7 min

Ottawa mayoral race: Jim Watson to the rescue?

Ottawa's 'little old lady' slowly and steadily making way back to city hall

Credit: Paul Galipeau

It is a hot, muggy day — the streets are quiet save for a few cars, the occasional cyclist and a man delivering a diatribe about stop signs in the city. While he talks, he rifles through an old leather folder, pulling out photos, letters and newspaper clippings he has collected over a decade that support his concerns.

He is talking, nearly yelling, at the man standing beside him — Jim Watson. Watson tries gently to interrupt, but only after the tirade comes to an abrupt end is he able to say a few words.

The man listens, accepts Watson’s card and, with a sigh of resignation, watches as Watson turns away and walks to the next house.

Watson is in his element. He makes knocking on strangers’ doors and introducing himself as easy as, well, a politician who has been around for years and needs no introduction.

People talk to him like they would their long-lost friends — Marilyn Best remembers her son meeting Watson when he was first mayor. She still has a photo on her fridge.

Patricia McGrath wishes Watson good luck. Another woman practically swoons into his arms.

I see a different Watson than when I first interviewed him at his campaign offices in Nepean. The rooms — small, vaguely scruffy and entirely practical — are tucked away in a strip mall where the black and red of the campaign signs seem bright and cheery in contrast to the glow of Subway and Walmart signs.

I interview Watson in his office  — which can barely fit a desk, bookshelf and three chairs. Watson is amicable and laid-back. There’s a long pause each time he is asked a question.

His careful approach reminds me of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare — Watson, as the tortoise, strategically plodding his way to political victory ahead of a mouthy and frenetic hare.

“Some of my opponents have called me bland, cautious, careful. I think those are compliments. I tend to think before I say something, because words can hurt, and they can have both a positive and negative impact,” says Watson.

One of his opponents, Larry O’Brien, has gone on record calling Watson a “little old lady” and a “scaredy-cat.” But Watson is a fierce competitor and, judging by his career, a savvy politician.

Since 1991, Watson has worked within the government and corporate worlds. In January, he resigned as Ontario’s minister of municipal affairs and housing to run for mayor.

“People want some stability and credibility back at city hall,” says Watson. “I think the chaos we have seen on every issue — from Lansdowne, to light rail, to pollution in the Ottawa River — that there is a sense that the city has let them down in the last couple of years.”

Deciding to run for mayor marks Watson’s return to municipal affairs, which, according to Jay Nordenstrom, executive director of the Canadian Association of Railway Suppliers, is Watson’s natural place.

I spent a few hours with Nordenstrom at the Manx Pub on Elgin St, drinking beer and talking about Watson. Nordenstrom first met Watson when he was a student at Carleton, working in the mayor’s office over one summer. Watson has since gone from being a mentor to a friend.

“His natural place is non-partisan community politics. He seems to thrive there; you can see a spark in him when it comes down to local politics,” says Nordenstrom.

Watson first became mayor of Ottawa — pre-amalgamation — in 1997, after the incumbent mayor, Jacquelin Holzman, bowed out of the election race.

The ’90s were a precarious time for queer rights. At the time, gays did not have a sympathetic person in the mayor’s chair. Holzman famously refused to declare a gay pride day in the city. The declarations are purely symbolic, and it was a slight that the gay community did not take lightly. After Holzman left, Watson signed the Pride declaration without any fuss.

“I think at the time, there were a lot of people who were reluctant to be openly supportive of the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bi and trans] community,” says Watson.

Although Holzman eventually made the proclamation for Pride, it came not from public or council support, but via the heavy hand of the human rights commission.

“It was one of those tempests in the teapot. It could have easily been done — raising the flag,” says Watson. “Instead, it got substantially more coverage and created a bit of a black eye for the community because Ottawa likes to think of itself as a relatively progressive city.”

When Watson was elected, he became the first mayor to march in Pride. Since then, he has returned to Ottawa to march seven or eight times over the last 12 years. Last year, his contingent at Ottawa Pride dispensed Jim Watson-branded lip balm to participants and passersby. The novelty of giving away signature lip balm appeals to Watson’s sense of humour and is something he is — a little absurdly — proud of.

Our conversation moves away from Ottawa’s shameful past, marching and lip gloss to other gay issues Watson has tackled throughout the years.

