/ FACES Magazine May/June 2017
From Ottawa the Old to Ottawa the Bold—Jim Watson likes to see change. Having been mayor for over eight years, Jim has taken on many challenges of change—from renovating the Aberdeen Pavilion to spicing up our city by bringing Red Bull Crashed Ice to Ottawa. Known for his immense ties to all of the different communities around the city, Jim has built a strong foundation for the future of Ottawa.
Jim Watson rarely drinks coffee, but it was his drink of choice at Centertown’s North and Navy, as he recounted his journey into politics, put the words canvassing and therapeutic in the same sentence, and explained why one can see so many cranes around Ottawa this month.
FM: When people think of the name Jim Watson, they think of the city of Ottawa as you’ve been synonymous with it for many, many years. However, what many people may not know is that you were born in Montreal and raised in Lachute, Quebec – what are some of your fondest memories growing up in Lachute and tell us a little about your childhood?
JW: I was born in Montreal, but my family lived in Lachute. I grew up in Lachute up until grade nine when my father was transferred and we moved to Montreal, then Toronto and then Sarnia. I moved to Ottawa to come to University. I really enjoyed growing up in a small town, there was a population of about 8,000—it was a very nice small town. My father was a chemical engineer and my mother was a teacher. My childhood taught me to appreciate the idea of community more, especially now that I live in a big city like Ottawa which is made up of so many small communities. When you grow up a small town, you can relate to Osgoode, Cumberland, Metcalfe and so on.
FM: When you were growing up, did you always aspire to get into politics or did you have other career aspirations in your youth?
JW: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a firefighter because my neighbour was the Fire Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department for Lachute; I also wanted to be a Religious Minister because I was inspired by the Minister at our Church. At one point, I wanted to run a printing company, because as a kid I ran a small printing company out of my parents’ basement. I bought some printing equipment and was fascinated with printing. I used to go around to different stores to sell envelopes and business cards and so on. It was my first experience with entrepreneurship.
FM: What drew you into the world of politics?
JW: I first got into politics at Carleton when I ran for President of the Residence Association. I got interested in politics because I found it was a good way to effect change. I saw that you could get things done if you had good ideas and good people around you. When I ran for City Council in 1991, I had just bought a house a few years earlier and first started getting a property tax bill—and I thought I was paying an awful lot of taxes for a relatively modest home in Ottawa South. I started to then follow municipal government a lot more closely than I had been before and I wasn’t happy with some of the things that were going on. I decided to run instead of sitting on the sidelines and grumbling about it.
FM: What was your first municipal election like for you?
JW: Well, I was running up against the Deputy Mayor and two others, so there were four of us running against each other. I was viewed as a bit of an outsider because the other people had stronger roots in the community at the time. However, I was fortunate to have had such a great group of volunteers and I think the reason that I won was that I ended up getting to every door at least twice—and in some cases three times before the election. I lost about 15 pounds doing it, it was great exercise (laughs) but it was also a great way to get to know every nook and cranny of Capital Ward, the Ward I represented.
FM: What was the transition like for you when you went from private to public life?
JW: It wasn’t that dramatic for me. I was the Press Secretary for the Speaker of the House of Commons, so I had some experience dealing with the Press and had somewhat of a public profile, but it wasn’t a huge leap.
FM: In 2003, you jumped into the world of Provincial Politics and became a Minister in Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Cabinet. Looking back, how do you compare the world of provincial politics to municipal?
JW: They are really quite different because provincially you are dealing with big issues like Hospital Funding, Health Care and Education at a macro level. You tend to not have as much contact with the ordinary citizens that you do as a Municipal Councillor, where you are on the phone dealing with the individuals about issues like a park issue, parking, recycling or whatever it may be. In provincial politics, you’re out of town four days a week, so I often felt disconnected. You are also much more restricted in your freedom. You are, as a Cabinet Minister, bound by cabinet solidarity so you can’t go off criticizing the government or making policy on the fly. At the municipal level, you are independent and you can make decisions based on your views and those of your constituents. I love my time at Queens Park and what we accomplished, for example the Smoke Free Ontario Act. I enjoyed it, but I enjoy Municipal Government much more because it’s a more pragmatic level government and you can get a lot more done for the constituents.
FM: You recently announced that you will be running again for Mayor in 2018, what made you decide that you want to seek re-election for another term?
JW: I want to run again for a couple of reasons. First, I think we’ve made a lot of progress on some big files like Landsdowne and the Innovation Centre, Arts Court, Ottawa Art Gallery, LRT and I want to see a number of these projects through. LRT 2, which is going to be a big game-changer for the city. We are going to see LRT Phase 1 open up in 2018, I think in this day and age where there is a lot of uncertainty in politics, you need some continuity and civility. I still have lots of energy and enthusiasm. I still love coming to work every day. I am encouraged by a lot of people who have asked me to run again and I think there is a broad consensus that we’ve accomplished a lot in this community together—you see the number of cranes around the city, unemployment is at an eight-year low, I was pleased that the National Post did a poll which shows I have a 79 percent approval rating, which is great. I wish I had gotten those kinds of marks when I was in university (laughs).
