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Two takes on Canada: Ottawa and Winnipeg

posted October 15, 2017
Two NTA writers headed north for some summer touring to check out Canada during its 150th anniversary celebration; Gabe Webb was in Ottawa and Pat Henderson explored Winnipeg.

In addition to connecting with some very friendly Fam trip hosts and diving into each destination’s rich history, both writers were able to experience unique aspects of local culture. Read on to learn more about a giant mechanical spider and a fire-breathing dragon that roamed the Ottawa streets, a city-wide celebration that shined a light on Winnipeg’s multi-ethnic heritage, a “Da Vinci Code”-esque tour at the Manitoba Legislative Building and much more.

Ottawa: A place to stand, a place to grow (and go)

Provincial pride was in full swing at Expo 67, a World’s Fair held in Montréal during the 100th anniversary year of Canada’s confederation. At the Ontario Pavilion, a film showing scenes of the province’s natural beauty and man-made industry was accompanied by a rollicking song: “Give us a place to stand and a place to grow, and call this land Ontario. A place to live for you and me, with hopes as high as the tallest tree.”

In late July, I visited Ottawa for a Fam organized by Ottawa Tourism. Fifty years removed from that song beckoning the world with a chorus of “Ontari-ari-ari-o,” I saw a city and country marking another milestone. Throughout 2017, the nation’s capital welcomed special events as part of the Canada 150 celebrations. 

The impetus for my visit was one such celebration, the arrival of La Machine, a French “street theater” company making its North American debut. The group is most famous for building enormous, mechanical creatures, which are piloted by teams of performers. From when I arrived on Thursday through the weekend, La Machine’s two-story-tall dragon and spider (named Long Ma and Kumo, respectively) paraded through the streets, accompanied by thousands of captivated onlookers.

When I landed in Ottawa, I was surprised to learn that Kumo was “sleeping” about a block from my hotel, in advance of his debut procession later that night. I was staying at the Lord Elgin Hotel, and I was greeted by Amber Van Der Hoeven, the property’s tour and travel sales manager, at check-in.

La Machine spider
La Machine's Kumo (Photo by Gabe Webb)

“Tour groups are an important part of our business, and we take pride in that,” says Van Der Hoeven. “Our guests come from all corners of the world, and we are proud Ottawa ambassadors.”

For tour groups, the hotel offers special menus, buffets or boxed breakfasts for early departures, as well as complimentary on-site parking for up to four motorcoaches. City parking passes are available for purchase at the front desk, which also has maps to nearby lots. 

“The Lord Elgin is a well-oiled machine that has hosting motorcoach groups down to a science,” says Van Der Hoeven. “We make it fast and simple because we have been doing it for 76 years.” 

The 355-room chateauesque hotel is located in the heart of downtown, across the street from Confederation Park. From my room, I had a view of that green space and Long Ma’s resting spot in front of city hall. However, my date with the dragon would have to wait.

Catch up on the first 150—fast

My exploration of Ottawa began in earnest with a tour of Parliament Hill and Centre Block, where Parliament convenes. The guide who led our group of visitors from across Canada and the U.S. showed us the symbolic details of the building’s architecture, explained parliamentary procedure and shared stories from the current building’s century-long history.

The original Centre Block, as I learned, was built in the 1860s, and it was almost totally destroyed in a fire in 1916. The only part that was saved, having been sealed behind a set of iron doors, was the Library of Parliament, and its salvation spared a national treasure. The library’s rotunda contains rows of elaborately carved shelves of leather-bound volumes and ornate wood floors with inlaid designs. 

Public Services and Procurement Canada has been undertaking a massive restoration of Parliament Hill since 2002. During my visit, the West Block building was quite literally under wraps—scaffolding and tarps—while it received much-needed modernizations and meticulous repairs to its exterior masonry. The completion of the current phase of the project will also add a new welcome center for groups touring Parliament. The renovations to all of Parliament Hill’s buildings are expected to continue for several more years.

From Parliament, I headed to the Bytown Museum, which sits on the Rideau Canal and one of the many sets of locks. On the walk from Wellington Street to the museum’s entrance on a paved pedestrian path, I watched boats descend from the canal into the Ottawa River. Then I went into the museum for a lesson in Ottawa’s history and the construction of the Rideau Canal. 

