André LaFlamme wants to shed a different light on Ottawa’s past than the one found in most history textbooks with his business Ottawa Free Tours.
LaFlamme said the city has a more fascinating history than many people –even locals—realize, and for many years was considered one of the “sketchier” cities in North America.
“[Ottawa] had big problems with lumberjack gang violence, there was a lot of tension between the French Canadians and the Irish, there was a lot of tension between the Catholics and the Orangemen,” he said.
Ottawa’s political status also lends itself to interesting stories and the different shenanigans the politicians and Prime Ministers living here have gotten up to. He said the Rideau Canal was and continues to be a dividing line between parts of the city.
“Centretown area was always nicer, always more well-kept,” LaFlamme said. “The Byward Market area was always a lot more disease ridden, poorer living conditions and it definitely caused a lot of the tensions that existed in the city.”
Ottawa Free Tours offers three different pay-what-you-feel walking tours of the city. The capital city tour offers a general introduction to Ottawa and points out things to do for tourists, LaFlamme said. The Ottawa after dark tour focuses on the characters featured in the Parliament Hill light show. LaFlamme said the tour tells the other side of the story and the things not included in the official narrative. Thirdly, Ottawa Free Tours offers a historical tavern tour, which takes people to three different historic bars around the Byward Market.
After working for MADD Canada as a public speaker, LaFlamme said he got an office job but missed speaking in front of large audiences. He said he wanted to run pay-what-you-feel tours because it was something different from the other more traditional tour offerings in Ottawa.
“I looked to see if this existed, to see if I could work or them. I never really thought about starting it myself before I realized that it didn’t exist here [yet].”
LaFlamme said he has always been “a little bit of a history dork” and enjoyed reading plaques while walking around. He said he used online resources and the Ottawa Room at the Ottawa Public Library to find the stories that weren’t already being told.
He said one thing that surprises people most often is that Ottawa should be centered around five kilometres west of where downtown is currently, at Lebreton Flats. This is because the Rideau Canal was supposed to end at the currently empty piece of land, but a spat between a military officer and the Governor General placed Ottawa’s downtown where it is now.
“A man named Captain Lebreton realized where the canal was going to connect [to the Ottawa River], purchased all the land to where it was going to connect and then offered to sell it back to the Canadian government at six times the price,” LaFlamme said. “Our Governor General at the time, Lord Dalhousie, redirected it to where it is today really out of spite because he was just angry and Captain Lebreton for having done that.”
The pay-what-you-feel nature of the tours means that people technically don’t have to pay anything, so it makes the guides try even harder to give a great tour, he said. LaFlamme said he doesn’t like to think of his tour guides as historians, but as raconteurs that make the information easier to absorb.
The capital city tour runs regularly on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11 a.m. until Oct. 30 and starts at the National War Memorial on Wellington Street.