From my 15th-floor balcony, I have a bird’s eye view of tour buses on their way to Dow’s Lake to see the tulips. In May, Ottawa is stunning.
But the other night as I was sitting out there, I found myself wishing those tourists could see what I see after 30 years of telling the stories of this city. There are people here who care deeply for others and for the business community.
During COVID and in other times these people make a real difference and often nobody even knows. Ottawa isn’t just a pretty face. I’ve been to 33 countries and there is a rare quality here. I started to wonder why we’re a community where “service” is so respected, even expected.
As former Mayor Jacquelin Holzman explained to me once, she felt service was the price to be paid for the good fortune of living here. I hope she forgives me if I got that quote wrong. It was a long time ago.
I feel that way, too. I have done a few things and have some lovely awards for it. My name is even on the wall at Ottawa City Hall.
Yet, I always feel I’m not doing enough. In fact, when COVID hit the very first thing I did was volunteer to help other businesses. As a member of the Ottawa Board of Trade, my company joined one of its advisory boards as OBOT was frantically trying to help save businesses that had lost everything overnight. In the early days, the funding options and new rules were confusing. Remember when “pivot” and “take it online” were new concepts?
You know what I found at OBOT? Dozens of other business leaders who were also volunteering under the leadership of brand new CEO Sueling Ching. What a baptism by fire! We got to work immediately, dealing with every level of government to advocate for help.
Jump ahead to just a couple weeks ago, in this very newspaper, the Forty Under 40 award recipients were announced. Every single recipient contributes to their community. Think about that. Every one does something for others. It’s an actual category in the application.
But again, why? It has to be more than the fact we’re a Northern climate so we huddle together and have become accustomed to surviving in a pack. I do think there is some element to that sense of survival. But we have also become conditioned to understand our local culture because we have many examples that demonstrate our collective values.
For example, for 30 years I told the stories of the children at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and was on the CHEO telethon.
Make no mistake, fundraising is a business. We support things with our donations and my job was to make donors understand where their dollars were going by introducing the audience to some of the children who were benefiting. In Ottawa, we deeply value a high level of care for our children.
And that’s just one example of how, as a community, we have learned about what’s important to us and also what our local businesses sponsor and support, because we will support them by buying from them, won’t we?
So when we huddle together in cold times we learn about who we can count on in our pack.
Take Joe Thottungal, the award-winning chef, who owns Coconut Lagoon and Thali. Coconut Lagoon burned down in early COVID days and, instead of feeling sorry for himself, he fed people in need out of the Thali location. He won the Order of Ottawa because we value people like Joe who help us in cold times.
When I needed to cater a company event I hired him. Of course.
The Tulip Festival found its roots because, during a war, we helped a country in need. But Ottawa also has a culture of helping its own. And that’s what I wish our tourists understood.
We’re not perfect, by any means. We need to do way better for our most vulnerable citizens and stop pretending they are not there because we’re all in the pack, not just some of us.
Kimothy Walker is the CEO of Tiger Lily Marketing, a strategic alliance of senior communications experts. Before that, she spent 25 years with CTV Ottawa as a producer, reporter and anchor.