FM: What accomplishment to date are you most proud and why?
JW: It really is hard to name one, but I think that after years of dithering and cancelled contracts and inaction, we are about to finally see an LRT system up and running. On the provincial level, I am most proud of the Smoke Free Ontario Act, which brought in some comprehensive smoking regulations that helped prevent people from getting second hand smoke. As a councillor, working with colleagues to save the Aberdeen Pavilion which then allowed us to bring forward the new Landsdowne revitalization with the Aberdeen and Horticulture Buildings as focal points. That was a big one as well.
FM: Can you tell us a little about what life is like for Jim Watson away from politics?
JW: I have no life away from politics (laughs) but I am fortunate that most of my family is in Ottawa. I try to take some down time, but I’m not really good at it. The other night I went out to a movie with a couple friends that were former councillors—sometimes I’ll get together with them and some other friends to catch up. I find that you really can’t not be Mayor. I find that you have, sort of, three jobs. You have your 9 to 5 job where you’re doing work in the office. Then in the evenings, you are going out to events for charities, and then your weekend is filled with community activities. Last year, we received about 5,200 invitations to our office—and I went to about 2,200 events and meetings over the year. It is pretty all-consuming, but that’s what I like about it. I like to do whatever job I’m doing full out and I love this job because of the people I get to meet on a daily basis in our community.
FM: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given so far in your career?
JW: One of the best pieces of advice I have gotten was something a former Councillor told me years ago—that he went out and canvassed once a week or once every two weeks in between elections and he found it very therapeutic. I try to go out canvassing every few weeks and people are surprised to see me, they say “why are you here? There is no election” and I tell them that is exactly why I am there because you shouldn’t just see politicians around election time. It is a great way for me to get connected and stay connected with the communities. It is a wonderful way of keeping you grounded—hearing the general opinions on issues out in the community.
FM: Tell us about how Mayor Watson starts off his day?
JW: I start off by reading a couple newspapers at home when I get up, I get into the office around eight o’clock and read a few more newspapers quickly, then I sort of start my schedule for the day. The great thing about this job is that each day is so different. There are full days, but I’m not complaining and I enjoy it. I hear from people that they like to see their politicians out in the community, and out at the events. It is important to them so it is crucial that I get to as many each day as I can.
FM: What is the biggest life lesson you’ve learned over your career so far?
JW: I think that generally the vast majority of people are people of good will. People generally want to make their community, their company and their Associations better. We have such a great reservoir of wonderful people in Ottawa and you see that by all the great charity work that is done in this city. I genuinely get inspired by people that I meet in this city every day.
FM: You have a very large social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Which social media platform is your favourite and why?
JW: Twitter is my favourite because I do it myself. Facebook and Instagram are done by people in my Office. I enjoy Twitter but it is a blessing and a curse at times to do my own tweeting. It is a blessing in that you can speak to people and vice-versa directly. It is a curse in that they bring you complex problems that really cannot be solved in two minutes. Overall, it is a great way to keep in contact with the constituents and to keep them informed as to what is going on and what I am doing around the city.
FM: Tell us about some of your favourite events that you get to attend around the city?
JW: I love the Great Glebe Garage Sale and walking around because I get to talk to a ton of people and have good conversations. I really like going to openings of new businesses, because it’s really often family members that have put their life savings into this business so they have this sense of pride and accomplishment but also trepidation and concern if their idea is going to work. I feel it’s important that I’m there to encourage them and support them as I know how much of their heart and souls they’ve put into these new local businesses.
FM: When it comes to public speaking, do you have any techniques or rituals that you do to keep calm before speaking?
JW: For me the big thing is that I need to read the speech before delivering it (laughs), I find I like using bullets better than a speech, that way you can talk to the people as opposed to reading it to them.
FM: If you had to describe the city of Ottawa to someone that has never been here, how would you describe it to them?
JW: I would say it has big city amenities with small town charm. Rural-agricultural greenspace makes up about 82 percent of Ottawa. We have a distinct set of suburban communities, rural villages and an urban core. Our city is second to none. We want to go from Ottawa the Old to Ottawa the Bold—this is why we’ve gone with things like Red Bull Crashed Ice, The Grey Cup, The Outdoor Classic, The Junos Awards, we have a new Shaw Centre, we are really on a roll now. In the past, there was a lot of indecisiveness at City hall and not much was getting done. We’re getting a lot done now. You can’t wait for unanimity on every project, you’ve got to go for it. As Nike says, “Just Do It.”
FM: When you finally retire from the World of Politics, how do you hope that people remember you and your political career?
JW: I hope people will say that I loved the city and the communities that make up Ottawa. My view is that if I can leave the city in better shape than when I found it for the next generation, then I would have played a small part and done my best.