Zac and Ottawa: a Love Story

There’s one common denominator between the bulk of my friends in Ottawa and me: none of us were born here.

I was actually born in Peterborough, Ontario, a city of 78,000. Between 1989 and 1995, I moved back and forth between Peterborough and Ottawa with dizzying frequency. Then on the last day of June in the last year of the 20th Century, we made the pilgrimage to Ottawa one last time.

I wanted to write my blog about this city because to me, it is almost like an entity unto itself. Many authors have talked about how certain cities were sort of characters in their writing; Ottawa is a character in my life’s story.

I would go on to discover myself here. My love of writing and music. My convictions and beliefs. My capacity for love. All of it was born here.

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Not everything has been a grand, beautiful romance though. I have watched the arts scene fall into a slump. I have seen Sparks Street turn into a ghost town that is only now starting to wake up again. I’ve seen terrible people do terrible things, and sometimes I’ve seen good people do them too.

My first summer here, I witnessed a sexual assault on my future schoolyard and didn’t tell anyone for ten years because I was ashamed that I couldn’t do anything. This is probably the worst thing I have seen, but it was not the last.

The city challenges me. It pushes me to be a better person and to overcome obstacles. I suffer from Autism Spectrum Disorder. When I first moved here, I was hopeless at socializing. I couldn’t make friends to save my life. Today, I am a different person. I can put myself out there and feel secure that people will accept me for who I am, and not label me a “retard” (a label I’d been given on the Peterborough schoolyard).

I was born in Peterborough, but I was made in Ottawa. It’s still not a perfect place but aren't doing terribly. We recently re-elected a forward-thinking and capable mayor. Over the past weekend, Ottawa Pop Expo raised $10,000 for CHEO. Today it was announced that Ottawa police would be making strides towards better understanding domestic and sexual assault cases. And this is just from a cursory scan of recent headlines.

Ottawa gets it wrong sometimes, and it gets it right sometimes. We don’t always get along but we always make it through, and I hope it will be my home for more years to come.


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Zac Emery

Zac Emery is an Ottawa-based writer, amateur photographer, and karaoke enthusiast. When he’s not pursuing his interests as a writer or doing course work for Algonquin’s Professional Writing program, he can usually be found pretending to be a rock star in front of a mirror or collecting comic books.

Facebook | Twitter | Blog I follow: John Cheese

Ottawa Shooting: The Aftermath

Do you remember where you were on October 22nd, when an armed man killed a ceremonial guard and attempted an assault on Parliament? I was in a classroom with no reception on my phone, scared shitless because people I cared about were downtown, and there was no clear report on what exactly was going on.

It wasn’t until that evening that the details came out, in newscasts such as this:

What has followed since then has been fascinating to behold. The politicians and RCMP have done their fair share of fear mongering (RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson wants everyone to make sure none of their friends or families are extremists). The word “terrorist” has been bandied about in the media.

 A candlelit vigil for Nathan Cirillo on October 25th

A candlelit vigil for Nathan Cirillo on October 25th

And yet people in Ottawa don’t seem to be buying it. I have not had a single conversation or read a single blog or  Facebook post or Tweet about how we all need to fear terrorists and keep a close eye on anyone who looks foreign. It helps that Zehaf-Bibeau’s mother has given a clearer picture of who her son was. And I’m glad, because frankly I don’t want to feel nervous about committing a WWB—“Walking While Brown”—whenever I go downtown, and because these “us vs. them” Islamophobic narratives are childish and offensive.

As the feds gear up to increase security on Remembrance Day, real-world conversation about the event has already dried up. A cynic might say it’s because the Jian Ghomeshi scandal has distracted us with its edgy perversity. An optimist, the kind seen throwing around #OttawaStrong hashtags, might say it’s because we’re strong and bounce back fast.

I don’t think it’s either of those. I remember worrying, and hoping that the people I care about would be all right. I realize that that is all that matters: that the people we love are safe. Lone gunmen, racist reporters, and alarmist politicians be damned. The safety of my family and friends are all I need, and I know a lot of us feel the same way. Of course, there are two families that don’t have that luxury: Nathan Cirillo’s, and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s. My heart breaks for them.


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Zac Emery

Zac Emery is an Ottawa-based writer, amateur photographer, and karaoke enthusiast. When he’s not pursuing his interests as a writer or doing course work for Algonquin’s Professional Writing program, he can usually be found pretending to be a rock star in front of a mirror or collecting comic books.

Facebook | Twitter | Blog I follow: John Cheese

Dude, where's my city?

