4 min

Will they stay?

What gay students want to remain in Ottawa

When Jenna Johnson moved to Ottawa to study social work at Carleton University, she left behind a smaller town – Barrie, Ontario. Ottawa’s her first big city.

“It’s a lot more diverse than where I came from, which is basically one big suburb where everyone is white, Christian and just all the same,” says Johnson.

She likes it here, as do many queer students from Carleton and the University Of Ottawa. And that could bode well for Ottawa’s economic future.

For centuries, gays have sought refuge and a chance to reinvent themselves in cities. And research shows the relationship is as good for the city as it is for gays. Dr Richard Florida, a professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University, has discovered a series of measures that predict the economic success of North American cities – particularly in attracting new industries like high tech.

Diversity is one key measure of greatness identified by Florida.

Florida found that cities that pride themselves on their nice suburbs and their “family values” are quick to stagnate, whereas cities that embrace their diverse populations grow. Diversity tends to create jobs, and in Florida’s estimation, one of the most telling barometers of a city’s diversity is the density of its gay population.

And while Johnson – and many of the other university students from small towns interviewed by Capital Xtra – see Ottawa as having much diversity, Florida’s study actually found Ottawa to rank 15th in terms of his “Mosaic Index” – below even prairie cities like Calgary or Edmonton.

Another of Florida’s indicators is what he terms the “Talent Index” – the percentage of a city’s population over the age of 18 with a bachelor’s degree or higher. In his 2002 survey of Canadian cities, Florida ranked Ottawa as the top city in Canada on the Talent Index.

The implications for Ottawa are profound. If the newest industries, the jobs of the future, go to cities with a diverse, educated workforce, and with a strong artistic community – Florida’s third indicator – are we up to the challenge?

Key to a city’s economic future is creating an environment that nurtures gays and lesbians, somewhere that graduating queer university students choose to stay rather than flee. What could city hall, and the gay community itself, do to keep our recent graduates in town? And what services and recreational outlets do we need to make this an increasingly diverse city?

We asked the experts – the students themselves – at a recent meeting at Carleton’s queer centre.

Almost across the board, Ottawa receives praise on its openness as a community.

“I love the intimacy of it all,” says Faith Kassam, a mass com-munications student originally from Toronto. “I love how it’s the perfect mix of city folk and suburban folk, so it’s that closeness, that diversity and that fun edge, as well, with very interesting people.”

Eiman Maghzy, a criminology student originally from Windsor, agrees. “It’s a manageable community; it’s not Toronto. I find people friendly here – it’s very easy to go from one place to another.”

About half those polled said they were interested in staying in Ottawa, while others felt that their options would be dictated by the job opportunities that presented themselves upon graduation. A minority of students was determined to leave – some to head to a larger centre and others to return to their smaller hometowns.

What can be done to help keep these students, and to help the Ottawa community to grow? Everyone’s first answer seems clear – more bars and entertainment options.

“The nightlife in Ottawa is pretty lacking,” says Diana Carter, a grad student in Spanish linguistics originally from Guelph. “Even in London – I mean it’s London, yet there were some pretty exciting places where I could always just go to the bar and it would be so much fun. And in Toronto there are a lot more options.”

Sara Bannerman, a Ph.D student at Carleton, also wants better nightlife options. “I would like them to hold the women’s dances in a better location” than gymnasiums.

And the students want to see a community centre for queers.

“I haven’t felt that there’s been that kind of structure set up here to really develop a queer com-munity,” says English major Brian Petersen, “and that’s the thing that I’d really like to see happen in Ottawa because I’ve seen the positive effects of what can happen, how it becomes a focal point where a community can dwell and grow from.”

And a lively geographic centre rates high.

“I’d like to see a Church and Wellesley,” says Kassam. “I’d like to see a district devoted and dedicated to the queer community because we’re so much more than just sex and politics. Debatably everything is sex and politics, but we’re more than that – we’re a family, we’re a community, and we need each other. Right now it seems that our ‘scene’ in Ottawa is a little bit more hidden. We depend a lot on social events to get together.

“Having a village or a community or a district – we wouldn’t be hiding so much. And I find that although the queer nightlife is fun, it’s amazing, but during the day, we all go to our government day jobs and we contradict ourselves a lot.”

At a town hall meeting during last summer’s Pride, Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli acknowledged that the gay and lesbian community was a vital part of Ottawa’s diversity. That’s important, according to Florida’s research. City Hall has to understand the importance of genuine diversity before it can start planning to deliberately enhance it.

Diversity, after all, is what makes places desirable, and desirable cities grow. In the words of the great Canadian urbanist Jane Jacobs, “When a neighbourhood is boring, even the rich people leave.”