Ottawa is the capital of Canada.
With a population of 1.2 million, it is the country's fourth largest city. But the population is spread out over a big area (1,800 square miles), so it doesn't feel crowded.
In Ottawa proper, no building may be taller than the Parliament Clock Tower (92 metres), so it's relatively skyscraper-free. The rule is still on the books but is not enforced. Buildings are getting taller.
The downtown area contains most of Canada's traditional architecture outside of Quebec City.
It's a family-friendly city, very safe, with lots of parks and greenery.
Much of the downtown core is dedicated to offices and, as a result, is rather quiet at weekends.
For a Canadian city of its size, it has a lot of good museums (although it isn't a match for London, UK in that regard).
It also has many festivals throughout the year.
Ottawa is on the border between Ontario and Quebec, with the border being the Ottawa River that runs west / east, with Ottawa and Ontario to the south of the river and Quebec (Gatineau) to the north. So if you want to live in Ontario near Ottawa, you only have a semi-circle from east, through south to west to look at.
The climate is extreme. In summer you're looking at the mid-30s Celsius, with high humidity. July is brutal. In winter the temperature can hit -35º C and the wind chill factor can make it effectively much colder than that. Ottawa usually gets a lot of snow. Most of it falls between December and February but snow can be expected any time from November to May. The city authorities are very fast and efficient when it comes to clearing snow.
Despite the cold, winter days are typically bright and sunny, with little or no dampness.
Air quality is usually pretty good.
The terrain on the south bank of the river is flat and uninspiring but cross over to Quebec and you are almost immediately into the Gatineau Hills, where you will find lakes with beaches, camping, hiking and cycling trails, and skiing.
Ottawa has some nice 'close to the city' neighborhoods, like Westboro and The Glebe. It is then surrounded by a ring of commuter suburbs, most with extensive, new 'cookie cutter' estates, like Orleans, Kanata, Stittsville and Nepean. Further out again, but still 'commutable' are villages / towns that still retain their original character like Manotick, Metcalfe, Russell and Richmond.
In Ottawa proper, the average price for a two-storey detached house in 2017 is about C$500k. In the suburbs it's more like C$350-400K. You'd have a job finding much in Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver for that sort of money.
Ottawa's economy is dominated by the federal government. Since the federal government gives preference to Canadian citizens, it is not a realistic source of employment for newly arrived immigrants and such jobs should never be a key part of any migration plan. A few permanent residents manage to get around that, though, by working for the government on a contract basis. Obtaining the necessary security clearances can be a long process.
Ottawa has the honrary title of Silicon Valley North. There are many communications, high-tech and defence companies located in the area.
Although Ottawa is located in Ontario, which is a predominantly English-speaking province, its role as Canada's capital and its proximity to Quebec have turned it into a largely bilingual city. Your job opportunities will increase tremendously if you can speak French, and not just Parisian French but more specifically Quebec French. It is not only the federal government that requires bilingualism, but many employers in the private sector as well.
The average income in Ottawa is one of the highest in Canada.
As is the case in most of Canada, the public (government-funded) school system offers children the opportunity to receive instruction in English or in French (at French Immersion schools). Children who have at least one parent who is a baptised Roman Catholic have the further option of attending Catholic schools (English or French Immersion). Catholic schools, like public schools, are government-funded.
The city's public bus system is very good and it has its own 'transit way' which is roads dedicated to buses. The ticket system on the bus also allows for transfers (at same stop) which can make trips very reasonably priced. There is various ways to pay on the bus:
- Cash: Exact change is required if using money
- Ticket: A bus fair can be paid by using tickets....strips of tickets can be brought from most local pharmacies, post offices and new agents
- Pass: Various bus passes are available including student passes
Each bus will have a sign at the front showing the trip cost ($s) and how many tickets are required. Some buses and times on certain routes are designated "express" hence they attract the highest cost and may not stop at every stop.
There is a number of apps available for checking the status of the bus route/network. There is also a service in which you can text your bus stop details to 560560 and a text will be sent giving the next schedule of the next bus(es) at that stop.
There is a short, surface rail line for commuters (called the O Train) which runs North/South in the city. This may be extended in the future. Ottawa does not have an 'underground'.
Arriving and Departing
It's an easy two-hour drive to Montreal and about five to Toronto. Four lane highways join the city to highway 401 to the south, and east to Montreal.
- The airport is very close to town and is user friendly.
- There are bus routes from the airport to downtown.
- Direct scheduled flights go only to Canada, a few US hubs, Heathrow and Frankfurt. Air Canada is the only direct scheduled carrier to the UK.
