Marchers bid farewell to storied, controversial Rideau Street McDonald's

Hundreds of people marched from Confederation Park to 99 Rideau St. on March 19, 2023, to bid farewell to the McDonald's restaurant that has stood there since 1985.  (Avanthika Anand/CBC - image credit)
Hundreds of people marched from Confederation Park to 99 Rideau St. on March 19, 2023, to bid farewell to the McDonald's restaurant that has stood there since 1985. (Avanthika Anand/CBC - image credit)
Avanthika Anand/CBC
Avanthika Anand/CBC

Outside the Rideau Street McDonald's, Frederick Renaud and Kimberley Sipes stand together, asking passersby to spare any change — something they say they've done every day for the last six months.

The duo were surprised Sunday afternoon to see hundreds of people marching in their direction, some dressed as Ronald McDonald or boxes of french fries, carrying banners that read "Rideau McDonald's Farewell March."

Wide-eyed, Sipes turned to Renaud and half-whispered, "The McDonald's is closing." The two stood in silence for a minute, before Renaud declared it to be "bad news".

"I live here," the 47-year-old said, waving at the pavement.

Pointing to the restaurant, he called it a "close space to go to the bathroom" and a meeting place for those who live on the streets to check in on each other.

Even on days he has no money, Renaud said he usually doesn't go hungry thanks to McDonald's customers.

"It's easy to bum something from them," he said.

'Kindness within this city'

But come summer, Renaud doesn't know where he will go — or what will happen to his friends — once the ByWard Market fixture shuts down.

The McDonald's has stood at 99 Rideau St. since 1985, but it's set to close in April or May, according to the building's property manager. District Realty, which owns the building, confirmed to CBC in January that the franchisee has chosen to not renew the lease.

The restaurant, which once operated 24/7, had previously shortened its hours of operation in 2019, after drawing criticism from the community, police and city hall for the numerous reports of crime in and around it.

Avanthika Anand/CBC
Avanthika Anand/CBC

"I think everyone has a story [about] it," said Keith de Silvia-Legault, a 22-year-old University of Ottawa student who initially organized the "farewell march" as a joke.

De Silvia-Legault said while the initial idea was to celebrate the long-standing hangout spot, he soon recognized "the most important thing is that it's a cheap, warm meal in the wintertime."

That's why he followed through with the march, asking people to bring non-perishable food items as donations to the Shepherds of Good Hope. He and his team of volunteers also organized a fundraiser, with proceeds going toward non-profit organizations such as Operation Go Home.

Marchers were also asked to bring raccoon plushies, in honour of a bizarre incident from 2014 when a man pulled a baby raccoon from his sweater during a fight at the restaurant.

Video of the incident was shared widely online.

"We're a weird bunch, but we're a kind bunch," said de Silvia-Legault. "There's kindness within this city."

Avanthika Anand/CBC
Avanthika Anand/CBC

Pandemic made clear need for safe spaces

According to Michelle Hurtubise, executive director of the Centretown Community Health Centre, the closure of the Rideau Street McDonald's is a loss of another "safe space" for homeless Ottawans.

She noted that the restaurant was one of few spaces that provided temporary shelter and an inexpensive meal during extreme weather.

"Now we're going to see a lot more distress on the streets because there isn't a reprieve," she said. "That's a real problem."

But the problem isn't new. Hurtubise said the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a sharp rise in the need for spaces that can provide people living on the streets "a sense of safety and security."

"We really need to look at how we create those spaces when someplace like McDonald's closes," Hurtubise said. "And not just looking to McDonald's to create them, but to really think and challenge ourselves as a community about how we create that sense of belonging and community in other spaces that we have in the city."

Avanthika Anand/CBC
Avanthika Anand/CBC

The 17-year-old Sipes, who was still standing outside the restaurant after the crowd marched by, said she would miss the McDonald's, the food and company it brought her.

"Now, it's time to find a new McDonald's somewhere else," she said.

Avanthika Anand/CBC
Avanthika Anand/CBC