MPs hear case for making Wellington Street a pedestrian, tramway zone

A downtown city councillor and Ottawa mayoral candidate, and the mayor of Gatineau, Que., have added their support to the idea of expanding the parliamentary precinct following the convoy protests.

Ottawa city councillor, Gatineau mayor testify at committee studying expanded parliamentary precinct

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney supports transferring Ottawa's Wellington and Sparks streets to the federal government, and converting the former into a pedestrian, cycling and tramway zone between Elgin and Bank streets. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

A downtown city councillor and Ottawa mayoral candidate, and the mayor of Gatineau, Que., have added their support to the idea of expanding the parliamentary precinct following the convoy protests.

On Tuesday Coun. Catherine McKenney and France Bélisle, mayor of Gatineau, testified before a House of Commons committee, which is considering annexing Ottawa's Wellington and Sparks streets, plus rue Laurier in Gatineau into the precinct.

The committee is also looking at converting the section of Wellington between Elgin and Bank streets into a pedestrian zone.

"There's always been a great opportunity well before what happened in January and February," said McKenney, whose Somerset ward includes Parliament Hill. "It allows us to create a public space, it allows for that inter-provincial link between us and the city of Gatineau, which I believe has to become a stronger link."

The standing committee on procedure and house affairs was asked to study the idea after serious concerns were raised about policing on Wellington Street and nearby streets during the weeks-long protest this past winter.

The geographic change to the parliamentary precinct would entail handing over policing of the transferred areas to the federal government.

In their testimony, McKenney — who is also running to become Ottawa's next mayor — told MPs downtown residents and businesses suffered because Ottawa police resources were stretched too thin during the protest.

"The city of Ottawa simply does not have the capacity to protect federal properties during major national events, and also patrol our neighbourhoods," the councillor said.

The section of Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill has been closed to motor vehicles since the end of the convoy protests in late February 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Business group opposes pedestrian zone 

During their testimony, McKenney also made the case for permanently limiting the three blocks of Wellington in front of Parliament Hill to pedestrians, cyclists and public transit. Private vehicles have been barred from using that section since the end of the protest. 

"I often like to refer to these sorts of changes in streets as 'opening' rather than 'closing,'" said McKenney.

"We're really opening it to people. We would be providing unique opportunities for extensive programming in front of the Parliament buildings."

On that point, McKenney cited a recent request to host a giant ball hockey tournament on Wellington in front of Parliament Hill this summer.

"Our downtown has ample capacity to absorb any vehicular traffic that has been directed away from this section of Wellington Street," they said.

The executive director of the Bank Street Business Improvement Area (BIA), which extends along Bank from Wellington to Highway 417, told the committee her members oppose turning part of Wellington into a pedestrian zone.

Christine Leadman said the closure would "create a lot concern to the businesses and anxiety," adding she has received complaints from the public.

Gatineau, Que., mayor France Bélisle told a commons committee Tuesday she expects the transfer of Wellington Street to the federal government would help accelerate plans for an inter-provincial tramway. (Alexander Behne/Radio-Canada)

Tramway essential, mayor says

Bélisle said she supports handing over rue Laurier in her city's downtown to the federal government because the street is already part of the ceremonial Confederation Boulevard, and home to the Canadian Museum of History.

Such a move would simplify and improve communications between the levels of government and their respective agencies, according to the Gatineau mayor, who previously served as president of Tourisme Outaouais, the tourism agency for western Quebec.

On several occasions during her testimony, Bélisle made it clear she expects a transfer of jurisdiction would bolster her city's goal of building a surface tramway connecting Ottawa and Gatineau.

"This decision will become a catalyst for the federal government to assert its role as a leader in coordinating inter-provincial transit," Bélisle said in French. 

"This essential infrastructure project has the full support of the citizens of Gatineau, and it must carry on."

Bélisle said expanding the parliamentary precinct would end decades of inaction.

"We have momentum to settle the security issue, but we also have momentum to position ourselves in the world as a dynamic capital city that makes coherent decisions," she said.

The standing committee is scheduled to meet again on Thursday, and it can eventually make recommendations for Parliament to enact.


Giacomo Panico

CBC Reporter and Host

You can reach Giacomo by email