TREES AND PARKS. A central farmers' market with a European flavor. A canal that wends its way right up to the Canadian Parliament buildings with their stately stone facades and green-hued copper roofs. Ottawa is a picturesque place, a small and gentle town, favored by American visitors who find it clean, peaceful and uncomplicated. And it is a "book" city, one of Canada's largest book markets in terms of sales and bookstores per capita, a fact that booksellers attribute to the stability of the federal payroll and to a large population of young urban professionals. Despite the overwhelming influx of American books and magazines on the racks, Canadian books, particularly nonfiction titles such as journalist Sandra Gwyn's recent book on Ottawa social history, The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier, sell well to an audience hungry for a taste of its own heritage.
Ottawa is also a city that shares two populations, two cultures and two languages. Twenty percent of its citizens are French- speaking and, as it sits only a stone's throw across the Ottawa River from the province of Quebec, it is geographically and economically tied to its French sister-city, Hull. But the impact of this French-Canadian culture was not felt until former prime minister Pierre Trudeau took office. Under his influence, the federal bureaucracy and with it, the city, was forced to become bilingual. There is French radio here, television, theater, bookstores and publishers. And the Anglophones, whose fluency in the second official language was acquired only recently and with great difficulty, have rushed to put their children in French immersion schools. One of the funniest chapters in last year's Ottawa best seller, The Anglo Guide to Survival in Quebec, was "Bringing up B,eb,e or Why Does My Child Sound Like a French Garage Mechanic?"
The growth of a generation that is truly bilingual in every facet has enormous potential in developing an Ottawa writing community that is invigorated by its ethnic differences. In the past, English-Canadians have ignored French-Canadian culture while the Qu,ebecois have stayed aloof in order to protect their cultural identity. And, although any cross-over is still very minimal, attempts have already begun to draw writers of both languages together. The local chapter of the Writers' Union of Canada hosted a recent cocktail party for Ottawa writers that included members of L'Union des Ecrivains Qu,ebecois, and a new writers' organization, Ottawa Independent Writers/Les Ecrivains Ind,ependents d'Ottawa is trying to join the two separate writing communities under one banner.
IF THE MANTLE of bilingualism rests uneasily now on the two literary populations, it has not stopped either the French or English writers from being vigorous and active within their separate spheres. Poets, short-story writers and playwrights are in abundance, and novelists are writing not only mainstream fiction but in such genres as mysteries, thrillers, the occult, science fiction and romance. City Hall has established a post of poet laureate; there are a handful of local literary magazines and small presses; and, under the auspices of the Canada Council, the arts-funding arm of the federal government, poetry and fiction readings by both visiting and local authors are frequent. Across the river in Hull, an annual book fair attracts crowds from such French- Canadian cultural meccas as Montreal and Quebec City.
While Ottawa's literary activities are predominantly in either French or English, during the past 10 years, a group of Chilean writers has emigrated to the city. Although their numbers are small, they have their own prss, Ediciones Cordillera, which publishes bilingual (Spanish-English) editions of poetry, fiction and essays. The press is funded by the federal Department of Multiculturalism, with a mandate to broaden the contact between Chilean authors and a North American audience. Given the amount of activity in Ottawa, one might expect that writers here would have a great deal of visibility but, surprisingly, the reverse is true. Despite being the nation's capital, the city suffered for many years from small-town parochial attitudes, creating an environment that neither recognized nor nurtured innovative writing. With the exception of high-profile journalists who write nonfiction, local authors of fiction, poetry and plays are unknown to the vast majority of Ottawa citizens. And the community itself isn't always ready to support local cultural activities. Almost every experimental theater in Ottawa has disappeared, leaving the city's playwrights without a creative forum. The only English-speaking daily, The Citizen, covers sports with greater enthusiasm than it overs the arts. And, in a move that saddened many writers here, Denis Deneau of Deneau Publishers, Ottawa's only major trade house, recently decided to move to Toronto, where "the action is."
But some writers believe that time is the element needed to merge Ottawa and its own writing community. The population of Ottawa and its surrounding townships has grown to 800,000 and the downtown core has been redesigned to become a national tourist and convention center. The face of the city is changing as it tries to slough off its image as a backwater town whose citizens have to flee to Montreal or Toronto to get a cultural infusion. And, its writers hope that an emerging urban sophistication, a vigorous melding of ethnic cultures and a growing network of knowledgeable authors may bring Ottawa to a new literary maturity.