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Patrons enjoy the outdoor patio as they visit Little Victories coffee shop in downtown Ottawa on Thursday, May 9, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickSean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Ottawa’s mayor says he has never lobbied the federal government to bring public servants back to their offices for a certain number of days.

But Mark Sutcliffe says there is an urgent need to deal with a depleted downtown core in Canada’s capital that has not rebounded after the pandemic, as other Canadian cities have.

“I think it’s very urgent because these are not decisions and steps that we will take that are going to be implemented within weeks,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “The more that federal public servants are in the office, obviously, the better it is for our businesses in the downtown core and the better it is for our public transit service.”

However, Mr. Sutcliffe added a caveat. “I’ve never asked the Prime Minister or any other member of his government to change the number of days that employees are coming downtown. It’s not my goal to tell the federal government how many times a week to have their employees in the office. That’s their business. All I’m saying is we need to have a plan for downtown Ottawa that brings as many people to the core as possible.”

This week, unions representing federal public servants promised a “summer of discontent” over a move to order them to work a minimum three days a week in offices, up from a minimum of two.

At a news conference this week, union leaders blamed Mr. Sutcliffe and Ontario Premier Doug Ford for the federal government’s policy shift after they both previously praised the idea.

On Thursday, one of the involved unions said Mr. Sutcliffe has no place in the conflict between the federal government and labour over how many days federal workers should be in their offices.

“The issue of return to office is one for the employer, the unions and public servants, not municipal politicians,” said a statement issued by Johanne Fillion of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

The institute represents more than 70,000 scientists and professionals employed at the federal, provincial and territorial levels of government.

With a little more than a million residents, Ottawa is Ontario’s second-most populous city after Toronto. Downtown Ottawa is an area of the city that includes a number of government buildings, including Parliament Hill, the Sparks Street Mall, the National Arts Centre, hotels such as the Château Laurier and office complexes.

A task force report on downtown revitalization released last year described a “downtown in crisis,” challenged by homelessness, soaring housing costs, drug consumption, and a 19-per-cent decline in visits compared with before the pandemic.

Downtown revitalization and Ottawa’s unique needs as the capital were on the agenda when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Mr. Sutcliffe at Ottawa City Hall for an April 18 meeting, according to a summary of the meeting released by the Prime Minister’s Office.

In a posting on social-media platform X about the meeting, Mr. Sutcliffe said he and Mr. Trudeau talked about working together to address “Ottawa’s unique and immediate challenges,” including the future of downtown and public transit.

But the mayor said Thursday that any perceived influence he has is overstated.

“I wish I was that powerful. I wish I could just meet with the Prime Minister and, two days later, he would announce substantial changes to all kinds of different things, but it doesn’t work that way,” he said during the interview at a secondary school in the Glebe neighbourhood south of downtown.

He said that doesn’t mean the move isn’t needed. “I’m not going to be disappointed if more people are coming downtown to work, whether they work for the federal government or for private businesses.”

A lifelong Ottawa resident, Mr. Sutcliffe is a former broadcaster, executive editor for the Ottawa Citizen and business person. In his first bid for elected office, he ran for the mayor’s job in as a centrist and won, assuming office toward the end of 2022.

At first glance, Mr. Sutcliffe said downtown Ottawa appears to be in good shape with stores and restaurants open. However, many of those businesses are struggling.

“The downtown recovery in Ottawa has happened at a much slower pace than in many other cities,” he said, noting transit use is still 30 per cent below prepandemic levels.

He said the slower recovery in Ottawa seems to be tied to the federal government’s decisions around not having employees in the office.

Complicating the issue, he said, is the federal government’s plan to unload a substantial number of its buildings to convert into housing, which could affect the number of employees coming into the core.

“If we don’t want to have a hollowed-out downtown core with boarded-up windows and empty buildings, we need to work with the federal government on a strategy for downtown Ottawa.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the title of Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

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