Nolan Bryant reports from the 20th annual National Arts Centre Gala in Ottawa. Photos by Ernesto di Stefano and George Pimentel Photography
Nov. 4 marked exactly one year since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assumed office. In the year that has passed, Canadians have seen changes in parties of both the political and social variety. The mood on the scene from coast to coast has shifted, but Ottawa – even in light of recent criticism facing the Liberal party's approach to political fundraising – is the city seeing the most substantial social transformation.
The nation's capital was once at the centre of Canadian society: In the later part of the 1800s, the senate chamber on Parliament Hill was the backdrop for must-attend lavish costume balls. Fast forward to the late 1960s when Pierre Trudeau was in office, and the capital was once again filled with glamour, affairs and salacious gossip that captured the world's attention. Then, while Brian Mulroney was in office during the heady 1980s, Ottawa entered another era rife with good times. But the city – or certainly the mood that emanated from it – has been rather sleepy ever since, so the evolution of the social landscape in Ottawa over the past year is rather remarkable.
"There's now a unique energy flowing through Ottawa – a feeling of youth, vitality and innovation – and the arrival of a new government is only part of the reason," says Catherine Clark, a communications consultant and the only child of former Prime Minister Joe Clark who grew up in Ottawa in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "We have become a destination rather than just a place you have to come for work."
"I have seen a lot more Ministers and MPs attend arts, culture and charity events with the new government, in comparison to Mr. Harper's government," says Jim Watson, who's been mayor of Ottawa since 2010. "There appeared to be some unwritten rule by the Harper PMO not to attend 'fancy galas.'" Watson says that implicit understanding kept many political movers from attending the city's big happenings.
Jayne Watson, Mayor Watson's sister, is CEO of the National Arts Centre Foundation, which raises funds for the NAC's performances and educational initiatives across Canada and is one of many Ottawa-based organizations directly benefitting from this social revival. She lists Minister of the Environment Catherine McKenna, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, and public policy expert Matthew Mendelsohn among the next crop of political characters popping up on the Ottawa social scene. They are helping infuse their peers and those who watch them with a revived energy.
The residences of the diplomatic community, nestled in Ottawa's posh Rockcliffe Park, have long added a healthy dose of international panache to Ottawa's social calendar. But now, instead of staid receptions and early dinners, these grand homes – cultural institutions in their own rights – are throwing open their doors not just for their respective national holidays, but for fundraising and community events that are quickly becoming must-attend happenings. The French Embassy plays host to an annual event in support of the Vimy Foundation to mark Canada's contribution to that famous battle in France, for instance.
Melina Pugsley, a Friends of the National Arts Centre Orchestra board member who organizes the group's swish concerts at the embassies and residences, notes that support from the diplomatic community for cultural events has been key to their fundraising and awareness efforts. "FNACO is but one of the organizations who have benefited greatly from their support," she writes via e-mail.
This past summer, the sprawling lawn of Lornado, the residence of U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman and his wife Vicki, played host to an annual fourth of July party. Fresh off President Barack Obama's visit to Ottawa, the party's diverse guest list of nearly 4,000 – up from 3,500 the previous year – is what set it apart from other happenings: In attendance were members of the new generation of political leaders and city movers including tech types like Shopify's COO Harley Finkelstein and Ebay's Andrea Stairs, Trudeau's senior political adviser Gerald Butts and federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
And of course, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau's contribution to the social surge can't be ignored; she's chairing events for national organizations including the Nature Canada Ball, Riverkeeper Gala, Debra Dynes Family House and, most recently, the National Arts Centre (more on that below).
Everyone I spoke with for this story also noted a general upswing in the city overall, and in particular changes in restaurants, an important element in any great town, and something that's been lacking in Ottawa for years. Stephen Beckta, Marc Lepine and René Rodriguez are some of the great chefs who call Ottawa home, and among the new spots popping up is Riviera from chef/owners Matthew Carmichael and Jordan Holley and run by Steve Doussis, a former general manager of The Spoke Club and Soho House in Toronto and the husband of St. John's South-Mount Pearl MP Seamus O'Regan. Amanda Alvaro, a Toronto-based publicist and Liberal political commentator, says the restaurant is now a "go-to for hob-knobbing, entertaining and being seen on the scene." The arts, too, are playing a part: Recently, a French theatre opened called La Nouvelle Scene, and come late 2017 a new Ottawa Art Gallery will open, a modern space that will present the works of local artists. It is being helmed by Alexandra Badzak, the gallery's CEO, and will anchor an in-the-works 150-room Le Germain hotel located in Arts Court.
A sense of accessibility and openness has penetrated the city making after-hours life in Ottawa more collegial. With the excitement of Canada 150 on the horizon, that buzz will likely continue to build.
The National Arts Centre, a cherished institution in our nation's capital, hosted its 20th annual fundraising gala on Oct. 22. It was one of the best events on the Canadian fall social calendar. The evening brought big givers from coast to coast together with political players, business types and proponents of the performing arts. The do also marked Sophie Grégoire Trudeau's first go as the gala's honorary chair, a position traditionally held by the wives of Prime Ministers. "Almost 20 years ago, Aline Chrétien was asked to be the honorary chair of the NAC Gala, and with her acceptance, a tradition was born," Jayne Watson, the NAC Foundation's CEO told me. "In the years since, Sheila Martin, Laureen Harper and now Sophie Grégoire Trudeau have all filled the role with grace." Graceful she was in a Lucian Matis pleated and pearl-encrusted number for her NAC debut.
The soiree, though, was really about the music and raising serious funds. The evening kicked into gear with a performance of Strauss's Die Fledermaus Overture by the NAC orchestra and its musical director Alexander Shelley. Later, jazz great Diana Krall, alongside her quartet, played a series of treasured standards, and after that, a handful of moving songs – just her at the piano with a trio nearby. Post concert, the 2,065 still warm but now empty seats inside Southam Hall were the backdrop for a patron dinner. Served to big supporters on-stage under the autumnal limbs of a monumental tree was a thoroughly Canadian meal: Alberta beef, PEI potatoes and sea salt caramel from Vancouver Island.
The big evening in YOW raised an impressive sum ($724,500 to be exact), funds that will support the National Youth and Education Trust, a national arts and education program that has raised $12.3-million over the gala's 20-year history. The trust provides the means to fund master classes and training programs for young creatives, as well as underwrite student matinees and subsidize tickets that help the NAC grow their gen-next audience.
The gala was, for many, their last visit to the space; next summer, the new and improved NAC, designed by renowned architect Donald Schmitt, will open. Out and about on the late October eve: Buhler Industries Inc.'s John Buhler and his wife Bonnie who served as the gala's honorary chairs; gala committee chair Gary Zed; NAC president and CEO Peter Herrndorf and his wife Eva Czigler; Grégoire Trudeau's parents Jean Grégoire and Estelle Blais; president and chief executive of presenting sponsor CIBC Victor Dodig; Liberal Party of Canada president Anna Gainey; U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman and his wife Vicki; Bassi Construction president John Bassi and his wife Maria, a gala committee member; British High Commissioner Howard Drake; Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz and his wife Valerie; real-estate developer Sam Mizrahi and his wife Micki; Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin; and Adrian Burns, chair of the NAC board of trustees.