue of Queen Victoria which is located to the west of the main Parliament building.

It’s an impressive statue, with the Queen Empress on a plinth, being handed a victory garland while a lion lurks below her.

The cat, however, is unimpressed with this display of imperial grandeur, and wanders off. I follow it to one of Ottawa’s great curios, the Cat Sanctuary tucked among the nearby trees and bushes.

There are now a number of felines coming and going around me, passing between the bars of a fence which surrounds their home.

Leaning across the railings, I can see a long, low wooden structure shaped like a miniature house, with a pitched roof and a timber deck.

Mind you, cats aren’t the only visitors here; as I watch, a cheeky black squirrel darts up onto the deck and starts eating from one of the bowls of dry food, heedless of claw-related peril.

It’s all charmingly amateur in appearance, a pleasing contrast to the austere and ornate parliamentary buildings. I discover later that it’s no coincidence that the cats set up home here; until the 1950s the Parliament kept a group of cats in residence to combat rodents within the buildings.

Later, groundskeepers fed felines within the sprawling grounds, and one keeper, René Chartrand, constructed shelters for them.

The cats are still cared for by volunteers, and to its credit the Parliament has adopted the sanctuary, citing it on its website as “a symbol of compassion, one of the important elements of Canadian society.”

Well, good for them. And so I turn from my moggie companions to explore the Parliament itself.

My first impression is that the long central building with a clock tower bears a passing resemblance to the Houses of Parliament in London; though this Parliament dates only to 1916, replacing a predecessor which was gutted by fire.

I pass through a door which is a riot of carved stone depicting a rampant lion and unicorn, then through security to join a free tour along with assorted tourists and a group of Ukrainian interns.

As we pass through its halls, I’m reminded of the baronial castle style which seems such a feature of Ottawa’s older buildings.

Solid but lavishly decorated stone walls and corridors lead to a room with an intricately decorated glass ceiling bearing symbols of Canada’s founding cultures and, less excitingly, its first government departments.

Then we reach the impressively decorated chambers of Parliament’s two houses. Behind these is the only survivor of the 1916 fire, the 1876 library annexe. It’s magnificent, a timber-panelled gem which is as much a historical keepsake as a place of research.

As I exit and make my way east to the Rideau Canal, an attractive waterway which was originally conceived as a military supply route should the United States invade Canada, I ponder on the parallels between Canada and Australia’s imperial past. And on cats, who recognise no empires.

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