Words of wisdom, words on the LRT and what’s ahead in 14 questions.
You mentioned in a December interview that your non-official new years resolution was to improve your work-life balance. How has that been going?
Actually fairly good. You know, I’m trying to not do as many events on Friday nights so I can have one night off before the weekend work starts. The weekends are like my second job as a mayor, because I’ve got all these community carnivals and festivals and charity fundraisers that I want to go to. So I’ve been pretty good at trying to take some Friday nights off, and the occasional Sunday if I don’t have too many things… or I at least try to compact it into a half day.
I’m really bad at having a work-life balance, so I didn’t even make it a new year’s resolution. I always break them. But I thought that if I was going to make a new year’s resolution, it would be about trying to spend more time with family and friends as opposed to always going to work events.
Looking back on the past decade, 9 years of which you’ve spent as Mayor, what is one word that could sum up the City of Ottawa over that time?
Progress would be the best word. We’ve seen a lot of progress on files that really were stuck in the mud for a long time. Revitalizing Lansdowne for instance. It was debated for 20 years, and we finally got shovels to the ground. The LRT notwithstanding the early challenges of the reliability of the service it’s going to be and will continue to be a great service that will serve people in all parts of the city once it is fully built out in the next few years. The Ottawa Art Gallery was another project that was on the books for decades, and we’ve got it open and it’s smashing all records in terms of attendance. And the Innovations Center at Bayview Yards which is our hub for economic development is bursting at the seams. We just approved a two-story expansion to the building where people will use this space for incubation. Some may dream about implementing the next Shopify in the building. So I think we’ve seen a lot of progress on a lot of files, new recreation centers in the East end, the West end, and the South end. We’ve really opened up City Hall, it’s become much more of a people place here in terms of the museums and the galleries and community activities taking place here. It’s become a real hub of the community.
What’s an accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
It’s hard to say. Some of the things I’ve just mentioned, like the Ottawa Art Gallery, is a project I worked on from start to finish. We were able to get partners from a hotel and a condominium, and the arts community to all to come together. It was featured in The New York Times. It’s open 7 days a week. It’s free of charge. We have one of the greatest collections of The Groups of Seven paintings in the world located there. So it’s not a big project, but it’s an important project for the revitalization of that part of the downtown core.
The LRT delays have been making a lot of headlines lately and many commuters are frustrated. What would you say to someone who is either affected by these delays or just frustrated with the challenges it has faced?
Well obviously we apologize for the frustration that it has caused. The vast majority of people who have taken the LRT have had a positive experience, but there’s a core of people who have had one or more or many negative experiences with the trains that are overcrowded or not coming on time. We’ve put a lot of pressure on our staff and on the company that built the trains to perform and we’re holding back 10’s of millions of dollars in payments until we’re satisfied that they have their act together and we can have reliable service. The thing is, we’re never going to promise people a hundred percent service a hundred percent of the time. For instance today, there’s a massive shutdown of a part of the TCC in Toronto. Two weeks ago there was a big shutdown in the Montreal metro system. These large systems have so many moving parts, there’s bound to be some failures from time to time, but we have to do much better than we’ve done in the first couple of months and we’re starting to see an uptake in terms of everyone. Fewer complaints, better reliability.
Earlier this year you came out to the public. Do you still see the effects of this important decision?
I’ve been really overwhelmed with positive comments. I’d say about 95% of the feedback I received on emails and phone calls and tweets and so on has been very very positive. And there’s 5% that are the angry and you know, post and say the homophobic comments that you would expect. But I have been really touched by people, especially families who have told me they have shared my story with their son or daughter who is experiencing challenges with their own sexuality. I have had a number of young people come up to me and thank me for being a role model and letting people know that it’s okay to be gay.
In your experience, what is one of the most important characteristics that a politician (or anyone) needs to succeed as a leader?
I think empathy and understanding of how other people in the organization or in the city or in the community are dealing with issues. I think sometimes we have to be more thoughtful about what we’re doing and the consequences that our actions have. We make a lot of decisions every week in the council meeting and sometimes we’re not as sympathetic in terms of the impact that decision might have on an individual. You try your best to be balanced and do what is in the best interest of the city, but you should also understand that every action has a reaction and you’ve got to be conscious of the fact that sometimes you will make a decision that will affect someone negatively, whether it’s financially or socially or so on. While you still agree with the principal of your decision, you should also not gloat about the win or be too boastful.
