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8 min

Does Ottawa suffer from gay brain drain?

Invest, take risks, get creative or Ottawa risks accelerating the flight of the city's queer and cre

FLIGHT PLIGHT. We need less take-offs and more landings here in Ottawa. Credit: Ken Boesem

Everyone knows gays have more fun in Toronto and Montreal. They are bigger cities with more people, louder and busier bars, and villages bursting at the seams with energy. The success these two cities have had building strong gay communities, however, has also fed Ottawa’s reputation as a place that’s unattractive to its own community. Why stay in a place that is flanked by the two biggest and most cosmopolitan cities in Canada? Indeed, the nation’s capital is plagued by a curse of geography (and possibly, a case of bad self-esteem).

“It’s a disappointment, because we often lose really good people —activists and people who volunteer in the community, as well as people who are artists and musicians and people who could make Ottawa’s nightlife and cultural scene more dynamic and vibrant,” says Glenn Crawford, a local activist and businessman. “That is one of the biggest challenges that we face. We’re trapped in between two big, interesting cities.”

Of course, the city is also hampered by its reputation as a sleepy government town ruled by sprawling suburbs that are inhabited by public servants and their families. Not exactly a demographic that is willing to take risks. In fact, the city’s brand of quiet conservatism has proven quite adept at dampening efforts to create a gay village along a modest stretch of Bank Street.

But, despite the need for further change, it’s good to remember how far we’ve come. Barry Deeprose, one of the founders of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, has seen a lot change in the city since he moved here more than 30 years ago from Vancouver.

“I moved here in ’75. I really thought I had moved back into the ’50s,” he says. “Things were not visible immediately. Ottawa was a very closeted city and I have since discovered that many, many people were traumatized by the witch hunts in the ’60s for public servants who were gay, particularly [in] the male subculture.”

But, with time, the city became more accepting of the gay community. The federal public service is more queer-friendly than it used to be, something Deeprose — a former senior employee of the Department of National Defence — knows all about.

Deeprose says that although Ottawa does suffer from unlucky geography and has been slower to accept the gay community, it has morphed into an accepting city that attracts gays from around the Ottawa Valley.

He says he appreciates the modest size of the gay community. Its Pride celebrations, he says, are refreshingly less commercial than larger festivals in Toronto and Montreal.

Our medium-seized city also leaves room for innovative projects to be built from the ground up, especially in the artistic sector.

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Guy Bérubé has broken new ground in Ottawa’s arts community, and he knows it. His three-year-old gallery, La Petite Mort, is located at Cumberland and Murray — an intersection that he calls, and most Ottawans know as — a “raunchy, nasty motherfucking corner that is the place to buy crack.” It’s a little off the beaten path, but Bérubé’s gallery is making a heroic attempt to retain local artists, instead of exporting them to other towns.

La Petite Mort is well-known in Ottawa as the gallery for subversive artists. After only a few years, Bérubé says, it has carved out a niche just around the corner from the more mainstream galleries on Dalhousie Street. And while a lot of artists use Ottawa as a stepping stone before moving on to larger cities across the continent — something Bérubé encourages — La Petite Mort’s crop of artists is sticking around. Instead of suffering from drain, Ottawa’s subversive art community is now attracting outside talent.

“When I go to Montreal and Toronto, people know who I am. They know the gallery, and they’re excited,” says Bérubé. “I honestly thought Toronto and Montreal looked at Ottawa as not the place for art — or not the place to get laid, for sure. But I think that’s changed.”

In fact, two photographers from abroad recently contacted La Petite Mort about showing their work at the gallery — one from Tokyo and another from Tel Aviv. That kind of exposure is something Bérubé, who worked for years in New York and Paris, never expected at his raunchy corner.

Venus Envy owner Shelley Taylor thinks that Ottawa is just small enough to remain a largely middle-class, conservative city that is less interested in subversive arts and more attracted to the mainstream. But she adds that Ottawa’s arts-and-culture community offers quite a bit more than its sleepy reputation might suggest.

“If you give it a chance and are open-minded, there are a lot of grassroots things that you wouldn’t expect,” she says, pointing to Ladyfest Ottawa, burlesque troupe Sexual Overtones, and the community-driven arts and craft fair, Ravenswing, as small-scale examples.

“You’re not going to get a lot of people interested in attending cutting-edge art events. They may go to the National Gallery, but they’re not necessarily going to go a lot to Saw Gallery or to La Petite Mort. You just don’t have the population supporting the less mainstream arts.”

A frustrating reality because Ottawa’s cultural strength lies in the tightness of its community and its willingness to take risks, says Jason St-Laurent. He’s a video artist who spent years working at SAW Gallery in Ottawa before he moved away, taking a job at the Inside Out film festival in Toronto.

“You see some really peculiar things happening in Ottawa that I don’t see happening in other places across Canada,” he says, referring to La Petite Mort as a great example.

St-Laurent says that people outside of Ottawa are unaware of the city’s greatest local cultural achievements because, put simply, municipal politicians don’t value arts as much as they should. If they did, he says, that would make all the difference.

“Until the city takes the cultural scene more seriously — in terms of capital funding for the arts, it is pathetic — I think there will always be this idea that there isn’t much culturally happening there, because people don’t have the opportunity to spread the message,” he said. “There are fewer opportunities to tour, no opportunities to advertise in art magazines — it goes on and on.”

