6 min

Onward Ottawa

Checking in with Mayor Jim Watson as he prepares to run for reelection

Mayor Jim Watson takes part in the 2013 Capital Pride parade. Credit: Xtra

Mayor Jim Watson recently sat down for a year-end interview with Xtra to discuss his take on LGBT issues, his plans for reelection and his opinion about public figures staying closeted. From street sweeps to promoting the Village, from Capital Pride to WorldPride, the Ottawa mayor tells us more in this edited interview, which took place Dec 19.

Xtra: When it comes to your legacy, how would you like to be remembered in terms of your contribution to Ottawa’s LGBT community?

Jim Watson: I think it’s always dangerous to have politicians talk about their legacy. It’s a little self-serving, but certainly I’ve been proud of my relationship with the LGBT community and being the first mayor to actually walk in the Pride parade and voluntarily declare it Pride Week. I look forward to continuing a strong relationship with the community. It took forever to get Village signs up, [so] I met with the organizers and others who wanted to put the signs up and we just did it. I think it adds to the ambiance of Bank Street.

Questions about your legacy are a bit premature since you’re running for reelection in 2014, right?

I am, yeah. I think we’ve accomplished a lot as a council together in terms of things like the light-rail project, which, as you know, we’ve debated for a long time — several decades — and I’m very proud to be the head of the council that actually got the project signed, sealed and construction started. That’s really going to help transform our city and the way we move about and the places people can live if they don’t have a car.

On Dec 7 and Dec 14, six men were arrested in what police refer to as john sweeps. How do you respond to sex workers’ concerns that sweeps — whether they target sex workers or their customers — put sex workers in danger because they have to choose between their safety and avoiding arrest?

My view is that the police have a job to do, and if there’s any kind of illegal activity taking place, then the police are following the law of the land, which in this case is the Criminal Code. As a politician I try not to second-guess the police. I’m also on the Police Service board, and I think it’s not a healthy relationship if the politicians are trying to micromanage how the police do their job. I think what we do is try to set the broad parameters in terms of budget and policy. I think Ottawa has a very strong relationship with the GLBT community, with their liaison committee, and I’m proud of the work that they do to bring issues forward, but in terms of the day-to-day decisions on operations, sweeps and stings and so on, that’s really a matter for the [police] chief.

Toronto has The 519, a city-funded, dedicated LGBT community centre. Would you consider looking into a city-funded LGBT community centre in Ottawa?

I remember this was examined many years ago, I think even when I was mayor the first time, back in the 1990s. [Watson’s first term was 1997 to 2000.] Some individuals got together and started to put together what I assume would have been a business plan or something along those lines, and to be honest, I don’t think it really got the momentum. What I’ve always tried to advocate is a sense of inclusiveness when it comes to community centres. We’ve got a lot of community centres that are scattered throughout the city based on neighbourhoods as opposed to gender or ethnicity. At one point there was a multicultural community centre that opened up on Richmond Road, and it really did not succeed, quite frankly, because there was a sense that we were trying to — that the group that was trying to put it together was almost trying to ghettoize the multicultural community.

For queer groups in Ottawa that don’t have their own meeting spaces, do you think city facilities are currently inclusive and available to them?

Yeah, I believe so. I certainly haven’t had any complaints. There are deep discounts for not-for-profit groups.

WorldPride takes place in Toronto next year. Do you plan to attend, and will there be an Ottawa contingent going to represent our city?

I’m sure there’s going to be lots of people from Ottawa going to WorldPride. Whether I’m going or not, it’s hard to tell because next year is our election year, so I’ll probably be spending a fair amount of time on the campaign trail. But I would hope Capital Pride has a delegation going, and certainly there’ll be lots of residents going because I think it’s a pretty major event for our country and our province to host WorldPride for the first time.

Given your positive experiences of Pride, would you consider increasing funding to Capital Pride?

The festival funding goes through a jury system, so they try to keep it out of the hands of the politicians so that we don’t end up playing favourites. It’s based on a jury system through our arts-and-culture branch. They put in applications and they’re judged by their peers against a number of criteria. We have increased the funding each and every year we’ve been in office to the cultural branch, which allows more dollars to go into the festivals.

Bullying is an ongoing issue that gets a lot of local and national attention. Many queer educators say that when adults — particularly those who are public figures — stay closeted, youth perceive that as a tacit message that it isn’t okay to be queer. How can public figures who stay closeted tell queer youth to accept themselves, which youth perceive as a mixed message?

I think it’s up to individuals, whether you’re well known or not well known, to decide whether you’re going to come out or not. That’s a personal decision that individuals make. I think one of the things that we’ve tried to do through Ottawa Public Health and organizations like Jer’s Vision and the Youth Services Bureau is provide the funding for counselling for individuals who feel bullied. I think the legislation that [Ottawa Centre MPP] Yasir Naqvi worked on at the provincial level to amend the Education Act was a positive step forward as well.

What do you say to the argument that sexual orientation isn’t a private issue because sexuality isn’t confined to what we do in private, and for people in positions of power, coming out is necessary in a world that marginalizes queer people?

As I said, I think it’s up to the individual to make that decision. When and if he or she is ready to announce that, then that’s fully their choice, and I respect that.

What are your plans to help promote and expand the Village so that it continues to be a vibrant location for locals and tourists?

I’m encouraged by the new direction of the BIA. I met with Christine Leadman [executive director of the Bank Street Business Improvement Area] on [Dec 18] on a couple of different issues, and I’m certainly open to ideas and suggestions from the community, the BIA and the working group as to how we can better enhance and market that particular part of Bank Street in the Village. I think that the parade was back on Bank Street was a positive thing, and it gives an opportunity on a go-forward basis when Lansdowne opens to see what kinds of events we could do for Pride at the public spaces at Lansdowne.

When light rail gets going, will there be signage to draw attention to areas like the Village, Chinatown and Little Italy?

I think that’s a great area. That’s one of the things that they’re looking at now as we head towards the completion of LRT in 2018.

Many municipalities across Canada introduced citywide composting with relative ease. Why have Ottawans been so resistant to using green bins?

One, there tends to be a reluctance when a change is introduced, and the green bin was a change. We saw a similar experience when the blue bin and the black bin were brought in and people didn’t want to sort their recycling. Secondly, when the previous council signed the deal — people use this as an excuse not to use the green bin, which I don’t understand — but we haven’t met our target of 80,000 tons of waste going into the green-bin stream even though we’re paying for it. Critics will say the system’s not working because we have such a bad contract. To that I say use the green bin more and we’ll up our tonnage. We’re in arbitration with respect to how much yard and leaf waste can be included in the green bin.

The Ottawa Police Service established the first community-based hate crime unit in Canada in 1993. Do you see Ottawa’s hate crime unit as a success story, or is there more work to be done?

I think it’s both a success story and it’s one of these things where as long as there are hate crimes in our society and people abusing other people, there’ll always be more work to do. I think the fact that we have a dedicated unit and a very progressive chief of police and Police Service board should be a signal to the community that we take hate crimes seriously.