Ottawa reviving LRT busking program

The City of Ottawa plans to liven up its LRT stations with a revived busking program, three years after the pandemic put the original program launch on hold.

O-Buskers would start in late spring, 3 years after COVID paused original program

A man wearing a green jacket and white shorts plays an electric guitar on an Ottawa street. A couple walk by him on the left of the photo
A busker plays electric guitar on George Street in Ottawa's ByWard Market on April 9, 2017. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

The City of Ottawa plans to liven up its LRT stations with a revived busking program, three years after the pandemic put the original program launch on hold.

In early 2020, the city called on buskers to apply to perform at stations along the Confederation Line. The program was expected to launch in the spring of 2020, which is when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.

Three years later, Ottawa is renewing the call for what it's calling O-Buskers.

"The vision of the program is to celebrate our local artists and allow them to showcase their talents throughout our stations," said Scott Laberge, a transit representative with the city.

Laberge said the city is focusing on musical acts.

Each year, artists can submit applications that will be reviewed by a committee of local musicians and industry professionals, which will then recommend up to 50 performers.

Before the start of the pandemic, Laberge said the city had conducted auditions for the original program and 31 applicants were successful. The city will notify those artists about the renewed program and they will have until March 31 to decide if they want to participate.

The inside of Tremblay station. Two grey elevators are on the left side of the photo, and a large open space is featured. A grey bench is on the photo's right side.
An example from the City of Ottawa of where LRT O-Buskers can perform, taken at Tremblay station. (Submitted by City of Ottawa)

Buskers can perform at every Confederation Line station except Cyrville station, which is too small, said Laberge.

Each eligible station will have a specially marked area where buskers can perform that should not affect riders. Laberge said the locations have been selected with safety in mind and are in well-lit areas.

Safety is also why each busker will be issued a photo ID they must wear while performing. Buskers can also collect tips, but collecting them must not impede passengers or create trip hazards.

Local performers excited

The revived program has some artists excited to showcase their work and gain more exposure.

Duncan Travis, who is part of a reggae band called Aurora's Reef, says the program is a useful resource for musicians, new or old.

A man wearing all black plays a brown guitar on stage next to a young woman playing a smaller guitar. Behind the two is a drum set.
Duncan Travis, right, is part of a reggae band called Aurora's Reef. Travis said breaking into Ottawa's music scene is hard, and this program could give him more exposure. (Tom Linden)

The band moved from southern Ontario to Ottawa a few months ago and Travis said breaking into the local music scene is "quite difficult."

"A way the program would benefit me is exposure, like nothing else you can do in the city. It's quite difficult for musicians to get started, especially in a bigger city," he said.

Bagpiper Nico Gravel said while it's challenging for him to play in an enclosed space like an LRT station, he still thinks the program is "brilliant."

"That really adds music and culture to the underground," Gravel said. "While people wait around, they get to listen to some superb musicians."

A man wearing dark traditional bagpipe clothing plays the bagpipes with the Chateau Laurier in the background. Close up shot of the bagpiper.
Nico Gravel, a professional bagpiper and busker in the Ottawa region, said the revived O-Busker program is a major boost for local artists. (Submitted by Nico Gravel)

Bouncing back post-pandemic

The executive director of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition said given how challenging the pandemic has been for artists and music workers, public spaces that can include music are "definitely up our alley."

"We know that not only is music a great cultural driver and positive for mental health, it's also an economic driver," said Melanie Brulée.

She did note some key issues, including affordability. She said busking can be financially unpredictable and her coalition advocates for artists to be paid properly for gigs. 

Brulée also said when it comes to music in public spaces, there's a benefit "for the artist as much as there is for the audience."

"It's a huge part of turning Ottawa into a music city."

Buskers have until April 6 to apply to the program.


Benjamin Lopez Steven is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University, graduating in December 2023. He works part-time as a writer for CBC News Network.