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Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe during an interview at Ottawa City Hall on Dec. 11, 2023 in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

There are scores of mayors in cities and towns across Canada, but only one governs a city with the specific challenges of being Canada’s national capital.

Mark Sutcliffe, who has been mayor of Ottawa for just over a year, says he sometimes gets exasperated with the way the city is conflated with the federal government.

“The one thing I’ve noticed is just how often Ottawa is used interchangeably with the federal government, as in, ‘Ottawa has decided to do this,’ or ‘Ottawa is doing this,’” Mr. Sutcliffe said in a recent interview.

“I think anybody who has been in Ottawa knows there’s so much more going on than just the federal government.”

The amalgamation of classic Ottawa and 11 area municipalities two decades ago created a vast municipality of about one million people – the second most populous Ontario city after Toronto.

As well, Ottawa draws a lot of protests because of its national-capital status – most famously, 2022’s anti-government, anti-vaccine mandate demonstration that brought the downtown to a standstill.

“I think of it as a small province,” Mr. Sutcliffe said of the city.

As 2024 begins, Ottawa faces a number of big-city challenges, including the trouble-plagued, $2.1-billion light-rail transit system.

Transit is an issue that prompted Mr. Sutcliffe into putting forward his name as a mayoral candidate in 2022.

“I was watching on as an outsider, and feeling frustrated about it,” he said.

In the first days of this year, the eastern section of the LRT system was shut down for hours after concrete debris was found in a tunnel. Technical issues are nothing new for the LRT, with the system going offline for weeks at a time since it launched in 2019.

“It wasn’t my job to build the light-rail project. If we could go back in time, I can’t say whether I would have made different decisions or the same decisions,” Mr. Sutcliffe said.

“But it is my job to do everything I can to fix it, to represent taxpayers, and OC Transpo passengers during the difficult process that we now have in front of us of solving the challenges.”

Mr. Sutcliffe succeeded Jim Watson, the city’s longest-serving mayor who held the post for 12 years. Before becoming mayor, Mr. Sutcliffe was a long-time journalist, both as a broadcaster, including with the Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC), and as a columnist and executive editor at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. The 55-year-old lifelong Ottawa resident also served on various boards, and was a business consultant.

His new role has been an adjustment. “I’m not commenting on things. I am participating in them. So it’s stepping from the press box into the field of play,” he said.

Political scientist Luc Turgeon, who teaches at the University of Ottawa, says there are specific challenges to governing Ottawa, with many conflicting interests within its boundary.

“You have a large swath of rural areas, and then you have typical suburban politics, and then you have the relatively dense city core. Reconciling these different interests is very difficult,” Prof. Turgeon said.

As well, he said, parts of its territory are not under its control, but rather under the management of the federal National Capital Commission, which manages a total 11 per cent of lands in the capital region.

Prof. Turgeon said Mr. Sutcliffe has brought a degree of calm to city hall after turmoil around the tumultuous last year of Mr. Watson, which included the fallout from the convoy protests, troubles around the LRT and conflict on council.

Mr. Sutcliffe said he worries about a repeat of 2022′s convoy protest, but is reassured by police chief Eric Stubbs, who started his job after the protest and has said he wouldn’t allow a similar-scale demonstration to occur again.

Still, Mr. Sutcliffe says the city is dealing with escalating numbers of protests linked to its national-capital status, and unrelated to general policing needs.

“The residents of Ottawa pay the cost of a municipal police department that serves their community, and they also pay the cost of a police department serving national interests as the capital of Canada,” Mr. Sutcliffe said. “When there is a big march through downtown Ottawa, the police department has to pull resources from other parts of the city and bring them downtown.”

A statement from the Ottawa Police Service said the city has seen a notable increase in polarized ideologies and geopolitical conflicts contributing to the surge in demonstrations in the city, with seven in December, related to the Middle East conflict.

“While the majority of these events have been peaceful, it is crucial to highlight the substantial staffing and logistical resources required to co-ordinate, plan, and respond to demonstrations, to ensure public safety,” the statement said.

Max Watson, a spokesperson for the federal Public Safety department, noted in a statement issued in response to the mayor’s concerns, that the continuing Nation’s Capital Extraordinary Policing Costs Program exists to reimburse the city for eligible policing costs incurred by Ottawa police for policing specific to being Canada’s capital.

Mr. Sutcliffe is also championing the need for a downtown stadium for the Ottawa Senators. The team currently plays in the Canadian Tire Centre, located 27 kilometres from downtown, and is considering a move to LeBreton Flats, a neighbourhood that is west of downtown.

He sees the stadium as a possible boost for a downtown that fewer people are coming to, one where restaurants and retailers are struggling.

“There’s only so many things we can do that will be a game-changer for downtown Ottawa, and this is probably the biggest one,” Mr. Sutcliffe told a recent mayor’s breakfast event at city hall.

“It’s a huge opportunity if we can get it right.”

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