Parliament Hill’s ravens should return

By Keith Nuthall, in OttawaRavens that live in the Tower of London fly away, then the British monarchy will fall. What does this say, then about Canada’s own political talisman – the stray cats of Parliament Hill? For these indomitable semi-feral mousers, for decades parliament’s unpaid rat catchers – were given their marching orders this winter.

In an operation of almost military-like ruthless efficiency, labourers from the public works department ripped down the comfortable wooden straw-padded home of Canada’s national kitties and abducted the occupants, dumping them with unnamed volunteers to live a comfortable exile somewhere in Ottawa. 

And the story goes that there weren’t many cats left, and they had a tough time dealing with Ottawa’s frigid winters, and so would much prefer stretching their legs in front of a central heating unit at a McMansion in Barrhaven (an Ottawa suburb).

That might be so. But it is of course missing the point. In a country that is not widely known for its excitement and passion, evicting the cats from parliament is just really boring. It is the consequence of allowing tedious bloodless bureaucrats tidy up a corner of Parliament Hill that just wasn’t sufficiently dull and ordered. And what a shame that is.

Every summer, busloads of Japanese and South Korean tourists have offloaded onto the Hill to make a beeline for the sanctuary, to coo over the lazy cats, sunning themselves by their shelter, while greedy racoons rifled their way through the food bowls. What did they care? The volunteers would soon replenish the bowl up with more kibble. And the reason why these foreign tourists, along with visiting citizens from Ottawa and Canada beyond, liked to pay the cats a visit was because the sanctuary was fun. And it said something. It said that Canada was kind and caring, that it liked to look after little people, even if they were sometimes feckless and useless. It said that Canada did not take itself too seriously, and its government was prepared to inject some levity and life into the serious business of governing. There is of course no cat sanctuary at Congress in Washington, or the Palais de l’Elysée in Paris.

That important symbol of human levity has now been stamped on by the winter public works dawn-raid on the cats’ home. All that now remains are two signs stating the sanctuary has been closed and few wooden stumps, the old foundations of the cats’ former home.

So as Canada becomes unaccustomably rich and a focus of a world looking for a sensible way out of deficits and economic instability, its government might perhaps think again about the removal of this living, breathing and purring national symbol. Sure, Canada does seem very grown up these days, as the one major western economy that emerged relatively unscathed from the ‘great’ recession. But one aspect of maturity is to be in touch with all sides of your personality – the light as well as the shade, the love as well as the diligence.

Under Stephen Harper’s conservatives, Canada has become a richer and more stable place to live. But it is also at risk of losing some of its innocence and whimsy; some of the ease of manner that meant the country was a relaxed place to live, as well as a safe one. And so the removal of the cat sanctuary is a lot more than a small decision about sparing some cats the chill of winter, although they were pretty snug in their straw beds. It says something about what Canada thinks about itself and what its government thinks Canada should be: powerful, serious, business-like, sensible and so so dull.

It’s time the idiosyncratic side of Canada to reassert itself, the side that is expressed quietly in Ottawa by its quirky art scene, its prolific tattoo parlours, honky-tonk county music, pedigree dog clubs, and outdoorsy penchant for moonlight snowshoeing and lakeside canoe-camping. It can do that by demanding the return of the cats, to their rightful place at Parliament Hill, as a symbol that Canada is fun and caring and a bit silly, as well as decent, wealthy and dependable. If the cats stay under house arrest, then an important symbol – a reminder of the importance of gentleness, tolerance and eccentricity – will be lost. And that will be a great pity, and maybe a portent of more serious, dull and unpleasant things to come.