“The slow routes are often the most scenic, I find.”
This nugget of wisdom comes not from a wise elder with decades of driving experience, but from my eight-year-old daughter.
To be fair, she’s got more road tripping experience under her belt than most kids her age. We’ve driven from Ontario to the Maritimes, Newfoundland, Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, Manitoba, and from Calgary north through Alberta to the Northwest Territories. Having seen a fair bit of Canada, she knows whereof she speaks.
But this particular observation came to her relatively close to home: it was right here in Ontario, as we headed northbound past the sprawling fields and farmhouses of Highway 15 after deciding to take the long way to Ottawa.
We headed there for a celebration. The first Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans hit the market for the 1984 model year, making 2019 the 35th anniversary of the FCA minivan. Since they’re still assembled in Canada at FCA’s Windsor facility, it’s a fitting time to climb aboard a Chrysler Pacifica and head to the capital city of the nation still tasked with building the company’s minivans to this day.
In that spirit, we left the 401 in Kingston to take the long way, not only toward exploring Ottawa itself but also the evolution of the methods people use to get there.
The Rideau Canal
When exploring Canada’s origins, Kingston is a natural departure point. The city played a formative role in the early days of colonization: its position at the point where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River made it a critical military station for British Loyalists in the late 18th and early 19th century.
The St. Lawrence, with its frontage against American territory, was seen as a vulnerable stretch for ships moving between Montreal and Kingston. Fearing a resurgence of conflict after the War of 1812, the desire for a secure naval route resulted in the Rideau Canal, a system of 49 locks that makes it possible to travel between the two cities by using the canal and the Ottawa River.
Today, the entirety of the Rideau Canal’s 202 kilometres is operated by Parks Canada and is both a National Historic Site of Canada and a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to being the longest continuously operating canal system, and the best-preserved example of a European-style slack water canal, on the continent.
Although the wooden gates are rebuilt as needed, many of the mechanisms used to operate them are original and are still operated manually today. Every lockstation is accessible by road, though it would take several days to visit them all. Not having the luxury of time, we selected a handful of highlights that together paint a thorough picture of how the canal works and the role it played in shaping a newly created Canada.
At the Kingston Mills lockstation, which houses the final four locks in the system and takes less than five minutes to reach from the 401, a picnic lunch offers a great opportunity to view the locks in action, and the interpreters are more than happy to explain how the locks work to curious visitors.
We lucked into a day that wasn’t especially busy, which meant that a friendly operator was able to let my daughter turn one of the cranks to help close a lock gate. Engaging with Canada’s history doesn’t get much more hands-on than that!
Our next planned stop, Jones Falls, is said to be one of the most scenic lockstations along the canal, but we encountered some unannounced construction that turned us away. Instead, we continued up Highway 15 to Chaffey’s Lock, based in the village that was named after it. Unlike the many more complex locations, Chaffey’s is a simple single lock with a swing bridge. But it’s popular due to the small museum in the lockmaster’s house, the restored construction-era cemetery that’s open to the public, and the Opinicon Resort, a legendary vacation property that was recently purchased and lovingly restored to its former glory.
At the Narrows lockstation, Colonel By’s ingenuity is on full display. Unlike the rest of the lockstations, this one is built into the middle of a lake. By’s original plan was to cut a channel between two lakes at the Newboro locks, but a harder bedrock than expected and an outbreak of malaria spurred him into a faster plan: he had this dam and lock built, which created Upper Rideau Lake, reduced the amount of rock removal required at Newboro, and kept the project on schedule – a brilliant solution by any standards, 1820s or otherwise.
Smiths Falls is the home of the Parks Canada visitor centre for the canal. Four floors of displays explain the route’s history and offer interactive displays such as a boating simulation where kids can pretend to captain the Rideau Queen steamboat.
This is also the place where kids can complete the Parks Canada Xplorers program, which helps young people to engage with Canada’s national parks and historic sites by completing a series of activities and receiving a collectible tag to take home. And it’s a good thing we stopped: while the website currently lists Rideau Canal booklets as being available for the Smiths Falls and Ottawa locks, the Ottawa location has been shut down, which means we would have left there very disappointed. The staff at Smiths Falls very kindly gave us an Ottawa booklet and an extra tag to take with us while explaining that a new program is being developed that will integrate more locations along the canal. Based on what we saw and learned along the way, that approach makes perfect sense.
Still, we enjoyed the activities at the Ottawa locks most of all. In the capital, the Rideau Canal is best known for becoming the world’s largest skating rink each winter. But the summer operations of the eight locks that connect the Rideau and Ottawa rivers are a sight to behold, and unless you take the time to look over the side of the Plaza Bridge that spans Wellington Street between the Parliament buildings and the Chateau Laurier, it’s possible to miss them entirely.
We were very glad to have the Xplorers booklet along to help us notice details like the statue of Colonel By that overlooks his achievement from Major’s Hill Park, and the Celtic cross that honours the workers who lost their lives in its construction. It would be so easy for things like this to fade into the background when they’re seen by locals every day and not noticed at all by visitors, but each of them forms part of the rich story the entirety of the Rideau Canal tells about Canada’s foundations.