So there’s a door, right? And on each side of the door are two vastly different worlds.

On one side, the world is smaller, but it’s bright and warm, and the people are content as they move around from place to place, laughing, socializing, eating, and of course, consuming. On the other side, everything feels cold and uninviting. There are people here, too, but they are fewer. They often seem harried and anxious, and they will avoid eye contact with every passerby they see.

 Downtown is hauntingly dead at 1:00 PM on a Saturday

Downtown is hauntingly dead at 1:00 PM on a Saturday

This isn’t the premise of a Neil Gaiman-esque fantasy tale. This is downtown Ottawa at midday on one of the last nice Saturdays of the year. And the door leads from the Rideau Centre to Rideau Street.

See, even covered in scaffolding during its facelift, the Rideau Centre is still a warm, cozy environment, with its upscale shops and new food court—which looks like it belongs on a spaceship. We love to talk about how it’s shaping into a sexy, modern shopping centre.

Which is great for the mall, yeah. But we seem less up to talking about the neighbourhood around it. As I observed over this weekend, and many times before it, most everyone seemed to be rushing from one nice spot to another, anxious not to spend too much time outside. This was especially true if they had children.

 Rideau Centre slowly unveils its new skin

Rideau Centre slowly unveils its new skin

As it turns out, having a space-age shopping centre in the middle of your neighbourhood does not actually do much to clean up the place. It doesn’t put roofs over the heads of the homeless (in fact, it seems to be taking them away, as little nooks and crannies once used for shelter disappear in the new design). It doesn’t clean up the streets. It certainly doesn’t stop downtown from being a hub for street harassment—many women I know refuse to go there alone at night, and some won’t even go alone during the day.

When I settled in Ottawa in 1999, things were not like this. I could walk pretty far from my mother’s hand without being pulled back in worry. But neighbourhoods change. Some improve, some get worse. I hope that just because it’s worse now doesn’t mean it won’t be better in the future.

Hollaback! is an initiative to end street harassment.

The Ottawa Mission, Harmony House and The Youth Services Bureau all offer shelter for people in need, and all accept donations.


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Zac Emery

Zac Emery is an Ottawa-based writer, amateur photographer, and karaoke enthusiast. When he’s not pursuing his interests as a writer or doing course work for Algonquin’s Professional Writing program, he can usually be found pretending to be a rock star in front of a mirror or collecting comic books.

Facebook | Twitter | Blog I follow: John Cheese

Zaphod's Future is in Our Hands

In March, 2008, I went to Zaphod Beeblebrox for the first time. Tucked away in between a gentleman’s club and a punk rock dive bar, it hardly looked like a world-famous nightclub. But what did I know?

A few weeks ago, this article appeared in the Ottawa Business Journal, suggesting that the legendary club’s future was uncertain. It was followed by… well, a whole lot of nothing. As of the writing of this blog, no other news on the matter has surfaced.

 A parody of Kevin Smith's  Clerks  that has been seen around Facebook

A parody of Kevin Smith's Clerks that has been seen around Facebook

But one ambiguous article seems to sparking a lot of worry. Questions like “Is Zaphod’s really closing?” and “What’s going to happen once it’s gone?” pop up in conversations I hear. We’re uncomfortable with having to acknowledge that the future is up in the air, as if the future of everything else is somehow, magically, concrete because we can’t see any reason for it not to be. But let’s look at the facts.

Fact one: It is unreasonable to expect 59-year-old Zaphod Beeblebrox founder Eugene Haslam to keep going forever. After suffering a stroke in December, 2010, it seemed likely he would retire then. The fact that he’s kept it running for so long since is more than most people would ever give to a community.

Fact two: His interview does not explicitly say that the bar will close. It says that it is up to us. How would you feel if you left your creation in another’s hands and they dragged its name through the mud? If I were him, I’d want to know that my successor was up to the job.

Fact three: As a city, we’re not exactly great at promoting arts and culture. Every year, more musicians and DJs and artists and other creative people jump ship. They leave for Montreal or Toronto for brighter horizons. The arts scene in Ottawa is dying, and most of us are just watching. If we want cultural hubs like Zaphod’s to stick around, then we’re going to have to dedicate ourselves to showing that we deserve to be trusted with the future of arts and music in this city.


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Zac Emery

Zac Emery is an Ottawa-based writer, amateur photographer, and karaoke enthusiast. When he’s not pursuing his interests as a writer or doing course work for Algonquin’s Professional Writing program, he can usually be found pretending to be a rock star in front of a mirror or collecting comic books.

Facebook | Twitter | Blog I follow: John Cheese