- Direct charter flights to the UK are available during the summer with Air Transat/Canadian Affair.
- The next international Canadian airport is Montreal (90 mins) and then Toronto (4 hours). Flights Ottawa/Toronto can be as cheap <$100 with airlines such as Westjet when booked at the right time.
- The Ottawa airport does not have many facilities open after 9 pm.
While VIA Rail offers services to Montreal and to Toronto (via Brockville - Kingston - Belleville - Oshawa), the train is not the quickest, most cost effective or convenient means of transportation.
- The quality of healthcare in Ottawa is high.
- However, it is becoming harder to find a family doctor (GP).
- As a result, many people use walk-in clinics, such as the Appletree Clinics.
- These operate under the OHIP system in the same way as regular doctors' surgeries.
- The walk-ins are a useful resources even if you have a family doctor.
- For example, if your child develops a sore throat, you may have to wait days for an appointment with a family doctor, but only a couple of hours at a walk-in.
- Waiting times at walk-ins grow as the day goes on, so it's best to arrive as early as possible.
Ottawans have a reputation for being more reserved and insular than other Canadians. However, British expats generally find them to be friendly.
It does help to join a group (cycling club, sailing club, outdoor club, etc.). It gives you opportunities for meeting people and building up a social circle.
Recreational opportunities abound in Ottawa and the surrounding area.
The area is very geared to cyclists and there are many paths/trails. They also close down some roads at the weekend for cyclists.
The Ottawa River has several marinas and yacht clubs, as well as a beach.
The Rideau Canal is partly drained in winter to create the world's longest skating rink (right into the centre of the city). Many people skate to work.
Outside of the city, Gatineau Park is fantastic for a day out with beautiful scenery, picnicing, kayaking, fishing, you name it.
Downhill skiing is available so close to Ottawa that it is realistic to spend a couple of hours skiing of a weekday evening.
Paert of Sparks St, downtown, is a pedestrian mall.
The city is full of festivals -- Jazz, Blues, Tulip, and quite a few more. Being the capital of Canada, Ottawa has a major celebration on Canada Day (July 1st). Winterlude is North America's largest winter festival.
There are a number of small towns around Ottawa from which people commute into the city. The closest satellite town is Kanata. On a good day it takes 15 minutes to drive from there into the city, and on a really bad day about an hour. Many of these towns have now (and are still being) developed with large 'cookie-cutter' estates, which are fine for family living and commuting, but have small lots and garages that seem not to be used much for parking cars!
Watch out for Carp. Its dump is the world's largest landfill. It smells bad in the summertime, and is affecting house prices.
Cross over the Ottawa River and you are in Quebec, and the city of Gatineau. This city (population 240,000) is the fifth largest in Quebec. It was created in 2002 by the amalgamation of five adjacent communities that stretch for about 30km along the Ottawa River (Aylmer, Hull, Gatineau, Buckingham and Masson-Angers) and the result was called Gatineau.
Buckingham and Masson-Angers are rural communities and make up about 10% of the population; the other three are urban. Because of the proximity to Ottawa, and the fact that many Gatineau residents work for the federal government, the level of bilingualism is high. In Aylmer, about 40% of the population has English as their first language. Go slightly north, into Chelsea and Wakefield, and English is the predominant language. Don't expect to meet many Brits here, though. We are very, very thin on the ground.
Gatineau is not an attractive or exciting place and does not have a town-centre as such. Aylmer has the best approximation to a British downtown. The nicest residential areas are probably Cote d'Azur and Limbour.
Property is much cheaper in Gatineau than in Ontario but taxes are higher. It's a trade-off.
Schooling in Quebec
Quebec's policy is that education of children, by default, is offered in French.
However, if you want to live in Quebec and want your children to receive their education in English, it can be done. The question is whether or not you have to pay for that English education out of your own pocket. The Quebec Ministry of Education sets out the eligibility criteria for education in English at either state or subsidised private schools. If either parent is Canadian and did their elementary schooling in Canada in English, the chances of being judged eligible are quite good. If not, you're looking at private schooling. Check out the Quebec English School Boards Association.
There also are Anglophone parents who actually want their children to receive their schooling in French, and of course that's just fine by the Quebec government.
Medical facilities in Gatineau
- Gatineau, like many other parts of Quebec, suffers from a severe shortage of family doctors.
- At time of writing, no family doctor or walk-in clinic in Gatineau is taking new patients.
- Many Gatineau residents use a small number of walk-in clinics in Ottawa (Ontario) that take patients from Quebec (principally the Appletree Clinics).
- You will have to pay, but the cost - or at least part of it - can be claimed back from the Quebec government.