By Nathan Rudyk

When I came to Ottawa in the mid-80s to seek my fortune as a tech marketing writer for a rising pre-IPO tech company called Cognos, I was the proverbial whinging Toronto dude. I owned inadequate winter footwear, moaned about the cold, missed the subway, and was outraged by the fact that on a Wednesday night, my friends and I could not spontaneously:

  • dine out at an Ethiopian restaurant
  • wander into a designer's studio to check out some threads
  • catch a five-dollar Chinese art flick at a rep cinema
  • shoot some pool with poets
  • hear a cool live underground band (often underground, at Spadina Hotel's Subway Room)
  • straggle home to recently reclaimed bricks-n-beams lofts after fabulous coffees and gelato

I was assured by my new Ottawa crowd, many of whom worked on the Hill (including a quiet, earnest guy named Jim Watson, now Ottawa's far more communicative, earnest Mayor) that all of the above was possible. We'd just have to watch the newsapers closely, tune into Carleton U's CKCU-FM, and strategically plot our culture calendar over the course of a month. But, it'd just be a whole lot easier if we dropped the bohemian schtick and went to the Prescott Hotel for beers and meatball sandwiches while we watched a football game.

Even situated in Chinatown, I lasted about a year-and-a-half, then quit my great Ottawa tech job just before the IPO and did the banana-split back to Toronto to launch a career as a freelance business writer. I simply could not reconcile the lack of a thriving live music scene, the endless pub-grub, and general un-hip-ness of The City That Fun Forgot. Oh, and there was a woman I was chasing.

Fast-foward. While Toronto traffic, smog, expense and daily grind forced me (and a growing family with that same woman, the chase was well worth the IPO bucks) out. Remembering the good stuff about the Ottawa Valley but still cautious about the 90s version of Ottawa, we fled first to culture-laden Wakefield, PQ, then to mega-culture-laden Almonte, ON. And now, with a walk-to-work lifestyle amongst the bricks-n-beams located just a few kilometers from city limits, my little bullet list of regret from the 80s has become totally achievable in 21st century Ottawa most days of the week, with same-day service.

And it's going to get even better. Yesterday I attended an unconference called OpenOttawaLibre PURPOSEFULLY CREATED to "position Ottawa as a centre of creativity and innovation". They didn't wedge the word "fun" into that statement, but the open-minded, open-hearted unconferencees absolutely got the F-word. My face still hurts from laughing and smiling so much with them.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Richard Florida (who to be fair, has recognized and graciously categorized Ottawa's nation-leading creative class status for several years now).

The unconference was a multi-disciplinary gathering of 100-plus invited guests trying to, in Ottawa Valley Speak, git er done! Held at Arts Court, the event was hosted by the City of Ottawa's Culture & Heritage Services Branch with the Regional Innovation Centre for Ottawa and Eastern Ontario as its major partner. Below, in true unconference style, was the list of priorities and opportunities identified by our group.

If you want to dive deeper into The City Where Fun Began's cultural ambitions, check out a City of Ottawa discussion paper about Culture and the Creative Economy that introduces five potential strategies for consideration in the new action plan for culture.

So what are you waiting for? Check out Ottawa tonight and go shoot some pool with a poet!

(Nathan Rudyk is President and CEO with market2world communications inc., the public relations and product marketing agency for global innovators.)