The Seat of Parliament
Touring Canada’s Parliament buildings is an obvious can’t-miss activity while in Ottawa. But what I didn’t realize before going myself is that the tickets are completely free of charge, the tours are fantastic for kids, and I also learned a ton myself.
A caveat is needed here: the structure that most people think of as being Canada’s House of Parliament, the Centre Block and Peace Tower, is closed for at least 10 years to undergo a massive and desperately needed rehabilitation. However, this has opened up some unique touring opportunities, particularly in the recently reopened West Block and the temporary home of the House of Commons. A formerly open-air courtyard has been enclosed with a glass roof held up by pillars styled to look like the massive trees in a Canadian forest.
The Room of Remembrance has also been relocated to West Block during the renovations. I had completely forgotten that this place exists, but its stewards never do. Each day at 11:00 AM – the time on November 11, 1918, when the Armistice of Compiègne came into force to end World War I – pages are turned in the eight Books of Remembrance that contain the names of Canadians lost in major conflicts around the world, ensuring that every name in each book receives the same amount of light in a given calendar year. It’s a chilling, yet highly dignified tradition.
The East Block remains open for tours during the summer break as well, though its exterior is behind scaffolding as it receives some superficial updates. This is a working building that houses the offices of sitting senators, but it’s also the home of several historic offices. The corner office of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, has only ever been used by him and stands today much as it did when he sat in it 150 years ago. The tour also includes the historic offices of the Governor General, Privy Council, and the pre-Confederation Premier of Canada East and post-Confederation Minister of Militia and Defence, Sir George-Étienne Cartier.
On this tour, I learned what’s now one of my all-time favourite stories from Canadian history. The Charlottetown Conference of 1864 was initially planned only among Britain’s Maritime colonies to discuss a union between them. Evidently, the Province of Canada got wind of this, and they loaded a steamship to the hilt with champagne – costing roughly the equivalent of two years of the eventual Prime Minister’s salary – and a delegation sailed to Prince Edward Island with it along with a request to join the conference. This meeting led to the Province of Canada joining the Maritimes in Canadian Confederation.
In other words, Canada was founded on a massive dock party.
If there’s a more fitting way for this country to have come to be, I can’t think of it.
A Historic Home
After enjoying lunch in Byward Market, our Parks Canada Xplorers mission saw my daughter and I set off on a 20-minute walk toward Laurier House, the historic home of Prime Ministers Sir Wilfred Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King.
The home’s current state is much more ornate than it would have been when it was occupied by Laurier from 1897 until his death in 1919. The many embellishments to the wood paneled walls and ornate plaster ceilings were added by Mackenzie King, who moved in two years after Laurier’s passing and lived there until he left the home to the people of Canada in 1948. This is particularly interesting given that the Laurier family was known for being very social and frequently entertaining guests, while Mackenzie King never married and had a reputation as a loner, meaning that relatively few people would ever have seen his many costly additions to the home while he lived there.
Visitors can view several interesting preserved aspects of this Victorian-turned-war-time mansion, including Mackenzie King’s prized library and a list of the phone numbers he kept at his bedside. The kitchen displays a World War II aesthetic but is also largely replicated, which offers a little more opportunity for hands-on interaction by children. For a small fee, it’s even possible to take afternoon tea on the sprawling veranda.
35 Years of the Made-in-Canada Minivan
Throughout this tour, the Chrysler Pacifica acted as our chariot – a larger vehicle than strictly necessary for our little family, but a fitting one given the Canadian emphasis of our destination and the fact that minivans are celebrating their 35th anniversary of being assembled in this country we call home.
A 35th Anniversary Edition of the Chrysler Pacifica, Pacifica Hybrid, and Dodge Grand Caravan is on sale now, and each features an all-black interior with cranberry-wine coloured accent stitching plus upgraded content for the trim levels on which they’re offered, leading to discounts averaging the $200 to $400 range but going as high as $1,755 for the Grand Caravan SE by including Stow n’ Go second-row bucket seats and a power driver’s seat.
Those models were not yet available for this drive, so the Pacifica pictured is the Limited model with the S appearance package. It’s loaded to the hilt and includes the black-on-black-on-black interior styling and upgraded $995 20-inch dark aluminum wheels for a total price of $63,275 including an $1,895 destination charge.
It’s not necessary to spend nearly that much to get into an FCA minivan, though, if your priority is low load floors, spacious interiors, and seats that are easy to get out of the way to create an expansive cargo space. The Pacifica’s drive feel is among the most pleasant in the segment, and its 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive produced an average fuel consumption of 9.8 L/100 km (though, admittedly, we hardly had it fully loaded).
Apart from the lack of all-wheel drive – rumours persist that FCA plans to add it, though nothing has been officially confirmed – the value proposition here for three rows of rolling living room can be enormous. As out-of-fashion as they may be at the moment against the popularity of SUVs, minivans remain the best type of vehicle around for moving a crowd.