When things aren’t going right, or you are faced with challenges. How do you handle it? What are some things that, in your experience, are important to remember during tough times?
Reach out to family and friends and seek their advice. I’ve got a really great staff that I work with. We’re close-knit and we work well together and we’re almost like a second family to one another. So I trust their judgement and their perspective on issues and don’t keep it all wrapped up inside because it’s very frustrating if you don’t have anyone to share your frustrations or your hopes or your aspirations with.
This issue will be out in March/April what are some important areas of focus for you this spring?
We want to continue to stabilize and improve the LRT system. With the warmer weather that’s going to be a more positive experience than what people have had with the deep freeze we’ve experienced this winter. A lot of exciting things happening in the city; we have a new professional soccer team that will start in April/ May of this year. The Atlético Ottawa which is great for Lansdowne. We’re going to see a lot of revitalization on roads; Elgin Street will continue to be upgraded and landscaped. And Montreal Road and Rideau Street will start to go through a rehabilitation and revitalization. Those are some of the things that people will notice physically that are taking place. And then of course we welcome close to 100 festivals starting with the tulip festival.
This year is particularly special because it’s the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands by the Canadian troops in World War II. As you may know the Dutch Royal Family, when Germany invaded the Netherlands, moved here for safety and lived here in Ottawa. And the King and Queen’s daughter was born here, Margriet, at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. So she’s actually coming back during the tulip festival to commemorate the liberating of her country and the fact that she was born at the Civic Hospital. We are naming a park near the Civic Hospital after her, so that will be pretty exciting to have. We call her our Canadian Princess because she was born right here in Ottawa.
You mentioned that the city will be focusing on climate change in 2020, what are some of the plans you’d like to implement?
LRT is our single biggest weapon against climate change and the fight against greenhouse gases because it takes a lot of people out of their cars and it’s an electric system. We have a plan this term to plant another million trees which will be a great offset to some of the challenges of greenhouse gases. We continue to convert all of our street lights to LED lights which are lower energy burning. We have an energy evolution policy where all our new buildings have to be at least gold LEED certified. In fact, our new library that will start construction next year which is a beautiful building is going to be a net zero building, so the highest standard of energy efficiency in the entire city.
What are some of your favourite places to be in Ottawa on your downtime?
If I have the chance I like to go to a movie. I don’t get to see too many movies, so to be able to go out and have dinner and watch a movie is great. I don’t eat at home often because I’m out at different banquets and events, so I’m not a very good cook. Even when I have downtime I’d rather go to a restaurant then try to cook something at home. Just eating out with some friends or going to see a movie. I’d like to try and read more often. I’ve read a lot of city reports and I’d like to read more leisure books. I have a whole stack on my nightstand that I try to go through over the course of a couple weeks.
Favourite places to eat?
Nothing too fancy, I like the Keg Manor on Richmond, it looks like you’re walking back in time. I like Lonestar, I love their fajitas. For a fancier meal, Riviera on Sparks Street is great. I love the Newport Restaurant for pizza. But nothing too fancy, I try to spread my business around so I’m not always at the same restaurants because there are so many great ones. Across the street, Beckta is pretty amazing. I like places to go to have pizza or a cheeseburger or something like that, my tastes are pretty basic.
We know you spend a lot of time working, but do you have any pets at home?
I don’t know, if I did I’d probably be in trouble with the humane society because I’m never there. I had pets growing up as a kid. We had a dog and then overtime 3 cats but at different times. I’d love to have a dog, but I’m just not at home enough and it would be unfair to the dog.
Lastly, what is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
Probably to be patient. I think politicians by their very nature tend to be impatient. They want to change everything overnight and I think sometimes you’ve got to be patient. You have to respect other people’s opinions. And I think I’ve become much more patient over the years. I think when I first started in politics, I wanted to change the world, and then I realized that things are not black and white. They’re often complex. There are repercussions to things. I’ve become wiser than when I was mayor the first time. I was the youngest mayor in Ottawa’s history. I think I was 36 at the time, and I think I’m probably a better mayor now because of the interim that I went off and became the head of the Canadian Tourism Commission and then cabinet minister in three different portfolios and then came back as mayor. And I’ve become broader in my vision as to what a mayor can do and should do and must do to constantly improve the quality of life and the security and safety of the residents of the city. It’s a special responsibility, because we’re not just a regular municipality, we’re the capital of the country, which is pretty special.
Photography by Sean Sisk