Mayor Jim Watson glosses over challenges in state of the city address

Mayor Jim Watson left out a number of issues that were politically inconvenient, and glossed over the debates and dialogues that very much inform the state of our city during his so-called “state of the city” address, writes CBC Ottawa's Joanne Chianello.

Joanne Chianello writes that if you're going to read a laundry list, the dirty laundry be on it, too

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson takes questions following his "state of the city" address at City Hall on Jan. 25, 2017. (CBC)

The so-called "state of the city" address, delivered at the start of the first council meeting of the calendar year, has been a mayoral tradition for some time.

The address casts events of the past year and those coming up in the next 12 months in a sunny light, usually resembling a campaign speech, except that most politicians vying for re-election would not dare drone on for 49 minutes.

Mayor Jim Watson's state-of speech hit the expected marks on Wednesday — We're going to have a year of celebration in Ottawa! We're getting a new Ottawa Art Gallery! We're (still) building the LRT! — and it included details on the timing of events, like the city's annual Aboriginal Awareness Day in June.

Watson also revealed that he'd be taking billionaire high-tech entrepreneur Terry Matthews with him to Queen's Park soon to make a pitch that Ottawa be recognized (presumably with money) as Canada's emerging centre of research for 5G (or "fifth generation") wireless networks needed for everything from self-driving cars to washing machines that can be programmed remotely. 

That the mayor is focusing on helping Ottawa retain — and regain — its reputation as a national, or even North American, centre for technology is a good thing, and arguably the highlight of his speech.

Whether it's because most technology companies in Ottawa are privately held, or are branches of major international corporations, we don't hear about about them much (except for Shopify).

Glossing over challenges

But if the highlight of the mayor's speech was his focus on what's happening in the tech sector, then the low (if predictable) point was the glossing over of a number of challenges in the city.

A few examples:

Watson did concede that we saw "an increased readiness last year to use knives and guns to solve conflicts." Indeed, 2016 saw the highest levels of homicides in decades. But his solution to that? A "renewed effort" by police and others, as well a "strong bond" between residents and police. But how will that happen?

Many in the city are on tenterhooks waiting for the results of the investigation into the fatal altercation of Somali-Canadian Abdirahman Abdi with Ottawa police. Many worry about the internal culture in the Ottawa police force.

A group holding a 'Justice for Abdirahman Abdi' banner leads hundreds on a march from Somerset Park Square to the Ottawa police headquarters on Elgin Street. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

A traffic data study showed that "racialized" young men are stopped at a much higher rate than white men, while another revealed that the police force has made no headway in hiring more women in the past decade and that sworn female officers face sexist behaviour.

The mayor spoke about the continuing work on the Confederation Line, and how this year, council will vote on the second phase of the LRT. And yet, the mayor doesn't support a call for the first phase to be audited before we commit another $3 billion of public money to light rail. In his speech, he said that when the second phase of LRT is operational in 2023, 70 per cent of Ottawa residents will live within five kilometres of a station. 

But how will they get there? Will the bus system provide convenient enough connections to light rail to convince people to leave their cars? Watson himself told an anecdote about a police officer who went above-and-beyond by driving home a woman who appeared to be suffering from hypothermia while waiting at a bus stop. Perhaps we should be asking why she had to wait half-an-hour in the freezing cold across the street from Tunney's Pasture for a bus.

Deeper issues should be addressed

Watson mentioned how, "like Lansdowne," the new central library will be "a very important city-wide people place." That is a self-serving comparison, meant to imply that Lansdowne is a huge success at drawing people from across the city. In fact, the jury's still out on how well the retail and commercial segment of Lansdowne does on non-game days. 

Instead, the Lansdowne comparison only underlines how important it is to choose the right location for city infrastructure, like a new central library.  And yet, when 150 or so impassioned residents came to a public meeting to voice their concerns, the mayor did not stop by. 

The state of the city address is an opportunity for a mayor — for any mayor, not just Watson — to list the city's achievements and prospects. And so it may be too much to ask that a politician would choose that moment to delve into, or even allude to, deeper issues that may be troubling some residents of the city.

If you're going to read a laundry list, the dirty laundry should be on it, too. The mayor left out a number of issues that were politically inconvenient — no mention, for example, of the coming supervised injection sites or even ongoing bike-lane debates — and glossed over the debates and dialogues, concerns and trepidations that very much inform the state of our city.


  • A previous version of this article incorrectly stated 2017 would be the first year Ottawa hosted an Aboriginal Awareness Day. In fact it will be the seventh year of the event.
    Jan 26, 2017 8:02 PM ET


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.