Thrill on the Hill – Reflections of Canada 150 celebrations


Let me be honest with you for a moment: Canada Day in the Nation’s Capital is a clusterfuck any given year.  Most actual born-and-raised residents opt to stay well away from the traffic snarls, the crowds, the security and the constant threat of the skies unleashing all the fury of Ontario in summer. (Sometimes, I swear, winter storms have nothing on the severe weather between May and September.) Instead, Ottawans chose a neighbourhood celebration, the cottage, or just staying home on Canada’s birthday.  If they decide to be adventurous, they might chose a patio in the Glebe.

To a degree, these residents have a point in their need to stay away. I think the only reason I still personally insist on being downtown on Canada Day is because I’ve been living in the town for less than a decade and the novelty has yet to wear off.  This year’s celebration was as big as advertised as the biggest Canada Day in our country’s 150 year history, the concerns of born-and-raised Ottawans were very much amplified and I would never blame them for opting to stay right away from the kerfuffle.

But dear readers, that did not stop a dedicated estimated half million people from near and far descending upon Ottawa-Gatineau’s downtown core for everything from the fireworks to free museum admission to special turban-tying presentations – and of course, the Thrill on the Hill.

Nor did it stop me from soaking every last moment – and raindrop – of the celebration I could possibly could.

June 30

It became obvious about a week before the celebrations kicked into high gear the rain was an inevitable.  As a stage volunteer with the Ottawa Jazz Festival, the weather leading up to Canada’s big day couldn’t be ignored. Thanks to the advent of technology, we knew where, when and for how long rain is going to fall – and it fell pretty much everyday of the festival, at least once a day and every couple of days we received our regularly scheduled downpour. So by June 30, it became extremely apparent that the biggest birthday party on the face of the planet was going to be a wet one.

There was a bit hope the rain would miss us. The first concerts of the weekend, held in Major’s Hill Park, came just as blast of sun came out Friday evening.  It was humid, but the evening sun was lovely and warm.  It was a nice change to the wet weather that plagued us most of the week.

And in true event fashion, a power outage stopped the festivities from starting on time.  Go figure.

Kicking off the show 45 minutes after it’s scheduled start time, Quebec’s Jonathan Painchaud got the bilingual crowd pumped and ready for Moon Vs. Sun; the side project of Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida.  The audience was absolutely delighted at the performance of the husband and wife duo, as they played songs from their joint album, as well as each other’s hits.  With the audience definitely more familiar with familiar with the songs of Our Lady Peace, the stripped down performances of some of the band’s greatest hits – including the classic “Superman’s Dead” with Kreviazuk singing lead – combined with Kreviazuk’s hits, it was an absolute joy of a performance on a beautiful night to help start off the weekend’s line up.

It also felt really good to head home with an array of good Canadian rock and pop songs to keep spirits and pride up.  It was nice to see a performance on June 30 (Canada Day eve, if you will), which I forget was always a big part of the celebrations in my hometown growing up.  Not to mention, and I’m sure others experience the same kind of euphoria when you spend an evening singing songs of your teenage years, as the music of Our Lady Peace and Chantal Kreviazuk’s were for me; but there was an additional sense of Canadian patriotism that made the singalong just that much more special. Needless to say, as I grew up, so did my Canada Day experiences.

I was ready for the rest of the weekend.

July 1 – Canada Day

The high that followed me home from the Moon Vs. Sun performance lasted quite a while – or at least until I began making my way to Parliament Hill at 7 a.m. and the rain started to fall and I completely forgot the OLP earworm still stuck in my head from the prior evening.

The rain would not even remotely let up for another four hours.

I was smart in a few respects though.  By getting to the park well in advance, I avoided the security line up that would eventually take over five hours to get through.  (I’m sure in practice, the whole operation worked; but I’m also pretty sure they completely factor in the amount of rain that would fall, how many folks would wait until the last minute to come down to the Hill and how much stuff people would have to bring in their desperate attempts to keep dry.)

But that’s about as far as my luck ended.  The most appropriate spot I was able to maintain had me standing in a puddle for at least two hours, or until I had the courage to ask a lovely lady who’d come all the way from British Columbia to experience Canada Day in Ottawa if I could stand beside her on the metal barricade.  We all tried so hard to be energetic and fun, but with heavy rain falling and security being so tight they blocked the view of the stage for everyone surrounding me, it was a struggle to keep the energy flowing.

There were moments of fun.  My new friend was in for a personal treat, when as we were waiting for the ceremony to start, we became temporary members of Toronto collective Choir! Choir! Choir!, who came out and directed the audience in singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  She told me it’s another dream of hers to be a part of a Choir! Choir! Choir! meet up in Toronto.  My little crew was also super excited we were along the path the arriving dignitaries – several of us got to shake the hand of Prince Charles and Justin Trudeau.

Other than the royal sing-along fun, there wasn’t much else to see where I ended up standing I’m afraid.  Apart from songs by Buffy Sainte-Marie, Marie-Mai, Patrick Watson and Walk Off the Earth (who covered Arcade Fire); Royal speeches, reminders of our presence on unceded Algonquin territory, and the rally of support for our nation on its 150th birthday was where it was at.  Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, spoke eloquently of our accomplishments, achievements and opportunities to be a better country…and then promptly forgot to name off Alberta in a provincial roll call.  Turns out, rain on the brain affects everyone from the mood of a crowd to the memory of the leader of our country.

