The complicated legacy of the capital’s longest-serving mayor

At the end of a dozen years, Mayor Jim Watson’s office is looking pretty sparse. He’s auctioned off many of the adornments that have hung on the walls for years, and only a few remain.

The frames still hanging contain snapshots of some of Watson’s most marvellous moments as mayor: In one, Watson celebrates the Pride festival after he came out as Ontario’s first openly gay mayor, in another he greets then-U.S. president Barack Obama.

But for all the bright spots during Watson’s time as mayor, some rather dark ones shadowed his final term.

His life in public office began in 1991, when he was first elected as a city councillor. Six years later, at 36 years old, he became mayor of the old City of Ottawa — the youngest person to hold that office in the city’s history.

He resigned in 2000, going to work for a tourism group and then entering provincial politics, where he served in the cabinet of former Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty.

Watson returned as mayor of Ottawa in 2010 — nearly a decade after the city amalgamated with neighbouring communities — and handily won his next two elections. In total, Watson has served 15 years in the role, making him the city’s longest-serving mayor.

The saying in Canada’s capital city is that Watson would attend the grand opening of an envelope.

It’s usually meant as a light jab, since the reality is people take pride in the mayor’s support. Go into just about any small shop or restaurant in any part of the city and there is a plaque on the wall with his name on it.

When asked what he’s most proud of during his time as mayor, Watson has a list that spans his years in office: incubator space for local startups, a new city art gallery, and a new light-rail train through the downtown core.

“I think sort of the history of my term … was to take projects that really never seem to move anywhere and get them out of the mud and get them built,” Watson said in an interview.

But that train system — the city’s largest infrastructure project — became plagued with problems shortly after it opened in 2019. The issues ran so deep a provincial inquiry was called to get to the bottom of it.

After that, the pandemic set in, and a downtown heavily reliant on federal public servants commuting to office buildings had to deal with the abrupt shift to people working from home.

Housing has become increasingly unaffordable in a city that was known for its relatively stable market and Watson has faced criticism over the influence of developers at city hall.

There was also major damage from a massive wind storm, called a derecho, that tore through Ontario this spring.

“You feel that weight on your shoulders, because people are looking to you to, you know, fix the situation,” Watson said.

Watson’s leadership style at city hall has changed over these stressful few years, and some councillors found themselves on the outs of a clique.

“Jim Watson can win every single vote at council. I sort of view it as suspended democracy,” said Watson’s longtime colleague Coun. Diane Deans. “It’s all predetermined.”

In some ways, Watson had taken the strong-mayor powers Ontario Premier Doug Ford has promised to make available to the next mayor, she said.

In Watson’s view, he’s the perfect example of why those formal powers are not necessary.

“You don’t need those strong-mayor powers. You need a mayor who has good ability to persuade people to support an important project,” Watson said.

Deans, who has come to be known as one of Watson’s foremost political rivals, said in recent years those who question the mayor have been “treated harshly.”

“For me, it looked like him muting my microphone at council meetings, it looked like him unseating me as chair of the police services board when he saw an opportunity to do that,” she said.

The tumultuous term reached a climax during the “Freedom Convoy” protests that rolled into Ottawa in January to protest COVID-19 restrictions and the federal government, which turned into a three-week occupation of the downtown core near Parliament Hill.

More than one councillor was openly weeping at the chaotic council meeting where the mayor voted to remove Deans from the police board — a move that led another councillor, Carol Ann Meehan, to write an op-ed in the local paper that characterized him as a tyrant and a dictator.

“Democracy is not a tea party. You’re not there for polite chit-chat,” Watson said. “People come to the table with strong emotions, and often clash with others who have strong emotions. But that’s part of the democratic process.”

Watson is leaving his office under a cloud, with two judicial inquiries still ongoing. There is one into the troubled LRT project and the other into the circumstances surrounding the Liberal government’s choice to invoke the Emergencies Act during the convoy protest.

Once a new council is sworn in, Watson plans to get on a train and leave town for a long-delayed vacation.

He’s leaving politics behind, but plans to return to Ottawa and an uncertain legacy.

In a few years, people in the city may thank the former mayor for the expanded LRT system if it overcomes its considerably shaky start. Maybe he will always be Ottawa’s pandemic mayor, or the one who chaired a seemingly dysfunctional council during the Freedom Convoy.

Or perhaps those dark times will fade in the public memory, and he’ll be remembered for those moments captured in the frames hanging on walls in mom-and-pop shops: small bright spots all over the city.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2022.

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