A Parliament of Cats

Source: Yatmandu, "Parliament Cats," https://www.flickr.com/photos/yatmandu/391698641/

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When I lived in Ottawa, my wife and I regularly strolled up Parliament Hill to visit the cat sanctuary. Right beside the Canadian Parliament, less than a stone’s throw away, were a collection of small pet houses where a considerable number of cats (occasionally joined by raccoons, squirrels, and groundhogs) hung out waiting to be fed. I kid you not. The cat colony stood there for almost fifty years, until it was finally removed and the last cats adopted in 2013. cats of parliament hill 2, 2014

The cats were a source of great delight to tourists and locals alike, and I think there were three reasons for that delight. First, they were cats. Second, there was the sense of how the scene played into the Canadian stereotype: of a people so tolerant, or so passive, that they permitted squatting squatters to take up residence next to the seat of government. And third, there was a sense of how it played against the stereotype: how it was domesticates, rather than conventional wildlife, which were living in the wild, year-round, in one of the coldest national capitals in the world. You couldn’t visit the cats without thinking about the wild and the tame, and the thin line between the two.

Even before the cats were banished, their Hill had been changing in recent years. The walking trail that threaded up from the Ottawa River had been closed off. Bollards had sprung up all over. Police cars drove around continuously, their drivers as cheery as their numbers were intimidating.

This week, a gunman stormed Parliament after killing a soldier, Corporal Nathan Cirillo, in front of the nearby National War Memorial. This is sure to increase security measures even more on the Hill. And with good reason: symbolic and crowded, Parliament is simply too tempting a target for extremists. From our experience this millennium, we know that our freedom will change, and we know that that change tends to travel in just one direction. (The cats won’t come back.) That’s a pretty massive loss in itself. But one small loss, rarely mentioned, is that as security mounts at public sites of significance, the opportunity to experience nature at them is squeezed out. More and more, they become strictly human places.

 

Or perhaps it is wildly insensitive for me to be thinking and writing about cats this week. You’re free to argue with me. Bring it on.

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I am a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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