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.
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 didn’t realize that the cat colony was removed from Parliament Hill. It does say something, I think, about public space and national security anxiety. I believe there has been some good writing on security changes to US national parks after the September 11th airplane hijackings in 2001.
For me it wasn’t really the feline assisted living complex that drew my thoughts to wild vs. unwild, though it was a pleasant (if self-congratulatory) moment of how Nice Canadians Are That Anybody Can Walk Up to Parliament and Here, We Have Cats. No, for me it was always the view up and down the river and across to the Gatineau hills. And I don’t know if, short of removing people from the Hill altogether, any amount of increased security can really suffocate that.
Or, perhaps Parliament Hill and the more general area of downtown Ottawa hasn’t changed all that much in the last 50 years. At least, not when it comes to being the venue for violent acts.
Yesterday, Dan Hiebert of UBC Geography (and The Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society, or TSAS) shared via email the insight that there is a long history of such acts in downtown Ottawa. Eighty instances, in fact, between 1963 and 2013.
But yes, as you recognize, I do agree that even if violence has been chronic over the decades, perhaps our responses to those acts have changed. Including the banishment of the cats.
For the record: I loathe violence. I love cats.
For your interest, there is still a Facebook page dedicated to the Hill cats: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Cats-of-Parliament-Hill/10150154879045652?fref=ts . The public justification for the sanctuary’s closure was that it was cruel to leave them outside during the winter when they would be better off adopted in some warm home. I suspect security concerns likewise contributed to the decision, just as they inform the ban on loitering and panhandling on the Parliamentary precinct. (And that’s a whole other issue: abandoned cats were admirably cared for, while homeless men and women were wholly unwelcome.)
Claire, your comment is interesting because that’s been my big take-away from the space, too. Also, I always wondered whether MPs and their staff are at all influenced by the varying views from their office window, be it messy gridlocked Wellington Street, the Gatineau Hills, the pulp and paper smokestack in Hull, the Supreme Court grounds, or Turtle Island.
René Chartrand, the man who for years fed & cared for the Parliament Hill cats, died in early December.