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Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

Can needy Ottawa learn the art of the shrug?

Metro's Steve Colllins argues the city should not be looking so intently for validation from elsewhere.

A file photo of the Ottawa skyline, with Parliament Hill.


A file photo of the Ottawa skyline, with Parliament Hill.

Look, Ottawa, you're smart, you're beautiful, healthy, wealthy and historic. You're the capital of the planet's great pluralist democracy and the star of its 150th birthday bash.

You don't need the New York Times (or Metro, for that matter) to tell you this. And yet how easily our pretty civic head is turned by a little attention. Witness the Times' latest profile, which notes our humble burg has some lovely buildings on Parliament Hill and even a canal, “but it has long been dogged by a reputation as a workaday government centre.”

“A weekend in the city, however, proves otherwise. With a thriving food scene, a multicultural and multilingual sensibility owing to its location on the Ontario-Quebec border and an outsize night life , Ottawa is emerging from the shadow of Montreal and Toronto with new infrastructure projects, including a multibillion-dollar light-rail line.”

To which the proper response would be: Thanks for noticing, New York Times. But, uh, what shadow?

And yet local media buzzed over our mention in a big-city paper. Little old us, among All the News that's Fit to Print! Us! Can you believe it? In the Times, which, after its last visit to Ottawa, approvingly reported that we had our very own Wine Rack, right in the middle of the “sleepy” Byward Market.

We laughed, maybe a little too self-consciously, still glorying in the attention, no matter how lazily paid. It's just not healthy, Ottawa. New York, you might notice, doesn't rely on the Toronto Star for validation.

We went through this before with MoneySense Magazine, whose list of top cities in which to live we topped from 2010 to 2012, an honour so prestigious Mayor Jim Watson would shoehorn the factoid into his public remarks at every opportunity.

In 2013, cuts to the public service put the bite on the local economy and we sank (oh, the ignominy!) to number six. The MoneySense props soon disappeared from the mayor's speeches.

We returned to the top spot in the magazine's hit parade last year, but I'm not entirely sure anybody here noticed, which is progress.

I had a similar experience as a student at Trent University the first year Maclean's magazine released their annual school rankings. My tiny, teaching-focused school, in my biased estimation the best possible place for an undergrad, didn't stand much of a chance against the big players with their massive endowment funds, their law and medical schools.

We landed at or near the bottom of the list. The reaction of anyone I knew? A shrug. We knew we had something special, and anyway we were already late for another freewheeling twelve-student morning seminar.

The next year, the rankings grouped similar sorts of schools, and Trent suddenly surged to the top of the rankings for cute little liberal arts schools. And again we shrugged.   

How I would love to see Ottawa perfect the art of the shrug, of skimming the reviews with amused curiosity rather than staking its civic self-image on a close reading. You and I already know this is the place to be; it's why we're here. Leave the Times to the tourists who have yet to discover us.

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