5 defining times during Jim Watson's 12 years in office

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson tours one of the city's new Stadler FLIRT trains this past summer. After 12 years in office, Watson will be riding off into an uncertain future Tuesday, as he hands the reins to mayor-elect Mark Sutcliffe. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson tours one of the city's new Stadler FLIRT trains this past summer. After 12 years in office, Watson will be riding off into an uncertain future Tuesday, as he hands the reins to mayor-elect Mark Sutcliffe. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press - image credit)

It's official: after today, Jim Watson will no longer be mayor of Ottawa.

It may seem hard to believe, given Watson has spent the past 12 years presiding over council meetings and shaking hands at civic announcements.

But on Tuesday, he'll hand over his office in city hall's heritage wing to mayor-elect Mark Sutcliffe.

Some of Watson's big moments during the past three terms, like breaking ground on the future central library or deciding not to support a downtown casino, were specific to life in the nation's capital.

Others, like managing the arrival of ride-hailing apps and navigating the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, were challenges faced by cities across the globe.

It's too soon, of course, to say what history will ultimately remember about the past decade-plus. But here are five highlights — or lowlights, depending on your perspective — that certainly helped shape the Watson era in Ottawa.

Lansdowne lives

When Watson announced he wouldn't seek re-election, he expressed pride at reviving several projects that were "stuck in neutral" before becoming mayor in 2010 — the first big one being the $300-million renewal of Lansdowne Park.

Watson was fond of decrying the Glebe urban space as not much more than a crummy parking lot before it was massively overhauled early that decade, courtesy of a public-private partnership with Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG).

The CFL's Ottawa Renegades had packed up in 2006, leaving the former Frank Clair Stadium mostly empty. While the previous council had signed the contract with OSEG, at the time Watson took office residents were still fighting the plan — calling it, among other things, too developer-friendly.

By the time Watson was up for re-election in 2014, the CFL had returned to the refurbished TD Place in the form of the Ottawa Redblacks. The city also had a new soccer team, while Lansdowne was filling up with shops and restaurants — though perhaps not as many local establishments as some had hoped.

"We got that done, and it's been a vast improvement in terms of employment and green space and trees and shops and sporting events," Watson told CBC in an exit interview.

Still, Lansdowne remains a work in progress. OSEG was reporting serious financial losses even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and unveiled its plans for what's been dubbed Lansdowne 2.0 earlier this year.

Those were approved over the summer, but not without still-simmering discontent.

Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press
Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

Ottawa throws a birthday bash

Want to unite your city? Try having the streets invaded by towering, fire-breathing mechanical beasts.

That was essentially what happened in the summer of 2017, when the La Machine spectacle came to town as part of Canada's 150 birthday celebrations.

Organizers reported that more than 750,000 people watched the 12-metre-tall creatures roam through the downtown over the span of four days.

The entirety of the Canada 150 celebrations — which also included the NHL outdoor classic and the Juno Awards — ultimately led Ottawa-Gatineau to top the nation in tourism growth in that year.

Watson was noticeably proud of the role Ottawa played in the big anniversary, looking back fondly this summer, five years after the fact.

The highs and lows of LRT

Speaking of unwieldy mechanical beasts: arguably nothing's dominated the entirety of Watson's tenure as much as the problem-plagued trains — plus the tracks and stations — that run along Ottawa's Confederation Line.

Another one of Watson's stuck-in-neutral projects, the $2.1-billion east-west LRT network was approved by council midway through his first term in office after years of debate.

Within a few years, however, things would begin to go awry.

Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press
Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press

There was the gargantuan 2016 sinkhole outside the future Rideau LRT station. Then the launch date became a moving target. Then the delays became official. The costs associated with those delays started adding up, while concerning news emerged during trial runs about the Alstom trains' winter worthiness.

Finally, on a pleasant September 2019 afternoon, the fare gates opened. Watson was beaming, saying the line's launch marked "the future of transit" in Ottawa while thanking would-be riders for their patience.

It would not be the last time that patience was tested.

The subsequent cornucopia of breakdowns and derailments are now practically stuff of Ottawa legend, spurring an inquiry in which it came out that city officials lowered the bar for trial run success and calculated it was best to accept a defective LRT network and figure things out post-launch.

Watson remains proud of LRT, noting that over the past eight months the line — aside from an errant lightning strike — has largely worked as planned. And once the east and west extensions come online, he says residents will wonder how we ever got around without it.

"One of the things no one really had a full grasp of — whether it was our staff or the public or the politicians — was how complex this system was going to be," Watson recalled last week.

"I think people will look back and say it took a lot of effort, it was a bit of a gutsy move to get a big project of that nature in a city our size. But it was the right thing to do."

Alistair Steele/CBC
Alistair Steele/CBC

The convoy rolls in

If the LRT's rollout was a slow burning debacle, this past winter's Freedom Convoy protests were a flash fire.

The multi-week occupation of Ottawa's downtown by protesters livid with COVID-19 mandates and the federal government sternly tested Watson's leadership and exposed cracks on city council.

As trucks clogged the downtown and incessant honking drove residents up the wall, Watson — as the ongoing federal inquiry has heard — pleaded for more enforcement.

When Peter Sloly suddenly resigned as Ottawa's police chief, the fallout culminated in a tense meeting where longtime councillor Diane Deans was ousted as chair of the city's police board.

"No one had a road map on how to deal with that," Watson told CBC, looking back on the demonstrations. "My job was to push the federal and provincial governments to give us the resources so our police could clean up and clear out the whole area.

"We eventually got to that point. I think it should have been done sooner."

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

Coming out

A few days ahead of the 2019 Capital Pride Parade, Watson penned a heartfelt column in the Ottawa Citizen in which he publicly acknowledged he was gay — and that he'd known he was gay since he was a teenager.

"I feel comfortable with the decision and I'm glad I did it. But it took me a long time to get there," he said at the time.

The mayor's sexuality had been part of the public discourse for some time, which Watson himself alluded to when he noted people at Pride would ask when he would be coming out of the closet.

While he wished he'd done so sooner, Watson said his hope now is that living openly as a gay man will make it easier on young people grappling with the same decision.

"Ninety-five per cent of the feedback I had was really positive, and it was really uplifting and nice," he recalled. "The overwhelming majority said good for you, and thank you for doing it.

"I waited a long time. I wish I hadn't."