The historical building is Ottawa’s oldest stone structure, and it originally served as a commissariat for the construction crews working on the canal. While its compact three floors are less encyclopedic than the nearby national museums and more modest than the ornate centers of government, the Bytown Museum is an essential site for understanding the area’s history. 

Art, nature and history

The Canadian Museum of Nature was my next stop. The museum’s striking facade consists of the stone Victoria Memorial Museum building from the, well, Victorian era, and a multi-story glass atrium that was added to its entrance in 2010.

The museum’s interior incorporates the historical and contemporary, too. Some galleries maintain original, massive dioramas of creatures posed in highly detailed environments against gorgeous hand-painted backdrops. A more recent addition, the Canada Goose Arctic Gallery, uses wall-spanning timelines, video screens and projections onto large, touchable sheets of ice to show visitors the ecosystem of the frozen north and educate them about forces threatening it.

kids with ice
Canadian Museum of Nature (Photo by Gabe Webb)

The National Gallery of Canada features works of Canadian artists and places special importance on the historical and modern creativity of First Nations, Inuit and Metis pieces. The museum also includes a reconstructed Ottawa church wherein visitors can walk among a chorus of individual speakers broadcasting the parts of a hymn.

The Canadian Museum of History also places great emphasis on the heritage of Canada’s aboriginal peoples. Just off the museum’s entrance is the Grand Hall, where totem poles stand alongside re-creations of entrances to structures representative of indigenous groups.

“You can find the largest collection of indoor totem poles in the world here and learn about the First People of the Northwest Coast,” says Stephanie Fortin, tourism and marketing officer for the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum. The museum’s newest attraction is its Canadian History Hall, which covers 40,000 square feet and showcases more than 1,500 artifacts.

“This new signature exhibition is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever done on Canadian history,” says Fortin, “covering 15,000 years, in chronological order, from the dawn of human habitation until today.”

“We can accommodate both adult and student groups,” says Fortin. “We offer advantageous group rates, including combos with the Canadian War Museum.”

The Canadian Museum of History also has a dedicated motorcoach entrance, cafeteria and restaurant spaces for group meals, and visitor guides in multiple languages.

My final night in Ottawa, I was among the thousands of people packing the streets for a view of the meeting between Long Ma and Kumo. As the spider stretched its massive, articulated legs and the dragon raised its head for a fiery breath, I thought about how I might describe these two machines. The truly fascinating part, for me, was the elegance with which the artists and designers of La Machine had incorporated thousands of moving parts. 

And that’s an apt description of Ottawa at large. Look closely, and you’ll find a destination with a complex mix of people, sites and ideas. Then step back and you’ll see how the city is working to bring them all together to make something grand.

To learn more about tourism product in Ottawa, reach out to Kelly Dean of Ottawa Tourism or go to

The journey to Winnipeg

During my visit to Winnipeg, Manitoba, this August, I heard a lot about Churchill. Heck, one of the attractions we visited, Assiniboine Park Zoo, even has an exhibit called “The Journey to Churchill.” Apparently, lots of travelers spend a couple of days in Winnipeg before heading up to Churchill to see the polar bears and belugas.

While I have no doubt that Churchill is outstanding—clearly taking a ride out onto the tundra with long-time NTA member Frontiers North and doing a whale-watching cruise around the Hudson Bay is bucket-list stuff—I’d caution tour operators about cutting their time in Winnipeg short.

You see, there is just too much good stuff to see and do in Manitoba’s capital city.

The three-day itinerary was packed with visits to a range of interesting attractions and plenty of cultural experiences that left me feeling as if I’d only scratched the surface.

Our group, which also included four Canadian tour operators, was led by two of the friendliest, funniest and most accommodating hosts you could ask for, Sarah Robinson and Michelle Gervais. Sarah is the business development manager for Tourism Winnipeg’s travel trade department, and Michelle is the director of Ô TOURS, a local receptive company.

Getting Folk-sy

One of the highlights for me was getting to experience Folklorama, which I had written about many times.

The festival, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019, showcases the multiethnic heritage of the dozens of cultural groups that call Winnipeg home. More than 30 international cultures are represented in the various pavilions that are spread across the city, and each pavilion offers live music and dance performances, as well as traditional food and drink.

