Marchers mourn end of a McEra as notorious Ottawa McDonald’s will soon be McGone-ald’s

On a cold but sunny Sunday in mid-March, hundreds of hearts were as broken as an ice cream machine.

An era in Ottawa will soon come to an end and about 200 people turned out downtown to pay their respects to a notorious institution steps from Parliament Hill.

In January, news broke that the McDonald’s at 99 Rideau St. would close in April after nearly 40 years in business because the franchise owner decided not to renew the lease. It prompted an outpouring of reaction and memories from long-time Ottawans who remembered the restaurant as chaotic entity in the midst of a city often considered to be a sleepy government town.

The Rideau McDonald’s Farewell March brought people from across the city, some dressed in costumes, who wanted to say their goodbyes to a part of what makes Ottawa Ottawa.

“Other than Parliament Hill, I would say it’s our largest landmark,” said Keith de Silvia-Legault, a University of Ottawa student who organized the march. They came dressed as none other than Ronald McDonald. “Every good story deserves a good ending.”

The Rideau Street McDonald’s was anything but sleepy. For many years, it was open 24 hours a day, and became a popular snack spot for crowds getting out of the bars after last call. Shady, sketchy, scary; all words used to describe the place, which was no stranger to police. Officers visited so often that, in 2019, then-police chief Charles Bordeleau wrote to the head of McDonald’s Canada to say the activity at 99 Rideau was getting out of control. The restaurant then cut its overnight shift. The COVID-19 pandemic later forced its dining room closed.

“Before 2019, it was 24 hours. If you were coming back from a night out, you’d go to that McDonald’s—well, you wouldn’t go to that McDonald’s because it would be crowded. It would be very hectic, there’s a lot of fights there, it’s a crime hot spot, but at the same time, it’s kind of a funny place. It’s a running joke in Ottawa,” de Silvia-Legault said.

Rideau Street McDonald’s Farewell March organizer Keith de Silvia-Legault speaks to CTV News. (Jackie Perez/CTV News Ottawa)

The McDonald’s gained particular notoriety when a 2013 video depicting a man pulling a baby raccoon out of his sweater while others were brawling in the restaurant went viral, cementing it as an iconic institution in the city. Think of the most prestigious locations in the nation’s capital; the Rideau Street McDonald’s became the dark to that light, the sesame-seedy underbelly of the staid and stoic city that fun, allegedly, forgot.

That raccoon was a popular theme for the marchers and mourners on Sunday. Marchers carried printed signs with a raccoon’s face over the golden arches and a flag with that same image waved in the bitter breeze.

“We’re gathering here today not to protest it closing but to remember all the good memories and raise money for a great cause,” said student Ian Reid. He was dressed as a raccoon and was holding a framed portrait of his “brody” Rody the Raccoon.

“He was involved in a brawl here many years ago,” he said.

Ian Reid holds up a picture of a raccoon as he takes part in the Rideau Street McDonald’s Farewell March. The Rideau Street McDonald’s achieved worldwide notoriety after a viral video showed a man pull a raccoon from his sweater during a brawl inside the Ottawa restaurant. (Jackie Perez/CTV News Ottawa)

While the McDonald’s had its reputation, it was still a place where anyone could find a bit of shelter.

“I worked for years in homelessness services and, for two bucks, you could get warm for an hour and that meant a lot to a lot of people,” said community organizer and former council candidate Laura Shantz. “For all the bad stuff, to just simply have a spot where you could go and sit down and mind your own business and warm up, like, that’s been a huge meeting point for a lot of people across the city from all walks of life and that’s something that will be missed.”

Shantz came dressed as the Hamburglar, adding the march was a chance to have a bit of fun.

“We have the reputation as the city fun forgot and, honestly, an event organized by young people for the sake of having fun, what’s not to love?”

Community organizer Laura Shantz, dressed as the Hamburglar, attended the Rideau Street McDonald’s Farewell March Sunday, March 19, 2023. (Jackie Perez/CTV News Ottawa)

The march was not just a bit of ironic humour, it also aimed to bring in donations of non-perishable food supplies for the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter, just blocks away. An online fundraiser is also raising money for local charities Operation Come Home and Voice Found, which help homeless and at-risk youth and survivors of human trafficking and child sexual abuse.

“We’re making it a food drive because it fed people,” said de Silvia-Legault. “We’re donating to Operation Come Home because a lot of young people have been in that McDonald’s and we want to make sure that we’re keeping people off the street as best we can, and Voice Found because it has been a human trafficking site.”

The online fundraiser set up for the march sought a goal of $1,500 and had raised more than $1,700 by Sunday. The fundraiser is on until Thursday.

“As much as it’s a silly idea, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t silly just for being silly, it was silly for a good cause,” de Silvia-Legault said.

It’s not known yet what will go in the space once the lease runs out and the McDonald’s closes for good, but participants Sunday will always have their memories.

“I once had five dollars in my bank account and I went to the McDonald’s and I got a burger in my hand and just as I was leaving a seagull snapped it out of my hand, and I didn’t get to eat the burger,” said de Silvia-Legault. “It was very typical of the Rideau McDonald’s.” 

–With files from CTV News Ottawa’s Jackie Perez.

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