But then there is the little matter of the addition of one half of U2 showing up.  Bono and the Edge came out about 20 minutes into the ceremonies to sing their 1991 classic “One,” and two verses of the Beatles’ classic “Rain,” which warmed my Beatlemaniac heart.  I mean, if you have to go international during a Canadian party, Bono and the Edge did it perfectly in my opinion.  I also got to actually see the one the called Bono for all of 30 seconds when security moved just slightly.  All in all, it was probably one of my favourite moments of the ceremony.

Following the performance, I made the small mistake of leaving Parliament Hill in search of food and drink.  You see, in their wisdom, organizers decided not to have any food venders within the fortress that was the five blocks surrounding Parliament.  To get that, my epic journey brought me through the Rideau Centre, on a bus that took half an hour to go three blocks, and through a 20 minute Tim Horton’s lineup that ultimately felt completely reasonable compared to the hundreds of other line ups throughout the city; especially that five hour lineup at the security blockade…which I won’t lie, I was able to bypass because the afternoon and evening performances were finally open to all media types, and not just those following the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. I guess I can count it as another stroke of luck.

Unlike in other years, the festivities on the Hill did not experience a lull.  Normally, there’s always music, maybe a DJ playing; but in the hours between the ceremonies at noon-time and evening concerts, spectators were treated to performances by Serena Ryder and YouTube sensations the Maritime Bhangra Group.  And, for a brief moment, the sun came out and baked the lawn.  And there was much rejoicing for the two hours of decent weather.

The rain started up again about 5 p.m., and then the lightning started around 8 p.m. – just in time to delay everything.  For an hour, the crowd waited for the weather to clear so the evening show, hosted by the Prime Minister and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, featured streamlined performances by Cirque du Soleil, Dean Brody, Alessia Cara, Marie-Mai, Serena Ryder and Walk Off The Earth.

I won’t lie, with all the hype surrounding the moment of the nation’s celebration, the day did feel a little like a bust; and it wasn’t really the fault of anyone in particular.  It was just circumstances and weather being what they are, it really put a damper on the entire thing.  On any other given year, when the sun is out and the mood isn’t so flat, the experience of Canada Day on the Hill is a great one and I really wished the visitors to Ottawa would have got to see that.

July 2 – WE Day

Lucky for everyone who got absolutely soaked on Parliament Hill the day before, the chance for a good, inspiring party featuring the weather to match would return the next day.

Normally, Canada Day in Ottawa doesn’t really extend past the fireworks on July 1.  July 2 is when Ottawans nurse the hangovers; but the organizers of WE Day had another great idea for the day – why not spotlight the youth of the nation?

Co-founded by activists Craig and Marc Kielburger, the world renowned youth empowerment event took over the already built stage on the Hill and held its first ever outdoor festival.  Meant as a forum to promote causes important to the young people of Canada, and to celebrate their achievements, the event attracted a slew of guest speakers ranging from former astronaut, Chris Hadfield, to mental health advocate, Margaret Trudeau.

Kids of all ages were, of course, front and center to the event.  From budding activists campaigning to end child labour or promote indigenous causes, to a young woman who started collecting dead batteries when she found out that the zinc from dead batteries can be extracted to give to infants born with zinc deficiencies.

And then, of course, there was the music.

Hosted by comedian JusReign, Maripier Morin (host, Le Voix Junior), Chloe Wilde (E!/Much host), Tyrone Edwards (E!/Much host) and Nico Ouellet (Animator, Gemini-Award winner) and headlined by Canadian superstars, Barenaked Ladies, Nelly Furtado, and Hedley, the show was not without its many surprises.

In a rare public appearance, Pearl Wenjack, sister of Chanie Wenjack, was accompanied by Gord Downie, with a message of reconciliation for the young crowd. In a tribute to the Tragically Hip lead singer’s work surrounding reconciliation, a children’s choir sang from Secret Path, and donned purple feathered top hats in tribute to a visibly touched Downie.

During their performance of the classic “If I Had $1,000,000,” Barenaked Ladies were joined on stage by friend Chris Hadfield, who helped lead the young crowd in the Canadian singalong.  Nelly Furtado was accompanied by three young indigenous hoop dancers.  And Hedley’s power-pop performance closed out the night as the rain made it’s final appearance of the weekend.

As much as the WE Day’s message was 100% about the future of our nation, I felt it to be so much more than that.  It had all the optimism of the Canada Day that I so dearly missed from the day before, and it did it with a theme that made me feel safe and proud to be living where I do.

Despite the weather, I’m proud to have been on Parliament Hill all Canada Day weekend. I was proud of all the music I heard all weekend.  And despite the whole mess that was the fine details of this one special long weekend, I have stories for the grandkids.

It was a weird weekend, but a special weekend.  And for that, if you ever get a chance, please be sure to join the fun in Ottawa someday.

Just be sure to prepare yourself.  It can get messy.

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