Ottawa—Two years ago when the Rideau Canal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Michel Gauthier had the idea that something so cherished and important to the quality of life needed an event dedicated to celebrating it.
The seasoned festival and event organizer turned that vision into a winning family-friendly and environmentally conscious celebration that received honour as “2008’s Best New Festival” in Ontario.
“When we’re privileged enough to have a UNESCO World Heritage Site in our city, we need to celebrate it in a big way,” said Mr. Gauthier, president and chief executive officer of the not-for-profit Rideau Canal Festival.
The festival returns July 31 to August 3 over the long weekend this summer.
The theme this year is “Connecting with Heritage,” with a focus on connecting children to the heritage treasure they have in the Rideau Canal. Of the 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada, the Rideau Canal is the only one in Ontario. It is also a National Historic Site of Canada.
That’s where Saskatoon artist and teacher Monique Martin comes in. Ms. Martin met Mr. Gauthier when she came to Ottawa in November 2007 to receive the Governor General’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History.
Ms. Martin had won the prestigious award for an innovative teaching strategy she used at Georges Vanier Catholic School in Saskatoon, a designated fine arts school.
She and her students researched Canadian history and created a series of advertising posters for Saskatoon bus shelters that highlighted the historical events and people of that city.
“He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to do it with the Rideau Canal?’” she recalled of her conversation with Mr. Gauthier. “We worked hard both to get grant money and donation of advertising space and so we started doing it.”
The project involved over 600 students from two schools: Georges Vanier, and Vincent Massey School in Ottawa.
Ms. Martin taught the same lessons at both schools. The main theme was the canoe, the first mode of transportation on the canal.
Georges Vanier students did the computer graphic designs to make the posters print ready to go on bus shelters, inside buses, and on the exterior sides of buses. Children at both schools wrote the text and produced the background artwork.
Last week when her students attended the festival launch in Ottawa, “they were just amazed to see their stuff actually on the bus,” Ms. Martin said. “It was pretty wow to see something reproduced like that, and for the kids with their artwork on the sides of the bus, to see it that large.”
Other artwork themes include the locks (Rideau Canal has 47 of them), steamships on the canal in the 1900s, and Lieutenant-Colonel John By, the British chief engineer who oversaw the monumental project of building the canal in the early 19th century to defend the colony of Canada against the United States of America.
UNESCO recognized the Rideau Canal as the only canal from that great North American canal-building period that remains operational along its original line with most of its structures intact, including dams, bridges, fortifications, and lock stations.
‘Aim for Zero Footprint’
Another major artwork theme is the festival’s “Aim for Zero Footprint” pledge.
The UNESCO designation celebrates a heritage site “that is important for all humanity, but it also comes with the responsibility of preserving that site for future generations,” said Mr. Gauthier.
The festival last year became Canada’s first “zero footprint” festival. It offset all its greenhouse gas emissions with carbon credits that contributed to planting trees and other “green” initiatives.
“Our goal is to reduce by 10 percent our carbon emissions for this year,” Mr. Gauthier said.
“All of our products in the parks … we’re using biodegradable signage, biodegradable foam core for our children’s projects, we’re trying to do as much as we can in reducing our impact.”
Organizers are encouraging visitors to walk, bike, skateboard, rollerblade, bus, or carpool to the festival; pack picnic items in reusable containers; use onsite recycling bins and compost bins; and eat at the festival’s “buy local” barbeque.
Last year’s Adopt-A-Metre program is also back. People can “adopt” a piece of the 202-kilometre Rideau Canal and have their donation go toward helping offset carbon emissions.
Twenty-five Ottawa schools and day camps are involved in creating artwork on “Heritage Metre Markers” to be installed along the canal acknowledging Adopt-A-Metre participants.
At Confederation Park in downtown Ottawa there will be an environmental fair with over 100 exhibitors, and a Rideau Heritage Village where people can learn about the other communities of the UNESCO site which stretches from Ottawa to Kingston.
For Mr. Gauthier, “the nicest way to appreciate the canal is to walk along the canal.” Visitors can also run, cycle, canoe, or kayak.
There’ll be a canoe rendezvous, and the festival will collaborate with the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival to hold a musical bicycle parade. Chamberfest artists will also perform on decorated boats as part of the canal festival’s flotilla.
What Mr. Gauthier enjoys the most about the canal is “working with the community to celebrate something that is so important to this community.”
“My pleasure is to see people enjoying the Rideau Canal during the festival in a new way, rediscovering the value of the Rideau Canal.”
Visit www.rideaucanalfestival.ca for more information about the festival.