I awoke early on the morning of Saturday #121 to the sound of heavy iron cell doors opening with a loud squeak and closing with an even louder clank. One by one, my fellow guests at the Carleton County Gaol shuffled off to the showers at the far end of the range. I had been “in” since Wednesday and had one more night to go.
No, I didn’t have another run-in with the law, and yes, the class action suit against The Toronto Police Service regarding the G20 arrests has been certified and is progressing, but let me assure you that this particular trip to the clink was entirely of my own planning. On Wednesday I took the train from Toronto to Ottawa, a cab from the train station to downtown, but unlike many other tourists, I walked right past the Château Laurier and headed one block up Nicholas Street to the old jail. This was an easy decision as I’m a big fan of “alternative” or “value” accommodation and Airbnb is sooooo 2015.
When it opened in 1862, the Carleton County Gaol was considered state of the art. When it closed in 1972 it ranked right up there with Toronto’s Don Jail and the infamous Kingston Pen as one of the most archaic prisons in the country. According to a report from the day, “The cells were small, uncomfortable, and unsanitary, with no heating, lighting, ventilation or toilets.”
In 1973, with only minor renovations, the historic five-story limestone building re-opened as the Nicholas Street Hostel. Today it’s known as the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel and for the past 33 years it has been a semi-comfortable home away from home for frugal backpackers, traveling students, and anyone interested in spending a night behind bars without the annoying problem of first obtaining a criminal record.
When the hostel opened in ’73, Pierre and Margaret Trudeau and their one-year-old son Justin occupied another of Ottawa’s drafty old limestone piles, 22 Sussex Drive. These days Trudeau II holds the highest office in the land, and although he and his family and 37 nannies (rough guess) are technically residents of 22 Sussex Drive, they have been holed up in a coach house on the property while the main home is brought up to 21st century standards. Somehow I think the 22 Sussex reno will be a little more elaborate than the basic bathrooms and coat of whitewash they slapped on the old limestone jail.
One thing that has changed over the years is the price of a bed at the hostel. When it opened, travelling backpackers paid $2 for the first night and $1 for each additional night. For the first three nights of my four day sentence, I mean stay, I paid $25 for a lower bunk in a 6-bed dorm. On Saturday I willingly forked over an extra $10 for an ‘upgrade’ to solitary confinement. No cigarettes changed hands.
For the extra 10 bucks I got to experience life in a 3′ x 9′ cell that would formerly have housed everyone from murderers to bank robbers, cattle rustlers, petty thieves, and even a few women who failed to keep a tidy home as that was a criminal offence in pre-Confederation Canada.
My upgrade included a set of crisp white linens, a decent pillow and a duvet. I also received a key to my cell door. Obviously prisoners would not have had been supplied with a key, nor would they have had access to the bathrooms that were installed at the end of each range in the 1972 renovation. Those bathrooms haven’t been updated since ’72 but they’re undoubtedly a big improvement over the metal bucket that prisoners were previously issued.
On Saturday morning I joined about 20 other hostel guests for a behind-the-scenes tour. We got a good look at the guards’ quarters, the old prison kitchen, a solitary confinement cell in the basement, and the entrance to a tunnel through which prisoners would have been led to the adjoining courthouse. The 30-minute tour concluded on the top floor where we saw the four “death row” cells and the gallows that were last used in 1869 when Patrick Whelan swung for the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of the Fathers of Confederation. Even at the time there was considerable evidence that Whelan may not have been the shooter yet he was convicted and hanged in front of 5,000 spectators. Since that final execution–Canada’s last public hanging–there have been countless sightings of a ghostly figure resembling the bearded Whelan.
If you’re ever in Ottawa and you don’t mind saving a few hundred dollars a night, bypass the Château Laurier and head one block up Nicholas Street to the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel. There’s a decent pub in the basement, the steam heating works marvellously (as in 30C most of the time) and you’ll come away with a unique experience that author Pierre Berton referred to as a “living history lesson.” You might even catch a glimpse of Mr. Whelan.
People are always asking me to post more photos so here are a few shots taken over my four-day stay in the National Capital Region. We’ll start with the Ritchie Bros. equipment auction that I attended in Kemptville.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve spent six hours at an auction and left empty-handed! In this case it didn’t take too much self-control as the only items on offer were backhoes, bulldozers, forklifts and the like. Unfortunately it was a wet and cold day and I lost all sense of self-control around 3pm when the ladies in the snack wagon started serving piping hot poutine.
Canada’s big city mayors were in town for meetings on Parliament Hill on Thursday and being the political animals that they (we) are, many showed up with their assistants at the the D’Arcy McGee Pub to take in the final US Presidential debate. There were a few boos, groans and laughs throughout the debate but by and large it was a very quiet bar with everyone intently listening for the next Trump-ism.
Earlier in the day I stopped in at the Château Lafayette on York Street. The creaky old floorboards at ‘The Laff’ have been soaking up suds since 1849. It’s Ottawa’s oldest continuously operated bar, don’t you know? I sat adjacent to The Hon. Kent Hehr, Canada’s Minister of Veterans Affairs who hoisted a few with his staff.
The hostel runs a Byward Market Pub Crawl on Friday nights. We started at the hostel’s very own Mugshots Bar (below), then made a quick stop at ‘The Laff’ before moving on to the Clocktower Brew Pub, the Auld Dubliner and several other fine establishments whose names now escape me for some reason.
Saturday afternoon I rounded up three hostel mates and headed over to Parliament Hill for the 2 o’clock tour. My international friends-for-a-day, Finn (left, from Germany), Olivia (centre, from Austria), and Jose-Maria (right, from Spain) seemed to enjoy the tour and they probably learned a bit about our parliamentary system. Their eyes noticeably widened when we entered the Parliamentary Library. They grew up reading the Harry Potter books and all agreed that this library was exactly what they had imagined Hogwarts to be like.
After a late lunch at The Tea Party, we strolled around Parliament Hill, Byward Market, the Sparks Street Mall, and The National War Memorial.
Only in Ottawa would the city council be liberal enough to instal rainbow crosswalks for Pride yet so conservative that every second stripe was left unpainted. Toronto definitely has better rainbow crosswalks.
Here’s another sign of Ottawa’s flair for the dramatic. A vehicle parked at the entrance to the Chateau Laurier displays what may be the most boring ‘Just Married’ sign imaginable. Hey, at least they opted for Times Bold italic.
A suit from Moore’s passes as high fashion in downtown Ottawa but get a few miles outside the city and there’s another ‘look’ altogether. At the auction in Kemptville I spotted a pair of artfully stencilled jeans, a genuine Ottawa Valley dinner jacket, and hoodies adorned with political statements. Leather chaps are also de rigueur.
Now before you conclude that the Ottawa Valley has a lock on the latest haute fashion trends, may I present to you a shot taken at the Islington subway stop in west-end Toronto. While waiting for my bus to Mississauga, I debated whether I should tell this woman that she had something dangling between her legs. In the end I opted to keep quiet in the belief that she probably didn’t care. She was wearing a flannel onesie and denim overall shorts, after all.