Folklorama’s group tour manager, Hart Jacob, was our guide, and he had lined up evening visits to the Cuban and Irish pavilions. Both venues were abuzz with activity, and from my perspective, there was no downside to mojitos and Latin rhythms, and talented river dancers and a large dose of Irish festiveness, at the respective stops.

irish pavilion
Traditional dance performance at Folklorama’s Irish Pavilion (Photo by Pat Henderson)

The performances take place three times a night, and the typical group VIP package includes visits to three pavilions. While the festival runs for two weeks each August, Hart says he regularly organizes live performances and meals for groups visiting during other times of the year.

In addition to seeing the entertainment at Folklorama, we also took in a production of “MAMMA MIA” at Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage the previous night. I have a soft spot for musicals—thanks, Mom—and, while I’m not a big Abba fan, the show was wonderful.

Museums and Freemasons

The bulk of the itinerary was devoted to museums and historical attractions, a category in which Winnipeg excels.

Two of the city’s top destinations are the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Manitoba Museum. The former is a dazzling glass and stone building that opened in 2014, and the latter is a sprawling downtown attraction that is part history museum, part science museum and part planetarium.

The world’s only museum dedicated to the exploration of human rights presents stories of violation, resistance, resilience and tolerance from Canada and around the world. There are a number of interactive components throughout the 12 galleries, and groups could easily devote far more than the two hours we spent to ensure they have time to fully explore it.

The themed galleries at the Manitoba Museum provided a wide-ranging look at different aspects of the province’s history—both human and natural. While our guide provided good snapshots of key moments in Manitoba’s development, including the major roles the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company played in making the area a trading hub, I felt we only scratched the surface of all that the museum offers.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights (Photo by Pat Henderson)

One of the most fascinating things we did was take a Hermetic Code Tour at the Manitoba Legislative Building. Our knowledgeable guide regaled us with facts and stories about Frank Albo, an architectural historian and expert on Freemasonry, and the decade’s worth of research he did on the symbols, secrets and significance of the neoclassical building.

As we saw examples of numerical symbolism and learned the importance of the angles of certain statues and windows throughout the capitol, it felt like we’d walked on to the movie set of the Winnipeg version of “The Da Vinci Code.” I came away fascinated and slightly puzzled, and mostly feeling that the Freemasons may rival the ancient Egyptians regarding the amount of attention they pay to architectural detail.

We also stopped at Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site, where re-enactor programs and period buildings offer a look at what life was like for the trappers and traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company during the 1850s. And we toured the Royal Canadian Mint, which has produced coins for dozens of countries around the world.

Bison and birds and other natural things

We left the city behind one morning to pay a visit to Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre, which is located 30 minutes north of Winnipeg. This bird-watching hot spot is home to more than 300 species and welcomes up to 100,000 waterfowl a day during migration months.

One of Oak Hammock’s research projects is a bird tracking program. We met with the coordinator, who showed us the steps that volunteers take to evaluate the health of the birds and tag them before releasing them back into the wild—presuming everything checks out OK. While I’ve never had much interest in birding, getting to hold one of the tiny creatures in my hand before she flew off was cool.

We also took a 30-minute paddling tour around a small wetland near the visitor center. Our guide said he’d never had anyone fall overboard and, although you’d only plummet four feet, I was happy we kept that string intact.

On the final day during our breakfast at the Fort Garry Hotel, Spa and Conference Centre, I ask Sarah about getting a ride to FortWhyteAlive to do one of their bison safaris, as I had a few hours before I needed to head to the airport. While we were discussing the details, the tour operators in the group decided they had time and would like to come along.

Bison at FortWhyteAlive (Photo by Pat Henderson)

Sarah worked it out with the motorcoach company for us to keep the bus for a couple more hours and texted the attraction’s Kalyn Murdock, who said it was no problem for more people to join the tour. The main activity once we arrived was riding out to a pond, where we got an up-close look at a herd of around 20 grazing bison.

The 90-minute visit at FortWhyteAlive—during which I found it hard to stop snapping pictures of the playful giants—seemed like a perfect way to close the trip.

As I headed to the airport and was reflecting on that unexpected, cherry-on-the-top stop to see the bison, I couldn’t help but wonder what other memorable Winnipeg experiences I missed.

Guess I’ll find out the next time I visit the city. Who knows, I might even try and schedule in a couple of days to go to Churchill.

To learn more about tourism product in Winnipeg, reach out to Sarah Robinson of Winnipeg Tourism or go to

Top photo: Centre Block at Parliament Hill in Ottawa
Photo by Gabe Webb