Pedal your way through Vanier's Franco-Ontarian history

With the COVID-19 pandemic now more than a year old, CBC Ottawa is trying to inject some life into those stale neighbourhood walks by having local experts guide you through their communities. This week: the Franco-Ontarian history of Vanier.

CBC Ottawa series aims to inject some life into the neighbourhood walk

Suzanne Lépine, a member of the Vanier Community Association, stands on a pedestrianized stretch of Dupuis Street. Lépine was born and raised in Vanier. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)
Paddleboarders are framed by one of the arches of the Cummings Bridge, which Lépine says serves as an ideal spot to begin exploring Vanier by bike. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

We're more than a year into the pandemic, and there's a decent chance the trusty neighbourhood walk — one of our few consistent outlets for physical exercise and mental stimulation — is starting to feel a bit stale.

Well, we want to help.

Over the past few weeks, we've been rolling out curated neighbourhood strolls designed to give you new insight into the streets you've been trudging along all these months.

And while earlier entries in this series required you to actually live in the neighbourhood, thanks to the stay-at-home order, there's good news, intrepid city walkers: that order has now been lifted.

This week: instead of walking, Suzanne Lépine invites you to jump on your bicyclette and delve into the French history of Vanier, the former city where she was born, raised, and still calls home.

Suzanne Lépine reads the commemorative plaque honouring Sylvain Desjardins, Rémi Hotte and Gaston Joly. The three Vanier men died when their boat capsized during icebreaking operations on the Rideau River in 1974. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

The ideal starting place, Lépine says, is the foot of the Cummings Bridge, on the southeast corner where the bike path begins.

For starters, it marks the start of Montreal Road, the commercial heart of Vanier for as long as Lépine has been alive.

"I grew up in the 50s, 60s, 70s here. It was very busy. We had a lot of stores, a lot of small industry, we had lumber yards ... restaurants, jewelry stores," said Lépine.  

"There was so much happening. It was great."

Walk This Way: Explore Franco-Ontarian history in Vanier

2 years ago
Duration 3:58
Featured VideoLifelong Vanier resident Suzanne Lépine showed CBC Ottawa around the neighbourhood by bike, exploring the area’s religious, municipal and cultural history.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Cummings Bridge, but previous crossings existed — including a wooden bridge that once spanned Cummings Island just to the south. It's now immortalized on a mural on the shopping centre across the street.

Just south of the bridge, tucked away in the greenery, is a small plaque to three Vanier men killed while breaking the ice on the Rideau River in the mid-1970s.

Lépine went to school with the daughter of one of the men.

"The boat tipped right here, on the north side of the bridge," she recalled. "They wore heavy clothing, heavy boots. They had no chance."

"Every spring, when they work on the ice ... it brings back that memory. Every year."

The Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Ottawa's Vanier neighbourhood is seen here on June 9, 2021. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Bike south on the path and turn left at McArthur Avenue, and a few blocks past the now-closed McArthur Lanes bowling alley is Horizon-Jeunesse Catholic School — which once housed the first French public high school in Ontario.

Then, head north on Olmstead Avenue and zigzag toward Dupuis Street.

The large brick building on the east side of the street served for a time as Vanier's pre-amalgamation city hall — all while the basement was used as the former city's jail.

As part of Montreal Street's revitalization, Dupuis Street has also been designated le carré de la francophonie — meaning it will be blocked off from traffic, Lépine said, and animated with nods to francophone culture, including the green-and-white Franco-Ontarian flag.

The next stop is north of Montreal Road, but given that revitalization work, it's easiest to head back to Lévis Avenue and swing east to Lafontaine Avenue and cross there.

Just to the northeast off of Montfort Street is potentially one of the most tranquil spots in all of Ottawa: the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto.

The remains of a sugar shack after a fire.
The still-smouldering sugar shack in Richelieu Park is seen in this photo from August 2020. (Christian Milette/Radio-Canada )

The sanctuary was initially built in the late 19th century in the former village of Cyrille, not long after apparitions of the Virgin Mary were purportedly spotted in a cave near Lourdes, France.

It was later relocated to its current spot, tucked away in a canopy of trees and secluded from the noise of nearby Montreal Road. 

"I used to go to [school] a few blocks down, and every last Friday [of the month] we had to walk from the school to the church to go to mass ... but in the summer we had mass out here," said Lépine. "It was beautiful."

Biking north on Granville Street will eventually bring you to the winding trails of Richelieu Park.

Tucked away in a grove of maple trees is what remains of the Vanier Sugar Shack, which — before it was heaviiy damaged in a fire last summer —  was a rare example of a functioning sugar shack in an urban environment.

The former Saint-Charles Church in Vanier, once home to the secretive Order of Jacques Cartier, is now being redeveloped as part of the St. Charles Market project. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

It's actually the third time the shack has burned down, and it's been rebuilt each time, Lépine said. This most recent fire, she added, is still being investigated and could be connected to a string of unsolved arsons in the community.

"It's a cost to the community," said Lépine. "I'm glad that people are [engaged with] the project and it's being protected now."

Emerge from the park on Lebrun Street, and then wind your way southwest — possibly taking in some of the older homes on Marier Avenue — to your final stop, the corner of Beechwood Avenue and St. Charles Street.

There, behind construction fencing, you'll find the former Saint-Charles Church. Built in the early 20th century, the church was an important gathering spot for Ottawa's francophone community — so important, in fact, that it spawned a French secret society, the Order of Jacques Cartier.

Lépine says she hopes her bicycle tour of Vanier will lead to new discoveries and make residents 'proud of who you are and who you come from.' (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

The first meeting of the society, which at its peak numbered more than 10,000 members, was held in the church's rectory in 1926.

"It was to promote and safeguard the francophone community," said Lépine.

"It was very secretive. I have a friend who grew up very close to here — he's older then me — and his parents were very much involved in the parish. And he didn't know anything about it!"

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