As a cabinet minister under Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, he has seven years of policy he must wear. The list has some darker corners — Ontario has become a world leader in prosecuting HIV transmission — but also some bright spots. McGuinty’s legacy includes the re-funding of sex reassignment surgery for trans people under OHIP.

In this city, the province stepped in when city council voted to nix the safer inhalation program in 2007. That program provides drug users with rubber-tipped pipes to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.

At the time, Watson was minister of health promotions. He announced he would meet with the mayor, the chief medical officer of health and the chief of police; a short time later, the province agreed to pick up the tab. It now runs the program independently of the city. Watson insists he did not have a hand in it.

Watson’s first cabinet post, in 2003, was as minister of consumer and business services.

As minister, Watson was also the registrar general — a position that gave him the power to hire civil marriage commissioners.

At that time, gay couples, who won the right to marry in the summer of 2003, faced a double-edged sword. New regulations meant that justices of the peace in Ontario could no longer officiate weddings. Meanwhile, many members of the clergy would not marry gay couples for religious reasons.

Under Watson’s direction, the city deputized every city clerk to marry, and they could deputize other people — thus offering couples a wide variety of options for getting married.

“I thought it made sense to come up with a creative solution that would solve the problems of allowing all citizens of Ontario to get married,” says Watson.

Watson was also the first minister to sign same-sex marriage certificates and had the wording changed on marriage certificates, from “husband and wife” to neutral terminology — a small action, but one that supports Watson’s belief in equality. Indeed, gay issues have played an important role in Watson’s political career.

“I think it is a matter of equality and justice. I used to always get annoyed when you would meet politicians that would be reluctant to actually stand up and speak out in favour of a human rights issue,” says Watson. “If you are going to be a leader, you should set a positive stand in the community.”

I ask him about his decision to run for mayor after a 10-year absence. Watson’s guarded thoughtfulness momentarily disappears as he voices his displeasure with O’Brien’s leadership.

“I became more and more frustrated with what was happening — or, more importantly, with what was not happening — at city hall,” says Watson. “I didn’t have this sense of confidence that the city knew where it was going…. I think there has been a disconnect between the mayor’s office and the community.”

The discord between the queer community and city hall has never been as obvious as with the relationship between the queer community and the Bank Street Business Improvement Area (BIA).

For years, the BIA and the Village Initiative have battled over plans to designate six blocks of Centretown as Ottawa’s official gay village. Part of Watson’s election platform includes promoting tourism in Ottawa, and he sees a gay village as being part of that.

“I think having the Village with rainbow banners or flags, or a combination of Bank Street BIA/rainbow flags, would be a very positive thing for the city. But we haven’t seen that kind of facilitation from the mayor’s office on a wide variety of issues,” says Watson.

Watson sees the mayor’s role as a magnet to draw parties together, and, as mayor, he would be more than willing to sit down with the Village Initiative and the BIA to see if they can come up with a compromise.

Watson feels that a gay village can only enhance the city.

“I think there is a great opportunity for Ottawa to better market itself as a gay-friendly destination, and having the Village would obviously help,” says Watson. “But I don’t know enough about the opposition from the Bank Street BIA, whether they were afraid it would hurt business. My view is that it would help business — it would identify those blocks downtown in a very positive fashion.”

However, until Watson is elected, the dream of city recognition for Ottawa’s gayest part of town is a long way off. Watson’s main focus now is getting the support he needs to oust O’Brien from the mayoral seat.

Until elections in October, Watson will keep plugging away, canvassing in neighbourhoods around the city, releasing his complete portfolio after the summer and attending community and public events, a trait he is mocked for.

“I used to have the reputation that I would go to the opening of an envelope,” says Watson. “I like going out to events in the community — you can get too isolated. I find it much more refreshing and invigorating to go out into communities.”

Watson is also tweeting his way to gathering younger supporters. With more than 1,000 followers, Watson tweets on a daily basis about his activities, comments on the campaign and his commitments.

Watson is earnest, and although he appears older and wiser than his 49 years, he is sincere in his approach to politics and the role city government should play within the community.

“The key to any mayor’s office is to bring the community together, and so if I can do that in any small way, with any of the issues that are dividing the community, then the door will be open,” says Watson.

I doubt whether Watson will set any new trends in Ottawa, but with a loyal following, of all age groups, he doesn’t have to. All he has to do is carry on with what he has been doing all along, following the political path in front of him.

One thing is clear about Watson: he is persistent, and like Aesop’s tortoise, he might just claim victory over the hare.