St-Laurent adds that, in Toronto, the base of financial support provided by the municipality allows groups like Inside Out to survive during times of economic uncertainty when corporate sponsorships dry up. Whereas Ottawa has the lowest municipal arts funding per capita of any major city in Canada. That means that artists who want to make a career in the arts cannot make it in the nation’s capital, St-Laurent says.

“I think the opportunities to professionalize are very limited. For certain people, they have to move away if they want to move up in the cultural sector,” he says. “That’s normal for a city of that size, and it’s normal that people will move away.”

But tracking the in- and outflow of Ottawa’s gay population is incredibly difficult. Statistics Canada has never asked Canadians to disclose their sexual orientation, and often the only data that is available applies broadly across Canada rather than in certain cities or regions.

The 2001 census conducted by Statistics Canada was the first to measure the incidence of same-sex couples (as a proportion of all couples), divided by census metropolitan area. At that time, Ottawa tied with Vancouver for the highest proportion — 0.9 per cent of all couples.

Five years later, Ottawa dropped in the rankings to fifth in the country, but its proportion of same-sex couples remained about the same. Same-sex couples in Montreal accounted for 1.03 per cent of all couples — the highest rate in the country and 20 per cent higher than that city’s measurement in 2001. Vancouver, Halifax, and Victoria all leapfrogged ahead of Ottawa.

Glenn Crawford suggests that the lack of gay presence downtown is the result of a large part of Ottawa’s gay community simply migrating to the suburbs. He and a committee of volunteers are raising money to put rainbow flags on Bank St in order to up queer visibility and welcome more queers into the area to live, shop and hang out.

“We can come out to our friends and family and maybe even go to the bars and businesses and social services, and then we find a partner and we get our two dogs and we go to the suburbs. And that’s perfectly acceptable,” he says with a laugh.

Jokes aside, it is quite difficult to get a sense of the spatial distribution of Ottawa’s gay population. Few statistics are available that might suggest a pattern, but one study could shed some light on the question.

In 2001, the Ottawa-based GLBT Wellness Project surveyed the city’s queer community. The final report indicated where respondents reside, and while 71 per cent lived within the old city of Ottawa, 45 per cent of these respondents described their neighbourhood as suburban or residential.

It’s not definitive, but it does suggest that Ottawa’s gay community is spread across the suburbs.

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Richard Brouse, the owner of Inn on Somerset, says many of his guests are simply here on business and don’t look at Ottawa as a place to have a party. But he says those in town for recreation often poke fun at the occasional impotence of Ottawa’s nightlife. They tend to be on the way to or from Toronto or Montreal and are struck, in particular, by the lack of a Village.

Brouse says a marketable Village would go a long way in creating a more positive image for Ottawa. But the city would have to play a role in that development.

“Ottawa does not know how to market itself,” he says. “From a tourist standpoint, I think [a Village] would be excellent. That’s one of the things a lot of guests comment about. [In Toronto and Montreal], those villages are advertised. A lot of that has to do with the city itself advertising those things.”

Getting the Village area recognized as the place where gays live and hang out is only part of the problem.

Social geographer Brian Ray, a professor at the University of Ottawa, says creating a village will only go part of the way to creating a community attractive to the gay community.

“There are several organizations that do have their offices along Bank Street, but when you walk down Bank Street right now, relative to walking down Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal or Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., the presence of a gay community is relatively weak…on the street,” he says.

And it’s a common complaint. Set against Montreal’s Ste-Catherine St or Toronto’s Church St, Ottawa’s gay community is relatively humble. And even if Bank St is more gay-concentrated than say, Davie St in Vancouver, it doesn’t help that we have two well-developed, mature gay neighbourhoods within driving distance of Ottawa.

Ray adds that investment in Bank St faces another hurdle in the short term. It will be hard to encourage such investment in light of the summer renovations that will once again disrupt car and foot traffic south of Somerset Street.

Beyond just creating a Village, Ray says that creating a vibrant gay community will take a large group of highly-motivated entrepreneurs, with the help of substantial financial investment. And investors must be willing to take risks on development — something that doesn’t happen often in Ottawa.
 
“There are a remarkable number of people [in Ottawa] who enjoy a great deal of security relative to other places,” he says. “And still, there is this very conservative sense that Ottawa is not a place where not too many boats are going to get rocked.”

Ray pointed to the city of Portland, Oregon as a place we could learn from.

“The enthusiasm that Portland exhibits for taking risks devising a public-transit system, the risks it takes in terms of reimagining its downtown. Portland was a big logging town, just like Ottawa was a big logging town. But the quality of life in the two cities is very, very different,” he says.

Ray says that Ottawa has to find people who are willing to invest in the city by preserving its heritage buildings — like the old Ogilvy’s department store on Rideau Street or the crumbling facade of Barrymore’s on Bank St. Ray thinks that it is bizarre that the city is willing to spend $100 million on a new stadium instead of looking at fixing what is already built.

If Ottawa’s gay community were to focus on working from the ground up — by fixing buildings, investing in a more exciting core, and doing a lot of little things right — it could slowly build an incredibly attractive city, says Ray. One that could keep the city from losing its talent.

As Ray says: “It’s [in] doing many, many small things that you create a buzz about a city.”